Psalm 137:1-6; Luke 15:11-24
First Congregational Church, Columbus
July 21, 2002 -- 9th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
Back in the Middle Ages, when devils were thought to be the chief cause of misery and mischief in the world, the particular demons blamed for despondency and low spirits were called blue devils. Probably it was the novelist Washington Irving who first shortened blue devils to simply "blues." Since then, when we talk about the blues, we mean our moods of depression and discouragement. There's also an emotional style of music which carries this name, and it conveys a feeling of woe through its words and melodies. We heard a fragment of such a song just moments ago.
Now the birth of the blues didn't come with the blue devils of the Middle Ages or with Washington Irving or the Duke University basketball team. That condition has been with us since the outset of humanity. Our Psalm reading today is about a people with a bad case of the blues; in particular, the "homesick" blues. It's a story of the Jews, exiled far away in Babylon. And they're blue as can be when they think of home.
"Beside the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion [Jerusalem, our home]. On the willow trees nearby we hung up our harps. There our captors told us to entertain them saying, "Sing us a song about Zion." But how could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land [a place far from home]?"
They had the blues, and they had them bad. Their oppressors said to sing, but how could they unless it would be a lament. The Jews had been carried off to an alien land and wished desperately to be somewhere else. That "somewhere" was home.
Most of us have felt a similar longing at times. Those who were in the armed forces probably experienced such a feeling. Then there's young folks away at college, kids off at camp, patients in the hospital, or volunteers on a work mission to West Virginia. Even toward the end of a vacation you often find yourself anxious to get back. It's the homesick blues.
At one point in my career I worked professionally with Alzheimer's patients and caregivers. I noticed that I would often hear a similar story told by many who were taking care of someone they loved. It would usually go something like this: "What bothers me most is when we're sitting in our living room and my husband looks at me and says, `I want to go home.' No matter how patiently I keep telling him that he is at home, that this is our furniture and these are our pictures, he keeps insisting on the same thing. I don't know what to do and it makes me so upset."
The more I heard this story, in whatever variation it took, the more I knew this dilemma couldn't be resolved through the usual force of argument. I think these patients were describing something very real to them, but not what we thought we heard in their words. I believe it was their way of saying, "I want to go home again, to a time when I was well, to a place away from the limitations of mind and body that confine me now. I want things to be as they were." Of course they were unable to say this directly, but still they knew where they belonged and it wasn't where they were. That's a kind of homesickness, too.
In homesickness a person gets in touch with himself at a deeper level and begins to recognize what it will take to make him whole again. Like the Israelites in Babylon, it points to the way of return. It identifies what's wrong and what has to be done to make it right. It's simple enough if all we have to do is get in the car and start back on the right road, but this kind of return is not usually that easy.
Our other text for the morning is that familiar parable of the Prodigal Son as told by Jesus. Here, too, someone has gone away. In this case it was clearly by his own choosing. With all the confidence of youth, a certain son boldly asks for his full inheritance in advance. By custom he was entitled to a share of his father's holdings. The young man is so convinced that he knows what is best that nothing can dissuade him to get his money now.
So the fellow says good-bye and good riddance and heads far away. There he finds the glamour and excitement that he's been looking for. He's a free-spender and as long as the money holds out he has plenty of friends. Once his fortune is gone, so are his new acquaintances.
Without money he is reduced to taking the lowest and dirtiest kind of work just to survive. Life is terrible and his prospects are bleak. As the young man slops hogs he begins to think longingly of home. And the more he thinks, the more he knows what he has to do: he must return. He's got the homesick blues.
It's not just people who get this urge. The newspapers carried an article about a cow in Texas who was sold to a rancher 35 miles away from where she was raised. Apparently she was extremely unhappy to be away from what she knew, enough so that she managed to get herself all the way back. They figured that she must have jumped out of her pen, leapt over two barbed-wire fences, forded a river, crossed numerous highways, and traversed a section of prickly underbrush until she finally found her old surroundings again. I guess you could say that even Elsie can become homesick..
Animals, Israelites, the Prodigal Son, us-- we may all share a common longing and sometimes it hurts. Yet, homesickness is not necessarily bad. The positive side of it is that we may come to recognize that something important has been lost from our lives. We begin to realize that something's missing from what we need in order to thrive.
So it was with the son who took his inheritance and ran. It was his homesickness that finally brought him to his senses and was the means of his salvation. At that moment of recognition he knew exactly what he needed to do and he did it--with all the physical effort it required and with the anticipated pain and embarrassment he expected to encounter. But instead of being ridiculed, he was welcomed; instead of being berated, he was hugged. He was, indeed, home again, and all was right with the world because things were right with him.
The truth is that we all stray away from home in more than just the physical sense. We may also find ourselves distant from what we once held dear. Home is as much about relationships as it is about place. We can become estranged from those we love and long for the restoration of previous ties. Often this requires some humility on our part and even a willingness to apologize for past wrongs.
On many occasions we find ourselves in the sickness of despair. Things deep inside are just wrong. Often we don't even know what it is, but we sense life is not right. When the blues get hold of us is the very time we may need to stop to consider whether something is trying to pull us back from where we have strayed.
The Apostle Paul offers us a further insight into our times of dismay. "But God's mercy," he says, "is so abundant and his love for us is so great that when we are in spiritual exile he can bring us back to life through Christ. It is by God's grace that we are able to be saved."
You see "home" can also mean the place where we are in right relationship to God. There's a very real despair that can come over us when we are estranged from the one who gives us both life and meaning. Why is it that we often fail to consider this? We may even go to the doctor thinking it is something organic, when ultimately the problem is relational. Our dilemma is that we can't feel better until we realize the source of the pain. St. Augustine once said perceptively, "God has made us for himself, and the human heart is restless until it finds its rest in the Lord."
When sin or stubbornness or simply inattention causes us to stray away from God, a vacuum develops in the heart. And only God can fill this-- not a new stereo or a shiny car or a long trip or even the best of human relationships. We can have a certain homesickness, a sense of blues in the night, which only coming back home can rectify-- coming back home to God and to a completeness which is found only in that relationship.
The story of the Prodigal Son is the tale of an overconfident young man returning to a forgiving father. More importantly, it's a parable of everyman and everywoman awakening and coming back home to a loving God. It's about realizing when things are wrong and then taking the steps toward making it right. That's the purpose Jesus had in mind when he told the story.
Perhaps we could add a new beatitude to those already in the Gospels. It might go like this: "Blessed are the homesick, for they realize where home really is." You see God alone can satisfy our deepest longing in life, but the way back must start with our recognition and our initiative.
God is home all the time. We need to remember it is we who go away and we who must return.
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