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May 27, 2007

Post Presbyterian Church

John 20: 19-22

 This week I sat with a 90 year old man as his family and the Hospice of Lubbock staff encouraged him to say good-bye to his dying wife, to let her know that he would be okay and to give her his permission to let go.  His social worker and I explained to him that dying people usually die more peacefully if those closest to them bless their leaving.  The dear man looked at us and said, “I refuse to give my dear Thelma, permission to die but I can sure tell her that if she’s ready to go home to God she has my blessing and unwavering permission.”   At first I thought that this stubborn man was splitting hairs about letting his dear wife go.  But then I realized that he truly believed he was giving Thelma back to God and the sense of home she had come from in the beginning.  This wise, simple and good-hearted, West Texas farmer had a deep and well-tuned faith which affirmed that our lives are forever held in God and that in life and in death we truly belong to God.

A lot of people who are dying often talk about looking forward to going home.  If they are in the hospital then we assume they are wanting to go to their address here on earth in order to die and we do our best to make that happen as quickly as possible.  But often times the dying person is already at home and as death gets closer, they begin to speak about their readiness to go home and then we know they are preparing to leave this earth and go to their home with God.

In the introduction to his book, The Longing For Home, Frederick Buechner writes about coming to terms with his mortality.  He says, “When I was young, I lived as though my time was endless.  When I was in my fifties and early sixties, I deluded myself with the fantasy that I was still somehow middle-aged and had roughly as much time left to live as I had lived already, which seemed endless enough for all practical purposes.  But now that I find myself pushing seventy hard, I have finally begun to wise up.  It is no longer just in my mind that I know I am rather a good deal closer to the end of my time than I am to its beginning.  I know it in my stomach, (and in other parts of my aging body).  There is a lot of sadness in knowing it but that is by no means all there is because the tide that carries us farther and farther away from our beginning in time is also the tide that turns and carries us back again to the One who is himself our true and final home.  “That he may dwell in us and we in him,” is the way the old prayer puts it.”  (p. 1-2)

While there is great comfort for the dying as they look forward to going home, we who are living can relate to their longing for home, for that special place within us and around us to which we belong and which undeniably belongs to us.  Buechner says the longing for home is so universal a form of longing that there is even a special word for it, which is of course is homesickness.  We have all been homesick at one time or another.  Like when we were young and went away to summer camp and missed our home and parents so much and carried around with us a deep longing for home in spite of the fun we were having.   Or when we went away to college and longed for home and came home to find that we didn’t fit there in the same comfortable way we had for the 18 years before we left. 

In the May 15, 2007 edition of The Christian Century, the pastor of the Epworth United Methodist Church in Concord, North Carolina, the Rev. Mark Ralls writes about our spiritual homesickness and it’s relationship to the day of Pentecost.  “The Germans have a beautiful word for the vague feeling of spiritual homesickness.  They call it Sehnsucht---a word that suggests we are seeking union with something from which we are now separated.  According to the Bible, Sehnsucht is a universal condition and is the dislocation of our hearts from the heart of God.  One of the most persistent themes in all of the scriptures is that no matter what we obtain or achieve, we remain unsatisfied---this is the human experience.  Vaguely aware of the void inside us, we feel depleted and displaced and long for a deeper connection, something we can not ever acquire on our own.”

In Walker Percy’s novel, The Gramercy Winner, will Grey confides in his psychologist, Dr. Scanlon:

“What’s the matter, Willy?”

“I don’t know, Scanlon.  I’m homesick.”

“How long have you been homesick?”

“All my life.”

In his writing, Mark Ralls suggests that the cure to our spiritual homesickness is the gift of God’s holy spirit in our lives and in the life of our world. In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus comes unexpectedly into the midst of a weary band of dispirited disciples who are left wondering what life for holds for them now that Jesus has left them for good. Feeling lost and alone, they must now find their own way in this world.  In this Pentecost account, Jesus breaks through their locked doors of cynicism, disillusionment and fear and addresses their grief by giving them the traditional middle Eastern greeting, “Peace be with you” which means, “May God give you every good thing.”  After greeting them with the gift of God’s peace, the risen Jesus continues,
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And when Jesus had said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit!”

The story of Pentecost is a reminder that God is actively present in our lives and in the life of the world and that God’s holy spirit continues to find ways to fill the void of our soul and send us on our way in this world as Christ’s envoys.   When we are acting in our own best interests and ignoring the needs of others, we often feel lost, homesick and disconnected from who we are and who we were created to be.  But when we are using our God-given gifts, passions and talents in the service of others, we feel more fully alive and more fully connected to others, God and our own fragmented selves.  I believe Einstein knew this truth when he boldly said, “That which we do for ourselves, stays with us.  That which we do for others, lives on and is immortal.”  

On the day of Pentecost the disciples were given the gift of the Holy Spirit as well as a mandate to be Christ’s people in the world.  The Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor says this about the disciples: “Before Pentecost, the disciples were dense, timid bumblers who fled at the least sign of trouble.  Afterwards, they were fearless leaders.  They healed the sick and cast out demons.  They went to jail gladly, where they sang hymns until the walls fell down.”  The Rev. Mark Ralls says, “the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and there was no longer a void inside of them.  Homesickness no longer ruled their hearts and they began to see themselves differently.  After Pentecost, they referred to themselves as the people of the Way (Acts 9:2)----sojourners in this world, but not orphans.  Just as the disciples experienced, we too, are in God and God is in us.  In the midst of our desperate search for God, God comes to us and cultivates a home wherever we are.”

In his article, Rev. Ralls tells the story of the boy scout who became separated from his troop in the mountains of North Carolina this past March.  “As prayer vigils gathered and search parties combed the forest, he wandered alone for nearly three days.  The morning he was discovered---disoriented but unharmed---CNN was on hand to share the happy news with the world.  An interviewer asked the boy’s father how his young son came to be lost.  He explained that the boy had left the scout campsite voluntarily and was trying to find the nearest highway so he could hitchhike back to Greensboro.  “And why was he doing that?” the reporter wanted to know.  “He was homesick,” his father replied.

Rev. Ralls concludes, “Our Father knows our deepest longing and that when we lose our way, it is often a misdirected attempt to satisfy our homesickness.  God does not leave us alone in our searching.  God does not wait for us to find our way back.  The Father sends the Son and the Son sends the Spirit---perhaps something akin to a divine search party.  And the part of the message of Pentecost is this:  God comes to us.  God finds us where we are, and then that place----wherever it happens to be---begins to feel like home.”

On this Pentecost Day, may we give thanks to the mysteriously loving and gracious God whose Spirit continues to seek us out, send us on our way with love and grace and give us a sense of home to remind us whose we are and to whom we will always belong!  AMEN.


Loving and Gracious God, we gather together on this beautiful Pentecost morning hoping to experience a sense of your presence in our midst that will help us to feel less fragmented and more at home with the spiritual part of us that connects us more fully to ourselves, to each other and to you.  O God, in the midst of our problems, busyness, distractions, work, and relationships, remind us that you are the One who continues to seek us and offer us perspective, promise, healing and hope beyond the narrow view of reality that is familiar and known to us.  In our attempts to find you and hear you and discern your will for our lives, we forget that it is you who are seeking after us. 

On this Memorial Day weekend, we have special gratitude for men and women who through the years have given their life in service to our country. We are thankful for the values, integrity, faith, freedom and life lessons we have received from what they have sacrificed. We are grateful for you, O Lord, use suffering and the sacrificial giving away of life for purposes that exceed our ability to understand.  

Please be with our friends and loved ones who are especially upset by illness, depression, grief, tragedy, or uncertainty.  We pray especially for Johnie, Neal, Jenny and their family in the loss of Johnie’s sister, Maurice this past week.  We are thankful that she is no longer suffering and we pray that her life and love will continue to bless her loved ones with the grace and healing they need to go on from here.  We pray for Nelda’s strength and healing as she continues the last few weeks of her treatments. Gather us all more fully into your love and purposes that our lives may reflect the love that has claimed us and the spirit that continues to surprise and startle us with new life.  Let us pray together…