A Sermon Given To My Seminary Community
Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered,
Oh, when will I know
There’s a way, there’s a road
That will lead me home
This verse is from Stephen Paulus’ choral piece, “The Road Home.” Though an original, it is based on the folk music tradition of the Scots-Irish who settled in Appalachia.
The Scots-Irish are sometimes called “borderers,” because they always lived on the edges and in the backcountry. They migrated often, and were often displaced with no firm place to call home.
I sang The Road Home two times at my presenting parish in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Coincidentally these instances book-ended my discernment process within that community. And the last time I sang it with them was the Sunday before I moved to New Haven to begin my time here, with you all.
Because of that, and because of the story it tells about wandering, yearning, and listening to the call of Christ, I have held this song close to my heart. I come back to it often. I sing it when I’m sad, or when I’m nostalgic for what I left behind. I sing it when I’m confused about the road I’m on. And I sing it when I’m heartened by hope that transcends the profound grief of the world.
In the long months and years of seminary, Covid-19, and ongoing family health issues, it has become my wandering song. And it seems I’m often lost and wandering these days. It seems I can’t find home.
I share this because I know that many of you are also wandering.
You are dealing with mental health issues, physical illness, feelings of isolation, or a simmering rage.
You are questioning your place in this institution, this denomination, or this religion. You are incensed at the slow movement of justice, and overwhelmed by the world’s inconsolable grief. If you are anything like me, you are crying a lot.
You are not convinced that there is a place where you belong. You are not sure where home may be found.
You have wept and wandered more than you ever thought you could.
With these things in mind, today I want to talk about wandering, hope, and the road home.
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob…
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back…
I read today’s passage from Jeremiah over and over again in the last few weeks, and I couldn’t stop weeping. I think I was jealous.
The Judeans were weeping, too, but at least they were headed back to the comfort of home.
What was it like to turn their wandering song into a going-home song?
I wonder whether they danced and hit tambourines against their hips. I wonder how much cajoling it took to get everyone to join in. I wonder if they kept singing through tears. If they cried for no reason and every reason, their grief and trauma mixed with hesitant hope that things were about to get better.
But all of that is beside the point. In fact, in the timeline of Jeremiah, this sing-a-long is only a dream. It’s only a wandering song after all.
That’s because Jeremiah’s words are a foretelling of a future event, not a summary of what has already occurred. The Judeans are not singing for what has already come to pass. Instead, the text puts words in their mouths. It is only imagining a future freed from displacement. That means that they probably revisited these words over and over again in the midst of their exile.
There is a kind of cruelty here. Putting words in the mouths of those who suffer, trying to rev them up for a future they can hardly imagine, in the middle of their exile and isolation. It looks a lot like toxic positivity.
How can Jeremiah suggest something as foolish as hope when all the Judeans can see is ruin, and all they can do is weep?
But hold up! Before I cancel Jeremiah, it’s important to consider the genre of prophecy. Rabbi Abraham Heschel points out that the words we read are not merely those of the prophet Jeremiah, but the very words of God.
“…what appears to us as wild emotionalism must seem like restraint to him who has to convey the emotion of the Almighty in the feeble language of man. [The prophet’s] sympathy is an overflow of powerful emotion which comes in response to what he sensed in divinity. For the only way to intuit a feeling is to feel it” (The Prophets, 395).
It turns out that the prophet is not downplaying grief by advocating for false hope. Not at all! Jeremiah is actually a conduit for the emotion of God.
Think about that. When we read the prophets, we are being blind-sided by the raw emotion of God. Which means that Jeremiah’s proclamation of future joy is a promise from God, not a demand based on false hope.
It is God calling to God’s people in the midst of sustained grief, profound uncertainty, and even embitterment and rage. It is God proclaiming God’s presence in the wandering and the whirlwind.
And in time, God leads the Judeans home.
This passage shows us that hope can be complicated, but it isn’t foolish. Because God is here, and God makes good on God’s promises.
In today’s Gospel reading, we meet another displaced person:
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus shouts these words with abandon as Jesus and his disciples prepare to leave Jericho. Bystanders try to shut him up. Maybe they don’t think he has the right to transgress his rank as a beggar.
Or maybe they’re just shocked by his public display of emotion. But Bartimaeus doesn’t care. Pleading and impatient, he cries out again: “Have mercy on me!”
Pay attention to what he says here. Because, in naming Jesus as the Son of David, as the Messiah, Bartimaeus acts as a prophet. In this moment, he senses the divine sympathy of God incarnate, and he dares to respond with all the emotion he can muster.
In the presence of Jesus, things are suddenly made clear:
Here is a God who responds in love. Here is a God who keeps promises. Here is a God who leads me home.
Yes, hope is complicated. But it isn’t foolish. Because God is here, and God makes good on God’s promises.
In the presence of God, Jeremiah agitates. The Judeans weep. Bartimaeus shouts. If Heschel is right, these strong emotions can be evidence of God’s activity.
They are a reminder of the urging of the spirit within the souls of humankind. And in this, even in our most confused wandering, we have a cause for hope.
The cause for hope is simply this: God is with us. God is here! God has called us to discipleship for and with one another.
It is not the home of our ancestors or a place of placid peace. In our deep emotion, we have entered the whirlwind where God dwells. Here, in God’s presence, our wandering is transformed to Christ’s way of love.
But what does it look like for us, a crew of misfits, to walk the way of love when it feels so much like we’re wandering? What does it look like to come home to the Body of Christ, here in this community?
I think it means living into God’s promise, knowing that God responds to our deep emotion. And to claim our calling as disciples, gathered up by God and walking the same path.
In light of God’s promise, we can understand ourselves as capable of uncanny hope in the midst of deep emotion. We can claim life in the face of all evidence to the contrary. We can embrace each other as we weep and shout and sing. We can learn how to love each other well, even when it costs something. We can ask for what we need. We can belong to one another. And we can know that we will always belong with Jesus.
On this new road, there’s no such thing as going back. Instead, we are propelled by hope to let our rage, sadness, and grief merge with the emotion of God, and the mission of Christ.
We have hope as we trudge forward on whatever road we find ourselves on. Hope as we take the wrong turns in dark forests, and put our trust in people who may betray us.
Hope because, as Heschel says, “the only way to intuit a feeling is to feel it.” And we become like prophets when we dare to declare that God’s hope is real, even when it makes us look like fools.
So, let us agitate, weep, shout, and sing: of the grief, the anger, the fear, the urgency, the hope – the enormity of it all. God is with us.
“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”