On June 7, I returned to a historic Baptist church in the community in northern Virginia where I spent much of my childhood to give the homecoming sermon. The congregation was founded in 1745. The present brick building dates to 1854. It is surrounded by majestic oaks and a welcoming, peaceful cemetery. I’m in front of the church here with family and friends. Here are my remarks.
“Homegoing: Earth Bound”
Ketoctin Baptist Church
Round Hill, Virginia
June 7, 2009
In celebrating the history and meaning of this old church and its congregation in our lives and in the history of this county, we inevitably experience a kind of homecoming. Some of you are here for the first time. Others are here for the hundredth or thousandth. Yet for all of us there is a sense of coming home. As I reflected on this event and this place, my mind was drawn to an ancient story about people between one home and another — a people in tents. I want to read it once more in this space.
Reading: Genesis 18:1-15
Home. Home-coming. He is coming home from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. From prison. From hospital. He never came home…
Home. Home-going. She is going home. We will miss her terribly. He is going home. His tour of duty is over.
Home. Home-sick. I am homesick. This is not my home. My heart wants me to leave.
Home. Homeland. Homeland security. We will protect our homeland with whatever means it takes.
Powerful words. Powerful emotions. Driving us. Leading us. Shaping our lives.
There is no deeper image of human life than that of being at home, of leaving home, of going home. These images shape most of our lives as we wander between the home we remember and the home we imagine we are seeking.
Almost all of us have left home, some with regret, some with relief. Millions of our fellow human beings have been driven from their homes by war. At this point some 10 million people around the world are refugees. The lucky ones have tents that make the tent of Abraham seem like a palace of a king. Some 700,000 Americans every night are in shelters, under bridges, or huddling in abandoned buildings. They are suspended like a spider on its tiny thread, blown about by storms and winds.
Many of us are homeless in spirit. Most of us spend our lives searching for our true home, some with sure hope, some with growing despair. Even when our bodies put their feet on the land we know as home, our souls, our spirits, may still not feel they are home, truly home, confirmed at the deepest level of their being. We all know what it is to live between two homes. The home we left and the home we seek are two poles suspending the rope of life’s crossing.
This deep sense of life between our homes lies at the core of the religious tradition Christians share with Jews and Muslims around the world. Abraham leaves his ancestral home to seek an unknown home in foreign lands. How does he live in this gap? He sets up a tent and exercises hospitality. He and his wife receive strangers as their guests. And from these “angels unaware” they hear surprising promises that surpass their own imaginations. They eat together and Sara laughs at their preposterous prophesies. Living in a tent between their homes, they yet show grace to strangers who are also living in the gap between their homes.
Their sojourn in this in-between home became the meaning of faith in a God who creates, calls, and redeems. Abraham’s faith is echoed by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who recalls that “he set out, not knowing where he was going…for he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” With a trust that comes from faith in this God who calls us into life between our homes, we make home for others in a world of homeless strangers.
The three religious traditions emanating from Abraham’s story have all been “roaming religions,” for whom the home to come is even more vivid than the home that we have left behind. We think of ourselves as looking forward to the unknown future, the past that we know lies behind our backs, out of sight. We picture ourselves as “making our future” according to the visions of the future that we see. Many traditional peoples, I am told, think of themselves as facing the past and their ancestral home, the unknown future to their backs, rushing past them into their vision as time passes. They do not “make” their future, it is revealed to them.
There is a little of this sense in our festivals of homecoming, in which we look forward to returning to some symbol, some vestige of memory of the home we left behind. And certainly Ketoctin is one of those places. There is written history, stretching back over two hundred and fifty years, as Vernon Ford and others have preserved it for us. And there are the trees. They stand like the oaks of Mamre. I can smell the bread, feel the tent flaps as I enter, hear the voice of angels and the laugh from Sara’s belly at surprises yet to come.
There is a stream across the road where (I can’t believe this, don’t tell the health department) I swam as a little boy, the dry cows grazing and doing other things nearby. And there is this building, as old a memory as I have of buildings, maintained with loving care by many generations – a care that springs from often inarticulate desires to know a home that stands outside of time and yet within time’s tangibility. Numbers and names, benches and windows, bricks and stones. My fingers trace the dates, my nose picks up the hemlock and the drying grass. From my earliest years I remember wandering among the tombstones, looking for the oldest dates, trying to imagine the life that they had lived. I remember standing on tiptoe peering through the wavy windows into a special place, a spare but sacred space, a room of visible and invisible memory. And then my life moved on, though always circling back.
Ketoctin as home left and home to come echoes in all the experiences of humans on this land:
of Europeans who came to build New Englands, New Yorks, Nova Scotias, and New Ulms;
of ancient inhabitants driven from their homelands, exterminated by disease and war, come circling back today, reclaiming space, not only on the Mall, but on lands tinged with ancient tears;
of Africans torn from their homes, brought captive here, and claiming this as home even as they remind us that we all began in Africa, it has never lost its claim on us;
and Asians launched on myriad boats by war, famine, and poverty, who built railroads and shops, who link us still to ancient origins and emergent possibilities.
And they still come, and this land still greets them all, even when we often shut our doors, forgetting that we, too, are wanderers, living in the gap between our homes.
Our sense of home has anchored us to a past and guided us to a future, but its defense has often led us into war. Our fervent longing for the homes we left can lead to war in which we kill each other and despoil the land, not only in Israel/Palestine but in Europe, Africa, and even here. We claim that this boundried piece of land or that land over there is our true home, a claim that goes beyond law, agreement, or native residence.
A year ago, Sylvia and I were in ancient Hebron in the Palestinian West Bank, at the tomb of Abraham and Sara. At this place of holy memory of the original sojourners a mosque had been built that only a few years ago became a place of carnage during time of prayer. Now Jews and Muslims fight over the building, surrounded by police checkpoints. A wall seals a Jewish end from a Muslim end. The tent of hospitality has become a fortress of fear. The Abrahamic dream becomes a nightmare on lands groups claim and cannot share.
Indeed, we have all wandered too long for us to easily return. Our faith cannot lie, nor has it ever, in reclaiming origins, but in living in the gap with hospitality. Abraham and Sara in their tent at Mamre remains the place where angels come to seek our hospitality. In one sense, our real home does not lie in any geography you can find on a map. It is within us. It is a sense of comfort and wholeness with the person God has created us to be. Our restless feet carry us all over the world, but we never can claim a sense of home until we have come home to ourselves, to the creative center of our lives. For many of us this is the ultimate spiritual quest for home – the reconciliation within. When we find this home, we can open the doors of hospitality wherever we are.
In another sense, “home” has to include a place in the world and connections to people (and other creatures) both living and dead. In this sense, perhaps, if we have any home, it is this earth itself. The challenge in our time is not to settle once again in our ancestral homelands, or even to find that deep reconciliation with our inner self. It is to claim this earth itself and as a whole as home. It is in coming home to earth that we find our true sense of who we are as human beings, of how we are connected to the living and the dead and the living yet to come. We are the humans. We are the ones anchored in the humus of the earth.
If our life is always a journey from home to home, then perhaps we need to see that in a sense we are already home at every point, the earth presenting us with offers of an awesome hospitality. It is one we can accept and seek to live within this home of earth, or we can continue as if earth is not our home, forgetting we are strangers and guests among these trees, this earth, the waters and the fields. And in accepting this, the earth, as home, new generations may yet flourish, and we shall laugh, as Sara did, surprised by God’s abundance.
Ketoctin can be not only a symbol of a home we have left or the dream of a home in a dimly seen future. With its oaks and stream, its grass and brick and stone, it stands as witness to a harmony of hand and earth, of human will and creation’s hope. It can be a place of hospitality, a place of laughter under sheltering trees, a place for knitting our many memories of home with the life of the one home we all are called to share. It might remind us of the home to which we are bound – our anchor and our destiny – God’s precious earth.
May God’s peace protect your pathways;
May God’s justice heal your wounds;
May the love of God in Jesus lead you home.