Central Idea: In order to become the Body of Christ, we need reconciliation, community and hope.
“Wylie, are you done yet?” “Almost, Mr. Royce!”
If you have never seen the Academy Award winning movie Places in the Heart with Sally Field, John Malkovich and Danny Glover, beware. I am about to give away the plot, the whole plot, including the controversial and, in my humble opinion, stunning ending. It was released 35 years ago, so it is OK.
The film is set during the Depression in the South, Waxahachie, Texas, to be precise. It begins with a somewhat playful confrontation between the sheriff of the town and an African-American teenager who has been drinking. The boy is shooting a gun, haphazardly. The laconic sheriff has been called to deal with the situation.
“Wylie, are you done yet?” “Almost, Mr. Royce!”
With that, the young man takes the last gulp from a hip flash bottle, tosses it in the air and tries to shoot it. A shot goes off and then click, click, click, he is out of bullets. As he turns towards the lawman to give himself up, he brings his arm up and BAM! He was not out of bullets. The Sheriff dies.
Now that’s not the spoiler. That happens in the first ten minutes of the film.
You don’t have be Nostradamus to predict what happens next. It is 1935. It is the Depression. It is the South. A black man has shot and killed a white lawman. Wylie is lynched. Although the shooting was an accident. Although Wylie was inebriated. Although there was no premeditation, whatsoever. Although he had absolutely no malice against Sheriff Royce. Southern “justice” happened. No arrest. No booking. No reading of rights. No attorney appointed. No trial by peers. Quick, brutal, efficient and economical “justice.”
The rest of the film is about the sheriff’s wife trying to save their farm, the family taking in a blind WW1 war hero and an itinerant black farm hand, who ultimately saves the farm. (Spoiler: Of course the farm is saved, it’s Sally Field for crying out loud!) There is a subplot about her brother-in-law cheating on her sister. Another plot features the sinister KKK showing up and threatening Moses, the African-American farm hand. The film is a reflection on people dealing with hard times, racism, betrayals and injustice. Some people may complain that the plot is a bit too neat and tidy, but I like the film as did generations of my students. I showed this in my Sacraments class.
But what really sets the movie apart from other films is the ending. BIG FAT SPOILER ALERT!
The last scene is in a church. The preacher uses two Scriptures. The first is the great ode to love from Corinthians: “love is patient, love is kind.” In response to the Scriptures, the betrayed sister subtly takes the hand of her philandering husband. (It wasn’t easy, he was cheating with her best friend. Yikes!) The second, is the story of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, which we famously celebrate this weekend. And then, in the Southern Baptist tradition they pass around the bread and on a tray little glasses of wine, although it was probably grape juice. (And no, we are not going to do that during this pandemic.)
This is when things take a dangerous turn. They pass the tray around to the various characters for a sip. Hey that’s the heartless banker, hey, there’s the waitress from the café, and hey that’s the lady who, wait a minute, didn’t she die in the tornado, there is something fishy here, and then hey, there is Moses, the black farm hand, wait a minute, didn’t he leave town and what is he doing in a white church in 1935? OK, he passes it to the blind guy, and then Sally Field’s kids, and then Sally Field’s character as the hymn in the background crescendos, passes the tray to her dead husband, huh, and he then passes it to Wylie, the kid who accidentally killed him.
And the final shot is of the two of them framed, Sheriff Royce and Wylie and Wylie looks back and says to the Sheriff: Peace of God.
Peace of God. And that’s when my students’ heads exploded.
It is an audacious ending. Some reviewers thought it was too audacious. I think it was brilliant, a vision of what we celebrate this weekend and every time we gather to share the Eucharist.
First, the Body and Blood of Christ is about reconciliation, REAL reconciliation. When the betrayed wife takes her husband’s hand, it wasn’t easy. That action was born out of genuine and legitimate anger, hurt, brutal honesty and ultimately hope, hope that a broken heart and a shattered relationship can mend. The shot of the Sheriff and Wylie reminds us that this can even occur beyond our sight, beyond our imaginations, beyond the grave. To say it candidly, if we don’t believe that’s possible, if we cannot fathom that vision. We are lost.
Next, what we do here is about community, striving to actually become what we consume, the Body of Christ in our world. Let’s face it, community is messy. Community is problematic. Community is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either naïve or lying. We were all on board for two or three weeks of quarantine, but as we complete our third month of dealing with the pandemic, we are getting a little tired. You didn’t really think this was going to be easy, did you? True and just community is exhausting. And then, as if we didn’t have our hands full, now comes roaring back our ancient nemesis, racism. Again. But perhaps this is the perfect moment to finally confront this issue head on. No sports to distract us or numb us. Community only happens when we listen – really listen – not just nod our heads, spout some platitudes and dive back to #business as usual. If we have learned one thing this year, there is no more business as usual. That’s when we start realizing that we are all in this together. That’s when we realize that when one part of the Body of Christ suffers all suffer. That’s when we can move, as the Preamble to the Constitution says, to become a ‘more perfect union.’ We aren’t there yet, God knows. And the process, like reconciliation, will be difficult and untidy. But the vision of what we share here at the Eucharist inspires us to keep plodding on.
Finally, this will demand a lot of prayer. It is fascinating that the film ends with the community, the whole community, at prayer. There are a lot of folks who like to mock the idea of “thoughts and prayers.” And if by that we mean that we don’t have to actually do anything to effect change, well, then sure, I agree with them. But that is certainly not our Catholic, our Christian tradition. Our prayer, what we do here when we gather for Eucharist, beckons us to action, it leads to conversion and reconciliation, it drives us to service to others, it helps us establish justice, it fosters community. Prayer leads to love and love always demands that we respond. When we say the Mass in ended, go in peace, it doesn’t just mean get out of here ya’ll, see you next week. It means that we go out to do the heavy lifting of Christ. The work, it means that we bring His hope, His reconciliation, His life to all. The Mass is ended, but the true presence of Christ has just begun to be unleashed on a broken, hurting, angry, frustrated world.
When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we look at each other, across racial divides, across social boundaries, even across death and say:
Peace of God.