A Taste of Home
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
August 9, 2015
Proper 14, Year B
At Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
I remember one of the first times I took Erin home to visit Alaska and we were taking the slow boat, the ferry, from the port city of Ketchikan 3 hours overwater through the Tongass Narrows and across Clarence Straight and up Kasaan Bay to the small village of Hollis, where we would collect our vehicle and drive the remaining hour to my hometown, and we met one of my former high school basketball teammates. Three hours is more than enough time to reminisce and to tell stories, even if those stories are not the ones you want to be told. He laughed as he started sharing memories, beginning with the most embarrassing and working to the least. It was not the way I imagined introducing Erin to the place I most loved. I’ll admit, adolescence was not a good time for me, so there was a lot of material for him to draw on. And, mercifully, when he had finished with the humiliation he began to tell other stories, about the land and those who call it home, and about his own people, the Haida. Then, perhaps realizing he was hogging the conversation he turned the focus around – looking at Erin without flinching he asked, “so, where do your people come from?”
This is not an uncommon question where I’m from. For the First Nations and indigenous peoples of Alaska and elsewhere, there is a strong connection between who one is, and the place of their origin – between the person and the land. For many of us postmodern people, the idea of belonging to a place or to a geographic location is a tricky subject. We are increasingly a diaspora people. As Erin struggled to articulate that she had, in fact, lived in many places, that her people were from the upper Midwest, and further back from Germany and Norway, she was struggling to articulate a common problem – that for so many today, their lives feel alienated from place and home is more an idea than a spot on a map. In that iconic independent film, Garden State, the lead actor, played by Zach Braff, visits home for the funeral of his mother after a long time away, and he opines that once you leave, ‘home’ is nothing more than nostalgia and memory – a place we long for but where we can never return.
“[Y]ou feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist.” he says, “I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”
And, yet, it is around this time of year, when so many of us return to the very real places we call home, whether a favorite camp or a cabin or our childhood house, these days I feel like I am inundated with stories and images of homecomings. A few nights ago we were out with some friends, a couple who, like us, are not originally from Minnesota, and they had just returned from a long road trip back east to see both sides of their family, and the conversation turned to notions of home. Each of us shared about our places of origin, where our mind goes when people ask us where we’re from. And, no matter how rootless or rooted we were, no matter if we had grown up moving from town to town or state to state, or whether we had spent the majority of our days in one place, each of us described “where we come from” in terms of a landscape and a physical place. Our responses resonate with what researchers hear when they ask immigrants to describe where they’re from – when we think of home, we think of soil and topography and climate and plants and local businesses and the very real land of a very real place. We describe local food and local patterns of speech, we talk about culture and customs, and we describe familiar sights and sounds and smells.
It would appear that home is not an imaginary place. It is quite real and specific and tangible. And so, when in today’s gospel lesson Jesus begins to play around with the notion of origins, he is upending some very deeply ingrained human understandings of ‘place’ and ‘home’. As Jesus declares himself the “bread of life” the bread that comes down from heaven, the leaders of the Jews begin to press him about his ancestry. In the verses omitted from today’s reading, those who have heard his audacious claims, wonder who his father is. They want to trace his origins. Where does this crazy man come from that we might disprove his grandiose claims? And, Jesus tells them, he comes from God, and it is only he, the Son, who has seen the Father’s face. Jesus’ origin story, as set out in John’s gospel, is clear – Jesus is the incarnate Word, who was with God from before the beginning, come from God and returning to God and whose presence in our midst opens up the possibility that we might also find our own reconnection and life in God. For Jesus, his true home is not Galilee or a manger in Bethlehem, it is not the wilderness of his ancestor’s wandering, where they ate another bread from heaven – for Jesus, home is with the Father, an intimate indwelling and interconnection. And, more than an idea or a theology, this home is for Jesus as real as the dusty clothes on his back and the desert air in his lungs. What’s more, as John’s gospel describes it, this home is now open to all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is this place that Jesus is speaking of, this yearned for yet not realized home of our deepest selves, this connection and interdependence of life in and with God that constitutes all our other yearning.
This is what C.S. Lewis calls our desire for a far off country. A place that because it is so intimate and yet so beyond our own experience we cannot and will not allow ourselves to speak of it directly. Lewis describes it as, “the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.” (Weight of Glory, Lewis)
We yearn for this connection, to eat of the bread that would somehow connect us with life in God, and so we come to this place, some of us week after week, to stand or kneel at His Table, to be reminded that we have been promised life in His presence, forever. And, we come to this sanctuary, some of us, because the places we come from are not beautiful and life-giving. For some of us, home is a place of deep wounds and suffering – for some of us, home is a place of brokenness and pain, and somehow, instinctually, like a pigeon returns to roost, we know that what we will find here is a reminder of that deeper home, that place from which all life flows and to which all life returns – that here is a taste of goodness and love that we have never fully known.
Yet, even this, this meal which we share and the bread which we break is but a memory and a promise and a momentary taste – it is to touch that place for a moment but to not fully inhabit it.
As Lewis writes, “These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
This meal we share is a taste of home, where we come from, and ultimately where we are going. This, the body of Christ broken for you is true bread which comes down from heaven. Taste and see that the Lord is good, and know that the Lord is your home.