Watching young children is one of my favorite things to do at the beach. Especially when the surf is up a little bit and the waves are rolling in along the shore. Sometimes I try to imagine what it must be like for a two or three year old child to look out with wide eyes over the vast ocean. Waves that may only rise as high as the knees or the waist of an adult probably look like tidal waves to a small child.
Have you ever sat for a time and watched a young child dart in and out of the ocean water? The wave goes out and children quietly shuffle closer to the edge of the water as if they’re trying to sneak up and take a quick dip before the next wave comes. Or they scurry to the water’s edge, giggling and laughing and shrieking, trying to splash around and create as much ruckus as they can until the next wave arrives.
And how often have you watched children dash across the sand parallel to the shoreline? In wonderful, serpentine movements they weave their way up and down the sand like sandpipers. Scooting close to the water when the wave recedes and then scampering towards the dry sand when the waves come in. Leaving small footprints which survive on high ground but disappear on the lower, wetter sand. This game is given many different names but it’s really just a beach version of the timeless game of “chicken.” The objective being to run as close as you can to the incoming and outgoing water without having the water touch your feet.
For young children, I imagine the ocean is one of the great practical mysteries in the world. So frightening and yet so captivating. So awesome and so alluring. So relentless and so unpredictable. Each wave so repetitious and so unique in its own way. Each wave washing up countless treasures; shells, crabs, seaweed and other priceless trinkets tiny enough to fit into a small pair of hands.
Even when we grow up, I think there is something about the ocean that still fascinates many of us. At the same time, I think we come to appreciate the ocean as much for what it represents as for what it is. Through adult eyes we might look out over the ocean and feel a restless, mysterious sense of adventure. And sometimes, if you are like me, you look out over the vast water as far as your eye can see and you wonder where the ocean ends on the other side. Way out beyond the edge of the horizon where the sky seems to perch itself peacefully on top of the ocean’s surface, there must be a farther shore where someone else’s children are playing wave games back and forth in the sand.
When we are young children, we focus on the waves coming in to the shore. We concentrate on their size and their speed, their sounds and their direction. But as we grow older, I think we focus equally on the waves going away from the shore. Interestingly, the words “time” and “tide” share a common root in the Indo-European language. As such, the ebb and flow of the waves becomes an adult metaphor for the passing of time and a symbolic way in which we think about the events in our lives.
The ocean can be a metaphor for the stages in our lives. Our younger years, childhood, youth, and young adulthood, might be termed the “tide coming in years.” Eventually as we pass middle age and progress into our sixties and seventies and eighties and beyond, we live in the “tide going out years.” Years where we realize in a palpable way, which can be alarming or comforting or both, that we are closer to the end of our lives than we are to the beginning. The tide, which always seemed to be coming in toward the shore during our early, invincible, infinite years, becomes a tide which steadily and persistently fades away as years go by…
At the end of this Thanksgiving week, I hope we have all spent a good deal of time finding or creating a place that looks and feels and smells and sounds like home. A place where we can be loved and embraced. A place where we feel safe and secure in the midst of the world’s troubles. A place which offers rejuvenation through rest and time for reflection.
You and I devote enormous energy trying to cultivate relationships here on earth that enable us to feel at home. Trying to find loving spouse and partner relationships, family relationships, and other caring, committed relationships where we can be accepted and affirmed for who we are without condition. Where everyone knows our name and we can pick up with special people wherever and whenever we left off last.
The one home we don’t usually talk much about is the home to which we will all journey in time. The home prepared for us by Jesus Christ a long time ago. The home which will serve as our final resting place when we come to the end of our lifelong journeys. That home is the home we know by faith and in hope…not yet by sight…our eternal home.
The tide or the time of life rolls along, eventually bearing all its children away. Moreover, from the moment we are born, the tide is constantly receding, taking us farther and farther away from the near shore and ever closer to the mysterious place on the distant shore where our worldly time will come to an end. Through all the years and the events and the stages we experience, I believe we spend as much time and energy searching for an eternal home as we do searching for an earthly home.
Where do we go after we die? What will that heavenly home look like? Who will be there to meet us? How will we spend our time, if there is any such thing as time in the first place? Is our life on earth merely a brief sojourn to prepare us for life in the world beyond this one? In our most curious and most desperate and most fearful moments, do we not try to convince ourselves that this life is not all there is? Or trying to deny our own mortality? Or trying to comfort ourselves with the assurance that our next life will be filled with joy and peace and no more tears…?
I suspect that a number of you have seen the move Schindler’s List. Based on a true story and directed by Steven Spielberg, the film won a Best Picture Academy Award back in 1993. If you haven’t seen it, Schindler’s List tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman, who became obsessed with saving as many Jewish men, women, and children as he could from death in the Nazi concentration camps.
By the end of the Second World War, Oskar Schindler had singlehandedly saved over eleven hundred Jews. But the film doesn’t merely tell the tale of the Jewish survivors. It also tells the disturbing tale of millions of Jews who died in the crematoria at Auschwitz and other camps. And it tells the brutal tale of ruthless Nazi commanders whose disregard for the sanctity of life deadened their souls and immunized them from the inhumanity of their crimes.
Adding to its cinematic power, most of Schindler’s List is filmed in black and white. Much like an old documentary. But throughout the movie in a number of the crowd scenes, when people are being herded into train cars and wooden barracks, when people are working outside on the camp grounds and in scenes where children are playing together, there is a single, ever present touch of color. The color appears as a tiny and subtle aberration in the midst of the dominant black and white. Still, the color is hard to miss. Again and again throughout the film, there is a little girl who appears wearing a red dress…
Near the end of the movie there is a bleak black and white shot of hundreds of Jewish bodies stacked high after a large scale Nazi massacre. In and of themselves, the bodies are nondescript, except by their sheer numbers. But buried in the midst of the bodies, almost out of sight, is a tiny touch of color. A patch of the little girl’s red dress.
As I think about the ocean. As I picture children running in and out of the waves. As I look out over the vast ocean to the place where the horizon rests peacefully atop the water and I contemplate where the other shore begins. As I think about the tide and the time of my life, coming in and going out, cycling toward and away from the shore, ever receding as the years progress. As I think about where my lifelong journey is taking me and what God’s eternal home might be like at the end of that journey.
When I think about what it might be like to live for an eternity in God’s home, I think about a little girl in a red dress. In this sometimes black and white world in which we live, where so much seems routine and so much time feels wasted and so much beauty remains unrecognized and unappreciated, I believe that God sees each of us as a child dressed in red.
Every day, God looks down on us like a God whose eye is on the sparrow. And long after we have died and found our way to the distant shore, God never loses sight of us. In God’s eyes, each one of us is unmistakable. A unique swatch of color which is God’s promise to us that life never ends. A unique square of color which is God’s way of reminding us that we will always be at home with God. Like a child in a precious and beautiful red dress, God seeks us out and one day beckons us to God’s eternal home. The sacred, joyous fulfillment of our restless search for home here on this earth.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city…Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and God’s servants will worship God; they will see God’s face and God’s name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22) Amen.
NOTE: Inspiration for this sermon came from the introduction to Frederick Buechner’s book entitled, Longing for Home. In addition, his final illustration at the conclusion of the sermon, “The Secret in the Dark.” (pgs. 148-49)