Sunday, May 13, 2007

Home Away From Home

This wound up being a really difficult sermon to write; I didn't give myself enough time, for one thing (understandable at the end of the semester, I think), so yesterday I wound up writing three different versions of the second half. All of them would have been okay-ish, but the first two really didn't gel, as Gary gently pointed out. He couldn't even fully articulate what wasn't working about them, which is a really bad sign and meant they were really a mess -- so at 10:30 last night, I came up with this one, which is the most coherent of the bunch.

My congregation, bless them, responded very well, although that undoubtedly says at least as much about them as about me. (I think they'd still give me hugs and compliments if I got up and read my laundry list.) Anyway, I more or less obeyed the "no cats" injunction: there's only one brief mention of cats before I go on to talk about birds. But after church, I swapped cat stories with a fellow parishioner who has two of her own, and who firmly believes that they take care of her, rather than the other way around.

Here are the readings. I used the first Gospel selection, not the second.

Note: Regular blog readers will recognize my central illustration from this post.


This morning’s lessons are about departures and arrivals, about leave-takings and homecomings. In Acts, the apostles journey to Macedonia and are welcomed by the newly baptized Lydia: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” By leaving to join his Father, Jesus is going to his ultimate home. The theme of homecoming is just as strong in the passage from Revelation, that beautiful description of the New Jerusalem, the happy home where “there will be no more night.”

These readings are fitting for Mother’s Day. Our biological mothers are our first homes, since we grow within their bodies. But Mother’s Day can be painful for people who have lost, or are estranged from, their mothers or their children, and whose homes feel too empty as a result. It can be a bittersweet day for people, like me, with frail and aging mothers whose final departure from this earthly home we dread. And it can be an annoying day for those of us -- again like me -- who don’t have biological children. Luckily, the greeting-card companies have begun to acknowledge different kinds of mothering. There are now Mother’s Day cards for stepmothers, godmothers, and all kinds of honorary mothers, including men. There are even cards from pets to their human caretakers, although my ungrateful cats have yet to send me any.

Since we’re in church, it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t have much use for traditional family values. He repeatedly warned his disciples against making idols of other people, against loving relatives more than God. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” he told them. This is still not a sentiment we’re likely to find on a Hallmark card.

Jesus, who has a way of turning everything upside down, forces us to rethink how we define home. What makes a place a home, especially if we are far away from where we usually reside? Jesus promises to make his home with those who follow his word; Lydia invites the apostles to her home if they consider her faithful to God. When we seek a home away from home, then, we look for people who love the same things we do, who share the same sense of what’s important. Many of us describe St. Stephen’s as “our church home” because it is the place where we all love God and try to love each other, even if we aren’t biologically related.

Thinking about Lydia’s hospitality in welcoming the apostles into her home, I realized that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are closely related. This fascinated me; as many of you know, I volunteer as a hospital chaplain, and most of us consider hospitals anything but homey. “Home” and “hospital” seem like complete opposites. But then I thought about my chaplaincy training. We learned that the first rule of pastoral care is to meet patients where they are, instead of telling them where they should be. The chaplain’s job is to learn what’s important to the patient, what the patient loves. What we love is the source of our strength. What we love heals us. What we love makes us feel at home. People who affirm the value of what we love can make us feel more at home even in the foreign, frightening country of the hospital.

Trying to make patients feel at home, I’ve listened to them talk about their families and about their love for God. But I’ve also listened to stories about things that I, myself, have never cared about very much: cooking, geneology, rodeo, vintage cars, model trains, British history, soap operas, astrology, and Little League baseball. Even if I’m not that interested in the subject, though, I love hearing the passion in the patients’ voices, love seeing their faces light up, like the faces of travelers who have returned home from a journey. That light always renews my awe at the dazzling variety of God’s creation, where there are so many things to love.

Last autumn, I visited a patient who was dying. Her husband was with her. They spoke movingly of her long illness, and asked me to pray with them. When I invited them to name their prayer concerns, they asked for strength and comfort, for freedom from pain, for guidance for their grown children. But at the end of the list, the patient hesitated. I could tell there was something else she wanted to add. “Go on,” I told her. “What is it?”

She blushed. “Well, this may sound silly, but . . . do you think pets are important?”

As most of you know, I think pets are very important; but even if I didn’t, her feelings would have mattered more than mine. “Of course they are,” I told her, and her face lit up.

Some six months before, her husband had found a baby finch lying under a tree. It must have fallen out of its nest. He took it home, and the couple raised it, feeding it with an eye-dropper. They told me eagerly how cute it was, how it loved to sit on their shoulders and take baths in teacups. Remembering its antics, they laughed. They adored the little creature.

And then one day it flew out of an open window. They hoped it would come back when it got hungry, but it didn’t. They worried about whether it would be able to find food, whether it would be accepted by wild finches. They asked me if I would pray for its protection and safety.

Of course I said I would. After we’d prayed for all of their concerns, I told them, “You know, a lot of people have finch feeders. My husband and I have one. We feed lots of birds.”

The couple was immensely relieved to know that their pet would have easy access to food. They described their finch to me, so I could recognize it if it came to our feeder. Before I left the room, the wife squeezed my hand and said, “I feel so much better now. Thank you.” She looked better, too. She looked more peaceful, less troubled and afraid: more at home.

Since then, I’ve paid more careful attention to the finches at our feeder. Many of them look like the bird that dying patient and her husband described. There’s no way to know if I’ve helped feed -- helped mother -- their beloved pet, but I like to think that I have. The story of the finch is a parable about losing one home, the nest, and finding a series of others: a home with a foster family, and then, we hope, a home in the wider world, where the hospitality of strangers makes survival possible, and where those strangers, in turn, become friends and family.

It may seem odd that a dying woman was more worried about a finch than about the people she loved. But she believed that her human family had come to terms, as best they could, with her departure. Like the Good Shepherd seeking the lost lamb, she fretted about the creature whose safety was least certain. And if the dying woman reminds me of the Good Shepherd, the finch reminds me of the Holy Spirit: the wild thing that loves us but will not be contained, that escapes into the wider world and travels to places we cannot see or imagine, alighting briefly wherever anyone has put out food for it, stirring us to wonder with its quicksilver flight.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, is the Advocate, who comes to teach us and to remind us what Jesus taught us. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. . . . If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” If we love the finch, should we rejoice that it has gained its freedom? If we love the woman, should we rejoice that she has gone to God? Surely, like Jesus’ friends, we also grieve for those we love but see no longer, however strong our faith that they have found that final home, the New Jerusalem, where we will one day join them.

Until then, we live in this home away from home. We do our best to follow Jesus, to offer hospitality to an infinite variety of others: to feed the hungry and comfort the fearful, to welcome the stranger, to make the whole dazzling creation home for all who live here.



  1. Good morning Susan! Your church family wasn't just being nice. That's an awesome homily. I think it's one of your best. Peace!

  2. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Dear Susan,

    I liked the sermon too - but I have to confess that I would also love to hear you tell the story about what happens if you ever decide to stand up in front of the congregation and read your laundry list instead!

    Congratulations on a job well done,


  3. Thank you. Mothers' Day is the only Sunday out of the year when I definitely don't go to church. It's the day out of the year when the church abandons Jesus for a sentimental mythology which excludes the childless and motherless.

    All of which is to say, that if by bizarre chance I found myself in Reno on Mother's Day, I know that I could probably go to St. Stephens and be treated as if I have a place at the table.

  4. Thank you, Sarah! This comment means a lot to me. One reason I've asked to preach on three Mother's Days is because I think it's really important to have someone in the pulpit who'll acknowledge what's wrong with the sentimental mythology. (Other people might do that too, of course.)

    You probably know that the original Mother's Day was very different; Julia Ward Howe dreamed it up in 1870 as "Mother's Day for Peace," a call for the mothers of the world to unite to end violence. Howe was motivated by the devastation of the Civil War, and her old idea's been getting plenty of play this year, for obvious reasons. I talked about that in one of the versions of the homily that didn't quite gel.

    And if you ever find yourself in Reno, you're most certainly welcome at St. Stephen's!


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