Home sweet home

Have you ever uttered that phrase at some point in your life?

You walk through the door after a long vacation or road trip—exhausted, relieved, thankful to have finally arrived—and you say, “Home sweet home.”

You’ve been away at college, and after a long semester of homesickness, you pull into the driveway and that wave of nostalgia washes over you, and you say, “Home sweet home.”

At the end of a long day at the office, or a long stay in a hospital, or a long two weeks away at summer camp, you walk through the front door, drop your bags, take a deep breath, and look around—“Home sweet home.”

Where did we first come up with this phrase, “Home sweet home?”  

It turns out it originates from a song that became a huge hit many years ago.

No, not the one by the 80’s hair band, Motley Crue.

It comes from an opera song first performed in London back in 1823, and which 50 years later became a wildly popular ballad in the United States during the Civil War era.  Homesick soldiers sang it karaoke-style in bars and saloons.  

Home, home, sweet, sweet home

There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home!  

And it’s true.  There really is no place like home.

Over the last two years, the pandemic has taught us that home is not only where we find peace and belonging; it’s also where we feel safe and secure.  Home is another word for refuge from the harsh, precarious, unpredictable realities of the world.  

In the 1980s, futurist Faith Popcorn detected a deep shift in the way Americans were living their lives.  The nightclub-discorama dance-party scene of the 1970s was losing steam.  Restaurants had tables sitting empty on Saturday night.  Nightclubs were sitting vacant.  Instead of going out, Americans were turning in.  They were worn-out, overstimulated, exhausted – and technology made it easy to simply stay home.  

Cable TV began beaming movies into our homes.  Microwaves became ubiquitous.  60% of Americans had VCRs.  

Americans were staying home so much that in 1990, they made 4.2 million babies—the highest number since the baby boom of 1960.  

Soon, with the advent of the Internet, we could shop from home, work from home, bank from home, and even meet and chat with strangers from home.  

With fewer reasons to leave our homes, we improved them—with home theater systems and big screen TVs, “man caves,” gourmet kitchens, home gardens and spas.  Then we protected them with gated communities, home security services, and the historic proliferation of gun sales.  

Martha Stewart, home improvement stores, and TV shows “This Old House” all led to the cultural trend Popcorn calls “cocooning.”  It’s the impulse to stay inside when it gets too tough and scary to go outside.  To pull a shell of safety around ourselves as protection against threat of disease, crime, terrorism, pollution and the unknown.

Humans have been cocooning for millennia.  Our earliest ancestors lived in caves even shaped like cocoons, where they protected themselves from weather, disease, animals, and enemies.  

Today, home is our sanctuary.  If we’re fortunate to have a home, we know how vital having a good one can be for our peace of mind, our sense of belongingness and acceptance.  

But while the pandemic taught us that staying home might save our lives, the growing “silent pandemic” of our generation—loneliness and social isolation—reminds us that leaving our homes can be life-giving, even life-saving.  

We need to get out more.  We need community, relationships and connection more than ever before.  These are indispensable to our wellbeing.  

Even Jesus discovered the value of leaving his cocoon.  His home was the “house of Israel.”  Good Jews of his day rarely ventured outside of this spiritual home—mostly for reasons of ritual purity and their collective identity as God’s “Chosen People.”  Jews stick with Jews.  This was fundamental to their survival as a people.  

But one day Jesus left the cocoon of the “house of Israel” and discovered that it wasn’t so dangerous out there after all.  It was a pivotal, life-changing moment for Jesus.  He left the protective shell of his cocoon and crossed a border that good Jews were never to cross.

Have you ever come up against a border in your life and dared to cross it?  

Perhaps your whole life you’d always seen a particular issue only one way, and suddenly you found yourself leaning up against that barbed wire fence in your mind that’s always kept you from seeing it any other way.  For once in your life, you could actually see what’s on the other side, and suddenly, what you’d always been told or believed, didn’t quite add up anymore. 

We all have these signs posted in our minds that say, “No Trespassing,” “Do Not Enter,” “Danger,” but sometimes we realize that what’s beyond that border is not dangerous after all.  

In the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 15:21-28), Jesus has one of these moments.  He’s on a road trip when he crosses into gentile territory and is met by a woman who begs him to heal her sick daughter.  

“Lord… have mercy on me!  My daughter is full of demons.” 

They couldn’t be more different from each other.  She’s a woman, he’s a man; she’s a Gentile, he’s a Jew; she worships idols, he worships Yahweh.  They’re separated by language, worldview, geography, race, religion.  They from different tribes.  

In response to her request, he tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 

In other words, “You’re not my people.  I cannot help you.”  

It’s the last thing you’d ever expect to hear from Jesus.  “You’re not my responsibility, so I can’t help you.”

Some scholars suggest that Jesus is just testing her faith.  But I can’t think of any other place in the gospels where Jesus puts destitute people to the test.  Jesus doesn’t play games with people in need.  He doesn’t test anyone to see how far they’re willing to go before finally answering their prayers.  This desperate woman is not a believing Jew to begin with.  She knows nothing of Israel’s God.  She has no “faith” to test.  This isn’t a story about the testing of a desperate woman’s faith.

So why, then, is Jesus so reluctant to help her?

Maybe his reluctance is intended to slow down the whole scene, just a little, so we can see clearly, unmistakably, what it looks like when someone crosses over one of those archaic divisions to prove that there’s no one, not anyone, who lives outside the love and reach of God—not even those who do not believe in God; not even those who, like this Canaanite woman, worship a different god.  No one stands outside the circle of God’s concern.

If this story were captured in a movie, this is the scene where Jesus stops, turns, looks into the camera, and says, “Are you watching this?”

That’s when Jesus utters one of the most un-Christian statements that ever came out of his mouth.

“It’s not proper to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.”

It’s an insult lost on most of us today.  These days, we are obsessed with our dogs—infatuated, really.  We dress them up in ribbons and bows and designer sweaters.  We push them in strollers, take them shopping, send them to doggie psychiatrists and day spas.  

But Jesus isn’t talking about our furry friends.  He’s talking about the feral scavengers of his day that lived in the streets, digging through garbage, eating whatever they could find.

“It’s not proper to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.”  

In other words, “You are a dog.  You’re not human.” 

It’s an astonishing statement.  But before you get angry with Jesus or assume he’s broken his halo, let me tell you what I think.

I think Jesus is playing the part.  I think he’s playing us, mirroring our own human impulse to otherize and exclude, to not see people as children of God worthy of mercy.  

Jesus isn’t saying that it’s right to believe and act this way.  He’s simply showing us what we look like when webelieve and act this way and then cloak our words and actions in religious garb.

In this shocking scene, Jesus wants us to see all those borders in our world that we refuse to cross.  Some are visible, and some we work overtime to keep invisible: borders of race, class, religion, politics, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity.  Borders that separate Sunnis from Shiites, Irish Catholics from Protestants, Palestinians from Israelis, conservatives from progressives, blue collar from white, queer from straight, rich from poor, Christian from Muslim.  

It’s rare for people to cross those borders.  It’s just the way it is.

But this Canaanite woman refuses to believe that.  

She persists long enough for Jesus—for us—to see what lies on the other side of that barbed wire fence in our minds, to see her as she really is, not as some scavenging dog, but as God’s beloved.  

She won’t give in.  Like that game where two children look stare into each other’s eyes, each trying to make the other blink first.  She will not blink. 

“You’re right,” she says, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  

It’s the best come-back line in the Bible.  

There’s an old Yiddish proverb that says, “If someone calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back.”  

This brave woman wears the saddle to expose the flawed logic of Jesus’ tradition.  

It’s Jesus who blinks. 

It’s his teachable moment for us.  Jesus is hoping we’ll come to our senses, that something in us will change.  He’s made himself the fall guy for our sakes and honored the Canaanite woman as the hero of the story.  She has made us see her for who she really is, and how the ancient boundaries that separate us can be erased, if only we were brave like her.  

And in the moment Jesus recognizes her as truly human, her little girl is healed, which is how it always works.  When we see each other—even those on the “other side”—as truly human and beloved by God, that’s when all the world’s children are healed.

The writer of Ephesians puts it this way: 

“Remember that you were once… aliens… and strangers…, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near…  For he is our peace… and has broken down the dividing wall… that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two…” (Ephesians 2).

Jesus is the border-crossing, boundary-breaking embodiment of God’s love.

Did you know that lobsters never stop growing?  The largest lobster on record, about fifty years old, weighed in at forty-five pounds.  What many don’t understand is how risky it is to mature as a lobster.

Every few months a lobster sheds its exoskeleton.  Releasing its shell is a tiring process that leaves the flesh exposed and vulnerable.  In order to grow, it must regularly let go of that spiny, tough exterior that makes it look so intimidating.  Failure to rid itself of its outer shell would mean death by the very structure it previously created. 

When a lobster’s inner being has outgrown its shell, the shedding process ensues.  

The lobster swallows large amounts of water, causing it to swell.  Eventually the internal pressure begins to separate the part of its shell that protects its head and body, called the carapace.  

Next, the lobster pops its eyes out of their holes, rendering itself temporarily blind.  Then begins the slow struggle of wrenching the flesh of its large pincer claws through its much smaller joints.  After the claw-flesh is free, the lobster is finally liberated with a flip of its tail.  

But once free, the lobster flops around, exhausted, helpless, and vulnerable, as it waits for its new shell to harden.  

If you’ve ever seen the cooked meat of a lobster, you’ve likely observed the pinkish color on its outer edge.  This pink is its emerging shell.  The lobster’s new outer structure is birthed out of what was there before.

The lobster is a metaphor for what’s called “adaptive presence.”  It knows what we all know: that if we don’t leave behind the protective shell of our cocoons, we die.  We live and grow by daring to break free from all that confines us.  

This past week, the break-up of the United Methodist Church got underway.  The Global Methodist Church was launched last Monday in response to the majority of Methodists who, for decades, have been trying to break out of the oppressive shell of policies that have done great harm to the LGBTQ community for too long.  The traditionalists who have advocated for those policies for years have formed the new Global Methodist Church.  

But they will take that old, restrictive shell with them.  

For us, that shell is just too small and confining.

It’s now up to the United Methodist Church to grow into something new, bigger, more fully inclusive, and courageous—to finally erase the border that has kept some people out.  

It will not be easy.  We’ll still need to bring people with us.

Thirty years ago, a bishop laid his hand on my head and ordained me.  We did not see eye to eye on the issue of LGBTQ equality and inclusion.  As bishop, he had enforced those regressive policies on pastors whom I knew and cared deeply about.  

But after his retirement, he had a change of heart in which he came to see the debate on sexual orientation in a new way.  His eyes were opened, his heart expanded, and he confessed openly that he had been wrong. 

In a much-publicized sermon, he said, “For most of my life… I went along with the prevailing view on this issue.  It seemed like common sense to me.  But it was my experience that showed me that I was wrong.”

He said, “There is truth and value at the center of religious faith which is unchanging and ought to be honored…  But we must not forget that God is ever ready to do a new thing… that the God we worship is not a static God, capable only of speaking to us from two, three or four thousand years ago.  Rather, God is living, alive in this moment, revealing new truth to us here, now.”

Three take-aways:

Jesus is the border-crossing, boundary-breaking embodiment of God’s love.

Every cocoon eventually becomes too small and confining.

God is alive in this moment, revealing new truth to us here, now.