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A Sermon In Clay

Preaching Eyes for Listening Ears
Sermons and Commentary For Preachers and Students of Preaching
This sermon was prepared to be the last in a series of three sermons for the Columbia Forum during the first week of February, 1988. Unfortunately in early January I had emergency open heart surgery and was not sufficiently recovered by the time of the Forum to deliver the sermon.

However, the seminary graciously planned a special service for me to deliver the sermon on the evening of April 12, 1988, when the Board of Directors was on campus. It was the first time I preached after my surgery.

This is a deeply personal true story from my own early childhood. It reflects a relationship between many whites and blacks in the rural Deep South in the first third of the twentieth century which many people have never experienced and which many others do not know.

(This sermon has been published in A Journal for Preachers, Easter, 1990, p. 20, and in In Trust, Autumn, 1990, p. 25.)

For this sermon I have two texts, one from the Old Testament, and the other from the New.

Genesis 2:7:
The Lord God formed Adam of dust from the ground, and breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living being.

Galatians 3:28, 29:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

I was born on a rice farm near Beaumont, Texas, but a few months before my fourth birthday my parents moved back to their native Alabama. My father took a job as manager of a large company farm in Sumter County, Alabama.

The three of us lived in a big house with fourteen rooms. The front yard must have been at least half an acre. On three sides of the lawn was a concrete retaining wall. You could stand at the highest part of the wall and look down at a row of yucca plants with their stiff, sharp spikes pointing in all directions. I could imagine that they were ancient soldiers guarding the battlements with their spears.

Along the far side of the lawn was a row of two or three ca--talpa trees. In the evening in late spring or early summer these trees would be asparkle with tiny points of light as the fireflies explored the catalpa blossoms.

Although the house was large, it was not an elegant house in the tradition of Tara or Twelve Oaks. It was a rather plain, severe house. It seems to me that all the walls inside were gray. It had no running water, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, and, of course, no central heat. But most of the other houses that we knew lacked these things so we did not know we were supposed to miss them.

Along the full length of the house was a wide front porch. This was a great place for a small boy to run his wheel toys or to sit with his parents in the evening and watch the fireflies in the catalpa trees.

The little town where we bought groceries, where we went to Sunday school and church, and where I started to school, was three miles away, reached by an unpaved country road which was dusty when it was dry and muddy when it rained. Our nearest white neighbors lived about a mile down this road toward town.

But we were surrounded by the small houses of the black farm workers who lived and worked on the place. So my most convenient and frequent playmates were the children from these black families.

One of them was my special friend. His name was Jethro King Rogers, and he had a particular talent which fascinated me. He could take moist clay and with deft and skillful fingers mold almost anything that he could imagine. He could make horses, cows, dogs, people. He could even make clay automobiles and wagons which turned on clay wheels with sticks for axles. He and I spent hours under the highest part of the house while I watched him make his models and while we played with those which had already dried in the sun.

I was the boss man's son, but all I could make out of the moist clay was mud pies of irregular shape and thickness. In this situation Jethro King Rogers was the creator, but both of us breathed into his models the breath of life with the fantasy with which children endow their toys.

I have often wondered whatever became of Jethro King Rogers. But given the structure of society at the time I am afraid he never had an opportunity to develop his talents beyond making clay toys for himself and his friends.

Life on the farm, at least from my point of view, was slow--paced, calm, and serene, with a wide--open--spaces sense of freedom - and especially it was safe and secure. But all this suddenly changed on one fateful morning. It was as if someone had taken an exquisite cut glass bowl and dropped it on a stone floor where it exploded into a multitude of sharp, shining shards.

It was a warm, cloudless Saturday morning in early May, 1929, less than three weeks after my tenth birthday. My father, as was his custom, had long since left the house to go to the fields to see how the young cotton plants were faring in the dry weather and the warm sun. My mother was sewing brightly colored patches on a pair of my faded bib overalls, and I was watching her with great interest. You see, I was to be in a play at school the next week. I was to play the part of a hobo, and she was making my costume.

Suddenly we heard the running of heavy feet along the wide front porch. One of the farm workers appeared at the door, his eyes wide, his voice tense.

"Mr. Ormond said for you to give me the keys to the car so I can go to town and get Dr. Neil. We found Mr. Ormond sick in the field."

You see, there was no telephone, so the only way to summon the doctor was to go and find him by whatever means of transportation was at hand.

Quickly my mother gave the man the keys, and he was off with a roar of the engine and a cloud of dust. My mother and I ran along the wide front porch, down the concrete steps which pierced the retaining wall and led to the driveway. We ran toward the fields, but before we reached the barns we met a solemn procession.

One farm wagon pulled by two mules with a solemn--faced black man on the driver's seat. On either side of the wagon and behind it came other silent farm workers. On the floor of the wagon, on a bed of hay, lay my father. His eyes were closed. His face was ashen gray. He was ominously still. The wagon stopped. My mother and I climbed into the wagon beside him. We touched his hands. They were cool and clammy. The warm spring air was split with the screams of a young woman who suddenly found herself a widow and the wracking sobs of a ten--year--old boy who knew himself to be among the fatherless. My father was 45 years old.

The procession came to a halt in front of the concrete steps. About that time the doctor arrived. He climbed into the wagon, took out his stethoscope, and placed it on my father's chest. But it was a useless gesture. We all knew that he was dead.

The rest of the day was a confusion of people coming and going, of whispered expressions of sympathy, of offers of "if there is anything that we can do." It was a time of fear, of uncertainty, of despair, and of deep pain. Finally my aunt and uncle arrived from their farm about 25 miles away. He was my father's brother; she was my mother's sister. They enfolded us into their family as if we were quivering birds with broken wings.

The funeral was set for the very next day, a Sunday, at 3:00 in the afternoon. It was to be held at my aunt and uncle's house.

My father's casket rested on two wooden sawhorses in front of the fireplace in the parlor. The lid was open, and there he lay. Still, calm, as if he were asleep. But he did not look real to me. The house soon was filled with the cloying sweetness of florist flowers.

The morning of the day of the funeral I did not know what I was supposed to do with myself. I avoided my mother because I could not bear to see the heartbreak in her eyes or to hear her cry. I wandered aimlessly about the house. I did not know how to deal with the deep, hollow hurt within me. I doubt that I could have identified it as grief. It was more like fear, uncertainty - and even embarrassment. I was already anticipating the questions adults sometimes asked small boys when they weren't sure who they were: "Boy, who's your daddy?"

And I would have to reply, "I don't have a daddy. My daddy's dead."

As the dreaded hour for the funeral approached, I went out on the front porch where a group of men was gathered. Some of them were sitting in wooden benches tilted against the wall. These benches were handmade pews rescued from an abandoned church. There was also a porch swing in which two men sat, swinging gently. That old swing never had been hung properly. If you leaned back in it too far it would tilt over and suddenly and unceremoniously spill you on the porch floor. As I watched the men swinging I almost wished that it would tilt over and break the heavy solemnity of the day. But it never did.

I sat on the front steps and looked out over the pond and the pasture in front of my uncle's house. Then in the distance on the main road I saw a cloud of dust. At first it was no bigger than a person's hand. But as it drew nearer it billowed and grew. It turned off the main road onto the lane that led to my uncle's house. It snaked its way around the little general store which he kept, mostly for the convenience of the workers who lived on his place. It came to a halt in front of the house.

When the dust settled there were two flatbed trucks filled with the black farm workers, both men and women, from the farm where my father had been the boss man. They jumped down and dusted themselves off. They were dressed in their Sunday best.

My uncle went out to greet them. He led them up the walk, up the steps, and opened the door to the hall where I had retreated when I saw them coming. I watched as they passed silently by. Some of their dusty faces were streaked with tears. Some of the women clutched little bunches of wildflowers which they had picked along the fence rows.

I watched as in silent single file they moved into the parlor and passed by my father's open casket. Each one paused for a brief moment of farewell, then they moved back into the front yard and stood together along with a great many other people for whom there was not room in the house.

The service was held in the parlor, and there was room only for relatives and close friends. I remember very little about the service except that a hastily assembled quartet sang two hymns. Now you will not find these hymns in The Hymnbook, and they would surely never find their way into the staid and formal Worshipbook. I suppose their theology is shallow and naive, and their music does not compare favorably with Bach. They were "Shall We Gather At The River" and "There's A Land That Is Fairer Than Day." Of course, I had never heard the word "eschatological," but somehow those hymns gave me a glimmer of hope - hope that perhaps there was a better day coming even if we had to wait a long time for it - and that maybe God had not completely forgotten us after all.

The service ended. We followed the casket out the front door, down the steps to the waiting hearse. We climbed into cars for the short drive to the old country cemetery about a mile from my uncle's house. The hearse and the lead cars reached the cemetery before the last cars, including the flatbed trucks, left the house. But the graveside service did not begin until all had assembled.

My mother and I and other relatives sat on hard wooden folding chairs set up beside the grave. This was before the days when rural morticians had tents to shield the family from the elements. It was before the days of artificial grass that seeks to mask the deep wound in the earth and to cover the great mound of clay that came from the grave. There it lay, red, raw, and real. It was before the days of mechanical devices which at the touch of the mortician's toe can lower the casket slowly and then stop it before it disappears into the darkness of the earth. Rather, two stout boards were placed across the grave and the casket rested on these. Two strong straps were passed beneath the coffin, and when it was time to lower it the pallbearers and others grasped the straps, made them taut against the bottom of the casket, and lifted it; the boards were taken away, and then the casket was lowered somewhat unsteadily into the depths of the grave.

It was the custom in the rural South in those days for all who had come to the cemetery to remain until the grave was filled, the mound shaped and smoothed, and the flowers placed on the grave. This was part of the ritual, part of the ceremony. It provided a kind of closure to the proceedings. Those who filled the grave considered it an act of devotion and of honor. So when the time came, my father's brothers and other male relatives stepped forward, grasped the shovels, and plunged them into the great mound of clay. But before they could throw the first shovelful a man stepped forward from among the black farm workers who were clustered nearby. For all I know he might have been Jethro King Rogers' father. He reached out a work--hardened hand and said with dignity and compassion, "We would like to do that."

Without hesitation the white men relinquished the shovels to the black men. With efficiency and dispatch they filled the grave. They entombed my father in the good earth to which he and they had been so close, and on which he and they had toiled side by side. They shaped and smoothed the mound. The flowers were placed on the grave.

The ritual, the ceremony, was over. The people began to leave, murmuring to each other in low tones. My mother and I went back to the sanctuary of my aunt and uncle's house. The black farm workers climbed onto their flatbed trucks and headed back to the farm, where tomorrow they would have a new boss man. I'm not sure that I ever saw any of them again, but I have never forgotten them although it has been almost six decades since that day.

They went back to their labors unaware of what a deep and lasting impression their acts of compassion and devotion had made on a frightened, fragile ten--year--old white boy, and perhaps in some mysterious way had helped to set his sails to navigate some rough racial seas some thirty or thirty--five years in the future.

What I remember about my father's funeral is not what the ministers did and said. What I remember is what those farm workers did and said. The only words I remember from my father's funeral, except some of the lines from the hymns, are those words spoken by a black man: "We would like to do that."

For this sermon I have had two texts. One from Genesis, the second chapter: "The Lord God formed Adam of dust from the ground, and breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living being." And from Galatians, the third chapter: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."
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