Sermon: Finding Home (text & audio)

READINGS

From “Walking Meditation” in Peace is Every Breath
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Every step we make in awareness helps us get in touch with the wonders of life that are here, available to us right now. As you breathe in, you can take a step and contemplate, “I am arrived; I am home.”

“I have arrived” means I am already where I want to be – with life itself – and I don’t need to rush anywhere, I don’t have to go looking for anything more. “I am home” means I’ve come back to my true home, which is life here in the present moment.”

You have arrived at your true home and the wonder of life that are there for you; you don’t need to wander around looking for something more. You can say:

I have arrived, I am home

in the here, in the now.

“In the here, in the now” is the address of life. It’s the place we come back to – our true home. Each step brings you back to life.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World
by Adam Zagajewski

SERMON

The first place I remember calling home was a ranch-style house built on an acre of bottom land carved out of second-growth forest about 20 minutes from Princeton, New Jersey. Our young family – my parents, my 5-year-old self, and two younger brothers (a sister and another brother were yet to come) – had just moved to the area, where my father was starting a psychiatry practice.

The image of us living in that woodsy suburb still resonates in my memory, though it no longer has for me a sense of home. For, we moved from that place after only five years to another, larger house in nearby Pennington. And that house, which my family called home for another 12 years, has a more powerful claim on my memory.

It was there that I came of age, had my most memorable successes and failures in school, and developed a circle of friends, many of whom revolved around the Unitarian Universalist church that we had joined shortly after moving to Princeton.

Also, it was there that the ingredients of my sense of home began to expand. Geographically, I came to claim not just the rolling hills of central New Jersey where we lived, but also the Atlantic shore, where my grandfather had a beach house, and the urban centers of New York and Philadelphia that we found occasions to get to now and again, both within something like an hour’s commute.

There were other dimensions of that sense of home, too. The church, frankly, was one. It was a community where I felt welcome and valued, even as a child. And, while not much from specific classes sticks with me some 50 years later, I am left with a sense of being invited to discover the wonder of living, of the world about me, to treat others well and be open to wisdom from many sources.

There was also a sense of home about our social circle, the people we had most to do with, many of them young families like ours scrambling to make their way. Though, I’ve come to realize years later that not every element of that was positive. Most of the adults I dealt with were, like my parents, professionals, and so there was some elitism marbled into my experience: admiration and respect for some people, not so much for others.

Also, with some notable exceptions, our social circle was almost entirely white. So, there was a kind of unarticulated racism that pervaded it, too. My parents and their friends likely would have objected to such a claim. They talked a good talk and extended themselves at times to communities of color. But the gulf between them and the people they served was undeniable. It didn’t help that without exception the women my parents hired to clean our house were African-American.

We need to be wary lest the sense of home, that sense of belongedness, colors how we see the world, for there are some things from “home” that we need to outgrow as our sense of home widens. And so mine did. As I moved off to college what felt like home moved beyond the memory of that familiar place of my upbringing.

Instead, the rootlessness of school became a home of its own, a home in my head, the familiarity of books, classrooms and leafy campuses, and its own unreality: the unquestioned dependence, the cloistered circle of acquaintances, until exiting into the cold shower of the work world.

We each experience our own evolution as home of one form or another presents itself in our early lives, and it either suffices or it doesn’t. One way or another we try to make do until the realization dawns on us that home is not simply where we happen to land: it is also what we choose.

It encompasses not just places of our choosing but also partners and progeny – or not. Life invites us to sort ourselves out, and we either take the opportunity to make those choices or we don’t.

Some who are confronted with such choices forgo them. Faced with a decision – fourth and 10 – they punt and then mostly drift. They live on the surface, go with the flow, never really put down roots. It is an existence that is figuratively, if not literally, homeless.

For me, when the fork came in the road – as the now-departed Yogi Berra put it – I took it. I met the right person, we made the right choice to marry, bore three wonderful children: what Zorba the Greek called, “the full catastrophe.” But catastrophic only to some inflated sense of self-importance, or cavalier egotism. For what the experience gave me was a pearl of great price – a sense of home stronger and deeper than any I had ever known.

One of the surprises of parenthood, though, is how much goes into creating and maintaining a home – a place of love and affirmation, a refuge from the storms of the world, a cold frame where tender shoots can put down roots and send up their first leaves. Quickly it becomes obvious that we can’t do it alone and for us to thrive we must widen the circle of our concern.

We begin looking for others in similar straits, and, if we’re lucky, we come in contact with a community like this one, where breadth of life experience is wide and where connections of care invite us, once again, to deepen our sense of what home might be. I remember when our girls were growing up some of their most important connections came at church from adults who decided that they looked like pretty interesting people and made an effort to get to know them.

Experiences like this feed a new sense of well-being that extends beyond the particulars of the people and places that we know contributing to something more like a sense of faith. When I speak of faith, I’m not referring to the specific content of any particular belief. I am speaking of that in which we rest our hearts, which we trust as true. It is a settled place within us, at our core, the ground of our certitude.

It was the religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith who famously referred to faith as “a quiet confidence and joy which enables one to feel at home in the universe.” It is something that, he, says, has less to do with belief than with, in his words, “a quality of human living.” It isn’t anything that comes at once, but grows within us as we go through the process to trusting and testing that leads us to a settled sense of meaning.

One of the ways we develop our faith, then, is how we project a sense of home outside of ourselves: how it embraces others, even those significantly different from ourselves, and how it extends to the world around us.

Last year, for example, in this congregation we convened a class called, “Discovering a Sense of Place,” that was centered in the notion that how we understand our immediate surroundings can deepen our feeling of being at home in it. We walk, after all, on some of the most ancient mountains in North America and in one of its most diverse ecosystems. Yet, so much in our lives removes us from our surroundings.

So, we spent time examining all of it more closely. We took field trips to learn more about our human predecessors here, ranging from the Oconaluftee Village of the Cherokee to Hickory Nut Gap Farm. And we surveyed the natural landscape from investigating individual species of animals and plants to gaining a sense of our own unique niche in our nation’s complex array of bioregions.

We were companioned by poets, scientists and thinkers whose writings urged us both to widen our sense of boundaries to where our concern might extend and to sink roots where we reside, to know it as a real place, as something more than a place where we are parked for a time, but as home: home as a place occupied by our relations with all things our relations.

But Adam Zagajewski’s poem illustrates poignantly what can keep us from making that link in our consciousness. He wrote the poem you heard earlier shortly just before the 9-11 attacks, and it was widely shared at the time as a response to that disaster. But it could be applied equally to the world today.

“You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,” he says, watched stylish ships ply the seas “while salty oblivion” awaits others. We hear executioners across Middle Eastern war zones “sing joyfully.” This “mutilated world,” as Zagajewski puts it, is cause for much heartache.

Praise it all the same, he urges. Remember the beauty of long June days and wild strawberries, the moments of peace we find together, the leaves that in time cover over the scars on the landscape. Even amid all this, we are at home.

Thich Nhat Hanh in his walking meditation speaks of how we are so often preoccupied with regrets, suffering, worries and fear. But those phantoms, he says, need have no power over us in the present moment.

The walking meditation is a good practice to bring us back. Each step reminds us of where we are and that we need be present only to what is here. Focusing our attention on that moment brings us present.

What shall we do with this presence? This Buddhist master suggests that we use it to get in touch with the wonders of life that are here, available to us right now. Such as? Well, how about beginning with our breathing, that simple act that we perform without thinking about.

Right. So? So, at least for this moment we are calmed, and we are aware of our calmed self. And that calmed self, at least here and now, is enough. We don’t need anything else. We don’t need to go anywhere else. We are home, here, now.

And when we reflect, we come to see that, wherever we were when we last felt most at home, that self, the very self we just experienced, was a part of it, too. So, wherever it was – with our families, in our communities, at our places of employment, glorying at this good, green earth – there is home within us, too.

Welcome home!