Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Funeral Homily (given on Holy Saturday)

In the Episcopal Church, Charley’s community of faith, Holy Communion is often celebrated on Sundays. It is a multifaceted symbol--a cue to think on a number of things. One of those things to be brought to mind is that heavenly banquet at the end. When all is said and done, and Christ’s work of reconcilliation (reconciling us to God and us to each other) is done, and we finally know the meaning of “the Peace of God.” This vision, this picture we hold in our imagainations, is an element of our hope--our Christian hope. A portion of that which Charley hoped and in the words of St. Paul, all “creation awaits with eager longing.” It is, what theologians call, the “eschatological vision”--a picture of all creation in perfect harmony. At funerals, we pray that we all may find a seat at that table--the table of the heavenly banquet.
In some congregations, when observing the Lord’s Supper, the congregation will receive sitting in pews with each serving the one seated next to them. It is like a family dinner, where after a prayer giving thanks, the green beans are picked up and passed around, each taking a portion of what is on offer. Green beans are followed by mash potatoes. You hand off the later, and take the platter of fried chicken. Soon everyone is served. Plates are piled high. You feast. An earthly banquet.

I imagine such family dinners looking like that Norman Rockwell painting, with the family seated at a dinning room table, father is standing at the head, about to carve a turkey. You figure it must be their Thanksgiving Day meal. The scene is truly picture perfect.

I know families who can take a picture like that; who can go down to Olin Mills, and pose and for a moment, they can appear like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting--Perfect.

I don’t, however, know any families that really are like that, who really are perfect outside of that frame. Most families can present a good front for a moment, long enough for a snap-shot to be taken, if not a portrait painted. But, no family can sustain picture perfect. We are, after all, human. And, you have heard it said of old, “to err is human...” In truth, that perfect picture is a lie. Our lives are far messier.

I’ll tell you a story. The story is not short. The story is too messy, messy like our lives, to be short. It takes a movie to capture it, not a snap-shot.

I tell you of the film “Places in the Heart.” Perhaps you’ve seen it. The film opens in Waxahachie, Texas in 1935 to scenes of the town and the sounds of a church choir singing. Edna Spalding places a dish on the kitchen table. Her husband, Sheriff Royce Spalding sits down to eat as gunshots in the distance are heard.

At the railway yards, a young black boy is staggering around obviously drunk, firing off a revolver. The Sheriff approaches cautiously and calls him by name, "Willie." The boy tosses up his bottle and tries to shoot it, then fires off two more rounds before the gun missfires. Impulsively the boy points the gun at the Sheriff and pulls the trigger. Spalding, shot in the stomach, falls to the tracks. He is taken back to his home and his lifeless body is laid on the kitchen table. The scenes change to Willie being dragged down the streets coming to rest at the Spalding home in view of Edna and her two small children Frank and Possum. Edna’s sister Margaret, and her husband Wayne, arrive. Margaret runs off the two trucks of fully armed white men dragging Willie's body. Eventually his body is hung from a tree and Willie’s family and friends come to cut him down.

In the aftermath, Edna is in a daze.

A black man, a drifter, Moze, comes by Edna’s house looking for work. He chops some wood and lobbies for more work. He suggests planting cotton on the fallow land and offers his expertise in that regard. As he drops the wood off in the kitchen, he pockets some of her silver utensils.

A bit later, the banker appears at Mrs. Spalding's door. He notes that she will soon owe the bank $240 to keep her house and reminds her of the reality of the Depression. He offers to help sell her house so that she can still have some cash left to meet family needs. Both realize that this would involve dividing up her family to live with other family members. He notes that “Sometimes it is necessary to split families up.” She rejects his offer. She wants to keep the family together.

Moze appears at the door in the custody of the deputy sherrif. He was caught with the stolen silver, but Edna sees an opportunity and covers for him. With new found assertiveness she gathers information from Moze about the cotton market, obligates his participation, and warns him to keep clear of any trouble. He is to stay in the shed outside.

Edna goes to the bank and presents her plan to pay for the house note with the proceeds from her new cotton farm. The banker expresses his disbelief in her plan and warns her but she persists.
At the cotton gin, Edna negotiates her first deal but is given poor quality cotton seed. Moze runs afoul of the gin owner as he exposes the cotton seed as less than first rate. Upon the return home Moze vents his frustration at sticking his neck out by pounding nails. He is, at this inopportune time, introduced to Frank who informs him that his daddy was killed by a black man.

Messy, indeed.

The banker makes a house call to the Spalding house with his brother-in-law in tow — Will who was blinded in the war. The banker deposits Will at the doorstep and negotiates with Edna to place him there. He couches his language as an attempt to help her in her misguided efforts to hold on to her home and family. She politely defers but he persists with a veiled threat regarding her loan. Will is shocked at the behavior of his brother in law and clearly has no knowledge that he was being dumped.

Across town, Edna’s brother-in-law Wayne returns home from a romantic rendevous with a woman who is not his wife, the local schoolteacher, Viola. Later that evening, Wayne appears with his wife, Margaret, at the local dance hall. Viola observes their approach and their obvious intimacy and Viola is obviously not pleased to see Wayne with his wife. Viola can no longer participate in the infidelity to her husband Buddy Kelsey and her betrayal of her friend Margaret. Life has become too messy for Viola and she ends the affair.

Meanwhile, Edna's children invade Will’s privacy, enter his bedroom, and play one of his records. They hear him coming and burst out of his room, scratching the record. Will is outraged, stumbles down the stairs, and bursts into the kitchen. Edna has set up a bathtub in the kitchen and is enjoying a brief moment alone in a hot bath. Will does not know she is in the bath until, in his anger, he slams his finger into the tub. She helps him recover his composure and his direction and he bids her good night.

The eventful night, far from picture perfect, concludes with the musicians cruising the long night miles back to their home.

Wayne Lomax buzzes the schoolyard in his speedster to once again woo Viola into returning to him while Frank gets caught smoking at school. Edna is forced into yet another male role previously performed by her husband, as she must punish Frank. Edna gathers instructions from Frank as to the way she should spank him; she hesitates, then delivers the punishment while Moze and Possum empathize from outside. Frank takes his spanking bravely, while Edna confides to Moze that she will not do this again and that she dearly misses her husband.

A major Texas storm is gathering as people scurry about the town. The schoolchildren are herded into the school building, but Frank takes off for home at a run. Will realizes that Possum is in the house somewhere and begins searching for her. Edna runs in and joins the hunt. As Will feels around for Possum upstairs, she reaches out and grabs his hand and they head downstairs as the house begins to shudder. All head to the storm shelter as the tornado approaches. Moze somehow hears Frank and gathers him in and all go underground as the wind strips howels. Windows explode as the schoolhouse goes down with the children screaming.

Moments later the winds die down and sunlight appears. The town is devastated, with buildings leveled. The schoolhouse is in the center of the devastation. Viola's husband reaches the school first. He comforts his wife who is virtually catatonic. She has managed to herd the kids into the only room in the schoolhouse that is still standing. Wayne drives through the rubble to be with Viola, but Viola is already being comforted by her husband. Viola has had it and demands to move away. Moze and Edna look out over a changed landscape cluttered with galvanized corrugated metal.

At the bank, Edna is faced with the obvious facts: with cotton at 3.5 cents a pound, this will only generate 175 dollars. This is not enough for the house payment and there is no chance of cotton prices increasing. She leans on the banker to ask the bank president about less than a full payment. During her wait, Edna sees pictures at the bank that remind her of the Ellis County prize of $100 for the first bale of cotton brought in to the gin. Edna shares her new bailout plan, but her “family” members note that her plan is impossible. Edna reminds them that her family is at stake and asserts her will upon the others.

Viola and Buddy Kelsey make a last regular visit to Margaret and Wayne to play cards. Their gin rummy game is interrupted by the announcement that they are leaving Waxahachie for Houston. The recent exchanges between Viola and Wayne are enough to convince Margaret that something is up between Wayne and Viola. After the Kelseys depart, Margaret confronts him and slaps him, telling him that they are through as well. Wayne is devastated. He has lost Viola and Margaret in the same day.

Back on the cotton farm Edna’s family all begin picking cotton but make little headway on the 30-acre crop. The sweltering heat and the drone of the insects build to a fever pitch as the cotton bolls tear at fingers, arms, backs, and bodies. Moze turns to muttering. He discusses the lack of progress with Will, and Edna overhears their conversation. Edna orders him to hire extra pickers, but can pay them only if they win the prize for the first bale.

Will takes over the kitchen duties as all hands pick cotton. His hears 11 trucks of cotton pickers arriving from further south. He reports this to Moze, who calculates that they have 3 days left to pick the cotton. In Edna’s exhaustion her mind escapes back to good times dancing with her husband and she wakes up in bed early in the morning still dressed. Edna is still in her dream as she moves through the kitchen, as the music and the dance come to an end and she is back in reality. She reorients to the day and then goes back to the day in the sweltering heat and the blistering cotton.

They work into the darkness of night, under lanterns. Wayne shows up to help but this is not yet enough to convince Margaret that their relationship is worth redeeming. As the morning arrives Moze gathers Edna from her daze. On the way to the cotton gin Moze instructs her on how to make the negotiations. The dealer arrives to see if he and Edna can do some “bidness.” Edna drives a hard bargain and gets her price. She does well enough that Moze has dreams of a tractor and much more.

All are back at the dance hall again. Frank moves a step up toward manhood as he asks his mother for a dance and leads her stiffly but confidently. Wayne manages to convince Margaret to dance with him once again. The community responds by complimenting the two of them together. Margaret still has flashbacks of Wayne and Viola together.

All is not right at the house while Edna is away. Moze goes outside to investigate and is accosted by white-hooded Klan members. Will hears the disturbance and finds the Sheriff’s revolver. He comes out shooting into the air to end the beating. The hooded figures are surprised by his ability. Will identifies the hooded figures by their voices and they depart. Moze apologizes but packs up and moves on, leaving his best wishes and small gifts for Edna and the kids. Edna tells him that he was the one who brought the first bale of cotton and saved their farm and that he should never forget this.

Viola and her husband depart for Houston and a new life.

The movie ends as it began, on a Sunday with the sounds of a church choir singing. The minister reads some scripture. At the church Wayne and Margaret are together and she accepts him back, taking his hand. As the choir sings, Wayne passes communion to Margaret and communion is passed from person to and dead: the banker, the wealthy, the musician, Moze, Will, Possum, Frank, Edna, Royce, and the young black boy, Willie, who killed him.

The last words are “Peace of God” spoken by Willie to the Sheriff.



Film summary is based on the synopsis from Wikipedia, but edited for sermonic effect. :-)

Moze is an "angel" figure in the film. His role follows the pattern of angelic visitors in the Bible. He is a stranger. He shows up unexpectedly. He delivers a message. Then, he leaves as quickly and unexpectedly as he arrived.

Homily for Good Friday (that I didn't preach)

This was my first attempt at a Good Friday sermon this Holy Week. I trashed it and wrote another. It makes a better blog post than it would have made a sermon.


William Hamilton, theologian, died at the end of February of this year. Hamilton was featured prominently in a 1966 article in Time Magazine. The headline read: “God is Dead.” Reading Hamilton’s obituary, I thought about Friedrich Nietzsche’s Madman as he steps into the market-place and shouts:

“I seek God! I seek God!...Where is God gone?...I mean to tell you! We have killed him,--you and I! We are all his murderers! We are all his murders! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?...Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?--for even gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife--who will wipe the blood from us?...What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God.”2

Good Fridays invariably turn my thoughts to the death of God. This service, has always felt for me, like a memorial service or a funeral service; as if we have gathered to pay our last respects. I am never really sure if I am preaching a sermon or a eulogy? If I was reading God’s obituary (rather than Hamilton’s), I wonder what it would say. Perhaps it would begin: “The deceased had no universally recognized survivors. His age is also unknown, but he was certainly very old--even ancient. He was known by various names--Allah, Yahweh, Bhagavan, Great Spirit, Ground of all being, Higher Power.”
Most of those whom I know, however, called him God. I say “he and him,” but some of his names and titles were feminine, so even the gender of the deceased is a bit sketchy. The cause of death is also ambiguous, but the most often cited possibility?--a modern form of crucifixion--called scientific objectivity. Recently, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, one and all; had confirmed God’s demise.

His terminal illness was, perhaps, first observed by a physician named Nietzsche, Dr. Friedrich Nietzsche. After first reading Dr. Nietzsche’s prognosis, I had hoped that Dr. Nietzsche was wrong. At times I was encouraged by other physicians--like Dr. Barth, and Dr. Buber. But, Dr. William Hamilton, now himself deceased, assured me that there was no hope for his recovery and that I should prepare for his passing.3 Some (like Dr. Hitchens, Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Dennett, and Dr. Harris) supposed his death was very late in coming.
When, back in 1966, Hamilton pronounced the time of death, many felt that a mistake had been made--some error in the reporting. When reading of Hamilton’s death a few weeks ago, I broke out my scrapbook, and looked at the yellowing headline: “God is Dead.”

I close my eyes and I try to imagine the funeral. I picture myself graveside. The crowd would be small, many would believe the announcement was inaccurate. But, in my mind’s eye, I am there at the graveside. I see the casket. I see the hole--deep and dark. I hear the sobs, mine included, of the small congregation gathered to pay our last respects. I hear the clicks of the rig lowering the coffin into the ground. I feel it hit solid ground. I heard the jangle of the chains pulled from around the casket. I see the shovels, full of dirt, one after another, cover the coffin and fill the hole. I am handed a shovel and I do my share.
When the gravediggers and I heap up a mound of earth on top and cover the mound with sod, I know I should go. Most didn’t stay as long as I have, there by the graveside, but I just couldn’t leave until the very end. I wipe my eyes, one more time, with the handkerchief I hold in my hand, then I fold it and place it in my pocket.

I know that, way back in 1966, Hamilton said that I now live in a post-God world, a world of “humanity come of age.” I know that you and I must work out for ourselves exactly how we will face such a world. But, I must warn you, as one who has been at this for a bit, that just as surely as I am thrown into a state of contemplation upon the death of God each Good Friday--I have, as the years have passed, second thoughts--reservations--as well.

I admit to you that I am haunted by a question: “Could we have buried, instead of God, someone else?” I have this reservation because, you see, nothing changed and I thought I when God died everything should change. Dawkins and Hitchens and company assure me that everything should change. But, I detect no changes.
For instance, I do not feel differently; and I wonder if something must be felt for it to be real. I was raised by Baptists, who were (more often than not) quite certain of God’s presence in their lives and equally certain of their personal awareness of God’s presence. You would think, therefore, that with the passing of God, I would feel different. I don’t. I feel the same in God’s death as I did in his life.

At the time of the death, I remember Billy Graham, now himself deceased, being quoted as saying that the news of God’s death was a surprise to him--he had just spoken with him that morning. Dr. Graham was sure the report of God’s demise was mistaken. He took the lack of change in the way he felt as proof that God had not died. I, however, thought about Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, who talks at length with his dead mother. A mother I might add, that Norman, himself, had killed. Madman, indeed.

Does the fact that I presently do not hear the wave lengths of WHAS or WFPL mean that their transmission has ceased? If those attending the Lady Gaga concert fail to fully appreciate Beethoven’s Ninth, does it mean that great music is diminished? If I fail to appreciate the beauty of a rose, has the rose lost some of its beauty? Does my experience of something or failure to experience something establish either its existence or its non-existence? I ask this because, I suspect that it may mean that the God we buried may or may not be God because I do or do not feel his presence.

Dr. Graham, way back when, was certain--but I am full of uncertainty. Must one be certain? I find myself with a searching doubt, looking to believe.

Likewise, the fact that I don’t feel blessed assurance--may not mean that God is dead. We could have buried either a live God or a dead impostor--and I wouldn’t know or feel the difference.
Further, amongst my “second thoughts” is the gnawing suspicion that God’s absence might just be God’s presence. Again, I feel the same as before. And I am told that I should feel different. I have heard people sing of talking with him and walking with him and telling him they were his own.

After being at God’s graveside--I am now wondering why I ever thought God was that kind of god. Such a god sounds more like my need for a prop to a sagging spirit, a shoulder on which to cry, a projection of personal fear--not the Absolute, the Ground of All Being, the Ultimate Reality.
On this day, of all days, I cannot help but think about the words of the man, who according to two of his biographers, said in his dying gasp on a Roman cross, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” To him, God’s absence was his personal “My”--a curious kind of presence.

Job said, “When I go forward, God is not there; backward, and I cannot perceive him; when on the left I seek him, I cannot find him, when I turn to the right, I cannot see him.” Job complained: “God passes me by, and I see him not; he moves on; I do not perceive him.” Maybe Isaiah was right, maybe God really is “a God who hidest thy self.”

So, you can see why I am having second thoughts, why I am wondering if God’s absence proves God’s death. Perhaps, God’s character, God’s nature is God’s absence. If so, to identify his absence with his passing would be a terrible error.
You see, each and every Good Friday, I am forced to re-think the basic nature of faith in God. From childhood I was taught that God’s existence was a foregone conclusion which no one with any degree of intelligence and respectability would question. Faith in God meant, then, mere acceptance of an established sociological fact. Faith was an intellectual assent to a fait accompli. Faith was the easy opening of the heart to that which was pressing for entrance from every side.

Again, I struggle. Faith for me was never that easy. And again, I don’t feel any different in this regard since God’s death. And if God’s presence is his absence, then faith in God may be a radical leap into an unknown, not an easy and simple acceptance.
Again, I recall the words of the man from Nazareth. He said to his disciples, who had demanded tangible evidence for faith, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Could it be that genuine faith believes in spite of a lack of evidence? Perhaps faith is swimming in a sea of doubt. Perhaps faith is not the absence of doubt but rather its absorption. Perhaps genuine faith is only possible after God has died, when God is no longer pressing in on me, perhaps then, and only then, can I exercise faith. Perhaps for there to be an Easter, there must be a Good Friday.

This is not, I remind you, my first Good Friday. I have been here before. I know how the story ends--and its ending is disturbing. In a few days we will be recalling the the story of two despondent men, returning to their hometown of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, discussing the death and burial of a man from Nazareth. Their hope had died with him. But before they reached their home to begin living in this hopeless world, ruled by cruelty and intrigue, the man whose death they had been discussing mysteriously began to walk and talk with them, later even ate with them. They became firmly convinced, so much so that they immediately carried the news back to Jerusalem that this dead man was not dead after all.

The story is unsettling for me on Good Friday. For I wonder, even if I did bury the real God--and I don’t know whether I did or not--I wonder if God is gone forever.

On Good Fridays (and a few other days) I can clearly hear the howling of the strong wind, bending over the trees and roaring “God is dead.” But, but, I also hear the faint hum of a tiny insect, buzzing around my ear, exclaiming “He’ll be back.”


1 Karen Joines, my college Hebrew, Archaeology, and Old Testament professor, once preached a sermon called “Thoughts on the Death of God.” This sermon is a homage to his. His sermon was preached in the context of the “Death of God’ theology of the 1960’s. Mine, obviously, has a different context and a different audience in mind.

2 The Gay Science (German: Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), section 108 (New Struggles), in section 125 (The Madman), and for a third time in section 343 (The Meaning of our Cheerfulness). It is also found in Nietzsche's classic work Thus Spake Zarathustra (Deutsch: Also sprach Zarathustra), which is most responsible for popularizing the phrase.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

William Hamilton, Death of God Theologian

William Hamilton, one of the theologians, who in 1966 was associated with "Death of God" theology, died on February 28th. He co-authored with Thomas J. J. Altizer the book "Radical Theology and the Death of God." In the Easter 1966 issue of Time Magazine, he featured prominently in the cover story. Hamilton was a Baptist; studied at Union Theological Seminary and later taught at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. He is often mentioned in conjunction with Paul van Buren, an Episcopalian.

Hamilton said, "The death of God is a metaphor." His work was a reflection on the possibility of Christianity without the presence of God. Altizer once said, "...the death of God was the ultimate act of God in the crucifixion..."

I find myself, each and every year, as I prepare my sermon for Good Friday, thinking about the Death of God. Here is the quote from Neitzche, upon which I often meditate:

“I seek God! I seek God!...Where is God gone?...I mean to tell you! We have killed him,--you and I! We are all his murderers! We are all his murders! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?...Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?--for even gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife--who will wipe the blood from us?...What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God.”