Pilgrims, Patriarchy and Humpty Dumpty: Thoughts for the Conclusion of the Liturgical Year

 

This week’s blog post will be a bit of a grab-bag hot rambling mess, owing to the fact that this is a transitional point in the church year. Nov 25 marks the end of this church year. A new year begins on Sunday, December 2 –the first Sunday of Advent.

This is always a busy time for Plymouth.

The liturgical year’s end tends to coincide with Thanksgiving, which is a big deal for us, given our Pilgrim heritage. So as I think about the week ahead, I have all of the following things bouncing around in my brain:

  • Thanksgiving and Plymouth’s Pilgrim service.
  • The End of the Church Year/Reign of Christ
  • The Narrative Lectionary text for the weekend: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

Maybe the best thing would be to say a little about each one.

 

THANKSGIVING/PILGRIM SERVICE

It was Charles Houser –Senior Minister during the Eisenhower administration—who instituted Plymouth’s annual Pilgrim service on Thanksgiving Day. The timing makes sense. Two significant events took place in 1957: Plymouth celebrated its 100th birthday, and Plymouth’s denomination—the Congregational Christian Church—became part of a new denomination, the United Church of Christ. So the church began to celebrate its Pilgrim heritage in a worship service that features choir and clergy in Pilgrim dress and a reenactment of 17th-century worship.  Many years, the Governor of Iowa would be on hand to read the state’s official Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Why did we start doing this? I think it was, to a large extent, about claiming what intellectuals might call a “usable past” –an account of our origins that could help to shed some light on current-day questions about who we are and how we should live. The Pilgrims seemed to offer some helpful answers to these questions. To claim our Pilgrim heritage is to see ourselves as both independent and interdependent –principled enough to cross an ocean for the sake of our religious beliefs, but open enough to accept the natives’ gifts of welcome and hospitality.

But here is an important thought: a usable past and historical accuracy are two very different things. The service has never been historically accurate. (The hourglass, for example, makes no sense). But it has served as kind of mirror –a story about our origins. And if it serves that purpose, something should become very clear: the service must evolve in order to endure. Once upon a time, member of Boy Scout Troop 50 would show up for the service in full-on “native” dress: loincloths, headdresses, war paint. Someone at some point must have said, “This seems insensitive. Maybe we should stop doing this.”

The service had to evolve in order to endure.

That logic governs my decision—and it was my decision, no one else’s—to remove the guns from this years’ service. I doubt they will return so long as I am Senior Minister. Maybe the Pilgrims carried guns to worship; maybe they did not. But in a country that has experienced 307 mass shootings in the past 323 days, it simply makes no sense to tote guns into a worship service.

And here is the piece I really struggle with: the service may need a little more historical accuracy in order to continue to be useable. With each passing year, more and more people are growing aware of the ways in which the “traditional first Thanksgiving” narrative can serve to obscure some really troubling aspects of our history. The arrival of the Mayflower opened a truly horrific chapter in the history of the North American continent, one in which European peoples took land and committed genocide against the people who were already there.

Can we make room for that reality in our Pilgrim service? I think we have to; I confess I have not yet figured out how exactly to do it. If there is an answer, I suspect it will have something to do with the connection between Thanksgiving and truth-telling. We cannot truly give thanks for all of God’s blessings without telling the truth about ourselves and the people from whom we are descended.

We need a useable past. That means the service must evolve in order to endure.

END OF THE YEAR/REIGN OF CHRIST

Just a quick word about Sunday, November 25. This does not often happen, but this year the Sunday after Thanksgiving is NOT the 1st Sunday of Advent. In 1925, Pope Pius XI decided the last Sunday of the liturgical year should be set aside as “The Feast of Christ the King.” And in the Western Church, Christians are encouraged to reflect on the theme of God’s sovereignty.

Congregationalists do not really go in for sovereignty.

We haven’t traditionally paid much attention to Christ the King at Plymouth, for a couple of reasons: it tends to coincide with Thanksgiving, we tend to be leery of hierarchy, feminist theology has taught us to be suspicious of patriarchal metaphors for God, etc.

But I think there may be a way to come at it that honors our values. The God of Jesus Christ is a lot like Humpty-Dumpty Remember the passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

  “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said. 
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

When Humpty Dumpty uses a word, he has to tell you what it means. The same goes for God. To call Christ our king is not to envision Christ along the lines of an earthly tyrant; it is rather to define the word “king” exclusively in reference to the life and teachings of Jesus. He does not so much claim sovereignty as subvert the concept.

I can get behind that.

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

Oh, and the Narrative Lectionary has assigned a text for the weekend –which I will preach on Saturday the 25th. So let’s take just a quick look at that.

4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

7The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” 5For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,7then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. 8Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” —only to go on doing all these abominations? 11Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

I think this is straightforward enough, but let’s do a little context setting.

After two weeks in the 8th century, we skip ahead to the 6th The nation is in a very different place and so the prophet has a very different ministry. In the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the nation of Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. That trauma informs the ministry of Jeremiah, whose prophetic career came before, during and after the fall of Judah. The Book of Jeremiah contains a staggering diversity of material –sermons, songs, poems and more. Taken together, they reflect the difficulty of those days.

Sometimes remembered as the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah must convey a hard message: Babylon will prevail.

In this reading, we get two snippets –his call story, from chapter 1, and then a sample of his preaching.

The call story claims that God had a plan for Jeremiah before Jeremiah was (as we used to say) a twinkle in his daddy’s eye. He did not choose this work; it chose him. And that call is all the authorization he needs –no diploma, no ordination, no pedigree. Just the call of God on his life.

And it is a hard call, as the second section of the text makes clear. The people of Jerusalem have grown complacent and maybe a little smug. The magnificent Temple seems a sign of God’s favor. But Jeremiah knows better than that. God does not care about beautiful architecture or impressive institutions. Those things can only be a means to an end –living the way that God wants.

That was Jeremiah’s message. No wonder he was not popular.

See you in church!

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