Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Home Away from Home


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I don't usually write about a Psalm, but I can't get a verse from the Psalm for today's Morning Prayer out of my head: "Your statutes have been like songs to me / wherever I have lived as a stranger" (119:54). You can read the rest of the Psalm near the bottom of this page, but I really want to focus on that one particular verse as an Advent meditation. The poet prays to his God, the God of Israel, a prayer of thanksgiving and personal affirmation: I have used your laws as a song to sustain me while I was separated from your land. It is his way of declaring that God has been with him even in his alienation because he has had the law to keep him connected with all that really matters. It is a beautifully agonizing text that gives hope even to the hopeless.

To be cut off from one's homeland is painful. I have never been exiled, but, when I lived overseas, sometimes long stretches of months would pass without an opportunity to return home. I remember when I bought that first one-way ticket to England, signifying that my home had changed--that I would be planning roundtrips that began and ended in a land that is not my own. I remember what it felt like to go to class on Thanksgiving Day because, in England, it's just another Thursday. Although I fell in love with most things British, I missed the little things and would make long lists of ordinary activities and simple foods that I wanted to do and eat when I returned home. I tried to stay connected with my American identity. When I pined for my homeland, I ate at Subway, where I could order a sandwich just the way I like it (how very American, indeed,) and where I could fill up my cup with as much ice as I wanted, which is to say all the way to the brim.

Unlike the psalmist, of course, my "exile" was self-imposed and only as long as it took me to book the next flight home. Still, I can feel in my bones a part of what those hollow yet hopeful words declare: "Your statutes have been like songs to me / wherever I have lived as a stranger." For a faithful Israelite in the ancient world, one's national identity and religious identity were inseparable. During periods of exile, when many of God's people were carted off to foreign lands, they needed ways to stay connected with who they were. The Jerusalem temple and its centralized worship were unavailable (or perhaps destroyed), so other quintessentially Jewish practices became even more important. Circumcision was both a momentary ritual and lifelong reminder that a son belonged to Yahweh. Keeping kosher in a land where pork or other unclean foods were always on the table was both a challenge and an opportunity to remain faithful. Teaching the laws of Israel to the children of Israel was a way of insisting that the people of Israel, even separated from their Promised Land, still had a place in God's heart. And that is a connection worth singing about.

There are songs that remind us of home. Even ancient and primitive cultures knew song as a way of uniting a clan and distinguishing them from others. Song itself probably predated the spoken word. We hear a song on the radio, and we are transported back to our home. We tuck our children in at night and sing the same songs our mothers sang to us. We come together with our fellow expats and sing a quirky ballad that keeps us tied to our homeland. Songs belong to a people, and, for God's people, the story of God's relationship with them, which for a Jewish person is the Law of Moses, is a song worth singing. For Christians, God's story of salvation has a different verse.

As the name of this blog implies, we are all a long way from home. We belong to God. We belong in his kingdom. Yet we are here, waiting and watching and dreaming about hour home. What ties us to it? What is our song?

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