Life as a House – 8/15/21

When Kathy and I purchased our current home, I was hesitant.  We both gravitated to the location, and I loved the fact that I could keep a horse there.  But the people we bought our house from did not make house maintenance a priority.  And it was obvious.  Pulling up the drive to the house on our first visit, there were weeds in the landscaping as tall as my waist.  The paint on the deck which surrounds the back of the house was completely peeling off.  The windows looked like they never been washed.  The finish on the wood floor was flaking off.  And it was dirty – very dirty.  And if you know anything about me, you know that I need to keep things immaculate.

I know one of the owners was a pilot.  I also know that together, he and his partner had eight children.  So it makes sense that maintenance of the house was not high on their list of priorities.  They had a lot going on in their lives, and their house was a place they wanted to come to rest and enjoy, not spend their time doing more work.  But I have to imagine it became taxing emotionally to see the house fall into disrepair, to look around and see all of the work that needed to be done.  And, at least for me, it made the house a difficult sell.

In our first reading for this morning, we are introduced to Josiah.  Taking the throne at only eight years of age, Josiah is the most highly praised of all the kings of Judah to follow David.  But when Josiah took the throne, things were not going well for his people.  Like most of the surrounding nations, the people of Judah were under the domination of the powerful nation of Assyria.  Part of being subservient to their conquerors involved the incorporation of Assyrian religious practices.  And this led to the spiritual center of Josiah’s people being compromised.  The temple had fallen into disrepair.  The scriptures which set forth the manner in which they were to live as the people of God had been lost.  The people no longer knew where to turn to ground themselves in their spirituality.

But change was coming.  A coalition of two other nations, the Medes and the Babylonians, were a major threat to Assyria.  Assyria’s military became absorbed with the defense of its borders.  And because Assyria was becoming weaker, Josiah was increasingly able to exert his nation’s independence, both politically and spiritually.

So in the eighteenth year of his reign, Josiah began the process of repairing the temple.

And in the midst of these repairs, the high priest finds a lost book of the law.  We don’t know exactly what this was, but it was likely an early version of the book of Deuteronomy – the book which set forth God’s expectations for the nation of Israel and what would happen if they failed to live up to those expectations.  The book is brought to Josiah and is read to him.  And when he hears the words which had for so long been hidden, Josiah has an intense reaction.  He tears his clothes.  And recognizing the words he heard spoke to the situation that his people were in, he sends several of his officials to go to the prophetess to inquire of God concerning what these words would mean for him and the people of Jerusalem.

We don’t know exactly why the scriptures had been lost, why the king of Israel no longer had access to the foundational documents of their faith.  It would seem that at least one copy would have been kept in a safe place in the king’s palace, with a prophet of Israel, or with one of the temple priests.  That even if the people of Israel were under the influence of foreign powers, even if they wandered from their spiritual center, they would not have destroyed or lost every copy they had.  Even though this book should have been readily accessible, it was not.  Most likely, the scriptures had been lost simply because no one considered them to remain important, remain relevant to their lives.  And because no one sought its wisdom, the people failed to understand their purpose.

This story of Josiah and the restoration of the temple is a story that resonates today because it speaks to the way things fall into disrepair, the way we lose track of things we value because of the challenges life presents, the way things we cherish can diminish when we don’t have the ability or the willingness to tend to it.  It reminds us of the degree of work it takes to restore things once this has happened.  But it also reminds us that no matter how lost something seems, how much something has fallen in to disrepair, it is not beyond hope of once again being meaningful.  During the course of history, the temple fell into disrepair or was destroyed numerous times, but it was always rebuilt, always restored.  But the rebuilding of the house of God would always face challenges, always require significant commitment on the part of the people.

In many ways, churches are like houses.  When they are first built, they are in perfect condition, filled with energy to maintain them and keep them pristine.  We love returning to them, feel a sense of peace and solace when we enter.  But over time, things begin to fall into disrepair.  The programs which were always effective over time lose some of their luster.  The newness begins to wear off, and the things which initially drew us become mundane.  Other commitments in our lives, unexpected circumstances, keep us from doing the maintenance we recognize needs to be done.  Like our homes, we want to enter the church to find a sense of solace and peace from the storms around us and not to be another source of work or stress in our lives.  And we let things go until something changes which requires us to take action.

Like than the Medes and the Persians bringing the change which allows for rejuvenation of the house of God in Josiah’s time, other social change brings the need for the shift today.  Changes in technology, the effects of the pandemic, shifting mindsets, allegiances, obligations.  And while these changes bring challenge, they also bring opportunity.  An opportunity to decide if we will rebuild and restore.  If we have the energy to reclaim our heritage and make it accessible and meaningful to a new generation, to the continue the legacy which began, or if the time has come to recognize we no longer have the time and energy necessary to maintain the house, and that it is time to let it go, time to allow someone else to take occupancy and give it new life.

I believe this is what happened to the former owners of our house.  It was bigger than what they needed after their children moved out.  There was five acres to mow, a lot of house to clean, and looking around them they saw they no longer had the time to tend to it like it needed.  Sometimes it is not until we try to sell the house to someone else that we realize all the work which needs to be done to make it appealing.  We bring a realtor in and they tell us the things we need to fix, suggestions for what we need to put it on the market.  And when it lingers on the market, when no one comes to see the house, we begin to recognize that we let the work of maintenance go for too long.

After we bought the house and I realized all of the work which needed to be done, I also came to believe that our house was haunted.  I am not one to typically buy into supernatural explanations for events, but as strange happenings began to pile up there seemed no other explanation.  As I was doing a thorough cleaning of the house, I found various religious items hidden in strange places.  There was a small cross hidden behind the furnace.  A small emblem of the virgin Mary hid in a window sill.  And strange things started happening.  While lying in bed, a light fixture fell out the ceiling.  Appliances were constantly breaking down.  And then things started to get dangerous.  Shortly after buying a hot tub Kathy had long wanted, I was adding chemicals to the water.  When I placed my hand inside, I received the electrical shock of my life.  When we called an electrician to determine the source of the problem, he found nothing wrong and could not provide an explanation.

Some of you know Bonnie Crosier from the spiritualist church.  We became friends through our work at BroMenn.  So I called Bonnie to get some advice.  She told me that she did sense a presence in the house, someone who used to live in the house.  She said that the spirit likely sensed I was clergy and though I could help him cross over, so he was trying to get my attention.  She gave me some suggestions for what to do to assist in that process so our house could be ours again, free of these events which kept us from feeling safe in our new home.

Churches can become haunted as well.  Not in the sense of spirits who have not crossed over, but significant people from the past of a community who continue to exert influence, ministries which were once central but have since faded, aspirations which are no longer viable.  I have sensed this haunting here at NCC.  Even though these spirits of the past are not here, they still hold significant power.  And their presence can make new people who come in feel less at home.  I say this not as a criticism.  This is a common feature of many spiritual communities.  And I’m sure there are very good reasons these spirits are still felt.  That is not to say that we cannot remember and celebrate the contributions of those who have gone before and are no longer part of the community, to honor the legacy they have left, the ministries and aspirations which were once integral to this community.  But to make room for new occupants of the house, sometimes we need to be intentional about allowing those past spirits to cross over.

Even though there was a lot of work which needed to be done, even though we were initially overwhelmed by the amount of work it would take, we made the house our home.  Underneath all of the grime, the weeds, the clogged filters, and flaking polyurethane, we could see the promise the house held.  Over the course of the next year, we refinished floors, repainted, worked on landscaping, replaced carpeting, patched holes.  And while there were many times I said we should never have bought it, now that the work is done I am glad we did.  It may not be perfect like when it was built, but we have made it our own.  As we look around and see the work we have done, we feel a sense of investment – committed to not letting it fall into disrepair again.  But we also recognize that the time will come when we will need to move on because it is not that building which gives us a sense of home, but the love we share together.

The church is also like a house in that it what makes it a home is not how well things work, how well the interior is maintained, but our family inside – the relationships which make us feel loved, safe, and valued.  And even when we outgrow our house or our house outgrows us, we never lose our sense of home because those relationships remain and we carry them with us wherever we go.  And even if the time comes that we recognize we can no longer care for the house and have to leave it, may we remember we will not lose that sense of home which we carry with us.