Sunday, January 6, 2013
Sermon text: Matthew 2: 1-12
They went home. By another road.
After brilliance broke into their awareness . . . after that illumination first unsettled and then drew them toward a deeper reality . . . after they saw by that light something fragile and ordinary and impotent and holy . . . after they at last recognized what kind of power kills and what kind of power saves . . . the Wise Ones returned home. But by a different road.
Here’s today’s sermon in a nutshell: The wise ones went home after all their searching. But they took a different road.
Richard Rohr might categorize the story of the Wise Ones as an archetypal myth about the second stage of life. After detours and dangers, their journey comes full circle with a homecoming like that of the Greek hero Odysseus. Matthew’s Magi and Homer’s Odysseus suggest that spiritual maturation requires us to do two things: to return to our spiritual home but to return by a different and often difficult road. After all the wandering, seeking, searching, and striving we’ve done in the “first half of life,”[i] we (gradually or abruptly) begin to point homeward, changed. Yet we return by way of a different path.
Poet T. S. Eliot could be describing Odysseus or the wise men or you when he says that the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started for the first time.”
Jesus scholar Marcus Borg is describing the path to Christian maturity when he invites us to “meet Jesus again . . . for the first time.”
Have you experienced that sort of paradoxical epiphany? We at Open Table are hoping to make a way for folks to return to a home in God—but by a different route. Some say their involvement in Open Table has led them to take another look at Jesus after maybe many years of indifference or even dislike—and that second look has revealed a familiar and yet totally new Jesus.
Of course, in today’s story of epiphany, the infant Jesus and his mother are barely mentioned, and father Joseph not at all. The drama focuses on the murderous King Herod, on some (at best) neutral religious leaders in Jerusalem, and on some godly foreigners who probably came from what is present day Iraq or Iran. God was revealed to these honest seekers from another culture; God was found by these wise ones in an unexpected place wearing an unexpected face. The religious leaders who should have known about and protected the Christ childabdicated their leadership role, being so entwined, as they were, with the political authorities, so committed to maintaining institutions and customs, so suspicious of those who are different, so protective of their own power. Instead, it was up to those with a different way of seeing the world—strangers from afar—to recognize God’s activity and then actwisely enough to escape being used for harm.
The spiritual journey many of us find ourselves on is not so different from that of the wise men. A gradual or sudden illumination pierced through the fog of what we thought wastrue and then set us searching. We wandered, some of us, for years. We may have left religious life entirely or tried a range of spiritual practices and investigated a variety of religious traditions. Or we may have sat politely in a pew somewhere as a silent heretic, our wanderings being interior and secret. But at some point we caught a glimpse of the Really Real, or at least the possibility of something that is of ultimate worth that might save us and save our world, and we felt a longing to kneel to and serve that goodness in the world. We don’t understand this inner shift any more than the Magi did. But like them, we seem to be heading back to a spiritual awareness that is connected to our past and yet is also a new and deeper place. This spiritual state just might be our truest home. But to get there we must go by a route different than the one we used years ago.
Let’s spend a moment considering what home might mean for those of us on a spiritual quest. Then we’ll consider what it might mean for us to journey home by a different road.
I love Robert Penn Warren’s definition of home as “not a place” but a “state of spirit . . . of mind . . . a proper relation to the world.” What happens if we think of God not as a father or mother, but as home itself, not as a being with whom we have relationship but as the spiritual state whereby we are nurtured and become related to one another? What if, then, our spiritual goal is to become at home in the world and within our own spirits and with one another?
God—as our home—is our starting place and that place to which we long to return. If life is a circle rather than a line, then God, who can be conceived of as our home, is both our origin and goal. I am not talking about God as existing in some place. I’m talking about God as that figurative place. I am not imagining God as a home for me at some distant point in time but rather as my home I experience now. If God is a home to enter only after we die, then we live estranged lives here. And if God, by the way, is a home that shelters only certain family members, then God is mean and small. If God is home for me, then God is a home here and now and for all. God as home is not a new image. The hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past” concludes by affirming God as “our eternal home.” Mystics have imaged God as home. Scriptures name God as our “refuge” and “hiding place” and “rock” and “shelter.” Unfortunately, the image that came to dominate our thinking to such an extent that it becomes idolatry is the image of God as father.
Thinking about God as my home shapes my theology; feeling God as my home shapes my prayers. If I meditate on God as home, I’m less likely to childishly present Father God with a list of requests and am more likely to settle into a spirit of calm and compassion that enables me to see the rest of the world embraced within this same home. Such prayer is about changing me rather than changing God. I invite you to try prayer as a discipline of very intentionally but simply making yourself at home in the world. Then tell me if it changes you.
Understanding God as home can alter not only our prayers but also our ethics and actions. If God is my most ultimate “home,” then my spiritual practices must lead to relatedness with others who live within this home that God IS. To be specific, if my spirituality is based on the sense that my god is, in some sense, my ultimate home and if my goal in life is to be at home, then I may also try harder to honor the planet that is our physical home and the creatures that share this home with me. Perhaps those who are “at home in the world” are those who can best work for peace and protect our planet. As a church, we find ourselves engaged in many important causes, but I wonder if the most basic issues of justice are those which foster just and peaceful human relationships and those which ensure a healthier environment for all creatures because we care about our mutual home.
Yet these also happen to be, for me at least, the most challenging personal commitments. It’s hard for me to live a life of peace. It’s hard for me to monitor all the ways my daily habits affect the natural environment. But the God who holds the universe in a communal embrace is calling me to return home, which, if God is Home, is another way of talking about the old concept of conversion. I need to be converted, to turn away from actions that harm my home, to return to God, to our “home.”
If we return to God, like the Prodigal son who returns home from a life of disconnection and dissolution, we, too, can be reintegrated into a deep sense of being at home in the world and comfortable in our own skin. That is spiritual maturity.
But we can go home again only via a different road. My theology today is very different than it was 30 years ago. Yours has probably evolved, too. I thank God for new paths I’ve tried, strange characters I’ve met. On most days I can even thank God for heartaches endured. Like the wise men, we dare not retrace our steps but return home by a different way.
Nearly eight years ago I literally returned home—having left Mobile in 1974 to go off to college and eventually to follow career paths to live in Georgia, then Texas, then Tennessee, and then Ohio. The thought of returning home was both a welcome and worrisome prospect. I was newly ordained and eager for my first full-time ministerial role, but my chances of finding a congregation to serve plummeted when George and I decided he should accept a position at Spring Hill College. Could I return home if I’d changed so much theologically, politically, spiritually? Only by a different road. I returned home, for instance, after having made deep and lasting friendships with LGBT folks, having heard their stories, having marched in Pride parades, having served Open and Affirming churches. I could not return to Mobile and just pretend I had not been, in some sense, converted along the way. My real home in God had to include all the folks I’d encountered, regardless of whether my geographical home was willing to include those people and ideas.
On Friday, as Jan and Sondra and I were driving downtown to participate in the We Do campaign for marriage equality, Jan asked me if, when I was growing up in Mobile, I’d have imagined I’d be participating in such an event. I answered that I could not have even imagined such an event taking place—much less my role in it—not even when I was well into adulthood. Indeed, I was well into adulthood before I could imagine a woman becoming a pastor. And my spiritual conversion relative to the topic of human sexuality happened over many years and thanks, mainly, to relationships with gay and lesbian friends. It’s my own slow but steady conversion that gives me hope that others can come to recognize their prejudices and trust that God, like a loving home, holds us all together equally, safely, supportively. I’ve come home by a different way. It’s the only way we ever really return to our truest home that some call God. It’s the differences the Wise Ones encounter on the road home that save us and help us save the ones today’s Herods would harm.
Through the Gospels we come to understand that the infant Jesus would also journey home. By a different way. The call upon my life is to follow in that way. The mission of Open Table is to follow Jesus. Who taught us a different way.
In the musical Les Miserable, Jean Valjean sings a final prayer as he is dying. Audiences probably hear him asking God to bring him to a home that is heaven. But perhaps you can hear me pray this prayer as one fully engaged in life who is longing to be brought into an experience of God as our truest home. I pray this for us all:
God on high,
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there
Where you are
Let me be
Take me now
Take me there
Bring me home
Bring me home.
[i] See Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.