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A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, May 13, 2018

Growing up I hated where I lived. I never understood why my family lived there, either. My mother grew up in Huntington Beach, California, and my father in Chicago, Illinois. Why they chose to settle in Farmington, Missouri, was a mystery, if not a tragedy, to me.

The region where I grew up is referred to as the Lead Belt for all the lead that used to be mined there. Most of the old mines have long since closed. Now there’s only an old glass factory that’s surrounded by chat dumps that look like vast, sandy deserts.

If you weren’t in the professional class, that is, if you weren’t a physician or lawyer, minister or business owner, you likely commuted 60 or so miles north to St. Louis for work.

From the highway my hometown looks a giant strip mall. Fast food joints, motels, and, of course, a gleaming Wal-Mart dominates the horizon. Add to it aging telephone poles and power lines, compete with billboards advertising lawyers specializing in divorce and DWIs, payday loan shops, an Applebee’s, and an adult bookstore. Each time I go back to see my family the only thing that changes is the number of fast food restaurants and pharmacies. One of my friends likes to say, “we might be fat in Farmington, but we’ve probably got a medicine for that.”

For as much as I wanted to get out of that town as a young man I sure do like going back now. It’s home to me. The aging streets will always be familiar. And my mom’s tiny three-bedroom house has the ability to bring out the child, or perhaps I should say the childishness, in me.

I haven’t lived there for almost twenty years and still I feel like I’m home as soon as I pull off the interstate.

If you cannot tell by now, this morning’s topic is about Home. But what is home? Is it a feeling, or is it a place? Perhaps it’s both, or maybe neither. I’ll let you decide.

Psychologists have shown that whenever you ask someone where they’re from the response you get depends on an individual’s conception of home. For instance, when some people say home they’re talking about the town they were born in. For others, home is where they went to high school; and for another group of people, home is where they’ve lived the longest.

The point is, answering the question, “What is your hometown?” isn’t as straightforward a question as you might think.

Now, I didn’t just hate my hometown, I was embarrassed it. I thought it was nothing better than a tiny hick town populated by a bunch of rednecks with weird country fetishes.

For instance, very year in Farmington there’s this summer festival called Country Days that takes over downtown for an entire weekend. It’s one of those smoky, greasy festivals with funnel cake, fried Twinkies, and overpriced rides operated by people who look like mob hit men dressed in coveralls.

As best as I can remember, my hatred for Farmington dates back to the summer of my fifth-grade year: I remember riding the Ferris wheel with my girlfriend, Abby, at Country Days. Abby was a year older, and about twelve inches taller than me. When we’d hug or kiss she’d have to bend down like she was picking up a child, which is a real confidence booster for a blossoming young man, let me tell you.

Anyways, Abby and I were riding the Ferris wheel, holding hands and kissing, and planning our long future together when, just as the ride was ending, my 6’ 3” girlfriend decided to inform me of her intention to break up with me. Adding to this insult, Abby had chosen my arch nemesis Brad’s brother, Lance, over me. Now Abby promised me it wasn’t because he was cuter, she swore I was like in the top 25 to 30 guys in the 6th grade. The issue was Abby was worried about having kids with someone so much shorter than her.

I tried to reassure her that I’d get taller, that the Mason side of the family has all kinds of tall people in the family tree. But she’d already made up her mind. But before we could go our separate ways we had to wait as the carnies unloaded the dozen or so Ferris wheel buggies, saving ours for last of course.

So, there we were, high above my hometown in the middle of the annual heritage festival when I suffered my first romantic heartbreak.

Now every Country Days ends with a music concert. You don’t come from a town called Farmington and expect a rock concert. Every year the town was treated to the finest country music concert money could buy.

The same year Abby broke up with me for the tall, but ugly and boring Lance, Dolly Parton headlined that summer’s concert. I remember sitting in the VIP section with my grandma in the rain, staring up at Dolly, thinking, “My word, that woman has the biggest hair I have even seen in my life!”

Most of the songs Dolly sang were about wanting to belong, about wanting her relationships to be bound by faithfulness and truth; and many more were about home. My grandma sat there in her Sunday best, wearing a clear plastic bonnet to keep her permed hair dry. Every time I looked over she was singing the words right along with Dolly and the band.

On the ride home, I told grandma Abby had broken up with me on the Ferris wheel. My grandma reached over and patted my hand in silence for a while. Once the tender moment passed my grandma turned to me and asked, “Why’d she break up with you? Was it because you’re too short for her?”

My grandma tried to reassure me by promising there would be many young women who would come along and break up with me in the future, so there was no need to linger on this one.

And for the most part my grandma was right. I’d get my heart broken another time or two.

By the time I was a teenager I dreamt of leaving town almost every day. I resented my hometown for everything it wasn’t. It didn’t have a proper shopping mall; and where I thought there should be skyscrapers and zoos there were trees and fields and cows. I hated all the cowboy hats and boots. I hated all the pickup trucks and rodeos, and how everyone said “y’all” and could tell how much money my parents made based on our street address. I wanted to leave more than anything in the world. I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, over the rainbow.

I had convinced myself that I was too good for my hometown, that I was destined for things greater than it was capable of producing. I even hated the water tower and the town motto, “Tradition and Progress”; everything about home filled me with rage.

And so, as soon as I was able, I moved halfway around the world. Actually, I moved 6 hours north to Chicago. But it didn’t change the fact that when I closed my eyes and thought of home all I could see was that tiny hick town off Highway 67.

Every day that I lived in Chicago I was surrounded by excitement and energy. But for reasons I didn’t quite understand at the time I longed to return home almost every day.

Even when my job sent me to Boulder, Colorado, where I was surrounded by unrivaled natural beauty I would drive 12 hours, one way, every 2 to 3 weeks to sit in my mom’s tiny living room, play Yahtzee, and eat biscuits and gravy in the drugstore deli with my grandpa.

Basically, I was living the redneck version of the Odyssey. Odysseus lived and ate like the gods, but he longed for home every moment. He longed to return to his aging wife, his rambunctious son, and the trivial and monotonous tasks of work and home repair and parenting.

Those years I lived away from home I longed to return every day. Never before had I felt so vulnerable, never before had I felt such a longing to love and be loved, to be held in the arms of someone who wanted nothing more than for me to be happy, to be cared for, and safe.

Just a few years ago I was summoned home after my mom suffered a series of heart attacks and had undergone emergency surgery. After she’d recovered in the hospital I drove her home to Farmington from St. Louis. Every couple of minutes I caught myself looking at her in the rearview mirror just like I imagine my mom used to do to me all those years ago, yelling at me to put on my seatbelt, to sit still, to stop bothering my sisters. For the first time in my life, looking at my sick mom in the rearview mirror, she looked small and fragile to me, almost like a child.

I remember helping her inside the house and laying her on the couch in the living room, and asking her what she needed; my mom asked in response, “What else could I need when I have you here with me?”

That I was there with her was more than enough. But it wasn’t only that I was with her in that moment. It was that our love itself is a home. I could have been calling on a phone or arrived in spirit by letter. I knew in that moment that where I’m from isn’t a tragedy at all. That tiny redneck town of Highway 67 is where I first fell in love. It’s where I fell in love with the world.

As it turned out, home wasn’t somewhere over the rainbow at all.

A couple months back my daughter became obsessed with the movie the Wizard of Oz. She chose it for family movie night every Friday, watching it over and again. On one of our trips down south to visit family she watched it back to back to back. She doesn’t watch it nearly as often as she used to, but she continues to play an imaginary version of it with her grandmother on the iPad.

Everyone’s seen the film, right? It’s hard to think that anyone wouldn’t like it. In all honesty, I really don’t think I could fully trust someone who dislikes the Wizard of Oz. I can understand someone not liking Gone with the Wind or Casablanca or Citizen Kane, but the Wizard of Oz is the foundation upon which so many childhood fantasies stand.

And why is that? Because it’s a story about dissatisfaction and disappointment, it’s a story about love and loss, and heart and courage; but mostly, it’s a story about home.

In essence, it’s a human story, a story about second chances and how happiness depends on the company of other people.

During the pinnacle of my daughter’s obsession with the movie, my wife sent me an article written by a practitioner of Hinduism who suggests Dorothy’s saga perfectly represents the journey of Samsara.

Samsara is the cycle of life, death, and rebirth all of us are in the midst of. We’re stuck in the cycle because we base our lives on an illusion. This tricks us into thinking the only thing that matters is what we build and create and produce. It tricks us into thinking we can do everything on our own, that the goal of life is to conquer all we can and become everything we can be. But if we ever hope to escape the wheel of Samsara and live eternally in peaceful acceptance we have to admit that we’re not an “autonomous being” at all. “Instead,” we must recognize our connection to “the rest of reality.”

Not only that, the goal is to recognize our total dependence on other people. And to do that we have to let go of our egos and take a leap of faith, recognizing that we must surrender our lives to something larger than ourselves: the only way to live fully is to dedicate your life to love, family, and community. It is this leap of faith that liberates us from Samsara into a state of being called moksha, or enlightenment.

Now this is heady stuff. I had to read the article like 4 times and I still only grasp half of it.

But see if you can catch what the author was trying to say about it being so similar a journey to Dorothy’s in the Wizard of Oz: First, Dorothy runs from her family to escape her problems, believing, falsely, that she is the only person capable of solving them, and that the only way to escape is to go where? Somewhere over the rainbow; but, if you remember, she’s stopped at the start of the journey by a traveling professor who tells her what? He says to Dorothy, your family loves you, they need her, and, most of all, and you need them more than you can ever know. Dorothy tries to run from her troubles but gets caught in a terrible storm and suffers a blow to the head that knocks her out.

Dorothy awakens a stranger in a strange land, with only one hope in mind: to go back home. In the end the girl who dreamed of living somewhere, anywhere over the rainbow, who thought she was so unique and misunderstood, and wasn’t loved, wanted nothing more than to return to that dusty old farm house in Kansas. But try as she did, she couldn’t figure out how to get back home on her own.

Dorothy was so down and out, even her companions lacked courage, brains, and heart. Or did they?

As it turns out, bravery and smarts and love don’t come from within at all. They come from others, from sharing your life with friends and family and the world around you; it comes from taking journeys and falling in and out of love. It comes from putting your trust in yourself, but also in the goodness of other people.

It comes from acknowledging that you’ll never get too far on that Yellow Brick Road alone. Home, as it turns out for Dorothy, is in her heart, a heart that lives for and loves others.

Just think for a moment, Dorothy didn’t want to go home because life on the farm was easy. She wanted to go back to that dusty old farm in Kansas because it was home. Home is where the heart is, after all.

Symbolically, home represents the source of life from which we all emerge: a womb, a place of belonging and protection.

Those of us lucky enough to come from good homes try to recreate that sense of love and acceptance, while those of us who come from broken and violent homes build upon that which we lacked and strive to sow love in ways that will endure.

Therefore, home symbolizes our utter dependence on others. A home is where we seek refuge, where we nurture intimacy, bring forth new life, and rest and mend.

A home isn’t just a two-story Tudor with a white picket fence. It can be a tent in a rainstorm, a trailer on the outskirts of town, or a church in the middle of town. It can be front row at a Dolly Parton concert, or high up on a Ferris wheel.

Home is how we live; it’s what we create. Home isn’t just a refuge from the world. It is the world itself, the common home we all share, the home we are tasked with leaving just a bit better than we got it.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., thought of our common home as a Beloved Community, a place “in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.”

People who dedicate their lives to rising up the corporate ladder and getting fancy things don’t add an ounce to the creation of a Beloved Community. To make our common home a place where wealth is shared requires people willing to sacrifice, people with courage and heart.

The Beloved Community requires sacrifice because home, much like a family, isn’t something born or grabbed out of thin air; Home must be created, nurtured. And then it must be shared.

Building a Beloved Community resists the modern notion that all you need is a good job and money. Home resists the temptation to believe you can go it alone.

In 2009, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino visited the Hubble Space Telescope, 350 miles above Earth’s surface. Massimino recalls thinking, “at one point, if you could be up in heaven, this is how you would see the planet. And then I dwelled on that and said, no, it’s more beautiful than that. This is what heaven must look like.” Even 350 miles above earth, with a God’s eye view, the resounding truth we get it that heaven is right here; heaven is you, heaven is home sweet home.

Turns out it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. You can come from a tiny hick town in southern Missouri. You can move half way around the world. In the end you’ll discover home isn’t somewhere over the rainbow at all. It’s right here. It lives in all of us. So May It Be. Amen.

[1] Samsara (Hinduism), Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University, accessed April 13, 2018, https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/samsara-hinduism.

[2] The King Center, “The Beloved Community,” http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4

[3] National Geographic, “They Saw Earth From Space. Here’s How It Changed Them,” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/03/astronauts-space-earth-perspective/.