Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Convention Sermon: For a Single, Beautiful Word

The Rev. Colin Mathewson preached this sermon at the Daily Eucharist at General Convention, 2 July 2015

“The general remembers the tiny green sprigs/ men of his village wore in their capes/ to honor the birth of a son. He will/ order many, this time, to be killed/ for a single, beautiful word.” Thus concludes the poem “Parsley” by Rita Dove, a piece remembering the so-called Parsley Massacre of 1937.

That was a year of economic struggle for the Dominican Republic as sugar prices plummeted. Neighboring Haitians struggled too, and thousands crossed the porous border to work the sugar cane fields for American conglomerates. In response, the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo, instituted harsh deportation policies that didn’t seem to be working — for the demand for cheap labor on the fields remained. In the face of growing unrest, scapegoats were needed to maintain control. In September of that year Trujillo welcomed a Nazi delegation and publicly accepted the gift of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Trujillo’s dream of whitening the skin of Dominicans to bolster national pride at the expense of their darker-skinned Haitian neighbors had found its justification.

Just weeks later, Trujillo ordered the deaths of thousands of Haitian immigrants along the border. When it wasn’t clear by skin color alone who was of Haitian descent and who was not, Trujillo’s men would ask the terrified detainee to pronounce the word “parsley” in Spanish: perejil. Haitians could not roll their “r”s, and thus spoke “pelejil.” And so they were destroyed, their bodies dumped into the aptly-named Massacre River.

To be killed for a single word: a shibboleth, a word designed to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, first employed by the Gileadites at the fords of the Jordan River to murder 42,000 Ephraimites in the Book of Judges.

To be killed — and remembered — for a single, beautiful word.

Charles Barnes, whom we celebrate this morning, was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1894 and grew up in New Jersey. After obtaining his bachelor of arts degree from the University of the South at Sewanee he moved to New York to attend the General Theological Seminary, and was ordained at the age of 26. He served as a priest some fifteen years in the U.S. and Central America, arriving in the Dominican Republic at the age of 42, five years into the dictatorship of Trujillo. This was the year that the country’s capital, Santo Domingo, was officially renamed Ciudad Trujillo, though its name had been Santo Domingo since its founding in 1496 — nothing, not even history, would curtail Trujillo’s egoistic domination of the country until his assassination in 1961.

If Father Barnes hadn’t known of Trujillo’s ruthlessness before coming to the Dominican Republic, he surely learned of it shortly after his arrival — which is why it is curious that he would have written letters to his American friends in the State Department about Trujillo’s massacre of Haitians. No one believes that Charles was naive enough to think that he could escape the immense web the strong man’s spies had cast over the island. Instead, Father Barnes accepted the risk of writing out his cries for justice.

One such letter, intercepted by spies, perhaps reached the eyes of Trujillo himself. And faced with the deathly truth of his own making, the dictator summoned Charles to his compound, and may have killed the priest then and there. Father Barnes’ broken body was found in his rectory the next morning.

I imagine Charles in his study weeks before. Who knows when he first found out about the massacre of Haitians. But I wonder how long it took him to write his first letter? I wonder what he had been reading in the Bible the day he decided he must speak out? I wonder what he heard in prayer? I wonder what it was like to put pen to paper and scratch out his death sentence? Did he write calmly and deliberately, or was there a passionate burst of words yearning to be freed from the fear of a mind that knew this could lead to nowhere but Calvary? Did he agonize over the sealing of the envelope? It was a Gethsemane moment, I imagine, for Charles Barnes. He had been invited into Christ’s sacrifice for us, and, picking up his cross, he gave himself up and into its deep love.

To be killed — and remembered — for a single, beautiful string of words, words that stood courageously in the face of the powers of this world. These words were struck down, and the Church resurrects them.

There is a single, eternal, and glorious Word whom we worship here today: the Word of God made flesh who dwelt among us, died on the cross of shame, and rose victorious. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection form the basis of a story that has changed each of us in this room. God is the author of this Christian story, and we are its bearers and its witnesses and its tellers. We take up its well-worn pages in awe and gratitude as the saints and martyrs have for centuries before us. Even as we tell this saving tale to the world we are shaped by its grammar of grace and its language of love. And as its words settle into our bones it can inspire us to act, like Father Barnes, in quite beautiful ways.

The moment when truth bursts free, when we finally give permission to the Holy Spirit to run away with us for good — that is a holy moment in any time and in any place. I think the saints gathered around the throne of God rejoice each time one of us gives in to the recklessness of truth-telling. Surely such courageous actions are themselves one more telling of the great Christian story to which we owe our lives.

There is no us in them in God’s gracious story. I wonder how well Charles Barnes spoke Spanish? Though I’m not sure it really mattered. His actions as did the tender blessings offered by my congregation, drew from a deeper language at the heart of the great Christian story to which we owe our lives. This is the heart of mission.

To be killed for a single, beautiful word, a string of words that comprise the story that has captivated us so — reminds us that the powers of this world have little patience for truth and scarce use for history that cannot be molded to meet the immediate needs of kings on their thrones. In the Dominican Republic, nearly 80 years after the Parsley Massacre, the government has begun a new program of Haitian deportations, even those who have lived their entire lives on Dominican soil. And the Dominican Episcopal Church, strong and growing stronger each year, stands as a truth teller in the gap between justice and political expediency. Our memory of the saints show us this way. Indeed, every Sunday the congregants of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Epiphany in Santo Domingo take communion over the tomb of Charles Barnes.

In such moments of remembrance, history cannot help but be pulled into the present, where God’s Spirit of truth and love can minister to the still-weeping wounds of violence, and send us out as bearers of the story out to tell again and again and again the singular, beautiful and loving words of God.

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