Saturday, March 27, 2010

Innocence Slaughtered

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010

Text: Luke 22:14-23:49

We want the world to be perfect. Why not, if that is a live option? We want the world to be perfect. But it simply isn’t.

What would perfect be? I don’t know. Maybe it would be a world that had no evil, and thus no good. Maybe it would be a world that knew no shadows or sunsets, only eternal noon. Maybe it would be a world free of snowstorms or thunderstorms, safe from earthquake and flood, full of mild spring days showered by cherry blossoms.

Instead, the world we inhabit is a world where the innocent are crucified.

Palm Sunday begins as if the world were perfect, on tiptoe awaiting the arrival of its Savior, singing, “Blessed is the King who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Glory, laud, honor, palms, parades, victory are all in place; but the whole thing quickly sours and darkens as we see the king of glory shamed, taunted, abused, and finally killed. And that is the way life in the world is. However wonderful that life could be, it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Palm Sunday only puzzles us if we have not yet learned the truth of that.

There are, of course, multiple ways in which we can look at the passion of Jesus. A conventional way is to see him going about all this as if he knows the script perfectly well, moving from Bethany to the Temple Mount without a moment’s hesitation, heading towards the Passover in which he himself will be the slain lamb with not so much as an emotional hiccup. Luke will not allow such a view. He draws us close to Jesus at his last supper, clearly knowing that death awaits him, aware of imminent betrayal, fully expecting the most stalwart disciple to deny him, and overwhelmed with anguish as he prays to be spared the time of trial. There is nothing phony or superhuman about this Jesus. Yet Luke makes it clear that Jesus is not thrown off center by any of this. He has his wits about him, and he is no less here than throughout Luke’s gospel, full of Holy Spirit.

But this story is more than Jesus’ story. Or rather, in Jesus’ story we see caught up a host of other stories. The righteous suffer all the time, not just on Calvary. Evil hunts down Good every day of the week, not just on Friday. And innocence is slaughtered throughout the world, not just in Jerusalem. We tell this story over and over not only because it happened once and not only because we believe that it is about God’s Son, but because it rings true to what we know about our own lives. And lest we rush to conclude that we are the victims in this cosmic drama of the slaughter of innocence, we might remind ourselves that, like the players in a Passion play, we can switch parts with ease. Out of our mouths sometimes comes, “Hosannah!” and sometimes, “Crucify!” Sometimes we are rubbing our eyes trying to stay awake and watch with Christ, and sometimes we are busy negotiating the best way we can shut him up. At times we are walking behind him, carrying the cross, and sometimes we are running away from the scene lest we become involved. We can work ourselves up into paroxysms of pity for the innocent and in the next breath poke fun at the little prophet and dress him in purple drag as cheap entertainment. We usually do not one or the other but both.

And you know it. You may have been fired without just cause, discriminated against, hated without reason, brutally raped, robbed, or ridiculed. Or you might have been the one to inflict harm, or maybe just stand by looking and shaking your head–or less–when somebody else has been busy executing innocence. The tale goes on. Truer words were never spoken than his admonition to the women who followed and bewailed him: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.” The story is about them and us, not just about him. And so when he prays, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he is talking past his own age and down the centuries. Yes, we keep killing innocence because in part we don’t know how to stop. We keep killing innocence because we refuse to become conscious about what we are doing. And we continue to be victims because as long as somebody is out to kill innocence and we happen to be in the way, we will get it between the eyes. The tale goes on, in my life and in yours, which is precisely why we need to pause and see that in this archetypal story of Jesus’ passion our own passions find healing and resolution.

Herman Melville gave us the character Billy Budd, the handsome sailor, naïve and beautiful, charming and well loved, who loses his temper when falsely accused of fomenting mutiny, strikes and kills his accuser, the jealous, evil Claggart. Captain Vere who passes sentence on him has Billy hanged not in the usual place but in the main yard of the ship, the center crossbeam unmistakably reminiscent of the one on which hung the Savior. Standing there with his neck in the noose, Billy says in clear accents, “God bless Captain Vere!” and all who stand watching with one voice echo him. It is the Christ story told again. “Bless them that persecute you; bless and curse not.”

There is a time to bless and a time to take up the fight against the slaughter of innocence; a time to say “No more!” to the shameful abuse of children and the exploitation of the helpless; a time to wage battle to protect the vulnerable. But there is never a time to give way to hating, nor a time to lie like those who lie about you.

We have no guarantee, only a promise that behind the shadows is the all-seeing Eye to whom not even a sparrow falls unnoticed. One can imagine that as the noble Joseph took the body of Jesus and wrapped it for burial in his own new tomb hewn of the rock, that no one spoke a word, if indeed anyone was around to see it all, grief locked in their throats. We can imagine that perhaps only the birds sang his dirge, as did the gulls when Billy Budd’s body dropped into the sea, as they flew “screaming to the spot,” and the silent ship under light airs passed on.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Oh, Brother!


I heard his bellowing a full mile away. Someone had taken the knife to Bull. But that was supposed to wait until frost. Why would he get one of the fellows to do it today, I wondered. Well, the Old Man was getting a little dotty and who knows why he had decided that today was the day he’d kill Bull?

I let it go. Too late to do anything about it, and I wasn’t sure it mattered. What did matter to me was how much the Old Man seemed to be losing it. His depression had only gotten worse in the last few years. We—my wife and I—had taken him three times in the last two years, once to Florence, twice to Charleston, to see the doctors. They keep putting him on different medications. Last week she caught him pouring a whole bottle of the stuff down the toilet. What a waste. But what can you do? No wonder he’s off his rocker today, I thought.

Late summer in Marion County is always hot. The tobacco market has come and gone. The fields are parched, the stubble of stalks sticking up like half-dead soldiers dragging home from battle. Straw crunched under my feet as I walked our land. I’d marked off the two hundred and thirty-two acres so many times I knew every inch of it, and what it looked like when the gum trees and pine around the edges bowed down with ice in February and what it smelt like when wildflowers turned fields purple before spring plowing. I loved the place.

I didn’t think I’d ever say that. I had just finished my third year at Clemson when Buddy announced on Christmas Day that he’d be leaving. The scumbag. Buddy never amounted to anything, but he sure knew the way to rip a family apart. The Old Man didn’t say a word. Went over to the safe behind the portrait over the buffet, pulled out a wad of cash, sat down and wrote a note, left Buddy and me sitting at the table, with Aunt Jewel wiping her eyes. Ten minutes later he was back. “Wait till Monday morning,” he said to Buddy. "Monk Clarke says he’ll meet us at the bank with papers ready to sign.”

I never asked, “What about me?” I already knew somehow that this would mean the end of the med school dream. Somebody would have to look after the farm, and it might as well be me. Buddy never would have done it anyway. He knew nothing, cared for nothing, wanted everything.

You don’t know what it’s like to see a heart break. Buddy had been the Old Man’s favorite and everybody knew it. Buddy favored him, complexion, eyes, shape of mouth. Buddy could never do any wrong, or nothing anyway that was wrong enough to rile the Old Man sufficiently to put him in his place. Buddy went out for football, got into a fight after too many beers, got kicked off the team for cussing the coach out. The Old Man tried to reason with him. Flunked three courses his junior year. The Old Man got him tutored. Got Penny Andrews pregnant. The Old Man shook his head, paid for Penny’s baby, got the preacher to pray with Buddy. Buddy was going to straighten up, fly right. Then he wrecked the Old Man’s car.

I got nearer the house and heard sounds I’d never heard coming from our place. Neighbors were there, pick-ups parked all over everywhere, people piling into the house like it was Homecoming at the Baptist Church, carrying their cakes, pies, fried chicken and pimento cheese sandwiches. The Dream Ranch Boys Band was striking up a tune, and Carl Edwards had turned up to be the caller at a square dance. The pack house had been turned into a dance hall and nobody had so much as asked my opinion.

Well, it is the Old Man’s birthday, I thought, and figured that Donna had arranged a surprise party. “But why wouldn’t she have told me?” I wondered. Didn’t make sense. Celia, the cook, was opening the back door carrying a big pot of something. I called her over to ask what was going on. She beamed, “Buddy home!” My heart grew sick. I looked up and saw the eyes I knew so well, my father’s eyes in a drawn and alcoholic skull, staring across the yard at me from the dining room window. He smiled, the cur.

To Celia I said, “Well you just tell the Old Man that he can have his party. Was that Bull I heard bellowing and screeching? You tell him he can just do without me.” I don’t think she heard me over all the racket people were making. Aunt Jewel came flying out, screen door banging behind her. “Buddy’s back!” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. Her hands went slack when she reached out to hug me. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Didn’t you hear me? Buddy’s…”

“Back,” I said. “Buddy can go to hell, which is where he’s likely been for twenty years."

Aunt Jewel gave me one of her oh-how-could-you-worry-your-father-so looks, reached into her apron pocket and said, “Read this.” I unfolded the note. “I don’t amount to anything,” it read, “so just hire me to work on the farm. I don’t even want my old room back or anything.” I shoved it back into her pocket. Bull. Buddy’s bull. I never liked it and I still didn’t.

The air thickened with the smoke of barbeque. I looked towards the Sutton field. I started walking. Blue the dog trotted past me. I felt a hand on my shoulder. The Old Man said, “Son, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t believe you.”

“What can’t you believe?”

“I gave up my whole life for you. Not one day in twenty-two years have you ever had to ask where I was, what I was doing. Donna and I have taken care of you. I have run the place, paid the bills, worked the land, harvested the crops, raised the cattle and hogs. And Donna. She’s tended to you like her own father. And the kids. You think—"

He pulled my arm. I told him to let go. “Son,” he said, “all that is mine is

“I don’t need to hear that. What I need to hear is how you figure what fair is. Fair-haired Buddy totals your car, ruins a girl’s life, demands—demands—that you give him his inheritance as if you were to him as good as dead two decades ago—and then runs off to God-knows-where spilling his seed and sowing his oats all over the country and then comes home and isn’t here a half hour before you’ve called the whole damn county to come in and wine and dine him, the sorry son-of-a–

He just looked down at the ground, idly kicking at a clump of crabgrass. “Son,…”

“Don’t ‘Son’ me,” I said. “Bull. You killed Bull. What on earth are you thinking? For me you never killed—"

He wanted to know if I knew what it was like, if I’d ever thought what it would be like if Jack or Nan ran away, left home, no word, no trace, no phone calls or letters—what it would be like to lie awake at nights wondering what continent they were on, if they were still alive, jumping to answer the phone when it rang, hoping that it would be him, scared that it might be bad news, combing the papers to see if any sign of him turned up, foot-dragging to the barber shop, hating to go and listen to guys talk about their sons’ streaks of luck at this and that, casting an eye towards the pool hall when you pass, on the off chance he might turn up there where the dissipated play. He wanted to know if I knew what it was like to pray for a child not knowing if he was dead or alive.


He asked me if I would come in and welcome Buddy home, or at least be civil. I’ve never felt so much like a child.

“Your brother,” he began again.

“No brother of mine, son-of-a––son of yours.”

“He was as good as dead. You ought to see his eyes. The light has gone from his eyes. But he is alive. And so are you. And so am I.”

Old fool.

“He was lost and is found.”

“Yes,” I said. “Lost.”

I don’t know how long he stood there before he turned to go back to the house. I glanced and others were looking our way, coming outside the pack house to see what was going on, I reckon. Could no one understand what it feels like to be embarrassed by a no-good brother and a senile Old Man?

I honestly didn’t know what to do or where to go, or whether to keep walking into the fields, or swallow hard and make an appearance at the party. I just didn’t know. I just didn’t know. I had never felt so lost in my life.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010