Finding home

A sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this service: Matthew 4.16-23

“Is it not a joy to have friends coming to visit you from afar” So wrote Confucius expressing a truth that is still celebrated by millions of people around the world this Chinese New Year today, returning to visit their family and friends. Indeed many from our own congregation have returned to Hong Kong this Chinese New Year to visit their family and friends. Nowadays the connection can be made via internet link or video call- but that tradition of needing to connect and come together face to face as a family and celebrate relationship- is still a deep human longing within many of us. On the days immediately before the New Year celebration, there is a Chinese tradition to give their homes a thorough cleaning. It is believed the cleaning sweeps away the bad luck of the preceding year and makes their homes ready for good fortune. Red decorations and lanterns are hung. Homes are often decorated with red paper cutouts of Chinese auspicious phrases and couplets and people buy new clothes and shoes to symbolize a new start. And of course, the centre of this gathering is a shared meal- dumplings and the delicious food our Chinese community are justly so famous for.  According to Chinese mythology, Nian meaning year is a beast that lives under the sea or in the mountains. One of the legends is that Nian comes to kill and destroy the inhabitants of the village but that an old beggar with red clothes, decorated the village red and with fire and noise drove the beast out  of the village and encouraged the community to do the same. Thus the sound of drums the dancing lion or dragon and firecrackers and the colour red symbolise the triumph of the community over all the forces of destruction.

Is it not a joy for all of us to have friends come from afar- to celebrate not self- but our relationship with one another? To celebrate that somehow through relationships of love and trust we can drive away the monsters and demons that seek to divide and destroy? Is that not the meaning too of church bells ringing out – not celebrating a division but a coming together- a shared home which dispels fear. Dick Sheppard of course had that great vision of home for this church St Martin in the Fields. He wanted to create a church which could dispel the appalling brutality and destruction of the First World War- the tragic suffering he had witnessed first-hand. In his famous vision of those coming through the doors of this church Sheppard asks: “Where are you going?” and the people coming in answer “This church is our home. This is where we are going to learn of the love of Jesus Christ.” He says: “They spoke to me two words only, one was the word ‘home’ and the other was ‘love’.”

Today is not only Chinese New Year it is also Homelessness Sunday. The longer I have been part of this church of St Martin’s the more I have realised that tackling homelessness is not simply transactional. It’s not just about a client and a service provider. It is not something you solve simply with hand-outs or sandwiches, or plastic bags of clothes, or even hostels, or money. Ending homelessness is something that needs relationship. It is the coming together, the sharing, the connection, the being with one another that can dispel and drive out all that comes to steal, divide and destroy.  And one of the worst aspects of homelessness is loneliness. Four walls and a roof is not a home. It can be a cell, the place of despair. And surprisingly many become homeless because they fear the loneliness and despair of being alone with themselves. And if the truth were told do we not all fear that loneliness of not belonging, of not being accepted,  of being the outcast– it’s not a matter of material things it’s the experience that you don’t matter, you don’t belong anymore,  that you are a burden or something of shame, and there is no one who ultimately really cares or even notices.

I am sure all of us here have seen the shape of loneliness and hurried past in case we catch it ourselves or have to face our own deepest insecurities.  We often talk of the poverty overseas. But none that I have seen looks more lonely or isolated than some of the need and despair I have seen here in the UK when relationship is lost. The care homes where few relatives visit, our overcrowded prisons, the housing estates and stairwells that smell of neglect, the mental health need that screams for a help you cannot give, the stress that tells you there is no time to talk or care -the wet sleeping bag and the human flesh against concrete you walk past on the Strand or outside our underground stations.  As one asylum seeker said to me: “at least in the refugee camp I was not alone, I am here.”

I remember at the Connection during one of our reflective groups in Spiritual space asking a group of people who knew homelessness about love. One of them replied. Unfortunately I have never experienced it. There was no love in the children’s home where I grew up, or in the school from which I was excluded, or in the prison where I was sent when I got into trouble. And now I’m trying to learn what love is homeless on the streets. To learn to love we need to reciprocate it, assimilate it, mirror it, emulate those who live it. I read the biography of a wonderful English poet called Lemn Sissay who was the poet for our London Olympics. The book is called My Name is Why At the age of 12. Lemn discovered that the people he had always called his mum and dad, were actually only fostering him, and didn’t want him anymore. They took him back after 12 years to a children’s home and he leant they would not be seeing him again. It was like a huge tearing of his heart- torn apart but also torn open. Much of his poetry speaks of our human need to belong, to rediscover what it means to be fully loved. This is one of his poems called invisible kisses:

Invisible Kisses

written by Lemn Sissay

If there was ever one
Whom when you were sleeping
Would wipe your tears
When in dreams you were weeping;
Who would offer you time
When others demand;
Whose love lay more infinite
Than grains of sand.

If there was ever one
To whom you could cry;
Who would gather each tear
And blow it dry;
Who would offer help
On the mountains of time;
Who would stop to let each sunset
Soothe the jaded mind.

If there was ever one
To whom when you run
Will push back the clouds
So you are bathed in sun;
Who would open arms
If you would fall;
Who would show you everything
If you lost it all.

If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;
Who would clear the air
When it’s full of loss;
Who would count love
Before the cost.

If there was ever one
Who when you are cold
Will summon warm air
For your hands to hold;
Who would make peace
In pouring pain,
Make laughter fall
In falling rain.

If there was ever one
Who can offer you this and more;
Who in keyless rooms
Can open doors;
Who in open doors
Can see open fields
And in open fields
See harvests yield.

Then see only my face
In reflection of these tides
Through the clear water
Beyond the river side.
All I can send is love
In all that this is
A poem and a necklace
Of invisible kisses.

Poem by Lemn Sissay: Gold from the Stone: New and Selected Poems

If there was ever one, ever one….

If there one who would count love before the cost.

Who in keyless rooms, can open doors;

If there was ever one- is there one?  The one who is the reason we are in this church today. The one from whom we learn to love, to emulate, whose Spirit we imbibe and try to reflect in our relationships with one another and the world. Tragically this One has had many false prophets who have taught the way of blame and dread and exclusion- who have not opened doors and hearts but closed them. But in our good news, in our Gospel we learn of the one who does just that- opens our doors and leads us through them Follow me he says. Follow me. It is not a material promise, of house or property, or financial wealth or even success. Follow me. And the people who walked in darkness see a great light.  And do we follow? Or do we remain in the dark prison of self.

Our Story, our Christian story is really about our search to find our way home. The home that was lost and which was searched for in the wilderness, or in a promised land,  by  the building of a temple,  or in exile  in Babylon. Where was this home- surely  not a poor stable in Bethlehem or a carpenter’s workshop  in Nazareth? And surely the one to show us the way home was not carpenters son calling us to forget everything else like these Galilean fishermen and follow him, follow this homeless  friend of the homeless,  follow this friend of sinners, prostitutes tax collectors?  follow all the way to Jerusalem and then the agony of a brutal death with the outcasts outside the city wall. Where was this home which they searched for? It was not an upper room with locked doors, or even a home at the end of the road to Emmaus, rather this calling to follow was a call to the ends of the earth. And in that very longing for home, longing for the place where heaven and earth would finally meet and we would finally belong, the incredible revelation that actually that home, that belonging, that love could be with us here and now not just at the end of the road but in the midst of the journey- and that somehow we by answering the call to follow could become ourselves that place of God’s dwelling even when we were homeless. This place we longed for- this place of meeting with God- this home was not on the mountain or even in Jerusalem- but like a well spring of the Spirit -Pentecost-within each one of us.  The house of God is not built of stones- but is built of us-all of us. We are the body of Christ. The one who calls us home, makes his home in us. You see home is not ultimately a place not Hong Kong or China, or London or about make our own territory great again.  The old saying is in fact true “home is where the heart is.” Our home  is where Christ is and when we meet Christ in one another.

I want to end by asking Paul to read something  I wrote about what it means to be homeless. What it means to be human. And what it means for the Word to be made flesh.

 Homelessness Sunday

Hello, there is a human being in here,

Not an object, not a type, not an enemy

Not an irritation or a nuisance

Not a big issue

Not just a need to be fed second-hand sandwiches on a cold street

Or cups of tea in polystyrene

Not something to be processed,  avoided, removed or discarded

Not something that has come to steal your territory

Not a colour, or a nation, or a category

Not a problem to be solved or an agenda to be discussed

Not a drug, or drink, or a knife, or a bet, or a nut or a take-away

But a human being in here

To be welcomed, recognised, respected, seen, heard,

Allowed space to grow, to flourish, to laugh, to speak, to give, to sing

To love

A human being like you

With you, with God

And God with us

A human being in here

A heart on the edge

The kingdom of God is here now.