This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.
I have one short reading this morning, by the Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet, Ryokan.
take me to
a different stopping place each night
the dream I dream is always
that same one of home.
SERMON — “A Place To Call Home”
I want to speak with you this morning about what it means to call a place home. No doubt I got interested in the topic of home because Imy partner and I have just moved for the third time in three years. But it was just by chance that last week I came across the poem by Ryokan:
take me to
a different stopping place each night
the dream I dream is always
that same one of home.
To dream of a place we can call home:–
Even if you live all your life in the same place, it can seem as if you have a different stopping place each night; even if you travel continuously, each place you stay can feel like home.
Scientists who study the earliest human beings, and the earlier humanlike beings, speculate that our ancestors moved from place to place depending on the availability of food and water. In this place that we call home, the south coast of Massachusetts, the indigenous peoples that lived here before Europeans arrived spent winters in upland hunting grounds, moved to fertile ground to plant beans and corn and squashes, spent summers by the sea to fish and gather shellfish, moved back to their fields at harvest time, and ended the circle of the year by returning to the hunting grounds. Home for them might have meant the length of a river and the watershed it drained; or an annual round of fields and hunting grounds where ancestors got their food, places that would change slowly as the fertility of the soil waxed and waned or game animals moved in and out. Today we tend to think of home as a room or an apartment, or a small plot of ground in the city with a house, or a slightly larger plot of land in suburbia with a house. But home is more than a building, more than a house lot. When we call a place “home,” we mean something more complicated than that.
Ryokan, in his poem, says that when he is traveling with a different stopping place each night, the dream he dreams is always the dream of home. Some people try to tell us that we should be at home wherever we are, because wherever you are, there you are. Or that we should be at home in our own skins. Or that we should feel at home wherever we are. I have never been satisfied with any of these sayings, any more than I am staisfied by saying home is a few rooms where I sleep and watch television. You can be sure that Ryokan was not dreaming of a television set.
In common useage when we say “home,” oftentimes we are referring to a room or an apartment or a house where we go to sleep at night — after having watched some television of course. But if you really think about it, your home is more than that room or apartment or house. It’s not enough to have a room or three. If you walk through any suburban neighborhood you can see the houses where people try to make it enough: those are the houses with the rooms lit by the blue glow of a television set or video game. Televisions are marvelous inventions, and I do enjoy watching reruns of “Will and Grace” while I’m at home. I like having my familiar desk and dishes and chairs, too, but while all these thigns might make a place feel homelike, they aren’t home. Maybe we have to look farther afield to discover what home means.
A job or a workplace are often another place that becomes a sort of home to us. Work need not be paid employment. Henry Thoreau writes: “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully; suveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes….” I have done some of that work at times when I had insufficient paid employment; like Thoreau I have found that “my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance.” But work is work whether you are paid for it or not.
Work is the way you contribute to the grand working of the cosmos. Work offers a second place in our lives. Even if you work at home, the work you do can make your house or apartment feel like a different place. Work also brings us into contact with a different set of people. You have a circle of family, housemates, neighbors, and friends that come and go in your house or apartment; and you often have a different circle of acquaintances, co-workers, customers, and friends that come in go in your world of work. Although it’s never quite that simple, since if you work in a family business or stay at home to raise children, you might see much the same circle of people at home and at work.
The place you live and the place you work are both parts of the place you call home. I am convinced we human beings need at least one more place in our lives. Two years ago, we were living in Oakland, California, and there was a Starbucks coffee shop a few blocks away from us. A group of men gathered there each evening, sitting outside when the weather was fine, and talking for hours in some language I did not recognize — a friend of ours said they were Eritrean. Personally, I’m not a big fan of Starbucks coffee shops, but that Starbucks in Oakland offered another place in the lives of those Eritrean men. I have no idea what they actually talked about; but for a price of mediocre coffee they could go and sit for hours at a time, reconnecting with old friends or striking up conversations with a new acquaintance.
Not that I think that going to a Starbucks coffee shop is going to make your life complete. We do need that place where we can go and have informal conversations with people outside the inner circle of family or housemates, conversations that stretch beyond the limits of the workplace. Those informal conversations take place at Starbucks, or at the mall, or on the edge of the soccer field while you’re watching kids play soccer, but those informal conversations are not quite enough.
In the times of our ancient, prehistoric ancestors, I like to imagine that we had still another place:– sitting in a circle around a fire at night. Sitting around that fire in the evening, we (or rather our ancestors) had time to talk with friends and family and neighbors. And that was also where we told the stories about where we came from, and who we are, and what the meaning of life might be. That was where we sang the old songs and chants together. It’s where children learned how to be adults by watching adults who were not their parents. It’s where we dreamed dreams and where we sometimes managed to share the great mysteries of being — not necessarily where we encountered the great mysteries of being, but where we shared those mysteries with others.
Unlike our ancient, prehistoric ancestors, we rarely sit around communal fires any more. But I believe our congregation fills much the same place in our lives today. Our congregation is, or should be, a place where we can sing the old songs (and maybe some new ones too), and ask the big questions about life, the universe, and everything; and share together something of the mysteries of life.
So you can see, in spite of the way we commonly use the word “home,” that home is more than, or should be more than, just some rooms in a building with a television set. Yes, we need a safe place to lay our heads at night, yes we need food and clothing besides, and maybe in the crazy postmodern age we need to watch “Will and Grace” before going to bed at night. Adding a workplace helps complete the picture of what a home is: we also need to contribute to the workings of the cosmos, however we may do that. And we need places where we can have those informal conversations with other people. But we also need that place by the ancestral fire, to hear the stories of olden times, to tell our own stories, to help nurture the children, to explore the great mysteries of the cosmos.
I want to point out something about these places that make up home, and it’s going to sound pretty obvious, but still needs to be pointed out. You can live in a room by yourself (and maybe a television set). You can work by yourself. But the ancestral fire has to have other people sitting around it. When you come to the proverbial ancestral fire to hear the stories of olden times, there pretty much has to be someone else there to tell the stories. When it’s time for you to tell your own story it really helps if there’s someone there to listen to you. When you face the great mysteries of life and death, you need to share those with other people.
Or to put it another way, when you explore the great mysteries of the cosmos you ahve to do it in conversation with, in partnership with, other human beings. You can’t do it alone. Our culture values the loners, the cranky individualists, the characters like John Wayne who seem to be totally self-sufficient. But the myth of the loner, the myth of John Wayne, is just fiction. The reality is that those who try to be totally self-sufficient wind up being less than fully human. We need other people in order to be fully ourselves.
So it is that we have our homes, the place where we lay our heads at night; and we have our work, where we have a hand in the workings of the cosmos; and we have a place around the ancestral fire. That’s why I keep going to church — because without that place around the ancestral fire, I don’t really have a place to call home.