Homeland Security

People who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore, God… has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:15-16)

Almost six years ago a word entered common usage that had not previously been part of our everyday lexicon: we began speaking in America about the “homeland.”  Before the terrorist attacks of 9-11 I think we would have been more prosaic, referring perhaps to things that happen “on US soil.”  But from our national tragedy there sprung up (I guess) a need to define our space with an idea rather than an area: a home land; the home land.  And, of course, the need for homeland security.

I have never been comfortable with this new-ish word, or with how quickly it became a part of our regular usage.  I love this country, and I have seen a lot of it – from sea to shining sea – knowing something of its breadth and magnificence makes it all the more absurd to think of it as my homeland or yours.  We are an extraordinarily blessed nation in all the beauty and resources that have been entrusted to us.  But I have difficulty thinking about the vast region of this continent as a homeland.  What could that mean?

For a long time I suspected that my dis-ease with the word “homeland” was basically political.  It just sounds too right-wing to me, too paternalistic, too politically charged, too ready to be invoked as a cry to arms, too good a reason to want to stand up and declare yourself proud to be an American, too reminiscent of the dangerous nationalism of another time and place.  

But now I realize that there is something in the word that I respond to as a Christian – something about the term that wants to appeal to a deeper longing in my heart.  There is something about the idea of the homeland that seems to require a religious zeal – just as it requires protection at all costs and a federal Department to look after that protection.

And I hope I do not sound unpatriotic when I say that my heart resists the tugging of the strings of the homeland.  My ears find the tones of its anthems (sung by security guards at airport x-ray machines) hollow and even annoying.  I have a home in this land, and I pray that I will for as long as I live.  But can this ever be the homeland for me or for you?

Somewhere in the heart of the Christian there is meant to be a journey; somewhere deeply rooted in our lives there is a sojourn through wilderness.  Our story is a story of wanderings and wanderers who responded time and time again to the call from God to “Go” somewhere – often without knowing where.  Our hope has been in a promise declared to generations.  But long ago we stopped connecting that promise to a patch of land.

Instead, we have heard in God’s insistent call to go from here to there the rudiments of our faith.  What is Christian faith if not the conviction that God has someplace for us to go and that he will lead us there no matter how unlikely it seems?

Faith has gotten a bad name these days.  If you do something “by faith” you are a fool because you are doing it not only against all odds, but against reason.  We are said to take “on faith” truths that no reasonable person would subscribe to and that science has disproved – like a literal biblical explanation for the creation of the universe.  To be a person of faith is a sign of a weak intellect and quite possibly a mental deficiency.  Faith is pre-scientific, pre-historic, and mostly the domain of previous generations.

But these are caricatures of faith: cartoon versions of a silly kind of faith that sounds like willful ignorance.  Faith is actually something altogether different.  It is the thread that has tied generation after generation of wanderers together, leading in a single, specific, and puposeful direction.  

The writer of the biblical letter to the Hebrews sees it connecting the first children – Cain and Abel – to Noah and his clan in the ark.  Then on to Abraham, the father of faith and to Sarah his once childless wife.  The thread was not broken, as it seemed it might be, when Abraham led his son Isaac up to the mountain.  From Isaac it passed to Jacob then to Joseph and into Egypt.  In faith Moses took up the thread to lead Israel out of Egypt and across the red Sea and from there the story goes on: wandering, wandering through desert lands, clinging to a promise.

This is what faith looks like: you pack your bags and you get up and go somewhere.  Faith is a journey of promise.  And long ago we stopped connecting that promise to a patch of land.

Which brings me back to the homeland.

Because for now, it is clear that Christians have no homeland in this world.  Our wanderings to a promised land ceased long ago to be connected to real estate and we fixed our hopes (when Jesus taught us) on the kingdom of heaven, where the true Christian homeland lies.  

If we are, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, “thinking of that land from which [we] had gone out, [we]… have opportunity to return.”  But maybe the awful fate of Lot’s wife (remember her), who was turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back toward Sodom, was meant as a sign after all: a warning against the desire to turn back.  After all, Jesus tells his disciples that whoever puts his hand to the plow and then turns back is not fit for the kingdom.

And that is the challenge of faith in our own day and age, as it has ever been: to fix our hopes on citizenship in heaven, to desire a better country: one of God’s design.

The proof of our faith will never be found in the map of a homeland that stretches from Atlantic to Pacific, from Canada to Mexico.  And in fact, when we adopt the idea of this kind of homeland in our hearts, we are, in a sense, looking back.  We are crowding out the space that God has meant for faith to fill with a yearning for his promises.  And we have been warned of the danger of looking back.

Here in this land, it might be that God asks us to express our faith not by constructing and alternative homeland, but by building small models of that better country that we believe he has prepared for us.  This is why it is an act of faith to struggle for justice and to work for peace, to reach out to another in need, to visit the shut-in or the imprisoned, or to help out a child in need.  These are little expeditions in faith when we journey beyond our present reality to live for a moment or two in the kind of country we imagine God has prepared for us.

In an excellent book the Scottish writer, Rory Stewart chronicles his own expedition: a walk across Afghanistan, just weeks after the American-led invasion and the fall of the Taliban.  Afghanistan is a country that seems to constitutionally resist nationhood.  There are many homelands in Afghanistan, but it os nobody’s homeland.

Stewart writes of a conversation he has as he asks for directions from and old Afghan who has probably never traveled more than a few kilometers from his own village.

“’Forget the road,’ he said, ‘because you don’t want to go [that way] at all…  it will add two days to your journey at least.’

‘Have you walked this route,’ [Stewart] asked.

‘Not all of it, but I was told about it by my father.’   

…’Can you give me the names of the big men in that valley?’” Stewart asks.  

And the man and his friends begin to recite the names of men they have heard of in towns they have never been to and never will go, but which provide a useful map of village after village, that will save two days of walking.

“Mir Ali Hussein Beg is the greatest man in the Sar Jungal valley….  He is three days beyond Dualatyar.  In a day you could get to Mukhtar, the place of Mizra Beg, and then to Charasiab, home of Abdul Rezak Khan….  Then Mir Ali Hussein Beg at Katlish….   Then Ghulam Haider Khan at Shahi Murri, …one day and then you are at Yakawlang.”

Stewart calls this kind of a map a song-of-the-places-in-between.  It is precisely the same kind of map that the writer to the Hebrews is using when he traces the thread of faith from Cain and Abel to Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, to Moses, and then to Gideon and Samuel and David and the prophets and countless others who carried the thread of faith forward.

And it is the kind of map that is not much in use in these days of global positioning systems, and Homeland Security, and Google maps that can show you a satellite photo of almost anywhere you care to look and even let you zoom in.  

The map of the places-in-between is an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things unseen.  And it can never outline the contours of a homeland.

And you and I, my brothers and sisters, have been given such a map in the story of our faith.  Which means that we have been called by God to live, as our forebears did, in the places-in-between.  God calls us, day after day to go out on expeditions of faith building models of that better country that he has promised us and looking for the dawning of the day when the kingdom shall be established in full-scale.

And God has given us a map that includes such points of interest as the place where Sarah laughed, and the spot where Abraham almost did in Isaac, the hard-to-see pillar of salt that once was Lot’s wife.  But there are countless other markers on the map of the places-in-between: crazy Francis stripping down to his birthday suit, Patrick preaching about shamrocks, monks and kings and princesses and paupers; there is the dream of a preacher in Alabama, and the way my grandmother prayed her rosary.  All of these full of meaning and direction on the map of places-in-between.  

This is the map of our faith.  Forget the road, because you don’t want to go that way at all, who knows how many days it will add to your journey.

And if you are thinking of that land from which we have been sent out – if you are thinking of the homeland, as though you should stand up and be proud about it – there is always the opportunity to return.  But how will you ever know what you have missed?  How will you ever know about those things that you have hoped for and about all the promises of God that are things yet unseen?  

And how will we ever discover that better country, where God has prepared for us a city if we have fooled ourselves that the homeland is right here where we already are?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
12 August 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 12, 2007 .