Monday, April 15, 2013

Sermon: "Harmony in Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 4-14-13)

Reading  “For a Five-Year-Old” by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.

In the springtime, the town of Holmes’ Prairie emerges from its somnolence and for a time a cacophony pervades the countryside before giving way to the listless, dusty days of summer.  The songbirds begin to chirp even before the breaking of the dawn.  Soon nests full of hatchling robins and sparrows will fill the air with their hungry cries.  In only a short time the incessant whirring of insects will commence, the days and nights filled by the static hum of insect life.  Listen, and soon enough you will hear the croak of bullfrogs, the barking of dogs, the engines of farm equipment, and the wild yells and laughter of children rediscovering their outside voices as they ramble about and explore down by the creek.

The combined band of the Unified school district is outside practicing for the Memorial Day parade and the melodies of John Philip Sousa are carried by the spring breeze that rustles the first leaves dotting the branches of trees.  The teens of Holmes’ Prairie have developed an elaborate evening ritual that mostly consists of repeatedly driving up and down Main Street in their pickups with their windows down, the radio blasting, honking and revving their engines and demanding to be noticed.  These are the noises of this allegedly quiet town.

Holmes’ Prairie is a town out on the Kansas prairie going the way that small towns go.  It is a town known for its stifling neighborliness and overbearing decency, a town where nothing ever changes because nothing ever happens.  But if you listen closely and take the time to notice, you discover that important things are happening all the time here.

If you want to locate Holmes’ Prairie, the place to look is well to the west of Wichita geographically but well to the right of Liberal geographically, as well as politically and religiously.  Drive west from Wichita until the radio stations have faded and be sure not to blink or else you’ll surely miss it.  Holmes’ Prairie is far away but feels closer when we can release ourselves from of our pretensions, let go of our self-importance, and relax from the false urgency that we often inflict upon ourselves.

It was not long after I arrived in Kansas that I received a letter from one of the crankiest residents of Holmes’ Prairie welcoming me to the Sunflower State.  (The letter was actually addressed, “Dear Preacher Boy.”  You can only imagine where it went from there.)  Why did he bother to send me a letter?  Your guess is as good as mine, although I might remind you that there is a historical connection between Unitarians and the town of Holmes’ Prairie.  Just as the City of Lawrence was founded by Unitarian abolitionists from the New England, Holmes’ Prairie was first established by Unitarian temperance activists.  However, they quickly realized that life in western Kansas was too sobering a proposition, picked up again, kept moving west, and eventually made their way to the San Francisco Bay Area where they found life much more agreeable.

Over the years, my friends in Holmes’ Prairie have sent me many letters informing me of the goings-on in their town.  From time to time, when it is perfect weather for a road trip, I’ve been known to take a trip out there to visit and hear the latest gossip.  One of the reasons I love going out there is because it gets me out of having to write a sermon.  I can just tell you about life there or even read one Pastor Sol’s newsletter columns.  It just so happens that my wife Anne took our baby Lydia to Washington D.C. this weekend so that Lydia could meet her brand new cousin.  Since I got out of dad duty for the weekend, I figured I’d day trip out to Holmes’ Prairie and pay them a visit.

If you ever find yourself passing through this town, you absolutely must stop in at Annie’s Pie Shop on Main Street for a slice of her amazing pie and a mug of her dreadful coffee.  Annie’s was my first stop and when I walked in I knew I wasn’t going to have to chase down any of my friends.  Around the center table sat the leaders of all three of Holmes’ Prairie’s houses of worship.  There was Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III, the longtime pastor of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. Don’t let the severity of his name confuse you; Pastor Sol has seen it all and his years living out on the windswept prairie has turned him into a bit of a Christian existentialist.  Next to him sat Father Roberto Diaz, the only priest serving one of western Kansas’ largest geographic parishes.  St. John’s Catholic Church is a multiracial congregation that serves rural Kansas’ immigrant population that includes laborers at slaughterhouses, food processing plants, and field workers.  Finally, at the table sat Mabel Pool, the moderator and matriarch of the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship, or HPUFF, which boasts seven members, six committees, and a five member choir that has been trying for years to get the other two members of the fellowship to join.  When Mabel saw me she gestured to an empty chair and waved for Annie to come by with another slice of pie.  “Come and join us,” Mabel exclaimed.  “We’re planning the annual Harmony celebration.” 

The Harmony festival was dreamed up by Mabel Pool a few years ago as a town wide celebration of all the diversity the town lacked.  “We’re celebrating in preparation.  One of these days,” Mabel declared, ever optimistically.  The Harmony Festival would include each of the three houses of worship offering a morning service on the subject of harmony followed by a fellowship lunch hosted together by the three churches to which the entire town was invited.  The Baptists would bring brisket.  The Catholics would bring beef enchiladas.  The UU Fellowship would supply dessert, a vegan, gluten-free chocolate cake made with fair trade cocoa.
Right off the bat, Father Diaz knew exactly what he planned to say on the subject of harmony.  He planned to talk about the newly-elected Pope Francis and his hopes for greater harmony within worldwide Catholicism.  Father Diaz’s homily would connect Pope Francis’ conspicuous humility with the idea of promoting harmony, and he would propose that greater humility could lead us in the direction of greater harmony with those from whom we find ourselves estranged.

Mabel announced that she was working with the worship committee to create a harmony program at the Fellowship.  Mabel’s service would start with the subject of music, and offer an exploration of how harmony works within music.  One of the readings she had chosen came from Frank Zappa who wrote, “The creation and destruction of harmonic… tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama.  Any composition which remains consistent and ‘regular’ throughout is, for me, the equivalent to watching a movie with only ‘good guys’ in it, or eating cottage cheese.”  Pastor Sol and Father Diaz had come to expect these types of things from Mabel, but quoting Frank Zappa in church, the Unitarians never failed to surprise.

Harmonies, Mabel explained, augment the melody, giving it height and depth, but they do this through the interplay of consonance and dissonance.  Too much consonance and it is bland.  Too much dissonance and it becomes painful on the ears.  Harmony, Mabel explained, does not mean sameness; harmonies are like many different paths towards the same goal.  When the goal is clear, our differences will not threaten, but can be appreciated.  If we love alike, we need not think alike.  Mabel’s faithful hope was that most human beings actually want the same sorts of things in life: a peaceful existence, personal and relational fulfillment, love, and the freedom to pursue happiness.

It was Pastor Samuels’ turn to speak and share his plans for the harmony service.  Pastor Sol hemmed and hawed; he had an idea he told us, but it was still being formulated and wasn’t yet ready to preach.


That very evening Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III stayed up late until the cacophony of barking dogs, singing birds, and teenagers honking their horns had died down.  He packed up a flashlight, a shovel, and some other tools and set out across town. 

Long ago, long before even Pastor Samuels had come to Holmes’ Prairie, one of the town’s leading businesses had been Helverson’s Farm Supply Company.  Old Man Helverson was getting up there in years and preparing to turn his business over to his son John.  In fact, Old Man Helverson had two sons, John and Eddie.  John was the responsible, dutiful son, the one who had taken a keen interest in the family business.  Eddie was not at all interested and was more than happy to let John have it.  When John first took over the family business, things didn’t run smoothly at first.  John messed up a couple of accounts.  His father, to his surprise, was understanding and quick to forgive.  “It happens,” he said.  After Old Man Helverson passed away, John had the idea of bringing Eddie back to work for him.  It was mistake from the beginning.  It was disaster.  John took it personally, turned on his brother Eddie, and told him to scram, that he was an embarrassment to the family, and that he never wanted to have anything to do with him ever again.  As the brothers grew older they never reconciled.  Eddie, for his part, was mostly sad and indifferent.  John seethed with an anger that burned almost constantly.

Time went on.  Helverson’s Farm and Supply Company eventually had to close its doors, losing out to the competition of the national supply companies, meeting the fate of so many of the mom and pop stores that were once woven into the fabric of towns like Holmes’ Prairie.  Eddie was the first brother to die.  John followed him to the grave a few years later but stipulated that he remain estranged from his brother even in death.  At the family plot of the old town cemetery, John Helverson stipulated that the back of his tombstone be turned to his brother.

Pastor Samuels, shovel over his shoulder, passed through the gates of the cemetery.  Following the beam of his flashlight he located the Helverson plot and grave markers facing away from one another.  The shovel sunk into moist spring earth.

As he worked, in his mind he talked through his sermon idea for the Harmony Service.  Over the years, many times Pastor Sol had been asked which of Jesus’ teachings was hardest to follow.  Was it the teaching about loving your enemy?  Was it the teachings about non-violence, about turning the other cheek?  Was it the instruction to sell everything and give it to the poor?  To leave your family to follow him?  All those were tough, Pastor Sol agreed, but if he had to choose just one teaching that is the most difficult to follow, it would be what Jesus tells Peter in the book of Matthew.  “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”  [Matthew 18:21-22]  Yes, that one seems like the most difficult teaching.

When Pastor Sol had first heard the story of the Helverson brothers and their grave markers indicating estrangement for all eternity he thought of Jesus’ insistence on harmony.  “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  [Matthew 18:18.]

Pastor Sol threw down his shovel, stepped back, wiped the mud off his gloves, and admired his work.  The grave markers for John and Eddie now had been turned so that they were now face to face.  Sol smiled.  The morning songbirds sung.  The breeze gently rustled the leaves.  The insects buzzed.  The engines of the tractors revved.  Symphony.

That is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, out there on the Kansas prairie, well to the west of Wichita but far to the right of liberal, a town where nothing much ever happens unless you take the time to be still, to listen, and to notice.

1) The story of Old Man Helverson and the Helverson brothers is actually a loose interpretation of the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18:23-35.  What is your reaction to this parable?

2) What is your reaction to the poem by Fleur Adcock?  Have you ever felt like the mother?  Have you ever felt like the five year old?

3) The Gospel of Matthew contains many of Jesus’ teachings about harmony, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  See  Matthew 5:21-26 and 18:15-35.  What is your reaction to these texts?