If you have ever attended or worked at a summer camp, you might share my appreciation: camp nurses have a difficult job!
In addition to managing scores of allergy meds, and epi pens, and inhalers; in addition to managing twisted ankles, and poison ivy, and tick removal, something a camp nurse must get right is correctly determining whether a camper is quote-unquote “actually” sick or homesick. If you’re “actually” sick, the nurse will call your parents to pick you up. If you’re homesick, not so much. What the nurse will tell you is that homesickness is a survivable condition; the only way to live through it is to live through it.
Now I don’t know whether you have ever been so homesick at camp that you found yourself pleading your case in the infirmary. I am fairly certain, at some point in your life, you have been homesick. Could be when your family moved and you had to start over in a new school. Could be when you enlisted in the military and were deployed. Could be when you moved into assisted living.
So often we think of homesickness as a temporary response to a significant life event, and that’s true, but what if it’s also something more…
It could be that homesickness is the chronic condition of being human.
Even if your experience of home has not been pleasant or healthy, you could still be homesick. You might be longing for the home you’ve always needed.
Even if you have lived your whole life in the same house, your ancestors did not. Go back far enough in history, we’ll find that each one of us comes from a people who have been made to leave their homes. Their uprootedness is still in our bones; their dreaming for home is lodged in our being. This means we have what it takes to survive homesickness; we always have.
For some of us, there are times when homesickness feels like a raging wound. Sure we can live in the place where we’ve been put. The food is edible. The people are nice enough. But let’s be clear: this place where I’m residing is not my home. I know that, and it hurts. And no one is posting my bond. And the camp nurse, God love him, is not calling my parents.
For some of us, homesickness is more of a quiet hum in the back of our soul. Most of the time we don’t notice it’s there; we’re happy enough where we are. Then something happens which triggers an old memory; suddenly, we hear the humming of home. We remember what home smells like! Maybe you don’t miss it until you miss it, but somewhere in each of us, I really believe, there is the capacity to just want to go home.
The trick is knowing where you keep it.
Find the shape of your own homesickness inside your own soul. Trace your finger around its edge. Of course, you are homesick, now this is the work of being honest: Know precisely where your own longing lives. Know where your heart is.
Today our scripture begins in the wilderness. In the Bible, the wilderness is an actual place on the map designating the uninhabited region in between towns, and the wilderness is a spiritual region in between heaven and earth. What happened was that Jesus had just been baptized by John. Now the Spirit took him into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days and forty nights. All this time, Jesus had been fasting. He was famished.
This is when the devil issues the first temptation. “If you’re really the Son of God, turn these rocks into bread.” But Jesus gives the right answer and quotes the Bible instead.
Next, somehow the devil teleports Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem. “If you’re really the Son of God, jump off this building.” Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
Finally, the devil takes Jesus up to the top of a tall mountain. The writer of Matthew loves mountains! Everything important happens on the mountain. Here, the devil tells Jesus to worship him instead of God, and still, Jesus isn’t having it.
Once Jesus defeats the devil, the angels come and wait on him which is exactly the kind of thing that happens in the wilderness. This is why it is so important to know where we are, to be unfailingly honest about our own location. In the worst emergency, this is the first thing the nine-one-one dispatcher will ask you: What is your location. Even if you’re a long way from home, the trick is to know where you are. Know where your longing lives.
After Jesus leaves this region of devils and angels, he learns that his cousin John had been arrested by Herod. This news provokes Jesus to get up and go, but if you asked me to guess where, I would not have guessed Capernaum!
You’d think Jesus would go to the prison to try to see John —maybe to free him— but he doesn’t. Okay, then you’d think Jesus would go home. This is a family emergency, you’d think he go back to Nazareth to see his mother, but he doesn’t. Okay, in Matthew everything important happens on the mountain. Jesus is in crisis. You’d think he would go up the mountain to pray and be alone with his Father in heaven. But no. He does not go to John. He does not go home. He does not go up the mountain. Jesus moves to Capernaum and makes his home.
The writer of Matthew explains this by invoking the prophecy from Isaiah. If you were living in Matthew’s day and you heard these two names, something in you would shudder with homesickness. Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali! These are the names of the tribes deported by the Assyrians. Now even though it’s like seven hundred years later, Capernaum still holds the trauma of the exile.
And in Jesus’ day, the Jewish community in Capernaum was feeling newly exiled since this town had come under the leadership of Rome. The Jewish people in Capernaum remembered the stories of Zebulun and Naphtali. They remembered the homesickness of their ancestors. These were the people who sat in the darkness. The Bible says, they sat in the region and shadow of death. In the region and in the shadow. They could tell you exactly where their homesickness was.
Here’s what gets me. In our story, Jesus is weary from the wilderness. He is worried for John. You know he just wants to go home. Instead, Jesus brings his own homesickness alongside the people there who are sitting in the dark, as though we could do this too.
As though once we determine the location of our own homesickness, once we find it in our own heart, what we’ve also found is the way to sit down beside somebody else whose current location is the region of death. Now even if our lives seem to have nothing in common, we’ve just found the place to sit down next to each other.
In response to the migrant caravan along the southern border, something I’ve heard and echoed repeatedly is: I just can’t imagine what it must be like. I can’t imagine what it’s like to flee your country with your children (on foot!), to risk your life and your children’s lives to try to get the chance to plead for asylum. I can’t imagine how it feels to leave family behind knowing they might not survive or we might never see each other again. I can’t imagine how it feels to be frightened of the officers who are the only ones who can help you. I can’t imagine, but you know we have to try.
And if you have ever in your life been homesick, then you have a way in. We have something in common. I’m not saying being homesick at summer camp is the same as being homesick in a refugee camp; I’m saying we’ve found a place to sit down.
And once you do that. Once you make up your mind to sit down beside someone who’s residing in the shadow of death, what you have done is put yourself in position to see the turning. And I know this seems counterintuitive. I wish I could explain exactly how this works, and I can’t. All I can tell you is try it and see if I’m wrong. Show up to the people who are sitting in dark. Notice where your homesickness and their homesickness meet, then you’ll see. The light of God is spilling under the door. Here you’ve come to be with them in the dark, but try this and see whether the dark stays dark. Weeping will linger for the night. But then what…
If you want to know why Jesus went to Capernaum, I think he was homesick and I think he knew it. He brought his homesickness to a community where the people would get it. He didn’t go and visit John in prison. When Jesus learned that John was locked up, he went out and began preaching John’s sermon. He picked up where John left off: Repent! for the kingdom of heaven has come here.
Now “Repent” is a word that means turn around. It does not actually mean, go and feel bad. It means turn around. Look there! God’s kingdom is breaking into this empire. They say you should always preach the message you need to hear. I love the idea that John’s sermon was what Jesus needed to hear!
Come all you who are living under siege, you who are living in poverty, you whose cousin just got arrested! Come all you people who carry homesickness in the back corner of your soul, I know what that’s like, says Jesus. But turn and behold the arriving of the day. The exile is not our destiny after all. Oppression is not our purpose. God is still turning the world. Stand right here, you can see it!
As the poet Ram Dass says it: In this life, “we’re all just walking each other home.” As Jesus says it: “Follow me.” See God is still turning the world toward love.