Seeing What You Hadn't Recognized, Old First Sermon 02.15.15

Seeing What You Hadn't Recognized, Old First Sermon 02.15.15

2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9
(A Sermon for the UCC’s Race Relations Sunday)

How many of you have seen the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird?”
How many of you have read the novel.

You might guess that the news of the publication of Harper Lee’s second novel
“So Set a Watchman”
is the occasion of “To Kill A Mockingbird”
coming up as the inspiration for my sermon.

But before I’d read of the controversy around the novel’s publication,
I’ve been on a 1960’s movies kick lately:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which I first saw with my mother when I was about 7, and she was embarrassed to have taken me);
The Graduate (which I didn’t see to later);
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which I’m still not sure I understand);
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (one of the hardest movies ever to watch);
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (the only one I was really allowed to see);
Valley of the Dolls (one of the worst movies ever; I still can’t figure out why, except for the theme song, audiences loved it)
and Doctor Zhivago…

Maybe by the time you get my age,
you start getting nostalgic for the films of your youth!

The almost perfect adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,”
does justice to the novel that I’ve loved since I read it in 8th grade
(unusual for a movie version of a beloved novel).

It’s become an American classic,
despite some concern that
it’s a privileged white woman’s view of racial injustice in the South.

And, I think, despite some conspiracy theories,
that Truman Capote might actually have authored it.

But the novel — and the movie made from it — still stand.

When I watched it recently,
I remembered an essay I’d read last year on a website
about Christian faith being reflected or even depicted in film.

The piece was written by a man named Ed McNulty,
on a website titled “Visual Parables.”

He suggests that “Mockingbird,” the movie,
offers significant instances of what our gospel text today describes as “Transfiguration.”

Now I wish you all had seen the movie.
And read the novel.
Because then in talking today, I’d be reminding you of images you’ve experienced,
and perhaps helping you to see them in a different light.

If you haven’t seen or read them, I recommend them both to you.

And I don’t want to spoil them for you.
But just in case,
so you can make some sense of my sermon…

And to jog others’ memories (because 1962 was a long time ago)…
I’m going to sort of retell it, to make my points.

The movie is set during the Great Depression,
in an imaginary small town in the South,
Maycomb, Alabama.

It’s the story of a lawyer, Atticus Finch,
who the court appoints to defend a black man, Tom Robinson,
falsely accused of raping and beating a young white woman, a teenager actually, Mayella Ewell.

The story is about three years around this case.
It’s really the coming of age tale of the widower Atticus’ two children
— a son, Jem and his daughter, Scout —
how around this passage in their lives
they come to really see and begin to understand
the world around them
and their father.

Atticus is some what different for most white men of his time and place:
he strongly believes that all people are to be treated fairly,
he believes in turning the other cheek, and
he believes in standing for what you believe.
(one of the marvels of his character is how he combines all three of his beliefs.)

Also unusual for his time and place, he allows his children to call him by his first name,
or more often according to Scout, “‘ole Atticus.”

At the beginning of the film,
in the kids’ youthful innocence,
their dad is just their dad, and frankly, like many parents, a bit of a disappointment,
For example, he refuses to join the Methodist baseball team, like the other dads,
explaining he’s too old.

One could almost describe “To Kill a Mockingbird” then
as the series of Transfigurations
that Jem and Scout experience after that point.
In the process, however, they start to recognize things they hadn’t seen about others too,
and even themselves.

I think that’s how Transfigurations work.
They’re not only about how you see someone new.
They’re also about how you see yourself.

Early on,
Scout sees her father accept hickory nuts and other produce as payment from a client,
a Mr. Cunningham,
for legal services Cunningham received but couldn’t afford to pay for in any other way.

Next it’s a hot summer day and a rabid dog’s loose in town,
foaming at the mouth and making the streets unsafe.

Sheriff Tate arrives with a rifle to put the dog down.
But as soon as he sees Atticus,
the sheriff hands over the weapon,
asking Atticus to kill the animal.

Jem and Scout can’t believe it.
Atticus, like it’s nothing, takes aim and shoots.

The sheriff explains to the wide-eyed kids,
that their father is considered the best shot in the whole county.

Life gets more complicated when Atticus accepts the case to defend Tom Robinson.
Even more complicated — and dangerous — for his kids.
But that’s also when they begin to see who their father really is.

There’s one night when Sheriff Tate was called out of town.
He knows that Tom Robinson isn’t safe in custody in the courthouse.
So he asks Atticus to sit in front of the jail as his stand-in watchman.

For good reason, as an lynch mob headed up by Cunningham shows up
to get Robinson from the jail,
to act out the white justice they think is their right,
to take the innocent Black man’s life.

Atticus’ kids and their friend Dill, sleeping over,
wake up and realize Atticus is missing.
They show up at the courthouse in the midst of the tense confrontation.

Scout, at first unaware of what’s really going on,
recognizes Mr. Cunningham,
the man who’d paid her dad in hickory nuts and produce,
and asks him to say hello from her to his son, her schoolmate.

She slows down as she speaks.
It’s dawning on her who this crowd is and what this confrontation is about.

Still her innocent action breaks the spell of the anonymous mob
as its leader is named, called out.
Cunningham becomes embarrassed and tells eveyone to go home; the mob disperses.

But the Transfiguration moment in the movie for me,
happens during the trial,
not on a mountaintop, but in the balcony.

Atticus has forbidden the children to come to the courthouse for the trial.
But they sneak in anyway; it’s already too much a part of their lives.

Imagine a space kind of like this sanctuary here.
They first floor of the courtroom is packed, all the white people in town there for the trial.

When Jem and Scout sneak in,
they find seats up in the balcony — in the “colored” section —
where the Black community must sit.
….also standing room only, but still able to make room,

Jem and Scout watch their father make strong arguments in defense of Tom Robinson.
Atticus shatters the case of the prosecution and
undermines the testimony of the young woman falsely claiming she’s been raped.
It’s clear that the accused could not have committed the beating,
and there’s no evidence that a rape even occurred.

But the jury’s racism and fear are too strong to be swayed from the inevitability of the Black man’s guilt.

In his closing argument, Atticus asks the all white, male jury
to cast aside their prejudices and instead focus on Tom’s obvious innocence.

But, in taking the stand in his own defense,
Tom had testified he assisted Mayella
because he felt “pity for her due to her circumstances.”

In a town where whites desperately insisted on maintaining their superiority to blacks,
Tom’s sympathy for Mayella dooms his case.

The trial is over.
Everyone downstairs, except Atticus, has left the courtroom.
Alone, he puts all his papers back in his brief case.

“Alone” he walks up the aisle to leave the courtroom,
lost in thought.
He never realizes that all the African Americans and his own two children
are still in the balcony.

As Atticus leaves the courtroom,
the African American stand.
Jem stands with them.

Only Scout remains seated,
until Reverend Sykes,
looking down on her,
commands,
“Miss Jean Louise.
Miss Jean Louise, stand up.
Your father’s passing.”

It’s in witnessing the tribute the Black community offers their white father,
that his children see past the quiet and unassuming man he is.

I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone who doesn’t know it,
but for those of us who do,
rememer ham halloween costumes and the odd neighbor.

And also, at almost the very end,
remember a neighbor, Madie Atkinson, explaining to Jem,
(I wish I could effect a southern drawl for this!):

“Jem.”
“Yes, ma’am?”
“I don’t know if it will help saying this to you…
some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us…
your father is one of them.”

That church, is Transfiguration.

May we pray to God that we experience it,

…that we might come to see in others the light and love of God.
And even ourselves.

That we might recognize a common humanity and the spark of divinity that even the furthest fallen of us still contains.

…And may we pray for God that we experience Transfiguration:
…that we might also see Jesus for he truly is in God’s light.

Amen.