Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: "Goodbye from Holmes' Prairie" (Delivered 6-15-14)

Liturgy for Worship

Opening Words – Otherwise by Jane Kenyon
Prayer – by Martha Munson, adapted
Reading – We Give Thanks by Max Coots
Hymns #38 “Morning Has Broken”, #15 “The Lone Wild Bird”, #357 Bright Morning Stars

Last evening I was out in Abilene, Kansas, performing a wedding ceremony for Brian Becker and Rachelle Kuntz, a young couple who’ve been attending church here at SMUUCh for more than a year. With a wedding to officiate and the drive to central Kansas and back, I just didn’t have time to write a sermon for this morning. I thought I would have time to write one while I was out there, but instead I used my time to drive a bit further down the road and stop by for a visit in Holmes’ Prairie.

It isn’t easy to explain where Holmes’ Prairie is on the map. It’s out there on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita, geographically, but well to the right of Liberal, geographically and otherwise. Just keep driving until the NPR signal fades to static and you’ll arrive at the boundary that demarcates God’s country from godforsaken country.

Holmes’ Prairie is a town that has something to say about saying goodbye. Folks have been saying goodbye to the town as long as anyone can remember. Just as Unitarian abolitionists flocked to Lawrence before the Civil War, Holmes’ Prairie was first established by a band of Unitarian temperance activists from the northeast. They even named the town after Oliver Wendell Holmes. But they wound up finding life out on the plains a little too sobering and soon packed up their belongings and left. Go west dry men. They wound up establishing a commune and winery in Northern California.

Yesterday I rambled into town and dropped by Annie’s Pie Shop on Main Street. As I suspected, the town curmudgeon, Frank Rodden, was there, keeping watch over the comings and goings and perking up his ears to whatever passes for gossip in a town where nothing ever happens. “Hello, Preacher Boy!” Frank bellowed as I walked in. “Pull up a seat and Annie will bring you out a slice of banana cream pie. I got your letter saying you were heading off to North Carolina. I was wondering if you were going to pay me a visit to say goodbye in person before you left.”

“Well, Frank,” I said, “I only make it out to Holmes’ Prairie about once a year. It’s never exactly convenient to visit, but now I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to get back this way. I suppose I could follow you on Twitter, but it just wouldn’t be the same. By the way, what could you possibly tweet about here in Holmes’ Prairie?”

Frank grinned and replied, “Preacher, we are a town with 140 characters. Real characters, too. But do me a favor will you, Preacher? When you get there to Tar Heel country you need to take a trip out to East Pokeberry. The directions on how to get there are a little vague, but I’m sure you’ll find it. And when you get there, pay a visit to my cousin Jerry. He’s a cranky old man like me with a lot of sincerely held wrong opinions. He’s especially wrong when it comes to his opinions about barbecue. You’ll have to decide for yourself, I reckon.”

“Thanks, Frank. I’ll be sure to look him up when I get there. I mostly came by this weekend because I wanted to say goodbye. And, because I’m procrastinating on this last sermon. But while I’m here, tell me a bit about the news from Holmes’ Prairie, just for old time’s sake.”

Frank started by telling me about the latest news from the Holmes’ Prairie Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, or HPUUF as they call it for short, and since they’re your cousins in the faith, I wanted to bring you an update from their congregation. Yes, there really is a UU Fellowship in Holmes’ Prairie. They have ten members, nine singers in the choir, eight committees, seven principles, six sources, and their potlucks offer five different kinds of carbohydrates and four different types of textured vegetable protein. They proudly disbelieve in all three persons of the Trinity but do believe that there are at least two sides to everything: on the one hand and on the other hand. At the heart of the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship is their one indefatigable matriarch, Mabel Pool, who herds them all like cats and urges them to live lives of faithful service in the community. Mabel is the first one to organize a protest when the town council is about to do something backwards and needs to be set straight. She’s the first one to donate a pile of controversial books to the library whenever someone starts advocating censorship. And she’s the first one to organize hot meals whenever someone in the town’s been having a tough time and needs a little help. She even makes sure the casseroles are all locally-sourced, farm-fresh, and vegan.

Restless souls particularly struggle in a place like Holmes’ Prairie. Folks with critical eyes and striving spirits tend to bump heads with the town’s plodding and slow-to-change way of life. And the Unitarians in Holmes’ Prairie tend to be the most restless of the town’s citizens. My friend Frank had needled me before about the unorthodox communion practices of us Unitarians. Like most Unitarian Universalists, the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship observes a Flower Communion in the spring and a Water Communion at the end of the summer. They also stole our idea of having a Honey Crisp Apple Communion service in the fall. They liked these communion services so much that they decided to develop even more communion rituals, especially since it’s easy to get by without a proper sermon when you do these rituals. Sundays in Holmes’ Prairie are mighty hard to fill.

This year the Holmes’ Prairie UU Fellowship decided to close the church year by holding their first ever Complaint Communion. Instead of bringing a flower from the garden or water from your summer travels, you bring a list of your complaints and criticisms to church. In the true embracing nature of Unitarian Universalism, all complaints are welcome. You can complain about family, where you live, the weather, politics, or social injustice. You can even complain about your fellow UUs. It was an open microphone Sunday and each person was invited to share their list of everything that disappointed or frustrated or annoyed them in the previous year.

The Complaint Communion has an interesting effect on those who participate. It is hard to say goodbye to another year, to admit that you’re a year older, to face the passing days, to accept mortality. It is hard to face that we haven’t achieved perfection, that we haven’t arrived at the promised land. And the complaining functions as a kind of pushing away, pushing away others who are close to us, pushing away the realities in which we find ourselves, holding the world at arm’s length as a safety device. After everyone had shared – the service ran nearly two hours – they all tried their best to sing hymn number 304, “A Fierce Unrest,” and pledged to live in the coming year, as the song puts it, with stinging discontent, even more than in the year before.

Lately, on these sweaty summer nights, down by the barely trickling river, ripples appear on the surface of the water. A young man, still a teenager, stands on the riverbank throwing stones. Jeremy Hall was the valedictorian at the Tri-County Regional high school. In August, he’ll be off to the University of Colorado with a full-ride scholarship. He’s going further away than any of his classmates. Late at night he goes to the riverbank to contemplate the goodbyes he’ll soon have to say.

Last summer Jeremy had been invited to have the experience of a lifetime, a six-week program on rainforest ecology in Costa Rica. He’d gone and had fun and was homesick the whole time. But when he got back something had changed. His group of friends was different. Best friends now were no longer speaking, and people were hanging out in different constellations than before , and they seemed to all be dating someone different than they had been dating at the beginning of the summer. Jeremy spent half his senior year trying to make sense of all the new developments, then gave up. Now, with college orientation just a handful of weeks away, it seemed to him like he was stepping out for real. Not a six week, “See you later” but an honest goodbye, at least until winter break. Jeremy wasn’t sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie except he was sad to be leaving Holmes’ Prairie. But it was a goodbye for the sake of his growth. Jeremy tossed another stone and thought to himself, “These goodbyes are hard, but at least I’ll never have to say them again.” Or, that’s what he told himself.

The biggest news recently in Holmes’ Prairie has been the retirement of Pastor Solomon J. Samuels III, pastor of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie. Old Sol is something of an anomaly, especially among Baptist preachers. His hardline Baptist theology became sun-bleached and windswept out on the plains leaving him to preach a kind of Christian existentialism that confounded most of his parishioners. But they loved him nonetheless because he could be counted on to show up when he’s needed. Pastor Sol’s theology wasn’t exactly based on the infallible glory and grace of God, but he worshipped God nonetheless, finding in humanity even less worthy of worship, and regarding the human condition, with its hypocrisies, its self-justifications, its foibles and failings, with a proper mixture of humor and compassion.

Pastor Sol had served the surviving remnant of the First Full-Gospel Baptist Church of Holmes’ Prairie with reliability and predictability over a span of nearly three decades. His sermons had preceded him in retirement by several years.

Climbing into the pulpit on his last Sunday in Holmes’ Prairie, Pastor Sol addressed his flock, and I’m thankful to Frank for passing along to me a copy of his remarks. I think they’re worth sharing with you. Here are a few excerpts from Solomon J. Samuels’ final sermon in Holmes’ Prairie,
It’s been said that goodbyes are a natural part of life. We live by endings that give way to new beginnings, which end and begin again in time. The seasons in their course, the cycles of life that surround us, attest to this fact. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes taught, “There is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” But, why is it so hard for us to accept endings, to say goodbyes? They are a part of life, are they not? 
There’s a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that speaks, I think, to the difficulty we have with goodbyes. He wrote, 
“These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”
Emerson was an awfully bright guy but can be a little hard to follow at times. He’s talking about having the courage and the grace to live fully in the present moment, not longing and pining for how things might have turned out otherwise and not to worry anxiously about the future. The word “Goodbye” literally comes from the contraction of a parting blessing. “God be with ye” was shorted to “goodbye.” Adios and adieu. Leave the mystery of the future to God and take this time to be in the present. 
Submitting ourselves to endings need not mean giving up all that we’re thankful for. Indeed, we might all be truly grateful for a bounty of people while at the same time recognizing that humankind ought not to live by only one harvest. And so we might pray,
Gracious God, help us to be fully present for this moment of our lives, with the beauty of the present rose, neither lamenting the past nor despairing for the future.
Help us to have the grace to say Goodbye, simply trusting that God will be with us in days to come as God is with us even now. 
Remind us amidst moments of change that change is holy. And help us especially in this time not to look upon our brothers or sisters with eagle-eyed malice, but grant us the grace to cover each other with the mantle of Christian charity.\ 
May we have the humor and compassion to be open to our differences and even to the differing feelings that reside simultaneously within our heart. We are neither fully joyful nor fully sad, neither fully thankful nor fully ungrateful, neither entirely peaceful nor entirely restless. We are dappled beings, and, oh, the good Lord is a lover of dappled things.
Our prayers are for each other and my prayers are with each and everyone one of you.

That, my friends, is the news from Holmes’ Prairie, a small town out on the Kansas plains, west of Wichita and well to the right of Liberal. It’s a town where nothing ever happens, but if we can take a moment to slow down, breathe, and notice, we’ll be sure to find abundant lessons for our living.