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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very nice