Proper 5 (10)
Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
6 June 2021
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Flannery O’Connor, in her last short story before her death writes about Mrs Turpin who, together with her husband Claud goes to the local doctor’s office.1 They are there for him, but being there and sizing up all the others in the waiting room allows her to feel pretty good about herself. She talks to the others, but as much as she talks to the others, she talks to herself, thankful that God did not make her white trash or a person of colour. She is happy about her good and generous disposition toward others, including the black people she provides ice water for when they come to pick the Turpin’s cotton, because that is what you got to do if you want them to work for you.
The music playing in the background is Gospel music from the radio, and at one point the hymn playing is, “When I looked up and He looked down,” and Mrs. Turpin, who knows it, supplies the last line mentally, “And wona these days I know I’ll we-ear a crown.”
The story about Mrs Turpin is titled “Revelation,” and Mrs Turpin receives two revelations. The first revelation comes by way of the young college student described as the ‘ugly girl’, who is the daughter of her ‘stylish mother’ at the very moment when Mrs Turpin exclaims with feeling “If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” “Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!” she cries.
It is at this moment that ‘the ugly girl’ hurls her book at her and attacks her. Before the girl is carried off on a stretcher to be sedated at the local hospital, she whispers at Mrs Turpin, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Later the same day, back on their piece of land, Mrs Turpin has a second revelation. A visionary light settles in her eyes. She sees the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls are rumbling toward heaven. There are whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession is a tribe of people whom she recognizes at once as those who, like herself and Claud, have 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. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
It’s been a tough 10 days or so for us people who feel pretty good about ourselves. It’s been a tough period for our nation. We have always thought of ourselves as the good guys, thankful for our good disposition, and thankful that God made us the way we are, peacekeepers, peace brokers, a moderate and considerate nation, maybe always coming in second or third, but at least good people without the baggage others have to carry around.
I had not been a permanent resident for long when the CBC aired the series The Valour and the Horror.2 It was met with an outcry from veterans associations. Perhaps you remember it. It faced such strong criticism because we had always thought of ourselves as the good guys who had helped bring peace to the world, and while we thought of ourselves as the good guys, we forgot the horror of war, as well as the Allied targeting of civilian populations.
The series was seen to desecrate of the role of Canadians in WW II. And yet, winners of any war create mythologies and they prefer mythologies to facts. Losers do not have the same luxury.
It’s been a slow journey for us to talk about the sins of the past, the Japanese internment, the Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru.3
I remember serving a church in Winnipeg’s West End. The neighbourhood had once been settled by German immigrants who, as they prospered, had moved to the suburbs. Other groups had moved in, Portuguese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and an urban aboriginal population. I had never encountered so much racism, directed at the urban aboriginal population and disguised by existing social ills.
We were a Lutheran congregation professing God’s grace, but more influenced by our self-made identity and one-upmanship than by the grace we professed. The expression “drunken Indian” was uttered without restraint yet no one spoke of displacement, residential schools, inter-generational trauma, or broken treaties.
Canada led no wars against the aboriginal population of this land and the fact that in the war of 1812 the Tecumseh confederacy and the Iroquois fought alongside the British we have taken as an affirmation of the belief that we are a pretty decent people with a good disposition to boot.
Occasionally we talk about the lack of drinking water on reserves, the underfunding of healthcare for First Nations, missing and murdered aboriginal women, the disproportionate incarceration rates, and while we no longer run residential schools we may occasionally remember that a large number of aboriginal children have been removed from their parents by the Province and placed in care, yet in principle we think of ourselves as a pretty good nation. The ChaptersIndigo bookstore at Granville and Broadway proclaims on a large banner that the world needs more Canada, and most of the time we would agree.
And then came the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (Tay-KUM-loops te shuh-Whep-mukh) commissioned investigation of the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School where ground penetrating radar discovered the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves. It’s like the rug was pulled out under our feet. Someone holds up a mirror for us and we don’t recognize whom we see. It’s a revelation of the order that Mrs Turpin received. I wouldn’t call us a wart hog, because that’s not part of my vocabulary. But we are sinners and we can hide our sins no longer.
We are not better than our southern neighbours as we like to think, and Jean Chrétien no longer assures us that we are the best country in the world, though we always liked hearing that, even though it was always said to distract us from the real issues.
This can be a turning point in our nation’s history, especially since the story won’t be gone by the time we’ve put our orange t-shirts back in the closet and changed our Facebook profile frames to remain current with tomorrow’s topic. This story will remain with us as the bodies will be exhumed and the investigation intensifies, in Kamloops and elsewhere. That the story will remain with us is uncomfortable, yet is our saving grace, because it means that we cannot forget it, and cannot go on as if nothing had happened. We will slowly learn that we aren’t who we thought we were.
What does that have to do with our readings? After Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they abdicate responsibility. Adam says, it’s her fault, pointing to his wife. Eve says, it’s the snake’s fault. Their response to God is the first recorded version of It Ain’t My Fault. Ironically, neither of them understand who they are even though they have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. Like Mrs Turpin, they think they’re pretty good.
We begin our worship with the order for Confession and Forgiveness. We do so, because standing before God we remember that we are sinners, have fallen short of the glory of God, that God is God and we are not.
Lutheran understanding has always been that it is necessary for us to be truthful about ourselves, and some will recognize this as the second use of the law. The confrontation with God’s law, with the commandments, shows us that we are sinners. This is good news, for without being truthful about ourselves we cannot ask for forgiveness and we will not be able to change because we would see no need to change.
We begin our worship by confessing that we are sinners. Perhaps a downer for people who came to be uplifted. But we are sinners not only in regards to small matters or to personal matters, but also regarding big, awful, and systemic things, like the things coming to light now that were done in our name, ordered by the Government of Canada; things and deeds we did not stop nor seek remediation after they had occurred, and for which we continued to blame the victim every time we spoke of social conditions among the aboriginal population of this country, never recognizing the immense strength of peoples who have suffered such loss to continue to go forward.
That we, like Mrs Turpin, are not pretty good people is our saving grace, for realizing this makes room for change that can make a new relationship with the First Nations of this land possible.
And yet we need to remember that simply knowing about our failures does not make us better people. There is no magic here. Confessing our sins must include the question of restitution.
And yet knowing about our sin allows us to enter into a relationship with God unlike the relationship we had before, because we can no longer pride ourselves with our pretty good disposition, and because confessing our sins makes us vulnerable. And such vulnerability may also make possible a new relationship with the First Nations of this land.
In her vision, Mrs Turpin and Claud were not leading the great procession toward heaven but walking at the very end, yet by the grace of God they were part of it, and though they thought of themselves as virtuous, she saw that even their virtues were being burned away.
On his deathbed Luther said, We are beggars that is true.
There is much grace in knowing that.
Let us pray:
Most holy and merciful God,
we confess to you and to one another,
and before the whole company of heaven,
that we have sinned against you
and against the First Nations of this land.
We ask your forgiveness
but we ask for more than forgiveness.
We ask that you to make us new
and that we may seek that newness that comes from living with you.
Help us remember the children but not only the children.
Help us accord to the First Nations respect, listening ears,
a seat at the table, and their share in the wealth of this land.
We ask this through Christ our Lord who came to make all things new. Amen.
1 Revelation by Flannery O’Connor published in The Sewanee Review, Spring 1964, https://thesewaneereview.com/articles/revelation