Between Empire and Home

(Originally a sermon preached at First Christian Reformed Church Toronto, July 25, 2010)

Texts: Matthew 5:1-16; Revelation 21:1-4 (click on links to read the bible texts)

There’s a saying that goes, “Home is where the heart is”. This saying acknowledges that home is more than having a roof over your head. Home is more than just a place to live, eat and sleep. Home is more than your permanent residence. When you tell people that you are going home for the holidays, most people assume that you are going home to your parents, and most likely to the town or city where you were born and raised. Home is where our loved ones are, and where we have strong emotional ties. Home is where your heart is. If home is where the heart is, then homelessness is where the heart is lost. If home is more than having a roof and four walls, homelessness is more than lacking a roof and four walls.

Two years ago, my university students and I visited a downtown church called The Sanctuary that ministers to the homeless in Toronto. One of the ministry staff gave us a walking orientation tour of downtown Toronto, in the evening, pointing out to us where homeless people gather. One of the things we learnt that night was that those we normally call the homeless actually have homes. The ministry staff pointed to us at a distance where a lot of homeless people live – in cardboard boxes, perhaps, but it’s where they sleep, where they entertain their homeless friends, where they keep their belongings. Only at a distance though, because, as he said, it would be invading their privacy and rude if we drop in uninvited. How would you like it if someone brought a group of strangers into your home unannounced, so that they can gawk at your living accommodations? The homeless are not homeless; they are houseless.

Similarly, having a house does not mean we have a home. Increasingly and tragically in our culture, our “homes” are where abuse is. “Home” is where dysfunction lives. “Home” is where addiction rules. “Home” is where no one understands you. “Home” is where you are most lonely. “Home” is where pain and sorrow meet. When that happens, you are homeless even while living in a house.

What do all these have to do with our Christian faith? Let me draw some inspiration from my colleague, Brian Walsh, the CRC Campus Minister at the U of Toronto, who co-wrote the book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement. There, Brian calls God the homemaking God. Here’s one way to look at the Bible’s big picture story: God created a home for us, our planet earth. It is home first and foremost because it’s where our hearts are tied in relation to creation, to our animal companions, to each other, and especially, where our hearts are tied to God our Creator. It was a good home.

But we vandalized this home; we wrecked our home when we rebelled against God’s house rules. We thought we can do better than the builder, architect and designer God and started our own renovation project, to redesign the home or to do an extreme makeover of the home that God built into a home that we have built on our own rules – we know what’s right and wrong all by ourselves, we can be like god.

But instead of building a home, we only managed to build an empire, symbolized especially by the Tower of Babel. We think we can build a home without God but we only managed to build a Tower of oppression, domination, and control – Empire as I call it – that will always end up in chaos and confusion.

But God, the homemaking God, chooses to come in Jesus Christ to restore his home and the inhabitants of that home. God came not to fight Empire with Empire. God came not in imperial power but came in humility and sacrificial love. God came with a homemaker’s heart to counter our empire building hearts. Jesus bore the full violence of empire on the cross and resurrected to show the ultimate victory of homemaking love, grace and truth.

And in the end, God will come home. There will be a great homecoming for God and Jesus, when they finally restore this home to its original beauty and peace. In Revelation 21, the apostle John did not see Christians being taken up into heaven, but he saw heaven coming down to the new earth (v. 2): “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” It’s a picture of a newly married couple starting a new home! And verse 3: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.” God is making the new earth his home. He is going to live here with us! Verse 4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” In a good home, loving parents wipe their children’s tears away. There’s no place like home.

That’s the big picture. How does our passage in Matthew relate to this big picture of the homemaking, home renewing and homecoming God?

Let us look first at verses 13-16 of Matthew 5. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In Jesus’ day, salt was mostly used for flavouring and seasoning food. And with light, Jesus was referring to small wicker oil lamps. The oil lamps in Jesus’ time produce only as much light as candles, hence the necessity of elevating them. At least a number of these lamps are needed to light up the average ancient Israelite home.

Just as salt enhances the natural flavours of food, we are called to bring out the God-flavours of life that are already in our world, in our culture, in our neighbourhoods, and in our universities. As well-placed oil lamps can create a cozy ambience, Christians are called to transform the world into a more comfortable home by bringing some God-coloured light and warmth.

The metaphors of salt and light that Jesus used are not drawn from the world of politics or the world of privilege and power. Salt and light are images from home – from the world of women, during Jesus’ days, women who used salt for cooking and flavouring, who trimmed the oil lamps every night to make their homes cozy. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world – you are God’s instruments of homemaking!

One of the main ways I minister at York University is through a student club I started called Leadership, Culture and Christianity. Because there are two things universities do very well: universities grow and create (1) tomorrow’s leaders and (2) tomorrow’s culture. Our culture is largely shaped by what happens on our university campuses and classrooms, carried out into the world by university graduates. So, through Leadership, Culture & Christianity, my ministry hopes to produce some salty leaders and bright culture makers who will in turn flavour and brighten the world for God’s glory and for human flourishing.

Speaking of leadership, Christians must try not to confuse Kingdom leadership with Empire leadership. Sometimes we confuse God’s kingdom with Empire. We think that building God’s kingdom is like building an empire for God. They are not the same thing. “Kingdom” is an old word and for many modern ears, kingdom sounds like empire. I know that our passage in Matthew speaks of the “kingdom of heaven”. But maybe it’s time to upgrade the language just a little. Maybe we can start calling God’s kingdom, God’s home: God’s kingdom is where God lives and reigns, where God is at home. We can see the conflict between good and evil then as the conflict between God’s home and human empire, between homemaking and empire building.

What is empire? Empire is the arrogant folk who think they own the world. Empire is where people hunger, thirst, indeed lust after power but are never satisfied. Where the ruthless and merciless stop at nothing to get what they want. Where the war-makers act like they are gods over the lives of innocent people. Empire is where people persecute others for the sake of maintaining the empire. Empire is the opposite of God’s home.

God’s home is where the poor in spirit will find a home. God’s home is where those who mourn will be comforted. Where the meek will inherit the earth. Where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice will be satisfied. Where the merciful will be shown mercy. Where the pure in heart will see God. Where the peacemakers are God’s children. (Matt. 5:3-10)

 If this is so, then what kind of Christian leaders should my student club Leadership, Culture and Christianity try to grow? I must try to equip them with a homemaker’s heart, not with empire building aspirations because we cannot fight empire with empire. We need salt and light bearing Christian leaders who are homemakers – slowly making this world into God’s home for God’s homecoming: leaders who know how to enrich the poor in spirit. Leaders who know how to empower the meek; to be merciful; to be peacemakers; to stand with those persecuted for righteousness and justice; who know how to comfort those who mourn.

That’s why I think a walk with the homeless was important. Homemaking leaders must learn to mourn, to be merciful and to be poor in spirit because it is hard to comfort those who mourn if you do not enter their sorrow. It is hard to liberate the oppressed if you do not feel their oppression. We need to enter into people’s pain in order to lead them out of pain. Like Jesus, we need to bear the wounds of empire in order to make a home of healing.

Last week, Friendship Community CRC and I hosted a group of 11 bright young CRC grade 11/12 men and women who are part of Calvin Theological Seminary’s Facing Your Future Program. We provided workshops and got them helping out at different ministry centers to spark their imaginations and warm their hearts for ministry. The last ministry place I took them was to L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, a center for people with mental disabilities started by the French-Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier and also where the late Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen spent his last ministry years. We joined the community there for their Friday night worship and we can see and feel how inclusive the community is – how everyone is welcomed and embraced, some literally embraced by the people with mental disabilities. People with mental disabilities are not clients or patients at L’Arche because L’Arche is not a hospital or an institution. Rather, L’Arche is a home and a community, where people with mental disabilities are the core members and everyone else are assistants to them. One of these core members whose name is John always asks new people he meets, “Where is your home?” He never asks, “Where do you live?” but he asks, “Where is your home?” I took these young men and women, potentially our denomination’s future leaders, to L’Arche because I wanted to break their hearts – hearts broken for the marginalized in our society, and hearts broken in longing for God’s home.

Home does not begin with a house, a roof and a fireplace. Empire does not begin with armies and weapons of mass destruction. Those are the final manifestations of home and empire. Home or empire begins in our hearts. But our hearts are so often bent on building empires and wounding others and ourselves in the process. How do we lose evil’s grip, the empire’s grip, on our hearts? Maybe the only way God can break the grip of empire on our hearts is to break our hearts … so that he may rebuild our hearts into homes – homes for ourselves, homes for our neighbours, homes for the world, and homes for God. And we have this hope: God promised to bring us home where there will be no more broken hearts. Let us pray.

Dear homemaking God, we thank you that you are restoring this world into the home that you intended it to be – the kind of home where humans, animals, creation, and you live together in harmony, peace and love. But when we look at this world right now, it seems so far from that reality. Instead of peace, harmony and love we so often find hatred, violence, and injustice. Forgive us for how we may have contributed to breaking your home, or perhaps, standing by doing nothing while others vandalize your good earth, or vandalize our neighbours. Redeem us, Lord, turn us all into homemaking leaders. Raise up new leaders from our midst, leaders who are salt and light, your instruments of homemaking to bring out the flavours of life and to shine forth the colours of love. Use us Lord, even if it means breaking us in order to rebuild us, use us Lord for your glory. Use us to restore this world into your home and into our home. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

4 thoughts on “Between Empire and Home

  1. I like the article. The summary paragraph at the end is superb. Kingdom might be an old word, yet it was liberating to learn several years ago that this world is but a fragment of what is yet to come; that His kingdom is here, and we can serve God with what we have.


  2. good one =) thanks a lot 4 posting! I was blessed… hmmmm… visit my site if you have time… (its okay if you won’t) but well… thanks a lot for this… 2 God be the glory!


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