Return to the Home of Your Soul
Scripture: Psalm 126
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,[a]
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
So here we are, some sixteen months after the mid-March, 2020 shutdown of our physical churches, and finally most of our faith communities are back from diaspora, from scattering, to physical unity again. Today, in fact, is the first day that this church has returned with no restrictions. And while we celebrate this unrestricted, physical return, we also celebrate the fact that our digital brothers and sisters will continue to be with us, in perpetuity, through the internet We truly thank God for that technology, without it, God knows where the church at large would be by now. But we also thank God that we are closing in on the end of the pandemic, and so we are able to be together physically today in an unrestricted manner. It was hard to preach to a lone camera, I don’t mind telling you. It was lonely and we pastors certainly were homesick for your in-person faces, and just generally, for “the Body of Christ with skin on.”
The church in 2020 was not the first spiritual community to have been scattered, exiled, if you will, and then eventually returned to the sanctuary together. The theme of exile and return is a dominant motif in scripture. Today’s Psalm was written as a song of celebration for those Israelites of old who were finally allowed to go home to Jerusalem after generations of exile in Babylon, where their songs were ones of lament and deep home-sickness. And really, the entire theme of the faith in general has to do with exile from the Garden of Eden, a history’s worth of wandering in exile until we will be eventually returned to that second garden at the center of the New Jerusalem at the close of history where everything will be brought to rights, all shall finally be most well, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. In a very real way, the most basic, underlying story of the Bible, the one of creation-fall-redemption, is one of diaspora, exile and return. We await our return from that exile with longing hearts, longing for the restored Kingdom of God. It’s a homesickness that never totally leaves us, but instead leaves us with longings for the Garden, for that undisturbed spiritual condition of wholeness, of shalom, which was our original birthright.
But here’s the thing: even though, in that larger, overarching story we are still in exile, still not yet restored to the Kingdom-come-with-power, to the ultimate shalom of joy and justice, still we can find glimpses of it. Small intimations that hint at the ultimate which will only come at the close of history when the not yet becomes the ultimate now. Even though we cannot seem to hold on to a literal home, we can, in a metaphorical way, take a page from the turtle and the snail, and learn to carry our ultimate home with us. So that even as we know ourselves to be people of the diaspora, scattered in exile from the Garden of Wholeness, still, we have a sense of shelter and home in every moment. I am talking, of course, about our home in God which indeed surrounds and nurtures us in every moment that we remember to shelter under it.
I remember when Brian and I were in pre-marital counseling with Ron Woodruff, then Youth Minister at this church, who was trying to help us prepare for the relationship of marriage. One of the points he made that stuck with me is that in marriage, it is perfectly normal and almost inevitable to vacillate in and out of times of extreme closeness and times of relative distance. Nobody can maintain that extreme intimacy every single day, and it is perfectly normal to go in and out, balancing that extreme closeness with times of relative distance where both parties might be busy with other things. The trick was to make sure you make the intimacy a priority and always cycle back around to it so it is a regular part of the equation. Well, I think it’s like that with God as well. Sometimes we “leave home” in big and dramatic ways, like the Prodigal Son. More often we slip off-course subtly, taking up the reins of control of our lives, rather than seeking to discern God’s flow and going with that.
Mystic Meister Eckhart says it perfectly: “God is at home; It is we who have gone out for a walk.” And Anselm chimes in with his now famous words, “our hearts are restless, O God, until they find their rest in Thee.”
And that is the core of what I really am trying to say today, that ultimately, home and rest and restoration and healing and shalom are not out there…but in here. At the center of our center where God lives and always has, even when we have gone out for a walk. Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within you.” And it calls to us, just like the chimes here in Chagrin, during my childhood, which played each late afternoon from ten before six until six oclock, and we children knew, as the first chime struck, that we had ten minutes to get home from our afternoon of play to dinner with our family, round the table. Or just like the husband, in marriage counseling and ready to leave, waiting in the lobby while the therapist comforts his rejected wife, and sitting out there, it’s as if a shroud is lifted, and he suddenly sees clearly again, and comes home to his own best self and his wife and child and he can’t get back to the office fast enough to say, “I finally see. If you’ll have me, I’m coming home!” Or the alcoholic who, nearly dead inside, has for years sought a sense of life and home and comfort in the bottle, but finally realizes its a facsimile, and gives it up, only to know true homelessness and pain until recovery leads eventually to a restored sense of God and love and warmth within. Coming home, step by painful step, from exile.
“When from our exile, God leads us home again, we’ll think we’re dreaming…back we’ll be coming, sheaves on our shoulders.” Have you ever known the joy of return? Maybe you were really estranged like the prodigal son who made his way fearfully up the road to find his father out in the street, scanning the distant road, desperately searching for him, and then running, in a culture where men didn’t run, running to embrace him.
Or maybe your exiles have been more subtle, just a vague sense of something off, dissatisfaction, restlessness, wondering if this is all there is? Maybe you are still in that quiet, restless, spiritual exile, knowing you are not quite at home in your life and longing for something more?
Meditation helps. Prayer and meditation. I practice a discipline known as Centering Prayer where I meditate on an anchor word, for me it is usually “shalom” but it can be God or love or Jesus or anything that evokes even a faint sense of home for you. And you stay with the word until you notice your mind is wandering, which it always does, and then you just quietly, without judgment, return to the anchor word. And you stay with it for even two minutes a day, eventually stretching it out to twenty, and finally, you realize that you can almost teleport back in moments of trouble just by calling to mind the anchor word and breathing with it again. And the word and the practice become a fulcrum on which the teeter totter of the daily round rise and fall.
We’re going to practice a form of it now, based on the word “return.” The musicians will lead us in a simple chant, the words of which will be on the screen. And once you’ve got it, we are going to sing it through numerous times and I encourage you to let your mind and spirit go and float on the music and the rhythm. Return again. Return again. Return to the home in your soul.