Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 12, 2010
There is probably a study or a survey out there, somewhere, to justify just about anything we want it to justify. So I remember one that justifies the point I want to make this morning:
Back when I was at Harvard (a statement which, it strikes me, sounds more and more like harking back to the realm of pre-history every time I say it, which, I hope, isn’t that often; but the data, I think, is still relevant)—but anyway, when I was at Harvard, I came across a study which asked a random cross-section of Americans to choose (what was for them) “the most powerful word in the English language”.
Now, some of the words near the top of the list were pretty predictable: “Love” was there; and “truth”. “Peace” and, of course, “God” got his (her?) share of votes, too.
But the real surprise (for me) was that there was a four letter word at the top of the list. (Don’t worry parents, you don’t have to hurry up and get your kids out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible.) No, “the most powerful word in the English language” (according to this very convenient survey, at least) was the word “HOME”.
Certainly, the simple yet profound allure of those four letters has beckoned to way-worn wanderers and pooped-out pilgrims though the pages of countless novels and in scenes of so many movies. Can’t you still hear Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, clicking those ruby slippers together and whispering to herself, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Then, of course, a generation or so later there was everyone’s favorite visitor from outer space, chanting that simple four-letter word, like a sort of all-healing mantra: “Home. ET phone home.”
He wanted to go back to a place where he belonged, a place ever farther
That simple word evokes so much within us. The author Reynolds Price called the idea of home “an American obsession”. The word doesn’t mean as much to other peoples as it does to us, Price says. Indeed, he says, most languages don’t have a separate word for home; they have a word for “house”, yes—the place in which you happen to live-- but no particular word, like English does, for all that “home” connotes.
“It is our ingrained American restlessness,” Price writes, “that demands that we nurse… the idea of home as icon and amulet” protecting our psyches against the inevitable changes of life.
The ideas we have of home provide us with a connection to our past—a past now long gone, perhaps; a past for which we might still yearn—but which, of course, we can never retrieve. Home summons up within us those things we most poignantly want back, Or it summons up inside us those things we most wanted to have, but didn’t. For those who still have families to raise, home conjures up both a vision and a challenge: a vision of what we really, deeply want for our children; a challenge to make our reality come closer to approaching the vision we have.
Of course, the perfect home never existed (because, in case you haven’t noticed, we human folk don’t “do” perfect). It has never existed, this side of the television screen, at least.
And, of course, in a deep and profound sense, as Thomas Wolfe reminds us, “You can’t go home again”:
You can’t go back to your family,
to a young man’s dream of fame and glory
to the country cottage away from strife and conflict
to a father you have lost
to the old forms and systems of things which seemed
everlasting but were changing all the time…
You can’t go home again, Wolfe tells us; but we try. It’s only natural to cling to those things which mean the most to us. But as Buddhism reminds us, clinging (or attachment) is the source of all human suffering. Sometimes, when we cling too tightly to the past, we’re like the character Emily in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town.
Emily dies and goes to heaven, and she yearns more than anything to go back to her hometown, Grover’s Corners, to the day of her sixteenth birthday—which she remembers as the happiest day of her entire life.
Somehow, she gets her wish; she is transported back home; back to that very day. And she discovers that things were no way as “perfect” as she remembers them being. People around her seem distracted, distant, caught up in their own concerns. No one seems to pay any attention to her. Emily emerges from the experience completely depressed and disenchanted.
We can’t go home again. Just maybe that’s a good thing. We can’t go back to the perfect home that never existed. It remains, rather, a vision—an illusion we can conjure up whenever the burdens of our present reality become just a little too heavy to bear, when the “night has been too lonely and the road has been too long”. Nostalgia offers us its own comfort, I suppose; but it does little to help us do the things and live the life we need to, right now. As Blake wrote:
He who bends to himself a joy,
Doth the winged life destroy.
But he who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
Letting go of the past empowers us to live right now. Letting go of the “perfect” home lets us start building a real place, now, where we can gain for ourselves and provide for others some sense of solid ground, some sense of belonging, a place where we can rest (and stretch) our minds and souls and spirits.
We are all here this morning because we believe, each in our own way, that in the religious and spiritual sense we need a home, as well; because we year for a form of spirituality which includes a group of flesh and blood fellow pilgrims with whom we can share this part of our life’s journey.
The “perfect church”, like the “perfect home”, has never existed and never will. We can’t go home again To a quaint, idealized notion of what church may have meant in the past. When we dwell in a romanticized past, we not only rob the past of its pain, but we also rib the present of its power, and the future of its hope.
So, as we go on building this church together, you and I, we’re never ever going to get it completely “right”. But we can become something of a genuine spiritual home for the men, women, and children who are among us today, and who will join us in the future. We can honor something of the dreams and visions of those who have come before us, and who have passed this community on into our hands. And when our time comes, we, too, can pass down this heritage of a faith as wide as the expanding universe, a faith which sees all creation—and each one of us—as unitary, interdependent, and whole.
Great churches are not great because they have 500 worshippers every Sunday. Or because they are housed in magnificent cathedrals of glass or marble. Or because their choirs boats score upon score of voices.
Nor are they great because their minister is the incarnation of perfection, who speaks always the exactly right word, and always in poetry. Nor because their budgets are in the millions of dollars, Nor because they boast level upon level of specialized staff.
Nor are they great because their people boast perfect agreement on all things not because they laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike. Nor are they great because their members always agree on what course of action the church should take, nor because honest disagreements are never allowed within the walks of the church.
No, I think churches become great, very simply, because people feel at home there, and the church does some of the things a real home should do:
Good churches—like good homes—nourish and feed their members. They rejoice together when the lives are blest with happiness; they grieve together when their lives are touched by sadness.
Good churches—like good homes—support and sustain us wherever we are along the road of life. They don’t demand that we stay forever, in one chosen stage of life. They allow us to be who we are, and challenge us to be who we can become.
Good churches—like good homes—hold us close for a time in the warmth of their embrace. Then, they let us go—free to join, whenever we are called, the wider bonds of the Church Universal, the mystical fellowship of men and women of goodwill and compassion of every age and every time and place.