Thursday, November 18, 2010

My 300th Sermon! (Delivered 10-24-10)

This sermon, delivered last month, was the 300th sermon I've preached!

Sermon: Bringing in the Sheaves in Holmes' Prairie
If you stand in the right spot, and align your eyesight just so, you can make out the perfect silhouette of the great horned owl in the newly bare trees of autumn. The late October moon, silver and brimful, provides an ideal background. The owl turns its head, surveying the exhausted field, looking for reflections of light from the eyes of field mice who continue to come to work even though human work has ended for a day and for a Sabbath. The human work will end for the season just as soon as the slumbering turnips are plucked from the earth, along with the last few recalcitrant potatoes which had been defiant for the whole growing season. Standing there, eye and branch and owl and lunar body align. The night wind blows across God’s country carrying the scent of the soil, the scent of a few pygmy pumpkins which hadn’t been plucked from the vine. The rush of air rustles the dried leaves and empty stalks, indicators that there had been a harvest. The remainders remind of the plump tomatoes and sweet corn of August, the endless zucchini and the string beans that couldn’t grow fast enough, and the most recent haul of pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash. The town of Holmes’ Prairie sleeps soundly off in the distance. [1]

Holmes’ Prairie is a small town in Western Kansas going the way that small towns have been going. It is a place that is hard to find on a map and the drive is hard on your car. The trip is many miles of kicking up dust and gravel. In the land of Eisenhower not even Ike saw it fit to put an interstate through Holmes’ Prairie. If you must know, I will let you know: Holmes’ Prairie is well to the West of Wichita geographically and far to the right of Liberal, geographically and politically. Just keep driving until the big city skyline of Wichita recedes into the horizon. Look for the water tower that proclaims that Jesus is Lord over Holmes’ Prairie. You’re almost there when you pass the whitewashed, red-lettered sign that announces that “Holmes’ Prairie believes in prayer in the home.” Or, you can get there the way that I do, by quieting your restless thoughts, retreating from life’s hurry-hurry and busy-busy, and learning whatever lessons there are to learn by paying attention to what is happening in a town where nothing ever happens. [2]

After a bumpy ride into town, my first stop is always at Annie’s Pie and Coffee Shop on Main Street. Her pecan chocolate pie is the closest thing to sin available for sale in Holmes’ Prairie. (It takes a couple of gallons of gasoline to carry you across the county line to buy a six-pack.) Holmes’ Prairie is a town taken to clean living, not so much by choice as by circumstance, though Annie’s coffee is an abomination that should have been written up in Leviticus.

“Hello, preacher boy!” Annie hollered as I stepped through the door. [3]

“Hello to you ma’am,” I responded, “I’ll have the regular, a grande cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso. And, I mean a cappuccino! Last time it was practically a latte.” Annie took the carafe off the black heating plate and poured the light brown swill into a blue ceramic mug, told me I was welcome, and sent me over to where good ol’ Sol was gazing absentmindedly out the window.

Sol’s Bible rested on the table in the closed position. Also, closed was his copy of Albert Camus’ The Plague. However, the latest entry in Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency series sat with its spine sticking up indicating he was three quarters finished with it. With his finger he tapped a yellow legal pad with a few vaguely geometric scribbles and doodles on it. He appeared no closer to becoming the next M.C. Escher than he was to beginning his sermon. I pulled up a chair and told Sol that I would apologize for interrupting him while he was writing his sermon, except for the fact that he wasn’t.

Excuse me, I’m being rude here. To me he is just plain ol’ Sol. He is otherwise known as The Reverend Solomon J. Samuels III, Pastor of the Full Gospel Holiness First Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. The primary strength of Sol’s ministry is his human fallibility. He has backslid just about as far as a Baptist can slide and over the years the blazing summers and windy winters of life on the Kansas prairie have baked and blown every ounce of orthodoxy from Sol’s old bones. He would have long given up belief in any kind of deity, had it not been for his exposure to a humanity that wasn’t any great shakes either. [4]

I asked Sol how things were with the faith communities of Holmes’ Prairie. He told me that the Interfaith Alliance was going strong. The Interfaith Alliance consists of Sol, the priest at the local Catholic parish, and the minister of the First Methodist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. They call it the Interfaith Alliance because the group includes Protestants and Catholics.

Next I had to ask how the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, under the fearless lay leadership of Mabel Pool, was faring. “Well,” commented Sol, “They certainly are not lacking in passion. The revision of their by-laws is their congregational theme of the year and they’ve been attacking it full force. The entire Fellowship has been working on the project as a committee of the whole. They have thirty seven pages of by-laws written so far. Plus, they are holding steady at ten members. I tell Mabel that they have enough for a minyan, but of course there is a problem with that.

“You mean they aren’t Jewish?” I offered.

“Well, there is that,” Sol answered, “But I was thinking more about the prayer part.”

Sol and I weren’t the only patrons at Annie’s Pie and Coffee Shop. Across the room Bobby Willoughby raised his blue mug and yelled, “Annie, let’s have another warm up.”

Bobby Willoughby and Hank Mathers occupied a corner booth tucking into slices of pumpkin pie and plenty of pseudo-coffee. Hank and Bobby were on duty serving with the volunteer fire department. They weren’t exactly serving for altruistic reasons. They liked the perk of being able to cruise the town with flashing lights and a blaring siren. But mostly they liked being able to spend hours sitting at Annie’s without being accused of loitering. As they had told Annie when she told them to go hang out somewhere else, “We’re not hanging out. We’re protecting and serving.”

“Hold your horses!” Hank hollered, “Take a look at this story in the paper.” Hank had been paging through the paper when he came across a story that he proceeded to read out loud.
Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn't paid a $75 fee.

Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with the family’s pets. “They could have been saved if they had put water on it, but they didn't do it," Cranick said.

The fire started when the Cranicks' grandson was burning trash near the family home. As it grew out of control, the Cranicks called 911, but the fire department from the nearby city of South Fulton would not respond. "We wasn't on their list," he said the operators told him.

Cranick, who lives outside the city limits, admits he "forgot" to pay the annual $75 fee. The county does not have a county-wide firefighting service, but South Fulton offers fire coverage to rural residents for a fee.

Cranick says he told the operator he would pay whatever is necessary to have the fire put out. His offer wasn't accepted, he said.

South Fulton's mayor said that the fire department can't let homeowners pay the fee on the spot, because the only people who would pay would be those whose homes are on fire.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Bobby said, “We’ve been serving and protecting with the volunteer fire department all this time and we never get called for anything. These guys get a chance to actually put out a fire and they do nothing.”

“Um, Bobby, I think you’re missing the point here,” said Hank. “I mean these firefighters stood around and watched the guy’s house burn down. And the mayor and fire chief defended ‘em. Put yourself in the shoes of those firemen. Could you just stand around and do nothing?”

“Well, you know I’ve never been a guy who’s big on taking orders. But, then again, the folks down there in Tennessee need to have some rules, don’t they?”

“Oh, c’mon Bobby. Do you think the mistake and the consequence of the mistake match? I mean, it would be one thing if this guy’s mailbox had been on fire. This was his home we’re talking about.”

“But Hank, did you ever think of the principle of it? That Mayor seems like he knows what he’s talking about. You let Gene get away without paying the fee and then every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks they don’t have to pay the fee. And, how is that fair to the other people who did pay the fee on time like they were supposed to?”

“I see what you’re saying Bobby,” Hank replied, “That’s true. Nobody in Tennessee is going to forget to pay that fee now. But that is still a pretty stiff way to punish a guy. I mean, I think if you show the man a little mercy he’d probably walk door to door and collect the fee for the county for the rest of his life.”

“Hank, Hank, Hank. Just remember what the Bible says. It says, ‘You reap what you sow.’ You reap what you sow. This guy didn’t sow his seventy five dollars so he doesn’t get to reap the services of the fire department. That’s just what the Bible says. It’s personal responsibility.”

At that point, Annie had had just enough of Hank and Bobby’s yapping. She called out with sass from behind the counter. “Look at the two of you. You’ve wasted most of your day and my day here reaping my pie and reaping my coffee and reaping my newspaper. And, I know you two aren’t going to sow your check.”

“Oh, Mrs. Annie,” they called back, “We are sowing. Don’t you know? We are protecting and serving.”

I decided it was about time to stop rubbernecking. I turned back and found that Solomon had snuck out and stuck me with the check. He did, however, send me a copy of the message he preached.

On account of having spent a whole day driving out to Holmes’ Prairie, I didn’t have the time to prepare a sermon today. But, I don’t think Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III would mind if I shared his homily with you. And, I don’t think you would mind a little Baptist preaching. So here is what my friend Sol recently told his congregation in Holmes’ Prairie:
I don’t think I can really explain it, but I always find myself drawn to the field after the harvest. Undeniably there is poetry in the turning, the seeding, the tending, and the harvest. But, there is stillness and grace in the absence of human toil. In the stillness, there is a different motion.

When the striving ceases, the field becomes the home of the deer and fox, quail and crow, hawk and rabbit, owl and field mouse. These beasts scavenge and glean. They know nothing of property lines. For them there is no such thing as trespass. Sometimes I need to just go stand there and ponder the ways of the Lord. Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking, “There goes Pastor Sol again, going off and standing in fields and confusing himself with all this crazy contemplating. What are we paying this preacher to do anyways? Can’t he just go and get a hobby?”

When I look across the field after the harvest, it seems to me that we like to think that our ways are ordered, that the harvest we reap corresponds neatly the seeds we have sown. We reap what we sow. This is an easy thing to believe when the harvest time comes to us, when we bring home the bounty of the year and our stores are laden. When the harvest is great we believe that it is a sign of God’s justice. And, when others reap less we like to believe that it is also because God is just. Those other folks are just reaping what they sow. They should’ve sown better seeds.

Of course, from time to time our own yield is not as great. Floods and droughts, blights and beetles: these are also a part of our experience. When this happens we don’t tend to see this as the work of God’s justice. We turn to what it says in Ecclesiastes about the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike.

In sixth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians there is a line that has gotten a lot of good God-fearing folk in trouble. Paul writes, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” Some people read this line and think that it is an instruction to sit in judgment of other folks, to be indifferent to their afflictions. If they are suffering then they must have done something to deserve it. People forget another line from the sixth chapter of Galatians where it says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

It seems to me that people reap what they sow except for when they don’t. There is a Psalm that says exactly this. It just says it better. Psalm 126 is a prayer for deliverance when our world has gone wrong. The psalmist cries out, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negeb.” And then the prayer continues, “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing in their sheaves.”

Psalms are songs of praise and prayer. And, we tend to reserve our praise and prayer for things that could have been otherwise. The psalm is asking, “May those who sow well reap well.” And, you wouldn’t be bothering to ask if it wasn’t always so.

Dear Lord, we’d ask that you please open our hearts wider this day, as wide as the Kansas prairie and as wide as the Kansas skies. May we think and love in ways that are as wide as the fields. Let the crisp breeze of your spirit blow over us, taking away from us pride and self-righteousness and our narrowness. Let the wind remind us that it will blow where it will. Take away our quickness to judge, our quickness to claim our own righteousness and to judge others for what we perceive as their lack of righteousness.

Lord, it would be so much easier if your ways were clear and if you didn’t keep giving us all these different directions. But, it seems like you have given us a world in which sometimes we reap what we sow, and sometimes we don’t reap what we sow, and sometimes, by some kind of mysterious grace, we are permitted to reap even though we have not sown. Help us to turn away from judgment and fulfill the law by bearing another’s burdens. When in doubt, may we err on the side of charity.

The farmer separates the wheat from the chaff, but you have made things of the spirit inseparable. You’ve given us day and night, Lord, but you’ve also given us the cool pleasant shade to shield us from the harshest light and you’ve given us the moon and stars so that we might find our ways during the darkest night. We seek out your dappled places for we are dappled creatures. And we give thanks that you are such a lover of dappled things. Amen. [5]

That, my friends, is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, out there in God’s country, West of Wichita geographically but well to the right of Liberal. It is a long drive by car but a short journey by heart, if we can only put aside our distractions, our worries, and our judgments and take a little time to stop and pay attention to what is happening in a town where nothing ever happens.

Sermon Notes
[1] A few weeks earlier I had seen a great horned owl in a tree at the church. Inspiration for my poetic opening paragraph also came from the beautiful poem "Garden Meditations" by Max Coots.
[2] Holmes' Prairie bears more than a coincidental similarity to the town of Bodacia, Texas as imagined by Rev. Dennis Hamilton, my internship supervisor at the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, TX. I have used some of the devices for describing Bodacia, like the water tower, in creating Holmes' Prairie.
[3] This salutation is frequently heard in Bodacia.
[4] Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III is a composite character. He partially resembles Hamilton's Bodacian Baptist pastor and an actual Baptist preacher I heard deliver a prayer or installation at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Waco, Texas.
[5] In the real Baptist minister's prayer, if I remember correctly, he uttered the line, "For God is surely a lover of dappled things."