Sunday we will celebrate our homecoming service, beginning outside on the lawn and processing in together. There are lots of famous homecoming stories. Homer’s Odyssey is one of the oldest and most well-known – the Iliad, Homer’s first, is the leaving-home story; the Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s journey home after the war. It took him ten years and many struggles to get home to Ithaca.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is another – the younger of two sons left home, squandered his inheritance, 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.
Another well-known homecoming story is Robert Frost’s poem, Death of the Hired Man. Frost’s poem is 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 old man back again. His wife, Mary, responds in the spirit of the Prodigal Son’s father, “I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Odysseus left home to fight the Trojan War. The son left home to sew his wild oats. The hired man left home to gain some dignity by taking a job for pay. Each came home: Odysseus to be reunited with his family; the Prodigal Son to seek forgiveness and regain his dignity; the hired man came home to die. Aren’t these the reasons we create a religious home?
Homecoming Sunday combines elements of these three stories. I withdrew for a time this summer, to be alone and, like Jacob of old, to ‘wrestle with a man all night long,’ as that powerful Biblical myth suggests we all must do. The most common religious theme is that of withdrawing and returning – all of the famous mythological figures did it, from Odysseus to Moses, from Jesus to the Buddha and the prophet Mohammed, and the hired man. You, too, have withdrawn and returned many times.
At our first staff meeting last week, our return, I asked everyone to respond to the question, ‘What are your goals for this year, your highest aspirations?’ There is no secret recording device in my office, but on this occasion I wish there was one – you would be inspired by the thoughtful responses.
The essential goal we share as a staff is 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.
We return to work toward these ends: we will form a new Care Committee, recruiting a core of members who share the basic goal of responding to members and friends of the congregation who are in need, to reach out to provide a helping hand, a kind word, a meal or a ride to church. We will work to enhance the efforts of the Membership Committee — to invite, include and integrate new people into this circle, this home; we will support the Small Group Ministry effort that has done so much to help participants feel at home here; we will work with Social Justice efforts to live out our religion; we will support Religious Education and Youth work to include all ages, inspired by music from all of our choirs. This is our common home. I look forward to seeing you at our homecoming gathering.