A Sermon for Homecoming Sunday
First Church in Sterling, MA
delivered September 11, 2016
It is so good to see you. I feel like we’ve been gone for a long time, and I hope you had good, restful summers. I did. I took three weeks of vacation! I go to Star Island every summer, a little island 10 miles off of the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. Star Island is a religious conference and retreat center in the isles of shoals, and it is beloved by many in this church. In fact, your former pastor Jonathan met his wife Shantia there. So it’s apparently quite romantic, too.
Star Island is filled with island lore, as it was a fisherman’s village in the 19th century, and a home to Indians and pirates. And it’s old and wind whipped and the buildings are creaky, drafty and sideways, and there are graveyards for the many families who used to live there year-round when it was a fisherman’s village. The island can be a little spooky because of all that. And there are TONS of island ghost stories.
There’s a ghost story about Black Beard’s wife that is perhaps the most beloved island story. So get ready, kids, because Halloween is coming early to First Church. I’m going to tell you a ghost story today. I promise its not that scary.
Apparently, the pirate Black Beard and his wife were out on the Isles of Shoals after he stole a bunch of treasure and hid it on the island far beyond the reaches of the law. Eventually, Blackbeard had to leave his wife on Star Island to go back into Portsmouth. He was going to the bank or to get some food, or some other such errand. He left on a boat, and he never returned. The legend is he was caught and jailed for his crimes on the mainland, and his wife never received word.
And so the story goes like this: Every night while she waited for him to return: Blackbeard’s wife went out onto the pier on the edge of the island in all seasons of the year in her white night gown, staring off at the boats in the distance with hope in her eyes, and chanted wistfully across the ocean waters, “he will come back, he will come back, he will come back.” She did this every night until she died. He never came back.
And the ghost story is that she still haunts the island. People see her in her translucent milky white nightgown still on the end of the pier, and have heard her chanting, “He will come back, he will come back.”
So still, to this day, whenever people arrive at Star Island on the boat for a week-long conference, the people who live on the island don’t say hello. Instead, they chant as the boat reaches the pier,
“YOU DID COME BACK! YOU DID COME BACK! YOU DID COME BACK!”
And the people on the boat chant “we did come back, we did come back, we did come back.”
It is a chant of profound jubilation.
And when a conference leaves on the boat at the end of their stay on the island, the people who live on the island don’t say goodbye to the conferees. Instead they chant,
“YOU WILL COME BACK! YOU WILL COME BACK! YOU WILL COME BACK!”
And the people on the boat chant back “we will come back,” as the boat heads back to Portsmouth.
It is a chant of profound hope.
I know this hope well. Like the lady ghost, I have to remind myself that you all will come back over the summer. The summer days are the ghost town days at First Church in Sterling. Sometimes I wonder if I’m all alone here. Especially when I send emails out to leadership teams and they go spookily unanswered, or we have Sunday worship and a third of our regular attendance is counted. I have to say to myself over and over again: “It’s OK. They will come back, they will come back. Wait, they will come back, right?”
And then…AND THEN on this, the second Sunday in September, HOMECOMING SUNDAY, I feel again the profound jubilation I feel every year. And so I want to shout at you with great exuberance, “You did come back! You did come back! You did come back!”
[You’re supposed to shout it back at me, “We did come back, we did come back, we did come back!”]
This is why I love this day. It’s like Christmas. It’s my confirmation that even though I thought you might all be lost forever on Cape Cod, you do all, in fact, eventually come back. Hallelujah!
I rejoice in your return!
And our scriptures today are about God rejoicing in our return. God’s love is like the love of the Lady Ghost. God never gives up on us, or on our homecoming. “You will come back, you will come back, you will come back” God chants wistfully over the waters, and into our ears whenever we have separated ourselves from each other and from God.
Our two parables that we heard today are stories about God’s tenacious love for us…the kind of Love that never gives up; the kind of love that goes out looking on a search and rescue mission for the lost until we are found.
On first read, the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to go after one sheep who has wandered off makes it sound like God is just a really bad shepherd. But those of us who have loved or taught or parented kids know that if one of them was lost, we would do whatever it took to go find the one who went missing. If my youngest child Isaac wandered off, my husband Andy and I wouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and give thanks for the other two kids and for the quiet. We would move heaven and earth to find him. Likewise, this parable tells a story about a God who will leave the rest of us behind to find the missing child and bring him back home where he belongs. You did come back!
On first read, the parable of the lost coin just sounds materialistic to people. So this lady has ten coins and she loses one, and searches desperately to find it, finally does, and then has a party to celebrate. But this is a story about how much we are valued by God. God values each one of us so much that God will turn over every rug and every chair, search every nook and cranny among the dust bunnies of the dustbin until we are found again, and counted among the many. And then throw a party upon our return. You did come back!
We are each and all necessary to God, of inestimable value and worth. And because we are each and all part of the body of God, we need one another to survive. God knows we are just as valuable to the other sheep in the flock, and the other coins in the purse, as we are to God. And that’s because we know the Love of God through human beings. We bring God to one another.
There is an old joke that goes like this: once there was a preacher who fell off a cliff into the ocean and he couldn’t swim to shore.
When a boat came by, the captain yelled, "Do you need help, sir?" The preacher calmly said "No, God will save me."
A little later, another boat came by and a fisherman asked, "Hey, do you need help?" The preacher replied again, "No God will save me."
Eventually the preacher drowned. When he got to heaven the preacher asked God, "Why didn't you save me?"
God replied, "Fool, I sent you two boats!"
We are each other’s life boats. We bring one another hope when hope is hard to find. We are the search and rescue team for the lost, and at one point or another we are all lost. If you’re lost and wondering why God hasn’t shown up to look for you yet, look no further than the hand holding yours’, or the phone call from someone who was just wondering how you were, even the smile from a stranger at the supermarket. Those are the lifeboats.
We need one another to survive.
We need to look around for a moment at the faces in this room. Just take a moment. You need these people to survive. Young, old, male, female, black, white, gay, straight, believers, questioners, questioning believers…you need one another. I don’t care if you’ve never seen or met or known one another intimately. It doesn’t matter. These are your life boats.
Look around again. I want us to look around and figure out who isn’t here, because we need them too. And I don’t just mean our members who we haven’t seen in awhile, or the people who are at the pancake breakfast at the Sterling Fair.
Who are the people that we have yet to welcome, who we have yet to find? Who are the people your heart breaks for? Who is in the most need of a community like this, and what are the barriers to their entry? Who are the people who need our love the most, our acceptance the most, our saving message the most? Those are the people who matter most to God—the people who aren’t here yet. The people who are missing. Our job is to go out and find them, and then make a place for them.
May we become a church of wide open doors, and wide open hearts, worthy of the promise of those who are not yet here.
Because, beloved, this is the kind of church we are called to be, a place of welcome, of welcome back, of welcome home. A place of profound jubilation and profound hope. A home for the least, the last, and the lost. Here there are lifeboats in the form of people to remind us what God’s love is like. Here is where we celebrate your return, every week.
And this is the kind of home I want to welcome you to, and welcome you back to.
Welcome home, beloved. You did come back!
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.