A little over a month ago, a couple of weeks before Christmas, Kristin and I got in our car one morning and drove about an hour and a half north to Wellesley, Massachusetts. It was a few days before my sister’s birthday, and at her request, a few of us in the family met in the cemetery where my father is buried.
After spending some time at my father’s plot, taking pictures and leaving flower petals on the gravestone, we set off for an indoor location where we could find something warm to drink and catch up a little bit until everyone had to go their separate ways. Although standing in a windy cemetery might not be every person’s idea of how best to celebrate a birthday, I thought it was a great way to honor my sister and to be together as a family. Not to mention the fact that as we laughed and told stories and remembered, my father was palpably present in our midst.
Even the drive through Wellesley, Massachusetts, was enjoyable. My family moved to Wellesley when I was eleven and we lived there for nearly eighteen years. I went through middle school and high school in the Wellesley school system. My parents were both pastors at the Wellesley Congregational Church. I was confirmed at the Wellesley Congregational Church, I preached my first sermon in that pulpit, and after I graduated from seminary I was ordained in that sanctuary.
No matter how long it’s been since I’ve been back to Wellesley, whenever I drive through town, memories from my teenage and early adult years flood back to me. As I drove over the small bridge into town a few weeks ago, I passed the familiar gated entrance to Wellesley College. Many of the stores have changed along the main street in town, but the aforementioned church where I spent so many formative years still remains in the town center. Cosmetically speaking, the town looks a lot like the town I grew up in.
As I continued, the route was strikingly familiar. After I made it through the center of Wellesley, I turned right and the Methodist church was still there on the left. I stayed on Brook Street past the hilly road that led up to the church parsonage where my family once lived. I took note of the bus stop on the corner where I stood every morning with a few other kids from the neighborhood. And finally, I arrived at Woodlawn Cemetery a short ways down on the left.
I guess there’s a small part of me that looks back at Wellesley, Massachusetts, and considers Wellesley to be home. Home is a place we long for and a place we yearn to return to…a place to visit or a place we construct in our minds using the building blocks of memories and images and dreams. It’s a place where many caring people are still around and seemingly nothing much has changed over time. And home is a place where we belong, a place where everything seems well even if things aren’t going particularly well for us at any given time in our lives. Based on those criterion and coupled with the fact that my father will forever rest there, Wellesley, Massachusetts, fits my definition of home.
I’m sure many of you have similar feelings about a place or a group of people. Perhaps it’s the house where you grew up. The same place where you’ve gathered together for big family events and celebrations over the years. Every year the Christmas tree still stands in that same spot near the fireplace. The succulent aroma of homemade food still wafts from the kitchen. And your old room has changed appearance over the years but you can still remember the quiet and warm and safe times you spent lying on your bed and retreating from the world outside.
Maybe home is the place where you used to spend summer vacations. Or still spend summer vacations. On the beach or in the mountains or tucked away in the woods somewhere. Or maybe home for you is an old group of friends. The kind of friends you could be out of touch with for months and yet whenever you talk to them or see them next, it feels like you pick up the conversation right where you left off…
The other thing I realized after my December visit to Wellesley though, was something unsettling. Yes, there is a small part of Wellesley that will always feel like home. But going back to Wellesley affirmed for me that old adage; you can’t ever go home again.
There was a sentence once in a newspaper editorial which stated the following. “After a man makes a visit to his boyhood town he finds that it wasn’t the old town he wanted, but his boyhood. Wellesley seemed as though it hadn’t changed much and I enjoyed going back, yet my life has moved on. I’m no longer the person I was back then. My home is here in South Windsor, Connecticut, and my church home is right here at Wapping Community Church. I’ve established another set of good and deep roots in this town. And I can’t ever recreate my life as it once was…
Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Jacob. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” I think the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews identifies something I felt up in Wellesley. Something profound that all of us come to grips with at different times in our lives. Human beings are chronically homesick.
You and I spend our entire lives searching for a place we can call home. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from or how much money we make or how much love and support we’ve received in the past from people around us. We’re all looking for a place where we can be known as a good person living a good life. We’re searching for a place that will allow us to be human when the world constantly seeks to coerce us into being either less than human or superhuman. And we search for a place where we can nurture our sense of what is sacred and transcendent. A place that allows us to witness and celebrate the people and the events that give meaning and purpose to our lives.
Searching for home is a restless endeavor. Because in a very real sense, while we think we may be searching for something we knew or felt or dreamed in the past, we are coincidentally searching for something we have yet to experience in the future. We continually long for things that are just out of our sight and just beyond our grasp. Searching for exactly what Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob once searched for. Things that have never happened, feelings we have never felt, peace and wholeness we have never fully experienced, promises we’ve only glimpsed from far away.
In many ways, you and I are chronically homesick for a home we have never laid eyes on and cannot readily imagine. A home that even our dreams cannot clearly identify. And there is only one way to fill that empty, longing, restless, lonely, homesick place in our lives. With God. There is a complex, hungering, God shaped space in our lives where only God fits and which only God can fill. We might try to fill that space with human relationships, with the trappings of earthly success, with memories and memorabilia from happy, simple times in our lives, or with some self-destructive vice. Yet in the end, all these things leave us unsatisfied. We can only find home and feel at home when we make a home in God.
Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob confessed they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. People of faith like you and me are always going to feel similarly…like we have one foot here and one foot somewhere else…a little bit like strangers and foreigners. Because once God lays claim on our lives, writing our names on the palm of God’s hand, there is no place in this world that will ever feel completely like home. We may spend our days and our energy searching for a place to call home. But faith tells us that you and I are forever being drawn and called by God’s promise to come all the way home to God.
Can we do something about our homesickness? Can we overcome the sense of sadness and disappointment that comes when we acknowledge we are strangers and exiles here on the earth? Would all of us not travel to the ends of this earth if we thought we could find a place that felt like home, even if we have only glimpsed if from far away up till now?
The answer is “yes.” We can find our way home if we remember that God’s love has been etched in our hearts. There is a space in our hearts and in our spirits and in our lives that is shaped like a God space. And none other than God can make it whole.
Every single day God is busy drawing us ever nearer to God. Drawing you and me toward the place where God’s eternal promise will be fulfilled. Drawing us away from our homesick, restless quest. Drawing us closer to the home we have never seen up close. Drawing us home into God’s arms at last. Amen.
NOTE: The theme for this sermon came from Frederick Buechner’s book entitled, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections. (Harper Collins: 1996.) It has long been a favorite book.