Finding the Way Home
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, May 2nd, 2021
Think of a time when you felt truly at home even when you were not at home. What made you feel that way? What made it feel different from the many other places that you have lived or traveled or worked and never felt at home? What did you find there that you did not find anywhere else?
My most vivid feeling of being at home did not occur in this country. It happened in an open-air Episcopal Cathedral in Port au Prince, Haiti almost fifty years ago. The entire service was conducted in French and I struggled to keep up with the priest, but it did not take long before the priest left my limited comprehension behind. Sitting there as a very white face in a sea of faces of a deeply darker hue and listening to words that I could rarely understand, I was feeling anything but at home.
After his sermon, the priest walked to a simple table. He started to say words that I still did not grasp, but when he broke the bread and poured the wine, I found my way home. I no longer needed a translator; everything became fluent. I was no longer an American feeling lost in Haiti or an English speaker feeling left behind in a French speaking setting, suddenly I was a fellow child of God sitting at the dinner table of faith, seated with a new family of sisters and brothers. The family I joined there bore no physical resemblance to me or me to them, but as we took the bread and drank from the cup we were family nonetheless. I returned to my seat not feeling nearly so alienated, but much more like how Isaac Watts concludes my favorite hymn, “There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger, or a guest, but like a child at home” (My Shepherd Will Supply My Need).
If I were to ask the writer, Anne Lamott, how she found her way home, I suspect she would tell a story that her pastor tells, but, in many ways, it is also Anne’s story. When Anne’s pastor was a young girl, around the age of seven, she got miserably lost one day. In the midst of her fear, a policeman came to her aid and drove her around town. While looking for something that she would know, suddenly, the young girl spotted her church. She told the officer, “You can let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find home from here.” (Traveling Mercies).
Last Sunday, the words of Jesus from John’s Gospel were “I am the Good Shepherd” or as I translated it: “I am the Beautiful Shepherd.” In today’s passage, Jesus uses a different metaphor. He says, “I am the true vine and you are the branches.” And, he goes on to say, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” It is tempting to hear those words from Jesus in a very private, individualistic way – just me and Jesus. “Jesus abides in me and I abide in him.”
His words, though, are no private imperative. What can be maddening about the English language is that “you” can be either singular or plural. The Greek language, the original language of the New Testament, is far more specific and in this case the “you” is plural. Jesus is speaking to the community of faith, inviting them to be a community of “abiders,” offering them a way home or how never to stray far from home.
Using the metaphor of vine and branches, Jesus invites the community to know that it is in relationship with him that they find life and life abundant. Hymnwriter, Susan Palo Cherwein reminds us that “Mystic Meister Eckhart wrote that a plum brings forth plums not by an act of will but because it is its nature to do so. So, the worshiping community – gathered around Christ, partaking of Christ, allowing the being of Christ to flow unimpeded into all the branches – produces what it, by its nature, must: godly fruit of compassion, loving-kindness, mercy, patience, wisdom, love” (The Christian Century, April 2015, p. 20).
As you and I prepare to gather at the table for the first time in-person in over a year, may coming to this table be a tangible way for each of us to find a way home. As we taste this bread and drink from this cup, may we hear the words of Jesus in John echoing in our hearts: “Abide in me and I in you.”
So, just what does it look like to abide in the risen Jesus in 2021? I have actually learned a lot about that question over the past year. I hate that we have not been able to “abide” with each other in-person at Cove for well over a year and when we have come to “abide” at this table, we have done so only virtually as some will still do so today.
Even so, during our time physically apart from each other, Jesus has continued to abide in us and with us. God has found a way to lead us home, lead Marty and Jonas to “abide” with us while living in Germany, lead Bruce and Rosetta to “abide” with us while living in New York City, lead Bob and Jan, Allan and Susan, and Cary to “abide” with us while living in Alexandria, lead Cindy to “abide” with us while living in Virginia Beach. Though miles apart in every direction and despite a deadly pandemic, we have been a community of “abiders” at the table of our Lord and by the power of the Spirit of God, we have found a way home.
A major reason that I am a pastor is because the first time that I was feeling far from home, I was welcomed into a new community of “abiders” and to a new table in a new city. During my teens, I had been nurtured by a wonderful congregation in Northern Virginia, but when I arrived on campus of the College of William and Mary, I found myself in a new place where I knew no one. In short order, I did not so much find this new body of “abiders” in Christ as they found me and welcomed me. This community of “abiders” insisted that there was a seat waiting for me at the table and when I sat with them, I found a short-cut home, and for me, like Anne’s pastor and like Anne, home and church are always next-door neighbors. Over time, they pushed me to think about what God had in mind for my life. They pushed me to consider if God might be calling me to be a guide for others to find home.
When I left home for college, I thought that I could be a Christian on my own. As a young idealist I was appalled by some of the language and behavior I observed in church. On Sunday afternoons, members often had the pastor for lunch, not to lunch, but for lunch. They would invite me to pass the potatoes and then say something like: “Can you believe he said that?” “Can you believe he forgot to do that – again?!!!” By the time, I was leaving home for college, I thought, “Well, I am not ready to give up on God or to reject the Christian faith, but you can have the church!”
It was the young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, arrested and executed by the Nazis, who invited me to reconsider my young, arrogant assessment of the church. He wrote: “The community of the saints is not an 'ideal' community consisting of perfect and sinless men and women, where there is no need of further repentance. No, it is a community which proves that it is worthy of the gospel of forgiveness by constantly and sincerely proclaiming God's forgiveness.” Over time, wherever I lived I found home in church by first looking long and hard in the mirror, reveling in God’s forgiveness, and then joining a community of forgiven “abiders” in the life-long pursuit of forgiveness and learning to practice forgiveness again and again and again.
What others taught me, especially when I left for college, is that being a Christian, to shift metaphors, is a team sport and it is one through which we find our way home. That brings us back to the table set for us at Cove Creek Park today or if you are viewing this sermon, I hope is set before you at your kitchen table. As often as you and I come to the table, whether it is called the communion table or the holy eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, we come to the table of plenty, with fellow “abiders” in cities around the globe, who speak languages we have never heard or heard of, who live in different times zones and live out of vastly different cultures, and yet when they, when you and I, come to the table of plenty we discover that we are no longer a stranger or a guest but are like a child at home.
So, friends, here or far away, come to the “abiders’” table and find your way home.