The only time I have been invited to preach at a college chapel service was for Illinois Wesleyan University just before Thanksgiving in 1969. I chose the presumptuous title of “A Panegyric Upon Plymouth” as my sermon title, drawing from Soren Kierkegaard’s “A Panegyric Upon Abraham” and the historical fictions surrounding the founding of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
A panegyric is supposed to be an oration or public address in praise of something or someone. By using the scripture of the Pharisee and the publican as the scripture text for the sermon, my praise was reserved for the publican who approached God humbly and with repentance, in contrast with the Pharisee who proudly thanked God that he was not like other people because he was so much better. With no small amount of sarcasm, I compared the Pharisee to the usual message of thanksgiving in America and expressed the hope that we would learn to use the publican as a model instead.
My delivery was not so good that evening. I recall that my wife compared it to a dirge, since it was slow and halting. I was nervous and had never preached to a college audience in such a formal setting. My mentor, Chaplain Bill White, gave me the benefit of the doubt and said that sometimes it takes a while for a message to sink in and later people come it understand it better. Probably they would understand it from someone else who spoke it more effectively.
Maybe no one else understands that message better, but I do. If the legend of Thanksgiving bears any truth, it is in the generosity and good will of the Wampanoag people in helping the pilgrims to survive, even though the Wampanoag themselves had suffered the worst decade of their own existence as a people. As a result of the pilgrims and the actions of later puritans, we can attest that “no good deed goes unpunished.”
When President Barack Obama addressed the Arab nations in Egypt early in his presidency, expressing regret for some of the actions and attitudes represented in United States’ interventions in the Middle East (never using the word ‘apology’ although that was later used by Obama’s critics), my thoughts returned to my earlier diagnosis of American pride. We have not learned to be humble supplicants to a gracious and merciful God. Our ideas of American greatness are distorted and deadly to the future of the earth. We need to appreciate the humanity that we share with people everywhere, and realize the failures that also come with that humanity. We need to learn humbly from each other. We can only be grateful that God has given much more, much more than we deserve, and perhaps we will have more chances to do some good with what we have received.