8/7/22 Sermon: Longing for Home

Sunday, August 7, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 23:02; sermon starts around 29:53)

If you’ve been in my office lately, or if you’ve glanced at the office windows from outside the church, something you already know about me is that I enjoy decorating my windows in fun and creative ways. Right now, they’re decked out with a bunch of colorful paper cutout designs meant to look summery, like suns and flowers and leaves. But for many months before that, my windows were covered in a whole blizzard of intricately cut out paper snowflakes. 

A number of people asked me how I managed to get my snowflakes to look so delicate and so detailed – and the simple, honest answer to that question is: practice. Lots and LOTS of practice.

Making snowflakes became almost a kind of spiritual practice for me back when I was living in the Dominican Republic. Mostly it was a way of dealing with overwhelming feelings of homesickness. I fully expected when I moved there that I would start to miss people – all my friends and family back home – and that I’d miss certain foods or certain places that I used to go. What I wasn’t expecting was how much I would also miss the weather! Hard to believe, I know – but I really missed the changing of the seasons. As far as I can tell, the DR really only has two seasons: it’s either hot and miserable, or it’s wet and miserable!

I found the lack of seasonal changes really disconcerting – and over time it really started to bum me out, especially as it got closer to Christmas. It was just a constant reminder of feeling out of place and far from home. So I did the only logical thing I could think of and decided to make my own snow! I cut out dozens and dozens of paper snowflakes and covered every single wall in my little cinderblock house with snow. Obviously, it wasn’t the same as a Nebraska snowfall. But there was just something about the familiarity of making paper snowflakes that helped make the homesickness a little easier to handle. 

Even if you’ve never lived in another country, I’m sure you can relate to the feeling of being homesick. It’s a lonely kind of feeling. You don’t even have to be away from home all that long sometimes for the feeling to set in. Just feeling out of place or anxious can be enough to make us long for home. Home is the place where we feel loved, the place where we can relax and just be who we truly are.

Now, for some of us, that may not be what the place we call “home” feels like. But even then, we all still long to be someplace where we feel loved, someplace where we feel like we belong; we long for it even if it’s not a place we’ve actually been yet. And there’s a word for this feeling – a new German word I learned this week: fernwehFernweh basically translates to “farsickness.” It’s a word that’s meant to describe this feeling of being homesick for a place you’ve never been. 

Whether we feel homesick or “farsick,” there’s just something in us that is always longing for a sense of home, for a homeland. And this is a theme that I notice in several of our readings for today. 

In our readings this morning from Genesis and Hebrews, we find Abraham and Sarah experiencing their own kind of homesickness and farsickness. They have walked away from the old lives they knew, but they are still waiting for the future homeland that God has promised them. Sarah and Abraham had left behind the land of their ancestors and moved into the land of Canaan. This was the land that God had promised to give to their descendants – trouble was they didn’t have any descendents yet, and as we see in Genesis, Abraham is a bit anxious about this (understandably!). The land of Canaan just didn’t feel like a homeland yet. And I can easily imagine Abraham and Sarah looking back with at least a little bit of homesickness for the land that their families had lived in for generations. 

But they choose to set their faces forward and, by faith, they set out to go where God had called them to go. And I find this passage from Hebrews especially striking:

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

Hebrews 11:13b-16a

However Sarah and Abraham may have felt about the homes that they had left behind, the writer of Hebrews makes it clear: the real homesickness that they felt was about the place that they were going, for the home they had never been. They felt that same, familiar homesick longing, but it wasn’t a longing for the place they had left behind. Instead, it was fernweh, farsickness. They longed for the place that God had promised to them, the “city that God had prepared,” as the author of Hebrews phrases it.

They put all their hopes and all their longing into the future that God had promised them. And this shift allows Abraham and Sarah to hope in a way they had never hoped before. God opens up to them a world of possibilities that they thought were impossible. I mean, Sarah was in her 90s, and Abraham was over 100, which even by biblical standards was old! In fact, the writer of Hebrews describes Sarah as “barren” and Abraham as “a person as good as dead”! They had given up hope of having children and a family of their own to carry on their family line. 

And God doesn’t stop with just promising them a child. God extravagantly promises them descendents, “as many as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as grains of sand on the seashore.” And sure enough, just a few chapters later in Genesis, Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to their firstborn child, Isaac. 

The birth of Isaac was only the beginning of all that God promised– but it was more than enough for Sarah and Abraham. They may not have even lived long enough to get to see the birth of their grandsons Jacob and Esau. They “died in faith, without having received the promises,” as the author of Hebrews writes, “but from a distance, they saw and greeted them.” 

Sarah and Abraham lived and died without ever fully entering into the homeland God had promised them. They lived in the same tension that we do, where God’s kingdom is both “already” and “not yet.” We likewise have seen and given thanks for the good things that God has done in the past – and we live in hope for the future that God has promised: the coming kingdom of God. The ancestors in the faith that we have known also “died in faith, without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” 

And our hopefulness for the future calls us to that same kind of homesickness, that same kind of longing, that Abraham and Sarah felt – longing not for the things that have come before, but longing for the future hope that God has promised. In fact, we are called not so much to be homesick, or even farsick, but rather to be: “kingdomsick,” if you will. It’s kind of a cheesy way to phrase it, but it’s still true. And it’s something that’s often easier said than done. 

It’s easy to get caught up feeling homesick for the past. Like so many congregations, it’s tempting for us to get caught up looking backwards, longing for the church the way it was before the pandemic – or even to look further back, to when we had dozens of kids in Sunday school, more bucks and butts, and fewer budget worries. 

And there’s no denying we have been through some rough times – but God is inviting us to look forward, not backward. God is calling us to be hopeful rather than nostalgic – to be kingdomsick instead of homesick – because with God, the best is always yet to come. With God, home is not behind us; it is ahead of us.

As Luke writes in our gospel reading, it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom – and already, it is coming. Even now, bit by bit, God’s kingdom is breaking into this world – the kingdom where all will live in peace and plenty, where all people will be welcome, where mourning and crying and pain will be no more. It’s coming. And Jesus exhorts us to be ready, to live with hope and watchfulness and faithful longing for that kingdom to come – for our true homeland to come. 

Our homesickness for the kingdom may or may not inspire us to cut out a whole mess of paper snowflakes to cover our houses with. But it does bring us to gather here, week after week. And each time we gather, it leads us to pray – to pray that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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