In his book, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead tells the gut-wrenching story of Cora, a runaway slave, making her way to freedom. At one point in the novel she happens upon a commune that is operated by a group of African Americans, some free and some runaway. The motto of the farm is “Stay, and contribute,” an invitation she received as an almost miraculous inversion of the planation law from which she had run.
Stay: find rest, fill your belly, settle your spirit.
But when you are ready, contribute: find your place, lend a hand, be a part of that which sustains you. Be an agent in your own recovery.
This invitation is as close as the novel gets to defining one of its key themes, that elusive place that is always so much more than a place: home.
Home is much more spiritual a thing than physical. We can live in a place for years, decades even, and yet home can remain someplace else. I read some time ago about the notion of “inner homelessness,” a casualty of our culture’s endemic lack of roots and rootedness. There has never been a more mobile generation of humans, or one less bound to a particular place. For all its many benefits, this mobility comes at a cost. The cost is often “home.” Not simply a place to stay, but a place to contribute. A place to belong.
A recent survey revealed that the number of Americans without close friends has tripled since 1985. The average number of people Americans feel they can talk to about “important matters” has fallen from three to two. For all our digital connections, we’ve never been more alone, and the numbers are even worse for the younger generations.
As great a scourge as literal homelessness surely is, it may be that the church’s chief calling at the present moment is to tend to the many inner-homeless among us. The people who have no place to belong, no place to love and be loved. And the truth is, we are all likely to find ourselves without this kind of home at some time or another.
This past Sunday we celebrated the many ways this church is home for each of us. For some, such as our guest preacher, this is more literally true in that you were born into this church. For others, this church has become your home, maybe through the years, or maybe since the first time you saw light pour through the stained-glass windows. For others, and for any number of reasons, this church is the home you longed for and have finally found: a place of healing and of unexpected grace and love.
Whatever you story, my hope is that for each of us, First Baptist has become home in the deepest sense of the word. A place to stay, yes. A place to worship and learn and grow. But even more than this, a place to contribute. A place to truly be a part of that which sustains us. A place to have our gifts named and celebrated. A place to offer them to God and each other. A place to belong.