15th Sunday after Pentecost
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone
the … appalling … strangeness of the mercy of God.”
-Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Mrs. Turpin, the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” (published 1965) is grateful. She’s aware, after all, that God could have created things differently. She might not have been white or middle class, which, she thanks God, she is. She’s even grateful that her daily, sometimes distasteful, encounters with poor blacks and “white trash” remind her that “…one had to have certain things before you could know certain things.”
What she knows is this: she lives in a fair and ordered world, each person occupying the place he or she deserves and awaiting, in the life to come, a just and well-earned reward. If she weren’t such a mid-twentieth century model of Southern primness, she might be mistaken for a twenty-first century bourgeois Buddhist hipster, knowingly whispering, “karma’s a bitch,” in the presence of the unenlightened.
But there’s another thing Mrs. Turpin knows: the world is neither so fair nor so ordered as she would like. Life’s chaos and unfairness gnaws at her and she finds herself grasping for reassurance, often with disturbing results:
Sometimes, Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them– not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the homeowners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered white-face cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.
Our recent Sunday readings remind us that this is, after all, an unfair world, where human attempts to order, classify and set things right inevitably get things precisely wrong. In itself, this looks nothing at all like good news. If reason, force, and technique are temporary stays against chaos, leading to some version of the gas oven, how then do we act justly? If none of us gets what we deserve, wherein lies our hope?
The God revealed in the person of Jesus points us in another direction. This is not a zero-sum Universe of life and death; it’s a kenotic Creation shaped by dying and rising. The governing principles of things are neither karma nor merit, but mercy and grace.
While it sounds lovely, the difficulty lies in living into that reality, which would be impossible, were it not, again, for mercy and grace. We imagine God’s way unfair because mercy doesn’t meet our standards of fairness or merit. Alternatively, we conflate our standards with God’s and then wonder why the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. Grace, however, comes to us in disturbing forms and unpleasant people, schooling us in lessons undesired, leading us in paths we’d rather not take.
None of us can do this alone. I need you, and you – however unlikely it seems – may even need me. And so we are called together, not as an association of the like-minded, the enlightened, or the deserving, but as a flawed and messy church. So, too, we enter the communion of saints, those flawed, messy and even offensive people who traveled the very same paths we now walk. They’ve entered the kingdom of God before you – Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached the Second Crusade, Thomas More, who burned Protestants, Martin Luther King, Jr., who committed serial adultery, and Mother Teresa, who accepted donations from dictators – not by virtue of their unblemished lives but through the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy. With them – and before us – go others whose habits and sympathies, for whatever reason, may offend you: tax collectors and prostitutes, gays and lesbians, Dominionists and birthers.
In O’Connor’s story, Mrs. Turpin discovers God’s mercy through a particularly unpleasant young lady, not coincidentally named Mary Grace, who attends Wellesley College and is reading a book titled Human Development. Offended by Mrs. Turpin’s middle class smugness, Mary Grace hits her above the eye with the book and tells her, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Rather than dismissing Mary Grace as a raving lunatic – as you and I might – Mrs. Turpin takes her words as oracular revelation. She wonders how someone like herself, who gives to the “trash around here, black or white,” breaks her “back to the bone every day working,” and “do(es) for the church,” could be “…a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”
Late that afternoon, as she sprays actual hogs in a pen, she continues her argument with God until, “A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, ‘Who do you think you are?’”
It’s then she finds, in the purple and crimson clouds of sunset, a vision of “…a vast horde of souls … rumbling toward heaven”: “white trash…, clean for the first time in their lives,” black women and men in white robes, and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”
And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
Welcome home, Mrs. Turpin. If it’s not too much trouble, could you leave the light on for those of us still on the way?