May 21, 2017
I was at my desk one morning several weeks ago when news passed across my screen about the executions: there would be eight in Arkansas within two weeks beginning Easter Monday. I drew a breath. Every human life is sacred. We are born with abilities to think and love, and endowed with free will. These powers are God-like: we are created in his image.
Human life is that important. The lives of the men who’ve been sentenced to die are that important and so were the lives they took. That is where the argument about capital punishment begins, but tonight is not a time for argument. It is time for prayer.
Prayer is faithful interaction between the image and its source. Our thoughts, feelings, and choices interact with God’s. Prayer is like music: different strokes for different folks. As an Episcopalian, I need a book. In our prayer book, seven forms of prayer are listed: Confession: “I have sinned.” Petition: “God help me!” Intercession: “God save them.” Thanksgiving: “Thank you.” Oblation: “God let me help you.” Praise: “God is great and God is good.” Finally, Adoration: “Joyful, joyful we adore thee.”
As a kaleidoscope shuffles the seven colors of the spectrum, we in our words, hymns, and silences tonight mix and match those seven forms. A few samples:
“Lord, make us instruments of your peace.” That prayer blends petition with oblation: “Help me help you.”
“Hallowed be thy name” is praise.” As is “O Gracious Light,” which is followed by thanksgiving:
“We give you thanks for surrounding us, as daylight fades, with the brightness of the vesper light.” Something not to take for granted: another taste of twilight.
Some believe prayer works while others do not. In our gospel reading, Luke shows us both types in the two men who are crucified with Jesus. The first embodies unbelief: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Fat chance, he thinks. Choosing faith, the second criminal rebukes his counterpart: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly.” That confession, he follows with petition: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
So our prayers tonight include a bit of everything. Intercession, though, is front and center. We have come to pray for the eight men in prison facing death. Their names are Stacey E. Johnson, Bruce Earl Ward, Don William Davis, Jack Harold Jones, Jr., Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams, Jason F. McGehee, and Ledell Lee, who may die this evening.
How do we pray for someone who has taken someone else’s life and in recompense is about to lose his own? The Bible tells us. Jesus binds our prayers for mercy for ourselves to our prayers for mercy for our enemies and neighbors. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That settles that: we pray for mercy.
And it reminds us in whose image we were created, because merciful prayers are Godlike. Shakespeare said it in the Merchant of Venice Act IV, Scene 1, closing Portia’s soliloquy on grace: When mercy seasons justice “earthly power doth then show likest God’s.”
As death approaches we priests say the same last prayer book rites for every person, and we always start with prayers for mercy. God the Father, have mercy on your servant. God the Son, have mercy on your servant. God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on your servant. After prayers for pardon, we pray for refreshment, joy, and gladness with the saints in light. Those last rites are the same for everyone who wants them—one size fits all.
We also intercede tonight for those who have been assigned to execute these prisoners. They represent us, because the chain of command in a democracy rises to the voting public at the top. Logically, they are no more executioners than we. But logic doesn’t dictate human feeling, and with this assignment their emotions so much more than ours are on the line. Their work is risky psychologically. Though it makes their work more painful, love is their best spiritual defense. For them let’s pray tonight that hope will fill their thoughts, and love their hearts.
Now for the other group we have come to prayerfully remember, I will call the roll:
John Melbourn, Jr. was a fifteen-year-old police informant when he was murdered; Rebecca Lynn Doss was a seventeen-year-old gas station attendant in Bradley County. Jane Daniel was my age, 62, when she was killed at home in Rogers. Debra Reese was also at home when she was beaten to death with a tire iron. Carol Heath had her throat slit. Mary Phillips was thirty-four and her attacker also tried to kill her daughter. Stacy Errickson had two young children. Dominique Herd was a cheerleader and Cecil Boren a farmer. Michael Greenwood was killed in a car wreck following an escape by Kenneth Williams, who has also admitted to the murder of a thirty-four-year-old Pine Bluff man named Jerrell Jenkins.
These deaths put faith in question. Where was God’s mercy when they needed it? “If God is God he is not good. If God is good he is not God. Take the even, take the odd,” wrote Archibald MacLeish in JB, his retelling of the book of Job. It poses the old logical dilemma: either God couldn’t help them or he wouldn’t. Either way he is not the God we thought we prayed to. So the dilemma would force us to conclude if we accept its premises. (I don’t.)
In Shakespeare, Macduff is the agonized survivor. While he was away his house was attacked and his family murdered. This is Macbeth Act IV Scene 3. Ross had been sent to find Macduff and tell him what had happened. When he finds Macduff, Ross wants to give his friend one or two more un-tormented minutes, the last of his lifetime, so at first he only hints at the catastrophe.
I have words that would be howl’d out in the desert air, where hearing would not latch them.
After some coaxing by Macduff, Ross finally spits out the truth. Stricken, Macduff cries out in unbelief and anguish:
Did heaven look on, and would not take their part?
What good is prayer when despite our prayers such things could happen?
I wrestled with that question in a sermon twenty years ago last Christmas. Christmas Eve 1996 was a Tuesday. The Friday before an evil thing had happened. Juli Busken was an accomplished ballerina and student at the University of Oklahoma. Her mother Mary Jean worked here in the Bishop’s office. Bud, her dad, ran Longhills Golf course down in Benton. That Friday morning, December 20, Juli was kidnapped from her apartment parking lot, assaulted, and murdered. As she was taken, neighbors heard her scream.
Christmas Eve at midnight mass I made Macbeth Act IV, Scene 3 my text:
Did heaven look on, and would not take [her] part?
Two good and faithful parents that I knew were living every parent’s nightmare. I could no more ignore that in a Christmas sermon four days after the terrible event than we should ignore the fact that these eight executions are meant to be an answer to such nightmares. If they could dispel the nightmare I would say they’re worth it. We know they can’t. Only God can dispel such nightmares, but where was he? “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us!” For the moment, unbelief has the upper hand.
Then, that December 24 I turned to hope and Christmas. I said this:
Grief will not be assuaged by reassurance, I know this. Still, I cannot pretend I do not know of reassurance, and I cannot, will not fail to speak of hope.
For Christmas does hold hope for Juli Busken, and for Mary Jean and Bud. Jesus said do not, donot, fear the one who kills the body, but cannot kill the soul. I do not forget this: do not, cannot, will not. And, if I don’t say it, Christmas will.
No, not say it . . . Christmas wants to sing.
The song begins in desert air, with only shepherds’ ears to latch it. Tongues of angels rise through starlit skies. Then, thrilling voices roll out over time. We, the living, join our singing voices with the dead, ghosts of Christmas past who are not ghosts at all, but living, loving, singing saints.
And one was a doctor and one was a priest and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.
Christmas has us singing, and it doesn’t matter who is alive, and who is dead.
Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, and usher in the morning.
Christmas insists that heaven takes our part. She brooks no objections, no ifs, ands or buts. Christmas is not naïve. She reads the morning papers, sees the evening news. She has the facts, Christmas. She nods that she is familiar with the darkness Though she knows its power she is undeterred.
Above anguished howls in desert air, she cries:
Fear not. Unto you is born this day, a Saviour.
Fear not. Fear not the one who kills the body, but cannot kill the soul. Fear not, because the Word of God is mightier than the sword. Fear not the darkness, for darkness cannot kill the soul that belongs to Jesus. Though it pierces heart and soul, though it raises scream of terror, the darkness cannot have the girl.
The darkness cannot have us. In that truth we pray hopefully tonight for eight men at death’s door and for those who died by their hands. It is the truth that was spoken of by prophets, came to light in Bethlehem at Christmas, was buried on Good Friday, and rose victorious at Easter:
In Christ, all our prayers for help are answered yes.