Patrick thought I should start a blog to post homilies, so here's an old one. I preached it on June 1, 2003, and it's about both fantasy and Berkeley, where I am this week, so it seems fitting for the blog. Reading it at this distance, I'm a little dissatisfied with it, but that's probably a Good Thing: as I tell my writing students, when your old work makes you itchy, that means you're getting better. But I'm posting it as is because it was well-received at the time.
The Gospel reading, for those of you interested in such things, is John 17:11b-19.
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I read a lot when I was a kid. My favorite stories involved other worlds: Oz, Narnia, Middle Earth. These were places where ordinary people could do wonderful things, where small people could be heroic, and where endings were ultimately happy. People gave you gifts for no good reason; doors opened when you needed them to, and sorrow never lasted forever.
These worlds were often nicer than the one where I actually lived, so I spent as much time in them as I could. I wandered around with my head in books; I walked into things a lot, and sometimes I didn’t hear people when they talked to me. I was in the world, but not quite of it. While my parents worried whether I’d ever acquire social skills, I developed a persistent homesickness for a place I’d never even seen, a beautiful place where magical things happened. Everyone told me that place wasn’t real, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe them. I knew that I had to learn to live in this world, but I never stopped yearning for that other one.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is getting ready to go home, and he prays to God to protect his disciples. “And now I am no longer in the world,” Jesus says, “but they are in the world, and I am coming to you . . . . They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” Jesus is going home, rejoining his Father. The rest of us have to stay here for a while, in a place where we’ve been explicitly told that we don’t belong. We’re exiles, resident aliens, strangers in a strange land. We aren’t supposed to get too comfortable.
The mountain of books I read when I was a child did not include the Bible, because my parents weren’t church-goers. I knew plenty of people who loved the same imaginary worlds I did, but only when I was thirty-eight, and began attending St. Stephen’s, did I find fellow travelers who dared to believe that some such unseen places might be real. Only when I came to St. Stephen’s did I meet people who understood the homesickness that had been dogging me since childhood, and believed in the home to which that hunger pointed. Only when I belonged to St. Stephen’s did my feeling of not quite belonging to the world begin to make sense.
What exactly, though, is this world to which Jesus tells us we do belong? There are two possible answers. One is heaven, which lies on the other side of death. The second is the Kingdom of God, the place that, Jesus tells us, lies around and within us. The Kingdom of God is the realm of justice, peace and abundance that the Church -- when it’s working right -- works to create in the here and now. Heaven and the Kingdom of God sound like two different places, but I suspect that they’re really the same. I have a hunch that if you’re living in the Kingdom of God, you don’t need to die to go to heaven. The Kingdom is heaven brought down to earth.
But if this Gospel passage charges us to remember the differences between the church and the world, and between this world and the next, we must also be mindful of what it is not telling us to do. Even though Jesus says that the world hates his disciples, he does not give us permission to hate the world, to try to escape from it, or to feel superior to it. Close attention to his own career -– his life of love, of engagement, and of servanthood –- is our surest defense against these temptations.
Theologian Daniel Migliore calls the incarnation “the compassionate journey of God into the far country of human brokenness and misery” (1). The birth of Jesus means that God chose exile in our far country. Jesus’ death, similarly, reveals love for the world, not contempt. In the familiar words of John 3:16, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.
Jesus’ life, and death, also explode any notion that Christian faith is escapist. Jesus’ journey into our far country led him directly to the cross. His citizenship in his father’s country didn’t permit him to avoid suffering, and we can’t avoid it, either. Jesus wept at the death of a friend. He experienced loneliness, betrayal and abandonment. He suffered and died. Because those things were not the end of him, we know that they will not be the end of us. But we also know that we must face and accept them, as he did.
Finally, any temptation to superiority must be undone by Jesus’ insistence that “the last shall be first,” that “whoever shall be first among you must be servant of all.” The God who broke bread with outcasts, who washed his friends’ feet before enduring an ignominious death between two criminals, clearly doesn’t define discipleship as social climbing.
But even once we realize that Jesus is telling us to embrace our exile, to love the world where we are, and to serve the people who live there, another problem remains. We know all about our own far country: after all, we were born here. But we only have hearsay reports about Jesus’ country, the one he returned to after the Ascension. Nobody we know has ever reported back from this supposedly wonderful place, right? So how do we know it exists? How do we know that it isn’t as imaginary as Oz, or Narnia, or Middle Earth?
Well, sometimes we get hints of it. Sometimes we’re granted glimpses.
Three years ago, I took a week-long summer course at GTU, the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley. The first day I was there, I went to the bookstore and loaded up a basket. When I took it to the checkout counter, the clerk smiled at me and said, “Do you have the 10% discount coupon that came with your registration packet?”
“Oh,” I said. “No, I don’t. It’s in my dorm room. I can run back and get it -–”
“That’s all right,” she said. “I believe you.”
She gave me the discount. When I got back to my room, I looked at the coupon –- which specified that it was a one-time only offer –- and then threw it away, because I’d used it.
The next day, I decided to buy another book. At the counter, a different clerk asked me, “Do you have a discount coupon?”
“I used it yesterday,” I told her, “so I’ll pay full price for this.”
The clerk looked at the book. She looked at me. She smiled. “This is an expensive book,” she said. “I’m going to give you the 10% discount anyway.”
That was at the beginning of the week. At the end of the week, I packed my two suitcases -– both on wheels, and much heavier than they had been, because of all those books -– and hauled them to my car. I was trying to do everything in one trip, and I had to go along a dark, narrow basement corridor, which slanted up to the door leading to the parking lot. I wouldn’t be able to open the door without letting go of one of the suitcases, which would then roll down to the bottom of the slope. I puffed my way uphill, pondering my predicament and resigning myself to making two trips.
Just as I reached the door, it opened. I squinted into the sudden sunlight and saw a shining figure which resolved itself, after some blinking, into a janitor with a mop and pail. “How did you know I was here?” I asked him.
“I didn’t. I was just coming in to clean the bathrooms.”
“Wow,” I said, “what perfect timing! I’m so glad you came along when you did!”
The janitor looked at my suitcases. He looked at me. He smiled. “Oh,” he said, very matter-of-factly, “things like that happen around here all the time.”
Well, things like that don’t happen all the time in Reno, or anywhere else I’ve lived. GTU was in the world, but not quite of it. I think this is because the place was so densely populated by people who were working towards the Kingdom of God that, for a few square blocks in Berkeley, California, they actually succeeded in creating something like it. They brought heaven down to earth.
Can we do that in Reno? I don’t know, but we can certainly try. Jesus told us how, before he left. He told us to love each other as he had loved us. He told us to lead lives of love, of engagement, and of servanthood. He told us to work for justice and peace and abundance.
And then he went home. He returned to his father from our far country, leaving us to yearn towards his. Both countries are real, and both matter. Living in the country of human brokenness and misery, we are charged with mending it, but we’re also called to remember that we’re the rightful citizens of another country: a country as close as Berkeley, California; a country as close as our own hearts. That country is a place where people give us gifts for no good reason, and where doors always open for us when we need them to. It is the land where sorrow does not last forever, and where God will wipe the tears from our eyes.
(1) Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 71.