Monday, November 27, 2006

Sermon: "Thanksgiving in Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 11-26-2006)

With apologies to Garrison Keillor and Dennis Hamilton. Rev. Hamilton, my internship supervisor in Carrollton, Texas, knows of a town in West Texas named "Bodacia" that bears a slight, slight resemblance to Holmes’ Prairie…

It has been about a year since we heard from our friends in Holmes’ Prairie, out there on the Kansas plains. For those of you who don’t know, Holmes’ Prairie is a town in Western Kansas. It is located to the west of Wichita and a little to the east of Liberal geographically, but far to the right of liberal politically. The town is named for Oliver Wendell Holmes, on account of being founded by Massachusetts Unitarians. At the same time that Lawrence, Kansas was founded by Unitarian abolitionists from the Bay State, a group of Unitarian temperance activists settled Holmes’ Prairie. But they soon found the prospects of making a life there a bit too sobering, so they left and continued on to Northern California.

It is possible to tell the story of Holmes’ Prairie in terms of the losses it has endured. There was of course the dust bowl. And there has been the more gradual decline of small town life over the last half-century, which did not spare Holmes’ Prairie. It is easy to cling to our bitter memories, to replay our losses, to rehearse the indignities we’ve been made to suffer – like being made the butt of “Wizard of Oz” jokes, or having to endure the stereotypes of those who don’t really understand rural life. But their story is also a story of survival. They are a surviving people, those Holmes’ Prairians.

Thanksgiving Prayer services were held at two local congregations in Holmes’ Prairie this year. Over at the Saint Thomas of Perpetual Doubt Episcopalian Church, their priest, Father Marcus Crossan, led those assembled in prayer. (Crossan, I might point out, is the young cleric who has yet to realize that most of what he learned in his extensive theological education is of little practical value in Holmes’ Prairie.) Few were surprised when Crossan applied the same approach to the Thanksgiving story that he applies weekly to the Biblical stories, which is to say, going on at great length about the actual historical origins and how those differ from the traditional tellings. Father Crossan then offered a litany of the oppressions inflicted by the pilgrims, and digressed into a comprehensive etymology of the word “thankfulness.” Lacking an NPR signal in Holmes’ Prairie, Father Crossan’s sermons are the next best thing.

Down the road, Solomon Samuels III, the backsliding pastor of the First Free Will Four Square Full Bible Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie was offering a Thanksgiving Prayer service as well. Over the years, Samuels’ theology had faded into a kind and gentle heresy that grasps the power of symbol and metaphor, though he leaves much to be desired in terms of historical accuracy or nuance. “Dear Lord,” Samuels invoked, “We do so pray on this day of Thanksgiving that you instruct our pilgrim hearts in the ways of Christian living. In our moments of need, remove our willful pride and humble us. Make us receptive to not only the grace that you do bestow, but also to the generosity of our neighbors. During the hard winters of our living, make us resilient. And, for the abundance we enjoy but do not recognize, help us to be grateful as grateful living is required for graceful living.”

For a town where nothing much ever happens, it has been a busy year. A record number turned out on election-day to vote to return some sanity to the school board by voting the intelligent design candidate out of office. This turnout had less to do with any town-wide consensus on the teaching of evolution and more to do with the fact that after Missing Link bones were discovered in a pot-hole on Main Street, the town had gotten used to having anthropologists and evolutionary biologists hanging around. Aside from Main Street getting all dug up in the excavation – not that there is enough traffic in Holmes’ Prairie to make a difference – the locals had become quite fond of these visitors and enjoyed the chance to extend a bit of local hospitality to them. And if Holmes’ Prairie doesn’t practice hospitality, no place does.

When we spend too much time on Main Street, we miss some of the other things, the subtler episodes of life, not less spectacular or miraculous, just less in the public view. Such was life out on the Spearman farm, on the outskirts of Holmes’ Prairie where this Thanksgiving had been a memorable one, one that Larry and Melba Spearman had looked forward to with a tiny measure of cautious hope and an abundance of anxiety and dread. It was to be a family reunion for the Spearman’s – all four children would be returning. It would be the first time in many decades that all four would be under the same roof – although there was much doubt they could co-exist under the same roof. But all four children were returning for Thanksgiving.

Of their four children, the oldest was LeAnne who had left Holmes’ Prairie and gone to Tulsa, Oklahoma, become a holy-roller, and married Jerry, the captain of the Oral Roberts basketball team. They had five children, all girls – chastity, charity, patience, temperance, and misty. Misty cried a lot. These girls had all managed to grow into young women who resembled in no way the virtues for which they were named. But Misty still cries a lot.

The second Spearman child was Jim. Jim left Holmes’ Prairie and went east, across the ocean, to England where he studied evolutionary biology with Richard Dawkins. Jim’s partner is a professor of sociology. LeAnne thinks he teaches socialism.

The third Spearman child, Ed, did not grow up as much as he grew away. He had been on the wrong side of the law too many times to count. He had chosen delinquency with the older Willoughby boys over the lessons of honest living and hard work that are learned on the farm.

And finally, there was Lizzie, the fourth Spearman child. Susie had been studious. A lover of history she had researched the origins of Holmes’ Prairie, and set off to Northern California to try to locate the Unitarian descendents of the founders of the town. She had joined the Unitarian church. It was a slippery slope. (Who knew you could slip further?) The next thing you know she was living on a vegan commune, growing organic vegetables and other illegal organic things, and had a son named Moon Beam.

And all four children and six grandchildren were returning to Holmes’ Prairie, for Thanksgiving to be under the same roof again. What would happen? Moon Beam was used to clothing optional community gatherings. Would Jerry request that everyone pray and then proceed to proselytize? Would LeAnne’s girls try to get into the liquor cabinet, again? How do you tell family that they may want to watch their wallets?

Larry and Melba often wondered how it could be that all four children took such different paths. Sometimes they wondered if these were really their children at all. And as a sum, they were a combustible mixture, to be sure. Around each other, they seemed to bring out each other’s worst. LeAnne would grow zealous and intolerant and falsely pious. Jim would become snobbish and condescending. Ed would grow wild and rambunctious. Lizzie would affect conceit and neediness. And it would surely all degenerate.

But Larry and Melba devised a plan.

LeAnne, along with Jerry and the virtue girls, was the first of the four children to arrive. To their surprise, the driveway was full of cars. Walking through the door, they found the farmhouse bustling with life and activity. It was as if the entire town of Holmes’ Prairie was there. The ladies from the sewing circle, the regulars from the coffee shop. Bursting forward Melba greeted her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters. “It is a day of great joy to have the family joined together. For such a day as this we are most thankful. We could not contain our excitement. We had to tell everybody you were coming and invite them to come welcome you, to share in this day.”

This scene repeated itself three more times. For Jim and his partner. For Ed. For Lizzie and Moon Beam.

It was the most disorienting of days for the four Spearman children. The commotion was dizzying. There were constant comings and goings, arrivals and departures. It wasn’t as if the throngs of locals that now infested the Spearman farmhouse made Larry or Melba inaccessible. To the contrary, things seemed to springing up organically around them. The kitchen transitions were especially seamless.

But the four Spearman children were most certainly distracted. Seeking each other out they conspired to sneak away behind the old barn, a frequent rendezvous point of distant childhood. Huddling once again, they looked at one another. Each recognized on the face of the other confusion, a feeling like something was missing. There was a calming security found in being together again.

“What should we do?” LeAnne asked.
“What can we do? They all appear to have been invited.” Jim responded.
“The energy in the house is very magenta.” Lizzie offered.
After a long pause, Ed added, “We’ve got each other.”

That each of the four’s impressions confirmed the others’ was reassuring. Shock and confusion slowly became introspection. Introspection in turn became self-consciousness, and self-consciousness turned into awareness.*

“Um, so do we go back?” Ed asked.
“I think we need to play along.” LeAnne suggested.
“Yes,” added Jim, “Natural selection through adaptation.”
“I think what he means is ‘go with the flow.’” Lizzie added quickly.

And so they did…

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Pastor Solomon Samuels chose as his text the story of the prodigal son. Allow me to read a portion of his homily:

“As we enjoyed the feast of this past Thursday, my heart was moved to ponder the story of a feast found in the Good Book. Jesus tells the story of a feast which is the celebration of reconciliation from estrangement, a conversion of the heart. It is a moving story.

“From time to time, I do not doubt, some of us have felt like that prodigal son… but more often than not, we are given to think not of ourselves as lost, but to see others that way. Our days are spent making lists of who deserves to repent, who is in need of conversion, who is lost, who is squandering their inheritance. (A few of you have even felt from time to time, I am sure, like I had become prodigal in my theology and maybe I have.) But in our thinking that other person often becomes those people. Those people are in need of conversion. They need to repent.

“This is called sheep and goats thinking. The Bible says that the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats, with the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. To the sheep will be eternally rewarded and the goats eternally punished. But most people stop reading right there. If you keep reading you find that Jesus says that then goats are the ones who divide people up and label them, whereas the sheep treat everyone the same. Which is a just a tricky way, round-about way of saying that it is wrong to judge folks.

“No matter who we are, we are inclined to accuse somebody else of missing out on the feast that is laid before us, just as others surely perceive us as missing out and being hopelessly lost. So may we take some comfort in the humbling realization that we are all surely a part of each other. May we know that not one among us is fully righteous; nor are we fully lost. Neither entirely sheeplike, nor entirely goatlike, we are, in our essence, dappled creatures. And the Lord so loves dappled creatures.”

Well, that’s the news from Holmes’ Prairie, out there on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita and to the right of liberal… where, for a town where nothing much ever happens, some miracle is always taking place if we would just stop for a moment to be still and take notice.

* Perhaps you are wondering how this story fits in with my “Future of the Liberal Church” series. Rather than answer that question, I’ll leave it to you to ponder that connection…