Hubert Humphrey was a former two-time senator from the State of Minnesota, vice-president of the United States and a candidate for president in 1968. In 1978, when he died, hundreds of people, former presidents, politicians and diplomats from across the world attended his funeral.
The question that caused the most speculation was, would former President Richard Nixon choose to attend? Nixon had chosen to resign from the presidency in 1972, after he had dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. Since then, he had remained in seclusion at his home in California. Much to people’s surprise, Nixon chose to attend.
At the visitation, Nixon stood alone. People were polite with him, but brief. Eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him. Nixon said later that it was like he could feel the ostracism being ladled out.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and was well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”
Welcome home. These are powerful words.
- I’ve been at the airport with an extended family, holding “welcome home” signs, balloons and gifts, as they wait for a Mom and Dad to walk through the glass doors carrying their new child, adopted from a foreign country.
- I’ve seen soldiers welcomed home by loved ones after a deployment.
- I’ve seen the look of joy and pride on the faces of a father and mother when they come here to church at Thanksgiving with their college freshman, home for their first break.
Welcome home are words we long to hear. They imply a closeness and an intimacy. They remind us, “this is your place.”
I love coming home. I love walking in the door and hearing the voices of my family talking in the kitchen…I love being back in the midst of “my stuff”… I even love when the dog runs over and jumps on me. There is something soothing about getting home after a long day. Home may be where you live. It may be where your parents, or family lives. It may be somewhere completely different. Wherever it is, home is home only partially because of the place…even more, it is home because of the relationships we live into there, or because of the experiences we have there. Home is home because it is a place we can be ourselves, where we can be honest, and vulnerable. There is no pretense at home…no pretending.
In the book our congregation is studying this Lent, God Soaked Life, by Chris Webb, the author writes that “The deepest yearning of our human hearts, whether we recognize it or not, is for this experience of intimacy with God.”
The Biblical understanding of this kind of yearning is embodied in the Greek word “Diaspora.” Diaspora means scattered, or wandering, or lost and looking for home. It is most commonly associated with the Jewish people, who were defeated, and scattered…exiled…and yearning for their homeland.
King David about this sense of longing in the 63rd Psalm: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts or you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
He wrote this during the time that he was wandering in the wilderness, seeking his way home. He found himself alone and he compared his longing to be returned home to the sense of being thirsty in a place where there is no water. But in this case, it’s not physical thirst, it is emotional, and spiritual. It is a sense of being separated from relationship, relationship with God, and relationship with his family and friends. It is a sense of disconnect.
There are days we feel pretty disconnected. From each other; from a sense of purpose; from God. We all have days, when we are the diaspora.
Years ago, I remember visiting a member of my congregation, who was in a long-term care facility. He had been in a coma, for weeks. And every single day, his wife would come. They’d been married for 54 years. And she and would sit, holding vigil next to his bed. Every single day she would arrive early in the morning, and she would return home late every night. This went on for 2 weeks…then 4 weeks…then 6…8….every single day.
I remember sitting in the room with them and talking to the her. I said “you’ve been here every single day…tell me what it is that keeps you going.” She replied simply: “When he wakes up, I don’t ever want him to think he’s been alone.” I nodded and smiled. That is a beautiful gift. She taught me, in that moment, that home isn’t so much a place, it is a relationship. And she wanted to be able to say to her husband, when and if he woke up, “welcome home.”
When we thirst…that deep, soul-wrenching kind of thirst…the kind of thirst that the Psalmist is talking about, it is a thirst for relationship. It is a thirst for being deeply in the presence of God; and it’s a thirst for being connected to community around us. It is a thirst for home.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus compares being connected to the Holy to being like a branch, attached to a vine. Without the connection, the branch withers and dies. But connected, we bear fruit. Jesus calls this “abiding” within God. That is, being with…dwelling within…the very presence of God.
And it is Jesus, the vine, who creates this relationship. Remember that a branch cannot create itself…it comes; it all comes, from God; from the vine.
Chris Webb, in our book, goes on to write that “We saw that Jesus repeatedly invited people into this experience, a life lived “close to the Father’s heart,” and the he spoke of this intimate relationship in terms of both eternal life and life in the kingdom.”
This is what it is to live a “God soaked life.” We are confident in the call of Jesus, who draws us close. And we are confident that when we are deep in this relationship, we are “home.” That our place is alongside our savior, who stands close to us.
We are all the diaspora. We spend our time in the wilderness…we spend our time wandering, or alone…we spend our time living in the midst of shame and guilt for the things we have done, or the things we have left undone. But we always know that Jesus seeks us out when we wander and says “welcome home” when we are found.
As people who bear the mark of the cross of Christ, we are confident that being home is not being with Jesus, being home is Jesus.