In one of America’s best loved pieces of literature, Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, get swept away from Kansas in a tornado and end up in the magical Land of Oz. Dorothy meets some steadfast friends along the way as they all follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, where they hope to meet the wizard and have their wishes granted. Dorothy’s wish is to get back home to Kansas.
The person who wrote Psalm 84 longs to get home to God’s house. The temple in Jerusalem serves as the pilgrim’s spiritual home, for God’s presence in that place is especially powerful. After all, people have gathered there over centuries to pray and to praise God. In the temple, the pilgrim hopes to encounter God more fully as the people offer sacrifices, ask for forgiveness, and pray and worship together.
When the pilgrims finally reach the temple, what joy! For in the temple, where even the birds come to rejoice in the living God, the pilgrims forget how hard the journey was. They join in praise and thanksgiving for finally arriving at the longed for destination. They realize all over again that there is no other place in the world like this home in God where God welcomes us in.
In addition to the poetic description of all of creation joining in praise to God in God’s house, the psalmist describes the journey to that house.
Not only will the pilgrims making the journey find God present at their destination, but they will find God going all along the way with them as well.
And God’s presence with them gives them the strength to make the journey.
Now it’s our turn. We are pilgrims, making our own journeys through this life.
Psalm 84 gives us some things to keep in mind as we travel.
First, the psalm reminds us that our ongoing goal and destination in this life is to be in the presence of God.
God is our North Star. To travel toward God gives us direction, focus and purpose.
Nature itself follows the direction of our Creator. The psalmist says that the sparrow has found a house and the swallow a nest where she can lay her young by the side of God’s altars. Every created thing is interconnected with every other part of creation, and all of creation is in God’s care. Nature witnesses to the presence of God and responds to that presence.
Have you ever noticed how sunflowers turn their faces toward the sun and move with the sun as it travels across the sky? Or how prayer plants spread their leaves during the day, and then roll them up at night? God has given the natural world its own direction, focus and purpose. The natural world is much better about living into God’s plan for creation than we people tend to be!
Second, we do not make this journey alone. In Biblical times, pilgrims traveled in groups to the temple in Jerusalem for the big religious festivals. The temple was always packed with all sorts of people. In today’s gospel, both a Pharisee and a tax collector have gone up to the temple to pray. The one who had contempt for the other was focused on himself rather than on God—he lacked God as his true North. If he had been focused on God rather than himself, he would have had compassion toward his fellow sinner.
Jesus said that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our destination in this life is God, not only will we welcome the company of others, but we will be willing give help to our fellow travelers.
Jesus told a story about a traveler going from Jerusalem to Jericho. Bandits attacked the traveler and left him for dead. A priest and a Levite, probably both headed to the temple in Jerusalem, passed by the man lying in the ditch and didn’t even bother to stop. Then the Samaritan came along, bound up the man’s wounds, and provided for the man’s ongoing care while he recovered.
Jesus didn’t say what the Samaritan’s destination was, because Jesus didn’t need to say it—the Samaritan’s ultimate destination was God. So the Samaritan cared for the man in the ditch and in doing so, became the hands and heart of God as he did what he could for his fellow traveler, making God present and available to the man who needed help.
The pilgrim whose destination is God is a truly blessed person. The psalmist points out that blessed people are people who rejoice. We come to church to give thanks and praise, as we say every Sunday at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving. “It is right to give our thanks and praise!” Or, if you love the traditional words, you can say, “It is meet and right so to do,” to give thanks to God.
Psalm 84 also has some wisdom for how we should live out our last days as we complete our earthly journeys. Looking back, we can see that God has gone with us throughout our journeys in this life.
Today’s Epistle reading from 2nd Timothy reports some of the Apostle Paul’s last words. Paul has spent his life proclaiming the gospel, and now his work is done. He has fought the good fight, he has finished the race, he has kept the faith. God has gone with Paul through his life, which has been full of danger and challenges. Paul knows that God continues to go with him as Paul prepares for his own death. Paul says, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.”
Now, Paul is going to God, the righteous Lord who will give him a crown of righteousness, and not only a crown for Paul, but also to all who have longed for God’s appearing. Paul has not made the journey alone. God has gone with him, and so have countless others who have followed God faithfully during their time here on earth.
So we faithful people long for our home in God. Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like home.
At the end of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy says goodbye to the companions who have kept her company on the way, and then, following Glinda’s directions, she clicks the heels of her ruby slippers together as she says over and over, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”
In the next scene, Dorothy slowly opens her eyes. She’s at home, in her own bed. Her Aunt Em and her Uncle Henry and four friends hover over her, and she tells them about where she’s been, that most of it was beautiful, but all she kept saying was that she wanted to go home, and at last they sent her home. Dorothy says to Toto, “We’re home, home, and this is my room and you’re all here and I’m not going to leave here ever again because I love you all. There’s no place like home.”
God has brought us here today, and we are home in this place. God goes with us through our journeys in this life to our eternal home in God. And so we wait with happy expectation, for we will all be there, and we won’t have to ever leave that place of love and gladness in the fullness of God’s presence.
There really is no place like home.
“How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.”