A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 17, 2010
BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON
A Meditation on Our Heart’s Longing
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion. In the midst of it all we hung our harps upon the willows. They that carried us away captive required of us a song. They wanted us to sing of joy. “Sing to us,” they demanded, “one of the songs of Zion.” But how shall we sing the Lord's song in this strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. If I do not remember you, if I do not hold Jerusalem as my chief joy, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.
— Psalm 137 1-6
While rummaging around the web I stumbled upon a little cache of those Jeff Foxworthy-inspired lists. Perhaps you recall them? I’ve always thought the idea of “if this perhaps you are a,” something wonderful. In this case it was a list of if these things “you might be a Baptist.” As many of you know I am in fact a child of the Baptist tradition. Whether I like it or not it is simply part of who I am. So, for instance, during our pulpit exchange last week while Nicole and Todd were here, I was at Round Top. There scriptures are cited all the time. And, so, when I was asked to give the benediction, sparked as I was, well, let’s say the scriptural allusions dropped from my tongue as naturally as our cats run to the kitchen when auntie opens a can.
This isn’t all a good thing, of course. For instance thanks to my childhood religion I can’t dance. And at my age it’s beginning to look like I never will. Here I am, the heir to all that was. And, so, of course, even after all these years, and my own winding spiritual journey that took me to be a Zen Buddhist Unitarian Universalist minister holding forth in a New England pulpit, looking through that list of why one might be a Baptist, I found myself saying yes to several of those questions. Of course Paul wrote in King James English. Of course whenever Jesus drank wine, and most especially at the Last Supper, it was Welch’s grape juice. And, yes, the key requirement to getting into heaven is bringing a covered dish with you. Well, okay, I don’t say yes to that one. But I know it was true for my grandmother, our family’s spiritual leader.
Noticing all this set me to thinking. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the woman sitting on the couch in her living room in Cranston, who suddenly declared to her husband, “It’s time to go see the Lama.” He tried to dissuade her; after all they lived in Rhode Island and the lama was in a monastery in India. But she wouldn’t be put off. “It’s time to see the Lama,” she’d repeat. Her friends said, it’s really too far to go. You’re too old. You’d need to lose weight to enjoy it. Come on. There are some nice videos of the lama speaking. And if you have a question, well, write a letter. But, no. “It’s time to see the Lama.” And so she purchased her tickets, flew to Delhi, took a bus to Dharmasala, and from there a rickety ancient taxi up to the monastery.
She arrived at the monastery’s gate, and told the attendant she was there to see the Lama. “It’s time,” she said. He replied the Lama is very busy, and is not available for visitors. She insisted. The gatekeeper said no. She insisted further, so he went in to check with the Lama’s secretary. After a long time the attendant came back and told her “You can see the Lama, but only for five minutes. So, please, one question, and make it brief and clear.” She said she could do that. There were various purifications and other rituals that had to be done. When they were finished she was led into the Lama’s rooms. And, so, finally, there he was sitting on the high throne surrounded by monks and nuns. He looked over to her, a curious expression on his kind face. She looked up to him and said, “Morris, it’s time to come home.”
I’m not talking about returning to my Baptist origins. I am talking about home. And this is a much deeper question than what our childhood religion was. Or whether we come from Cleveland and now live in Providence. Home. Those who speculate about such matters generally feel the original metaphor at the root of “home” expressed in that hypothetical proto-Indo European language was to “lie down” or to “settle down.” Home is the place where our heart settles.
This morning I hope we will be willing to reflect on the nature of home, a little of what it might be, a bit on what it probably is not, and then for the balance of our time, how to get there, how to go to that place where our hearts are settled.
Home, we are told over and over, is where the heart is. And I think there’s something for us in that. The one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm, which we used as our text for this meditation, dates from the Babylonian captivity, somewhere in the sixth century before the Common Era. This is a very important moment in history. What we have is a small community of intellectuals and craftsmen part of that mix of people living in what we today think of as Israel and Palestine who had been carried away to Babylon. Who they really were is complicated. But, let’s call them Judeans. It’s hard to say how much they thought of themselves as a separate people from their neighbors in that land before this time. But during that captivity something happened, a spiritual alchemy, a distillation of more ancient fables and stories into a holy book containing a more or less coherent history and, even more important, a promise. During those years much of what we would think of as Judaism birthed.
All brought together in a dream of home, of separation, of exile and a promise of returning to that home. And that’s our story, isn’t it? Do you notice that in your heart? Do you have that sense of dislocation, of your heart’s longing? If this doesn’t speak to you, fortunately the architecture here is something wondrous. And, the music is pretty good, too.
But for the rest of us, it does seem most of us are not settled, are not at home. We have different ways of saying this. A popular one here is to listen to a sixty year old ponder what he thinks he’ll do when he grows up. But there are more serious ways of speaking to that sense. Somewhere within our hearts there is always a knowing of our home, which whispers, which calls to us in our dreams. In the midst of whatever conditions we’re caught up in, we feel this urge, this need, this longing of our hearts.
And if that is so, then I suggest there are two ways of taking this sense of dislocation, of being away from home, and wanting to return. Last year I was visiting with a liberal Congregational minister. Good person, smart as a whip, really liked her. As happens for people in any trade, eventually we began to talk shop. She said how she saw her job as ultimately reminding people that we’re resident aliens, that this place we find ourselves is not our home. Rather, she said, she calls the people she serves to remember they are in fact citizens of heaven. And here, well, here, they, we, are just passing through.
This really bothered me. And, while I hadn’t thought of it in quite these terms before saying it, I had to respond how I couldn’t disagree more. My mission, my work, serving here in this church is to recall people to the fact their, our home is here. In a larger sense we are citizens of this world. And more intimately our knowing is found in this body. This place here, this place now, this being and nowhere else, is our true home.
What this speaks to is a fundamental difference in approach to the matter of spirit, and to the matter of how we should engage life. Of course people who believe their home is somewhere else don’t always ignore this place that we actually live. In fact they often do good work, often great work to alleviate suffering and even to care for the world. But it becomes a dividing of the heart. And if not watched carefully, can be dangerous. There are two additional lines in that Psalm we don’t quote, where in their longing and despair they wish the most terrible fate for their captors. We need to be careful, missing where home is, is to wandering forever, as the eighteenth century poet Hakuin sang to us, “like someone in the midst of water, crying out in thirst, like the child of a wealthy home, wandering among the poor.”
Now there is a process. While this is our home, we need usually to wander, to travel, to seek in order to find it. Weird, maybe. But it is the way things are. So, I don’t disparage pilgrimage and wayfaring. But it is to a purpose. Like that story attributed to various Jewish sages of the young man, honest and godly but poor, who lives in a small ramshackle house in Kiev, who dreams of a treasure buried by a lamppost near a bridge. He takes off on his pilgrim way, wanders and wanders until he finds the location in his dream. But shovel in hand he is stopped from digging by a watchman. When he confesses his reason the watchman laughs at him and says he himself has dreamed for years of a hidden treasure buried in a poor man’s basement. But he wouldn’t be bothered to look for it. It’s just a dream. The young man realizes that the basement the watchman is describing is his very own back in Kiev. He returns home, digs and finds his treasure.
So, here’s the message. This very place is heaven. This very heart is the mind of God. And these very hands are made to do the work of the divine.
You want to go home? You want to know what to do when you grow up? Feel the hard bench that supports you. Noticing the chandelier hanging in its glory like God’s own starry night. And look out through the windows, glazed though they may be. (That’s a slightly hidden scriptural allusion, by the bye.)
For just a moment don’t try to think your way through, just let go of good, just let go of ill, just notice, notice how your breath rises and falls all by itself, notice the warmth of human bodies so near, just notice.
Be quiet. And know this is home.
And, then, for goodness’ sake, do something.
I’ve heard it said here and there I say that a bit too much. People worry that I’m trying to make them take on some specific project or other. I certainly pitch ‘em, I know. It’s my responsibility to hold these possibilities up for you. There are a bunch of us passionately dedicated to GBLTQ rights as a critical expression of our liberal faith. And I think there are some compelling reasons to put it pretty near the top of the list right now. But, there are other equally pressing issues. I think of racism and how it is a continuing cancer on our lives. I think of how immigrants are treated, particularly the undocumented. Last night I caught just a part of a show on television that described a Mexican national who was brought here at the age of two, and then at nineteen was discovered and deported. He barely spoke Spanish, and in the show had just been arrested trying to cross back, here, to his home. I’m haunted by the scene of his weeping, his longing for home. I think of the poor, and the hungry, and of those without shelter. And I think of why there are such things in this world. Lots to do. No doubt.
And, even any one of those things might be too much for you at this moment in your life. Perhaps you’re overwhelmed with family issues. Perhaps you’re struggling just to keep your head above water. Well, then that “do” is something most intimate. An act of kindness, no matter how small, opens the gates to the kingdom, brings you home. It is still the doing; it is, if you will, your homework.
And here’s some good news. So long as you see the connections, or are trying to find the connections, which we do by just noticing what’s here with open hearts and open minds, then whatever you do, so long as you are doing, that almost certainly will be enough.
It will be coming home
It will be the way of rest and ease, of settling in at the feast that was set out for you before the creation of the heavens and
Amen, dear ones, amen.