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John 14.1-7

II Corinthians 5.1-5

Home at Last

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”  This is the thematic opening, and familiar first verse of Psalm 127, Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  The biblical notion of house and home is a rich and varied one.  It is used more than 2100 times in the Old and New Testaments and can mean anything from the actual edifice where you and I live, to a promised land flowing with milk and honey, to a comfortable and familiar place where a house becomes a home, and finally on to an eternal heavenly home.  To say someone has gone home can mean we’ve finished work for the day, and it can mean we have passed from this world into the next.   Statistics tell us that the average American lives in eleven different homes during one’s lifetime.  (Statistics being statistics, the number is actually 11.7.)  I know I’ve racked up eight different dwellings for myself so far:  the home I lived in until I was 3 years old, and one I remember well; the home we moved to next and where I lived to age 18; college years, seminary years, my first church setting in Michigan, the next in western Connecticut, the next in Massachusetts and my current home in Old Lyme.  Though, I suppose if heaven is also a dwelling place, that will make it a total of nine when all is said and done – presuming I get there, of course.

          While I was still living in my Massachusetts home, I was fortunate enough to attend a free concert one warm July afternoon at Boston’s Copley Plaza, a concert featuring Alison Krause as one of the performers, and one of the songs she sang was “I’ll Fly Away,” which Diane and Margie just sang for us a minute ago. “I’ll Fly Away” is nearly a hundred years old – it was written by Albert E. Brumley in 1929, it has become a popular church hymn in many traditions, and it has been recorded more than 1000 times  But Alison Krause probably gave it the biggest boost when she sang it in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 film, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”  Diane, didn’t you also sing “Angel Band” recently?  That song is also featured in “O Brother Where Art Thou.”  We will talk about that film in a few minutes, but it is the vision of home in “I’ll Fly Away” that drove me to our scripture lessons for this morning:  “Some bright morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away to that home on God’s celestial shore – I’ll fly away. ”  “In the house of God there are many rooms,” Jesus told the disciples.  And Paul wrote, “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, but eternal, in the heavens.”  Brumley based his spiritual on a secular ballad written five years earlier; it was called “The Prisoner’s Song,” composed by Vernon Dalhart, and it too was a song about longing for home.  The final stanza sings, “Now if I had wings like an angel, over these prison walls I would fly and I’d fly home to the arms of my poor darlin’, and there I’d be willing to die.”  It echoes the second verse of our anthem, “When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away – like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.”  If there are more than 2100 mentions of “home” in the Bible, there are probably at least as many songs about the longing for home.

          “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid… In the house of God there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  These are familiar words from John’s gospel, and we often hear them during a funeral, or a memorial service, as they point to the promise of paradise.  Jesus is describing a vision of a home with many rooms, room enough for all of us, room enough for every one of God’s children:  “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  One of the things I think Jesus is saying is that when this mortal life is over, we finally get to the place we have belonged all along.  We go home.  We all have different visions of home, many of them warm and filled with good memories, and yet we also know there are some that are more than a little troubled.  But regardless, the home that awaits us, the home where we will find rest, is the place where our souls belong, where a room of our own awaits.  You might catch a glimpse of it in the well-worn line from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” where the poet muses, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  With just a little bit of poetic license, perhaps we can say the same thing about the home Jesus is describing:   “Heaven is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” 

          “For we know that if this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, but eternal and in the heavens.”  This vision of home comes from the apostle Paul in his second letter to the church in Corinth, a town on the Greek Peloponnesian Peninsula.  The idea that God prepares a place for each of us flew in the face of the distant and impersonal gods of the Greek pantheon, and it was a completely foreign philosophy Paul was peddling, antithetical to what the Greeks were used to hearing.  In fact the apostle was tried for making false claims about the deity, but we know from reading accounts in the book of Acts that he acquitted himself rather well, and his Greek hearers came away desiring to hear more about this unusual God who, when this mortal life is over, calls us to an eternal home.

          While the Bible is filled with references to house and home, Homer did the same thing in the seven centuries before Jesus in his epic poem, The Odyssey.  Much like the Bible, The Odyssey, along with its predecessor Iliad, is one of the oldest extant pieces of literature still read by a contemporary audience.  The book contains many themes, but the one that drives the plot is the idea of going home.  It is the story of Odysseus on the long sea-journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars.  “I pine, all my days,” Odysseus sings, “to travel home and see the dawn of my return.”  It is a powerful reflection on what draws us home, and on what the idea of home holds for the wearied traveler – whether it is the warrior, the sailor, the spouse, the parent, the hero’s goal is to return to home and family – as well as to the changes that have occurred during the absence from home.  And I mention The Odyssey this morning, not only because it is one of the most classic expressions of the idea of  going home, but also because the film I mentioned earlier – “O Brother, Where Art Thou” – the film that features “I’ll Fly Away,” is based on Homer’s epic poem.  Set in 1930’s, the film features George Clooney as the Odysseus character – he is called by Odysseus’ other name, Ulysses; Holly Hunter is his wife, The Odyssey’s Penelope; John Goodman plays the Cyclops role; we find the Sirens, Zeus, Poseidon and a blind radio station manager who essentially takes the role of Homer himself, whose narrative propels the story along.  The film is peppered with old time gospel tunes, including “I’ll Fly Away” which is featured prominently.  And again, the movement of the story is always toward the idea of home, although Clooney’s home in depression era Mississippi and Odysseus’ on a Mediterranean island are given very different expressions.  Still, whether it is the rural south, ancient Greece, the place we were born or the house not made with hands, the point is that we are all eventually drawn homeward, that life’s trajectory from the day we were born is to find our home, no matter what that might look like.

          If it is true that the average American has eleven homes during the course of a lifetime, it is also true that most of us settle within twenty miles of the place we grew up.  There is something in us that doesn’t want to wander too far from home.  But as the Bible reminds us this morning, we are never far from the home that awaits us.  In God’s house, our room is prepared, the bed is made and the light is on.  When they are ready, let our souls fly away!

          Amen.

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