The opening line in Robert Frost’s most well-known, and well-worn little poem says, “Whose woods these are I think I know,” indicating that he was visiting; he was not at home.
The closing line says, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
He is on his way home. He has commitments – promises to keep. He stopped for awhile to notice the beauty, the snow, the quiet – except for the sleigh bells on his horse, who was confused, knowing that this wasn’t their destination – this wasn’t home; he knew there were ‘miles to go’ before they would reach their destination.
Home is about commitment; we create a sense of home in our families of origin and in the relationships we nurture by making and keeping promises. Without a sense of commitment and dedication to that work there is no center that will hold during difficult times, or times of disagreement.
Our religious home is always in the process of being created by those who make and keep meaningful commitments. Each of us is in the process of living our lives – of making decisions, of making commitments, of making promises. Every end is a new beginning, so, in a sense, we’re always ‘in the middle of life,’ or ‘in the midst of life,’ no matter how old we are.
We’ve had some time away from this home – we’ve stopped at various places – at General Assembly in Salt Lake City, at Chautauqua, or in Maine or some other coastal place, perhaps right here in Westport. We visit nice and interesting places, then we return to this place, our spiritual or religious home; I prefer to call it our home-in-the-making, always in progress, as we welcome new folks to become part of this place, and as we say good-bye to those who have ‘fallen along the way.’
There are lots of well-known homecoming stories. Homer’s story of Odysseus’s journey home, The Odyssey, is one of the oldest stories; Odysseus had been away from home for ten years, fighting the Trojan War, then it took him ten more years to arrive home in Ithaca. The war involved some challenging battles, and on his journey home he encountered more battles, more struggles, and even when he reached his destination he disguised himself, engaged in more struggles before he could reveal his real identity and be fully ‘at home,’ again.
The story is a reminder of the spiritual struggles — the internal battles that bring us down into that place ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
The parable of the Prodigal Son is another famous homecoming story – the younger of two sons left home, squandered his inheritance on loose living, and came home to beg forgiveness and was relieved to be received by the loving arms of his father who celebrated his son’s return with a feast; it’s about forgiveness and unconditional love.
Another well-known homecoming story is Robert Frost’s poem, Death of the Hired Man, the source of the well-worn line: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” spoken by Warren, the farmer who is reluctant to take the hired hand back – the old man had left in haying time ‘when help is scarce,’ and Warren swore he’d never take him back. His wife, Mary, has a different take on the meaning of home: she responds in the spirit of the Prodigal Son’s father, “I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
The hired man came home to die; a reminder that our church has served hundreds of families who do not have a religious home to come to at the time of a death…many thousands have attended those memorial services and learn about our open approach – learn about our commitment to the development and nurturing of a spiritual aspect of life without feeling encumbered with theological belief systems – the idea that your real or true religion is not about beliefs but about the way you live your life.
Thus we have served our wider community by welcoming those families in need of a place where they can feel comfortable doing rites of passage…weddings, memorial services and dedication services for parents and children.
“Home,” as Warren said, “is the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in.”
Our Homecoming Sunday combines elements of these three stories: the need to find a sense of inner peace in the sense of feeling at home in oneself, after the internal battles and the ongoing struggles, like Odysseus.
Or, like the Prodigal Son to experience the forgiveness that allows us to move on and not get stuck or bogged down in anger, guilt or resentment; those are the things that rob the human spirit of the energy it takes to move through life’s transitions and losses. This is and must be a place where forgiveness happens again and again.
As we begin a new church year we do well to remind ourselves of the promises we’ve made, implicit as well as explicit.
We do well to remind ourselves of the essential values we share with one another, and with the vast majority of humankind: to build a more sane and sensible world; to learn to live in peace and to find ways to share the resources of the earth so the children can be fed, and to preserve this earth for future generations; and to find ways to help one another move through the difficult times…the losses, the changes, the confusion that comes with change and loss…to be a more caring community.
Your staff is committed to the work I’ve mentioned; it is a bold adventure, demanding the best we have. Goethe put it nicely when he said, “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
We’ve come home, again, to continue to create a religious home that is characterized by a sense of caring and compassion, a place to which people return, again and again – a place where we feel known and respected, a place where we feel challenged to become our best and to make a contribution to the world, beginning with our own family, and helping to create the kind of moral, ethical values that are worthy of the name ‘religious’ in its best, most universal sense.
This is our real religious task. Real religion isn’t about belief in the gods, or in a God, necessarily; real religion isn’t about the question whether prayers are answered or a heaven waits for some and hell for others – real religion is about the way we live our lives; it’s about growth, it’s about forgiveness…it’s about being at home in ourselves and with one another.