It's Time to Go Home- A Sermon on Exile and Return

Written by 

[The following is a sermon I preached on Feb. 27, 2011 at Canadian Memorial United Church, located in Vancouver, B.C.. The regular minister at CMUC, Bruce Sanguin (who recently contributed to Beams and Struts), is on a four month sabbatical, and a guest speaker series was put together for the period of his absence. I'm one of four CMUC members who are either in or entering into seminary at the Vancouver School of Theology, and we were all asked to preach in the series. It was the first time preaching for every one of us! The sermon below was my offering and is printed in exactly the form I preached it in church, with the addition of the subtitle and images.]


According to the Biblical scholar Marcus Borg, Exile and Return is one of three core motifs in the Bible, and it’s a theme I want to take up today. In speaking about our relationship to both food and the Earth, I want to suggest that we, in our modern industrial society, are in a kind of collective exile.

Have you ever personally been in exile? I certainly know I have. To be down and out, disconnected, alone in the valley. To be lost and lonely, out of touch, with no direction home. To be torn and frayed, twisted about, with no sense of the center. To be grasping at phantoms, reeling on the edge, sensing the void. 0110darkwoodDante describes his experience of exile in the Inferno, with these famous words: “Midway on life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. To tell about those woods is hard- so tangled and rough and savage that thinking of it now, I feel the old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter”. We also heard St. Augustine in the readings saying, “I came to love you too late. What did I know? You were inside me, and I was out of my body and mind looking for you”.

I believe that we’re now in a time of collective exile, exile from the Earth, from the soil, from the water and the sun, and from the Spirit that runs through it all. And it’s time to go home. Much of this exile is the result of our modern civilization, and I want to focus on our relationship to food in particular. The modern industrial food supply is on one level a story of astonishing success- it managed to produce vast quantities of food, and to pull huge swathes of people out of starvation and deprivation. The Western nations in particular, like ours, have come to know incredible riches and bounty.

But this has all come at a costly price. The industrial food supply is characterized by many unsustainable methods, including intensive use of fossil fuels, mass production techniques, heavy use of chemicals and fertilizers, and centralized organization. In Vancouver, for instance, we can buy apples from Washington State that come to us via Los Angeles, a result of the big scale centralized processes and core distribution industrial-milk1centers that the modern food supply needs to function. One core result of this overall food system is that we as citizens, for the first time in history, have become detached and out of any immediate contact with the production of the food we eat, signaling an end to the ten thousand year old Neolithic agricultural era of human history.

This process has gone so far that when many first world kids today are asked where milk comes from, they answer “the supermarket”. So distant and removed are we from our food production that, until very recently with the rise in food awareness (of which this sermon is a part), most people had no idea where our food was coming from anymore. And I want to ask today, what are the spiritual and psychological ramifications of this separation?

One suggestion that I find very powerful and resonant is that because of this separation we humans are now suffering from a species loneliness (*) This idea of species loneliness builds upon another important concept called biophilia. The term biophilia suggests that we humans have a natural love- a philia- for living systems. And this is no woo-woo New Age notion either; it was very materialist and non-religious scientists that first proposed this idea. What they realized is that we spent nearly a million years of ourPygmes-6_screen history immersed in the immediate world of plants and animals, and that we came to develop a deep intimate connection with these living systems that we still both love and need. Today, however, we’re increasingly separated from these living worlds that once surrounded us- and in this very same modern period we’ve simultaneously become increasingly lonely, depressed, and ill. And it’s time to go home.

Reverend Bruce Sanguin has offered what I think is a brilliant re-interpretation of the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. In that parable, if you recall, a man has two sons and one of the sons asks the father if he can have his share of the wealth from the family estate. The father obliges, and the son manages to go off and squander it all on “wild living”. When the son comes home, starving and desperate prodigal_sonfor work, sincerely begging his father for forgiveness, and asking only to be made one of his father’s lowly hired men, his father instead celebrates his son’s homecoming and throws him a great feast. When the other brother, furious, asks the father what he’s doing, the father replies, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and now has been found” (Luke 15:32).

Bruce suggests that we as modern citizens have become a prodigal species. We’ve been on a binge, a jag, a spending spree, squandering the Earth’s resources at a breakneck speed. And it’s true. In his excellent but devastating book Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century, historian J.R. McNeil goes through each of the Earth’s systems- the lithosphere (or the soil), the atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water) and the biosphere (plants and animals)- and shows how we’ve systematically damaged each one in ways that most of us have yet to even fathom. When it comes to food production, by planting single crops (or ‘monocrops’) in giant fields, using chemical fertilizers to extract the biggest possible yields, we’ve systematically stripped theno_till nutrients out of vast quantities of the Earth’s soil, soil that took thousands of years to accumulate such richness. We are indeed the prodigal species, and it’s time for us to now come home and ask the Earth for our own forgiveness; it’s time to come home out of our exile and begin living in harmony with the systems on which we depend.

This asking of the Earth for forgiveness requires us to repent, which is a bit of scary word from traditional mythic Christianity, but as the Rev. Donald Grayson pointed out when he preached in this guest series, to repent actually just simply means “to return or come back”. If one has been separated from God in one’s life and actions for instance, to repent is to return to a life lived in accord with Spirit. This repentance calls for a new sense of humility, and it’s interesting to note that the word humility shares the same root as the word humus, or soil. So to become humble is to literally become closer to the Earth itself.  It’s to return home to that from which we came, and this brings me to another really important teaching from the Rev. Bruce Sanguin. Bruce suggests that in this repentance, in this coming back home, what we need to do now is to learn how to go from walking on the Earth, to walking as the Earth. Ok, but what exactly does that mean?

This is a subtle teaching, so let’s take a minute to do a practice together so that we might get a glimpse of the profound wisdom that lies in this fundamental change of identity. A tiny glimpse is all I’ve gotten of it, but it was enough for me to know that I had to share it with everyone today. For those who feel comfortable, could I please ask everyone to sit up and to close their eyes. Now put your palms on your legs, and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Feel the ground at your feet. Now use your imagination, and feel into the difference between these two ways of being-in-the-world. To walk on the Earth, is to be a visitor here, an alien, the Earth just happens to be where we find ourselves in the vast strange cosmos; we Lord over the Earth and take from it what we need as we pass our short time here. When we walk on the Earth, we are strangers to it, and we treat it accordingly.

But to walk as the Earth, is to recognize that we’re a product of the Earth, that over vast periods of evolutionary time, the Earth has come to produce us. We literally are the Earth, and we can, as Bruce says, “learn to be the presence of the Earth in human form”. This is not only our home; we are a creation of that home. Feel into your feet and hands and realize that you are not on the Earth, you’ve come out of it, and it’s your home. And the Earth is a really beautiful home, one that we share with all kinds of marvelous creatures who we recognize, when we shift this identity, as literally our kin. They come from the Earth too, as we do, and from this new identity we can now see that the Kin-dom of God is indeed truly at hand as Jesus taught (Mark 1:14-15). Thank you, you can please open your eyes now.

This is a powerful teaching, and a transformative practice that we can all continue to grow into in our personal lives. But what else can we do, hands on things, immediate things, now? A lot. Let’s focus again on our relationship to food. I’m going to offer a list of possible actions here, but there’s no need to try and remember them all now. They’ll be reprinted in the sermon and available on the CMUC website and you can review them there. Perhaps just try to feel into what a new relationship to food and the Earth might look like, as we shift from being masters over the Earth, to being cultivators working from within it, from walking on the Earth, to walking as the Earth.

At least once a season, do some gathering. By going into the wild and gathering mushrooms or herbs or berries or whatever else is available in your local region, we come back in contact with an ancient sensitivity to our environment that’s asleep within us, but ready to be re-awakened. People who take up kid_berriesthis practice report something very special coming alive within them.

Plant something. This could be a large garden, or something very small, but take the time to get reacquainted with the soil, with plants, with insects and the sun. After having some of these conversations with a chef co-worker of mine, he decided to plant some simple herbs in his apartment and he put them on his windowsill. He was so lit up as he described tending to his herbs! He now had to be aware of light and the windowsillmovements of the sun, and had to be attentive to the needs of these growing plants. His eyes sparkled as he talked to me about his herbs, and I could tell he’d begun the journey home.

Take a moment before meals and express your gratitude. Give thanks for the food itself, to the healthy soil it was grown in, and to the countless human hands that helped grow it and get it to your table.  Try and eat in silence. It’s difficult to do, I struggle with this one after so many years of eating in front of the tube, but it can be a powerful practice. While slowly and consciously eating in silence, meditate on the fact that Earth’s body is literally becoming our bodies, and that we are literally eating the sun. How amazing is that! It’s a daily Eucharist! We all have to eat three times a day, so we all have the opportunity to use this time for spiritual practice, and if you do, you’ll feel the fog of exile melting away.

Buy food from your local region as much as possible, and avoid the industrial food supply to the extent you’re able. The industrial food supply is exile incarnate. It’s an alien force extracting as much from the earth as possible, without giving anything back; it’s a master with the Earth as its servant. This food system is not only polluting the Earth’s systems on vast scales, it’s making us very sick too, with illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease becoming so commonplace we’ve forgotten that they FarmersMarket2have a very real source in our food supply. We cannot expect to be evolutionaries in the service of Spirit if our bodies and minds are sick from the food we eat.

Buying food from our local region also supports local farmers, builds community, and allows us to be rooted and connected to the specific patch of Earth we call home. My wife Sarah and I have been getting one of those boxes of local organic vegetables delivered to our home for the past few months now, and we love it. I’m not sure why I waited so long to do it. Not only do we get vegetables that have been recently harvested, which means they include more nutrients, we get to connect to our local region through what’s growing in it. Sure, right now in the winter I have to figure out how to use beets and squash in nineteen ways, but that’s a fun challenge and the taste and quality of heideggerthe food is incomparable. Participating in our local food supply as much as possible is a powerful way of coming home, and one that lets multiple levels of healing begin.

The fact of the matter is, as most of us know, we’re in the middle of a crisis point in our modern civilization. This way we’re living, with more and more consumption of the Earth’s resources as the goal of life, is unsustainable at best. We’ve hit the limits of our growth. But we’re also in the middle of a spiritual crisis too; in fact, the two cannot be separated. The more we live in exile, the more we’re distanced from Earth and from Spirit, the bigger the void at the core of our being grows, and the more resources we need to try and fill it. But we never can. The solution, as it was for the prodigal son, is to come home and ask for forgiveness, to sincerely and humbly kneel down and touch the Earth and its soil once again. This will take a certain death on our part, an end to a way of life ingrained into us in the modern era, but a glorious, glorious resurrection awaits us. We might be lost now, but we will be found, and we will live once again. Let us now begin that journey home together. May it be so. Amen.


(*) The notion of ‘species loneliness’ comes from Stanford Professor of Italian Literature Robert Harrison, who hosts a fantastic radio show called Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature), which you access for free on Itunes. (show #114, The Origins of Agriculture)

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link Scott Payne Saturday, 26 March 2011 17:58 posted by Scott Payne


    Reading this over makes me even more disappointed that I wasn't able to make it out to see you deliver it live. I'm struck by how much you are reclaiming a progressive and positive vision for the role of religion in the modern world with this sermon. This is marked because of just how at odds it seems like so much of organized religion has become with that type of vision these days. If religion is seen to put forward a vision, it is perceived as primarily reactive and revanchist in nature.

    The vision you put forward here seems almost to hearken back to and resonate with the roots of so many prominent religious movements of the twentieth century. This in turn reminds me of a a series of conversation to which I was only partially exposed about the idea that as we move into higher and higher frames of developmental context, we start to mirror and resonate with lower correlative frames. Which is to suggest that there is patterning present even within unique and distinct developmental frames.

    This starts to find some truly positive space for "lower" levels of development in a holistic view of development, I think. Juma and Chris would be in a better position to flesh this conversation out, but there's a good start.

    So my question to you: does this resonate with you at all? Do you feel like you are reaching back to the history of the church at all in articulating this vision? If so, in what ways do you think you're borrowing from that history/tradition and in what ways are you looking to change/modify/evolve it?

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 30 March 2011 23:02 posted by TJ Dawe

    Fabulous article, man. If only the sermons of my youth had this combination of relevant insight and practical advice.

    I'm also reminded of how Wilber described the two types of religions: ascending and descending.

    With ascending religions, the earth, the body, the physical material world is to be transcended. It's an illusion, it's sinful. We need to get past it to the heavens.

    With descending religions, the earth, the body, the physical, material world are to be worshipped in and of themselves.

    From this article I get a sense that the two types could be combined, taking the best elements from each. To grow and gather and have a relationship with the food we eat can be a meditation, the eating can be a meditation, and all of this can perfectly coexist with philosophy, contemplation and personal evolution.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 31 March 2011 01:34 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Scott and TJ, thanks for the words and for the inquiries. You've both hit on key fundamental points, and I'm going to take a few days to offer what I think needs to be substantive replies. Be back on this one soon.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Monday, 11 April 2011 07:47 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Love the galactic contemplation you lay down halfway through the sermon. Definitely check out Allan Watt's meditation on the same topic - I've posted a video here:

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 13 April 2011 00:32 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Scott and TJ, finally time for a substantive response to your questions.

    First, Scott, to your question about "reclaiming a progressive and positive vision for the role of religion in the modern world". I'll try to answer this in conjunction with your other question about to what extent I feel like I'm reclaiming something historical in the Christian tradition, and what's new and/or modified. That'll lead me into my answer to TJ.

    I would start by saying that the first and primary thing that's opened up the Christian tradition for me is this larger 'emerging church' tradition, wherein the Bible is read metaphorically and not literally. Or as biblical scholar Marcus Borg coined it (I think), "we take the Bible seriously, but not literally". This move has fully opened up the tradition for me, and has led to my desire to enter into ministry. With this shift, the Bible gets released into a role as a repository of wisdom and wisdom teachings, ones that are (still) directly applicable to people's lived lives. I think this is very exciting, and I find the old stories and parables- such as the virgin birth, the death and resurrection, the good Samaritan etc.- can be very powerful when read in a metaphorical/spiritual wisdom way. They become real practices that can be lived out and practiced on a daily basis. Overall, that shift has been critical for me.

    I would also say, in terms of progressive politics, that Jesus was quite radical in this regard. The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has really helped me understand this in his texts 'Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography' and 'God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now'. If you go back to Jesus' teachings (also found now in many of the Gnostic texts that were uncovered in the 20th century) and to the early church, the calls for distributive justice (for instance) are quite powerful and radical. Jesus' inclusiveness was also quite radical. Obviously something like the Liberation Theology movement drew from these traditions to create a potent political force in the twentieth century. [] So I for one am invigorated by the moral depth in that tradition, and feel it could definitely play a part in future progressive politics and/or social transformation.

    In terms of what's new, this leads me to TJ's question. It's not exactly new, but what's been mostly fringe in the tradition has been a view of God as both transcendent AND immanent. Technically, this often now goes by the name of panentheism, which means something like "all is in God, and all is God". As TJ very astutely points out, and something I'd never thought of before his comment here, it's indeed a marriage of the two poles Wilber terms the 'ascenders' and 'descenders' (as TJ nicely defines). The Revered Bruce Sanguin calls his marriage of these two "evolutionary Christianity". And this is by no means a solely theological or cognitive teaching. This is a practice whereby we learn to contact the eternal presence of Spirit within (Being, ascenders, transcendence) and we learn to open up and be a vehicle for that Spirit (Thy will be done) as it continues to create and unfold in the universe as and through us (becoming, immanence, descenders). Most of the philosophers I'm interested in have been panentheists, from Hegel to Bergson to Whitehead and Teilhard. But it's been a powerful practice to engage in and - to circle back around to the political/social question- this evolutionary spirituality can be a powerful way to open people up to action in the world.

    I should finish by saying that I'm only two years new to the Christian tradition, so my reach doesn't go too far as of yet. I'll be entering into seminary in September and will hopefully have much more to say on these topics as that process unfolds. But given my response here, I'm quite excited by the possibilities of an ancient wisdom tradition and it's marriage with a new evolutionary action based spiritual practice.

  • Comment Link Paul Duke Thursday, 14 April 2011 20:57 posted by Paul Duke

    I was incredibly moved and honoured to have witnessed the delivery of this sermon live Trevor. Thanks once again for inviting me to attend. You really rocked the room that day, and I saw with my own eyes how people were affected.
    Great sermon, great work, and as always, proud to call you friend.
    Keep on with the good fight man.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 17 April 2011 16:49 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks Paul. I look forward to hearing your voice at Beams when your studies are done. We've talked about you doing a 'tour of the postmodern novel', would still love to hear that. And thanks for coming to hear the sermon. That day was a further reminder of the power of the collective. With you and a few key others in the audience (including Bergen and Juma from Beams), I was able to find a strength to speak from the most authentic place I could muster that day. I think the days of the single individual heroic artist/visionary are slowly fading into the past. It seems we're learning to move into an era of collaboration, cooperation and mutual networks of support, synergy and amplification. In that, its hard to say where one person starts and the next one ends. I look forward to seeing where it all goes!

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions