From the letter to the Hebrews: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” And from our gospel reading: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Home. How many of you have lived in Watertown all your lives? How many have lived here at least ten years? Well, in my life I think I’ve lived in about ten cities in the United States, and once abroad for short while. But I always count myself a native of New York City, where I lived from birth until I went away to college. No matter where else I’ve lived in my life, that apartment in that building in West Harlem on the island of Manhattan is the only place I think of as “home.”
Yet, in some ways, I’ve never been home, even in Apartment 3J. I don’t know how many of you have heard of the idea of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, which many Asian Americans experience whenever people ask us where we’re from. I’ll say, “I moved here from Philadelphia,” and they say, “No, where are you really from?” Then I say, “I was born and raised in New York City,” and they say, “No, really.” Only when I am able to name the provinces of China where my mother and father were born are they satisfied. No one asking an American of European descent “Where are you from?” is looking for an answer like “County Clare” or “Umbria.” No one asking an African American “Where are you from?” keeps asking until they hear “Accra,” “Lagos,” or “Yaoundé.”
I must stop here and tell you that not once, in the time I have worshipped with you, has any of you at Good Shepherd ever asked me a question like this. I thank you, not for your carefulness, but for letting me believe that it simply hasn’t occurred to you to imply unconsciously that this is not my home, to commit what some call “a micro-aggression.”
These micro-aggressions don’t happen often, but just often enough—at my ordination to the priesthood, for example— so that I don’t ever forget that some people will always assume that the U.S. is not my home. And, of course, I’m not the only one in this situation. Even a two-term native-born president of the United States can have the same things said about him.
Now, I’m not whining about how racism has made my life miserable, because of course on balance my life has been one of incredible blessing, prosperity, privilege, and grace. But having to wrestle with this question of “home” has made certain stories and themes that run through scripture more suggestive to me than they might be otherwise.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents.” We know that after Abraham and his family settled in the land of Canaan, his descendants moved again and went to Egypt, where they were strangers once more. Then after many years they wandered the desert before returning to Canaan, where they were strangers all over again, struggling with the people who inhabited the land. Then, much later, the descendants of Abraham’s descendants are exiled in Babylon and Persia; they are dispersed into the Greek world and then the Roman Empire, and then, finally, they scatter over the face of Europe and the entire planet.
In the New Testament, the followers of Jesus Christ also scatter all over the globe, instructed by Jesus to bring the good news of God’s love to strangers in faraway places. Paul travels all over the Mediterranean—he said he planned to go as far as Spain—spreading the good news of God in Christ and founding churches in Greek cities. Thomas, the apostle we call the “doubter,” was said to have taken the Christian faith to India. Scripture is basically one continuous story of people scattering far from home.
I’m suggesting to you today that the story of faith that we find in scripture is not a story of home, but of wandering, of exploration, of exile, and of encounter with the stranger. It is a story of restless movement, always a journey from home to elsewhere. A journey always in search of the kingdom of God, a kingdom built by our faithful actions in the present, a kingdom where we can glimpse God’s plan and God’s dream of justice, compassion, reconciliation, and love: “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Today’s readings invite us to wonder, through the lens of our faith, where we think home is, and what we think home is. Recent events in the United States and around the world make it quite clear that right now we are having a tough time with this whole idea of “home.” Entire nations in the Middle East are shattered, making people’s homes unlivable, and sending them out in search of new homes—across oceans in leaky boats, across closed borders, into European nations that are afraid to let them in.
People are fleeing to us from their homes to the south of the United States, trying to escape the death, violence, and lawlessness driven by the drug trade, whose primary customers are people living in this country. Everywhere in the world today, and pretty much all throughout human history, people have been on the move, looking for someplace where they can live in peace and with hope, with some chance at material well-being and security. The story of the human species, just like the story of the people of God in Scripture, is one continuous story of immigration, one continuous story of immigrants.
And we can see all around us in the United States and Europe an angry and fearful reaction to all this movement of people across borders. All across the globe we are still playing the age-old dangerous games of empire and nativism. “This is my home; that is your home—except when your home has something I want, then I’ll find a way to break in and steal it, or I’ll simply annex your home to my home.” Some people think we can fix our problems by building walls—in Israel-Palestine as well as along our own southern border. But walls never work for very long. The ruins of the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, and the Berlin Wall teach us that walls don’t solve the problem of how we must live together.
Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, has recently argued that separation and exclusion simply aren’t going to work in the world we live in now. Our common welfare on this planet depends not just on how governments interact with each other, but on realizing that the security, peace, and prosperity of other people where they are should matter to us where we are, because the security, peace, and prosperity of all people on the globe are intimately interrelated. She says:
We no longer live in an era in which foreign policy makers can claim to serve their nations’ interests by treating what happens to people in other countries as an afterthought (or as a matter of moral concern distinct from our national security). The foreign policy equation has changed. What happens to people in other countries matters to the welfare of our nation and our citizens. The sooner we recognize that reality, the better off we will be.
Xavier Le Pichon is one of the world’s leading geophysicists, who helped create the field of plate tectonics. He is also a devout Catholic and prayerful spiritual thinker. He has said that God has been educating humankind through the centuries and millennia of life on this planet to realize at long last that this is one single interwoven place, and that we—all of us—are nothing less than one single interrelated people.
At the very beginning of our gospel reading, Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I’m coming to believe that the kingdom God has given us is nothing other than this one indivisible planet, with one complex interlocking ocean system, one complex interlocking climate system, one complex interlocking system of land and water and air, of time and history and life. It is home for all of us, and only when all of us are truly and finally, peacefully and lovingly, at home together, only then will any of us be really home.