place in front of the people.”
Perhaps you have noticed in your serious, extensive, and consistent scripture study–right?–that the Bible is bookended by Paradise. It starts in a Garden and ends in a City, but both are Paradises with crystalline rivers, flourishing trees, sparkling gems, and maximum habitability.
The first thing God does in the beginning after creating Adam is to plant a splendid garden with every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food; and at the end of the story, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband, where the streets are paved with gold and the walls studded with precious gems, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be crying, nor mourning, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
The human family starts in Paradise and ends in Paradise. Our origin is God and our destiny is God. We travel from home to home.
But in between, we wander, far from home. In the long, sprawling middle of the Bible’s story, God’s people are far from home. The paradigmatic experience of God’s children is homelessness. In the long middle, we are often far from home.
The wandering begins on the Bible’s second page when Adam and Eve are banished from Eden for the dispiriting Land of Nod, East of Eden.
In the next generation Cain kills his younger brother in a fit of rage, and is condemned to wander the earth with neither friend nor home.
Abraham, the father of the faith, is called from his familiar home to a new home he knows nothing of.
Abraham’s grandson Jacob cons his brother out of the elder’s rightful inheritance and flees home to escape Esau’s righteous wrath.
Jacob’s twelve sons travel far from home for bread in a killing famine and end up in the alien land of Egypt for 400 years.
When God eventually decides to bring them back home, it takes 40 years of wandering in the wilderness before they finally get home, to the Promised Land.
Then there is the exile in Babylon. After 70 years, the Jews come home, but not for long. Not long after Jesus dies and rises, the Romans sack Jerusalem and the Jews don’t make it back home again until 1948, 1900 years of Diaspora.
“Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests,” said Jesus of Nazareth, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
St. Paul walked and sailed and hoofed 10,000 miles planting his tiny little churches and bringing the Gospel from the farthest corner of the Roman Empire to the Capital City in the end.
St. John of the Apocalypse wrote down his terrifying visions in the Book of Revelation while in exile on the rock pile called Patmos.
Extra-biblical western literature frequently recapitulates this theme of wandering far from home: The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, As You Like It, The Tempest, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, Huck Finn, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, You Can’t Go Home Again, The Grapes of Wrath.
Oh, it’s true, God always accompanies us on our far-flung journeys. As the Hebrews make their wandering way through the wasted, waterless wilderness from slavery in Egypt to freedom and promise in Canaan, God always goes before God’s children as a pillar of cloud by day and a flame of fire by night, and today’s Scripture tells us that that pillar of cloud and that flame of fire never once left its place in front of God’s children. Still, God’s people are often far from home.
Let me tell you a little about myself. I was born and raised in Western Michigan, and the thing about Western Michigan is that you can never get lost for long, because Lake Michigan is always just to the west. If you are facing north, Lake Michigan is always over there, which means of course that I am baffled by your odd geography. The other day I left home for church and headed toward what I thought was Lake Michigan and ended up, inscrutably, in Arlington Heights. I just kept looking for Lake Michigan.
My first church in the late 80’s was near Philadelphia, where our orchestra had what I thought of as the world’s greatest Maestro, so I’ve been following Ricardo Muti around, though I skipped the La Scala period.
My three favorite things are Books, Bikes, and Barks. Many of you have already met my beloved golden retriever Dudley.
I have resolved to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified, and so I scavenge the earth far and wide for glimpses of grace and goodness, and I am not even above using television commercials in my sermons. Many of you will know where I got my sermon title. It’s an advertisement for Google–the search engine and the Google Seven smartphone.
First frame: a handsome young college student in a hoodie in his dorm room in Boston gets a text message from his parents on his phone: “Honey, we need to talk.” Second frame: College student texts back: “Call you in a little bit.” It is the privilege of every college student, after all, to ignore his parents until he needs money. Third frame: handsome college student playing games on his Nexus 7 Google smartphone, chatting with friends, surfing the web for homework. Fourth frame: Another text message from his parents on his phone, along with a photo of an adorable Bernese Mountain Dog; the message says, “Boomer’s not doing well.” Fifth frame: Handsome college student in hoodie scurrying around his dorm room throwing a few clothes and a toothbrush into his duffel bag, booking the first flight from Boston to Washington Dulles on his Google phone. Sixth frame: Handsome college student in a hoodie sitting at a bus stop in a torrential downpour; his Google phone says “Flight 256 to Washington Dulles canceled.” Seventh frame: handsome college student speaks to his phone: “Google, how do I get home?” Eighth frame: the lady in the Google phone says, “Getting directions,” and she finds him an Amtrak train to Washington, D.C. Ninth frame: phone photo of a happy, healthy Bernie named Boomer. A perfect short story in 31 seconds; a masterpiece of short-form fiction, for mercenary purposes, to be sure, but still…
“Google, how do I get home?” It’s a practical question, a logistical question, an everyday question. We ask it every time we tap the Map App on our phones. But it seems to me it’s also an existential question: “How do I get home?” It’s an existential question, and it’s a theological question, and not just because Google is a minor deity with the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. It’s a theological question because it’s the Bible’s question from nearly the beginning to nearly the end of God’s long history with God’s wandering children: “God, how do I get home?” Over and over and over again, on almost every page of the Bible: “God, how do I get home?”
And it continues to be our common human question: “Will anyone love me?” “Will I always be alone?” Who will be my friend?” “I walk the halls at New Trier High School every day, surrounded by thousands, and I just feel like an alien; I am surrounded by strangers, and some of them are mean as a bag of snakes.” “My lover of 45 years died suddenly, and I feel so lost.” “I left home when I was 18, and I’ve been lurching across the country from L. A. to New York ever since, and I’ve never felt at home anywhere, not once.”
Like Father Abraham, I am far from the home I have long known and loved, and have not yet arrived at the home I hope for among the likes of you, but I ventured out in faith toward this congregation because among the likes of you, I’ve seen glimpses and graces of the tabernacling presence of the divine, that pillar of cloud by day and flame of fire by night that goes with us even when we’re making our halting and fitful way to the Promised Land at the end of all our days.
I’ve known Mary Allen and Jay and Sallie Stanley for 18 years, and every summer they welcome me home to their own Paradise in northern Michigan. I’ve known Diane Hart for six years, and her friendship feels like home.
When I visited your beautiful church in November, I met a young woman who felt lost and alone because of a terrifying illness, but you gathered her in and cared for her family till she could do it again for herself. I met another who’d suffered a loss than which none greater can be conceived, but you swept up her sadness in a cascade of resurrection promises. Your kindnesses left these people literally speechless, and that’s why I left home to be with you.
My mother died on January 11. It was, in the end, a mercy, but it’s still a sadness. The funeral was at my home church in Grand Rapids, and when, 30 minutes before the service, I walked into the sanctuary my parents have attended every single Sunday for 50 years until they were too weak and confused to leave the house, a beloved and sacred space for me and for them, there were only a few people gathered there, that early before the service.
I was in the back of the nave, and 60 feet away, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed from the back this slender, handsome gentleman with jet black hair. Even that far away, I could see he was stylishly dressed in all natural fabrics–Brooks Brothers, maybe, or Ralph Lauren. He looked vaguely familiar, and when he turned in profile, I could see he was wearing a bow tie.
Now, I don’t know too many young Asian guys who wear bow ties, and so it could be nobody else but Keith Yamada, who’d gotten up at dawn that morning and driven from Chicago to be with me in my hour of need. He spent 45 minutes thanking God for the lovely life of an aged woman he’d never met, greeted my family, and turned right around and drove straight back to Chicago. Lost and heartbroken, I felt like I was home.
That is the purpose of the Church. That is the point of Jesus’ Church. That is the raison d’etre of the Christian Church: to shelter the homeless, to embrace the broken-hearted, to pick up the pieces of a shattered life, to carry the lame, lead the blind, accompany the lonely, and shepherd the lost.
The Bible is bookended by Paradise. We start in a beautiful Garden and finally end up in the Holy City. Our origin is God, and our destiny is God. In between, however, we are often far from home. We’re in the Land of Nod, East of Eden; or we’re in the wilderness trying to find the Promised Land, and it might take 40 years; or Jerusalem is a smoldering ruin and we’re far from home in Babylon.
Of course, the promises of Scripture are trustworthy and true: God always goes with us. “Whither can I go from God’s spirit,” sings the Psalmist, “and where can I flee from God’s presence? If I ascend to heaven, God is there. If I make my bed in Sheol, God is there. If I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” When we are lost in the wilderness somewhere between slavery in Egypt and freedom in Canaan, that pillar of cloud by day and flame of fire by night always goes on ahead.
And when God’s presence is distant and indiscernible; when that pillar of cloud seems wispy and thin and vaporous, when that flame of fire flickers but dimly in the darkness; it’s good to have a firm hand to hold, a soft voice to hear, a friend to embrace, a smile to remind us that we are not alone.
As my hero Frederick Buechner puts it:
I believe that the home we long for and belong to is finally where Christ is. I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.
Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home (Harper San Francisco, 1996), p. 28.