The Best Sermon I Ever Heard
A reader of my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming wrote to ask if I could e-mail him the passage in which my friend James Toney, a country preacher, eulogized his mother. He said he keeps lending out the book, and he finds himself without it just now, and longing to read about James’s sermon. Here it is; I hope you are as moved by it as I was:
Miss Clophine Toney died in hospice care that spring. She was 82. On the day of her burial, I picked Mam and Paw up and we drove to the funeral home in Zachary. James, her son and my childhood peewee baseball teammate, eulogized his mother. I knew my old friend had become a part-time evangelist, but I had never heard him preach. He stayed up all night praying for the right words to say. He stood behind the lectern next to his mother’s open casket, flexed his arms under his gray suit and black shirt, then turned the Spirit loose on the 40 or so mourners in the room.
“During Christmastime, my mother would go out and pick up pecans,” he began, in his husky voice. “She wasn’t very well educated. Today they tryin’ to educate us in everything. Gotta stay with the next game, gotta make sure we go to college. We can’t get too far behind, because we might not make enough money, and that would make our lives miserable. My God, we gettin’ educated in everything, but we not gettin’ educated in morals. We not gettin’ educated in sacrifice.”
James said his mother was poor and uneducated, but during the fall pecan season, she worked hard gathering pecans from under every tree she could find.
“She was carryin’ a cross,” he said. “Because let me tell you something, if you don’t sacrifice for your brother, if you don’t sacrifice for your neighbor, you not carrying your cross.”
Miss Clophine took the money she made selling pecans and went to the dollar store in St. Francisville, where, despite her own great need, she spent it on presents for friends and family.
“Aunt Grace told me the other day that of all the presents she got from everybody, those meant the most,” James said. “Why? Because there was so much sacrifice. She sacrificed everything she made, just to give.”
James pointed to Mam and Paw, sitting in the congregation.
“She used to give Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy presents. And I’ll say this about Mr. Ray and Miss Dorothy Dreher, they were so close to my mother and my father. They sacrificed every year, whether my mother and father have enough to give them a gift of not. They gave. We talkin’ about sacrifice. We talkin’ about whether you’re carryin’ your cross today.”
As a child, James said, he would cross the river into Cajun country to stay with his Grandma Mose, Clophine’s mother. There he would eat a traditional dish called couche-couche, an old-timey Cajun version of fried cornmeal mush. Grandma Mose served couche-couche and milk nearly every morning, and little James loved it.
“But every now and then,” he continued, stretching his words for effect, “we wouldn’t eat couche-couche and milk. We’d eat something called bouille.”
Bouille, pronounced “boo-yee,” is cornmeal porridge, what the poorest of the Cajun poor ate.
“I didn’t like bouille. I frowned up. Mama made me that bouille sometime. Bouille tasted bad. It wasn’t good,” he said. “But let me tell you something: you may have family members, and you may have friends, that will feed you some bouille. It may not be food. They may not be treating you the way you think you ought to be treated. They may be doing this or doing that. You may be giving them a frown. But we may be talking about real sacrifice.”
James’s voice rose, and his arms began flying. This man was under conviction. He told the congregation that if a man lives long enough, he’s going to see his family, friends, and neighbors die, and no matter what their sins and failings, the day will come when we wish we had them back, flaws and all.
The preacher turned to his mother’s body, lying in the open casket on his left, and his voice began to crack.
“If my mama could give me that bouille one more time. If she could give me that bouille one more time. I wouldn’t frown up. I wouldn’t frown up. I would eat that bouille just like I ate that couche-couche. I would sacrifice my feelings. I would sacrifice my pride, if she could just give me that bouille one more time.”
I glanced at Mam, who was crying. Paw grimaced and held on to his cane.
“Let me tell you, you got family members and friends who ain’t treating you right,” James said, pointing at the congregation, his voice rising. “Listen to me! Sacrifice! Sacrifice! — when they givin’ you that bouille. Eat that bouille with a smile. Take what they givin’ you with a smile. That’s what Jesus did. He took that bouille when they was throwing it at him, when they was spittin’ at him, he took it. He sacrificed.
“My mother didn’t have much education, but she knew how to sacrifice. She knew that in the middle of the sacrifice, you smile. You smile.”
The evangelist looked once more at his mother’s body, and said, in a voice filled with the sweetest yearning, “Mama, I wish you could give me that bouille one more time.”
James stepped away, yielding the lectern to the hospice chaplain, who gave a more theologically learned sermon. Truth to tell, I didn’t listen closely. The power and the depth of what I had just heard from that Starhill country preacher, James Toney, and the lesson his mother’s life left to those who knew her, stunned me. And it made me thing of Ruthie, who lived and died as Miss Clophine had done: taking the bouille and giving, and smiling, all for love, as Jesus had done.
This was true religion. James showed me that. I tell you, the greatest preacher who ever stood in the pulpit at Chartres could not have spoken the Gospel any more purely.
The funeral director invited the congregation to come forward and say our last goodbyes to Miss Clophine before driving out to the cemetery. I walked forward with my arm around Mam’s shoulder. We stood together at Miss Clo’s side. Her body was scrawny and withered, and it was clad in white pajamas, a new set, with pink stripes. I felt Mam tremble beneath my arm. She drew her fingers to her lips, kissed them, and touched them to Miss Clophine’s forehead. In that moment, I thought of the Virgin Mary’s song, from the Gospel of Luke:
He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
And hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he hath sent empty away.
James buried Miss Clophine at the family cemetery, on a hill overlooking Thompson Creek, in the same graveyard where Roy Dale Craven, who played baseball with James and me, lies. Thousands of cars pass by on Highway 61 every day, and the people inside never know what treasures lay buried on the hilltop, just beyond the trees. Those people have somewhere to get to, and speed along, unawares.
That’s a good man, James Toney. Hey, have you read Little Way yet?