Monday, January 20, 2014

Maple Trees and Squash Plants

I heard a terrific sermon yesterday at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, delivered by Rev. Dr. Cynthia Landrum, who serves the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty.

She took as her text the Marge Piercy poem "The Seven of Pentacles" which is #568 in the Singing the Living Tradition.

She used this line as her jumping off point:

"Spread like the squash plant which overruns the garden."

Rev. Cyndi contrasted the squash plant with the Michigan maple tree, as metaphors for horizontal and vertical growth in UU churches.  Many churches grow vertically, being passed down from parent to child to grandchild. Some of oldest and some of our smallest churches grow like maple trees.

But many churches grow like squash plants, horizontally, spreading laterally. Many of our UU
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congregations grow this way exclusively. People leave the church they grew up in to become UU's. And sadly, many of the children of UU's leave to find another religious home, or none at all.

Growing like a squash plant is becoming the norm in our hyper-connected world. Rev. Cyndi called it "growing like a chat-room and spreading like an internet meme." You can always find "like-minded" people out there and make a group if you wish.

Rev. Cyndi drew many implications from this cultural shift for liberal religion. Our churches and congregations cannot hope to grow like maples, but have to learn to grow like squash plants. It will be hard because our investment has been in buildings and stand-alone staffs, which are the thick woody trunks of trees, not the creeping tendrils of a squash plant. (I am pushing her metaphor here.)

I hope she posts the sermon somewhere. If she does, I will post a link.

I had never appreciated the Piercy poem before. It is from a book of poems called Circles on the Water and is part of a series of poems based on Tarot cards, hence the title "Seven of Pentacles". In the Introduction to these poems (written in 1973), she says that she is making a political reading of Tarot cards. And, she of course, was of the Left and of the Radical Feminist movement.

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To me, the poem is so clearly of its time.  In 1968, Nixon won the Presidency in a three-way election. In 1972, he was re-elected overwhelmingly after explicitly running against the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the African American movement. The 'movement' was in defeat. And for the radical feminists, this was not surprising, because the 'movement' was dominated by men and mirrored the patriarchy of the ruling class.  Upstart maple trees fighting for sunshine and air with the old trees.

The Seven of Pentacles was Marge Piercy's vision of a new kind of organizing and resistance, one suited for the newly hostile environment. It would be hidden "half a tree is spread out beneath your feet" and turned inward "a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside, but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs."It would be personal: "live a life you can endure; make love that is loving." It would be for the long haul, "This is how we are going to live for a long time".

It is not surprising to me that the poem is in the 1993 hymnbook. This poem expressed our late 20th century soteriology (how we shall be saved?) and ecclesiology (how we should organize ourselves?) perfectly.

For most of that time, I think we thought of her final lines as a wistful and utopian flourish: "For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes."  She ends with an eschatalogical statement (how does this story of salvation end?)

Are we approaching the harvest? Can we read this poem with 21st Century eyes, rather than with late 20th century eyes?

For all of Rev. Cyndi's declaration of the unsustainability of our grove of UU maple trees, (she assured us that our church was already dead, quoting the Matrix), she was very optimistic, that the days of harvest were upon us.

After her sermon, we sang as a congregation, 'We'll Build a Land' but the spirit was so at large in the room, that the choir spontaneously broke into 'Come and Go With Me to That Land' as the congregation headed for the social hall.

4 comments:

Clyde Grubbs said...

A powerful image in the poem, and a good exegesis by you.

Cynthia Landrum said...

Thank you, Tom! I'm honored to have you blog about my sermon. :)

I've sent a copy of the text to Ann Arbor, and I think they'll be posting it online, but I will consider putting it up on my blog, as well.

Cynthia Landrum said...

The Agent Smith quote came out of this excellent blog post by Phil Lund: http://philontheprairie.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/your-congregation-is-already-dead/

Cynthia Landrum said...

The sermon is posted up now on my blog at http://revcyn.blogspot.com/2014/01/spread-like-squash-plant.html Thank you again for the review! :)