A Good Revelation (a sermon from Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35)
In Flannery O’Connor’s story titled “Revelation” Ruby Turpin has the habit of judging and classifying people based on how they look, how they talk, and the color of their skin. In the opening scene, Mrs Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, forming judgments about all present. Among those in the room there is a mother in a sweat shirt and bedroom slippers whom she regards as “white trash.” Across from her is a teenage girl in Girl Scout shoes, reading the book Human Development. There is another young looking woman present that Mrs. Turpin judges as not white trash, but just common. And there is a well-dressed woman as well, with suede shoes whom she considers her peer. (Mrs Turpin always noticed people’s feet.)
The story’s narrator tells us that Mrs Turpin would sometimes occupy herself at night, when she couldn’t go to sleep, with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. She developed an entire “pecking order” of societal worth, with herself and her husband Claude positioned comfortably near the top.
In the conversation that ensues between Mrs Turpin and the well-dressed woman, there are many subtleties that reflect her classism and racism. She tells the woman that she is grateful for who she is. She says, “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.”
The girl reading the book becomes more and more irritated as the conversation goes on. Finally, she loses control. She hurls the book across the room, hitting Mrs Turpin above her eye. Then she lunges at her, grasping her neck in a death grip. The doctor rushes in to separate them and sedate the girl. But before the girl becomes unconscious, she stares directly at Mrs Turpin, Mrs Turpin feeling as if the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and condition.”
Mrs’ Turpin says to the girl hoarsely, “What you got to say to me?” The girl raised her head and locked her eyes onto Mrs Turpin’s. She whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Her voice was low but clear. And her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target. Mrs Turpin senses that she has been singled out for the message. Of all people, she thinks, why me? She was a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. And she couldn’t let go of it.
Back home she decides to go out and hose down the hogs. As she aggressively squirts the hogs she begins to argue and rave against God. “Why do you send me a message like that for?” she says. She raises a fist with one hand and grips the water hose tightly with other and as she blasts the poor old hogs she says to God, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” “Why me?” There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she rails. “It’s no trash around here, black or white that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” “Go on,” she yells, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. . . Who do you think you are?”
Then it came. In the midst of her raving the revelation came. (Perhaps like Saul on the road to Damascus). She saw 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 were rumbling toward heaven. And out in front were all the folks that Mrs. Turpin had relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. Flannery O’Conner writes: “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. 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.” As she makes her way back to her house in the woods O’Conner writes “around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
O’Conner doesn’t tell us what happens next, what she does with the “revelation.” We are left to wonder what impact, if any, it makes. Would she deny it? Repress it? Ignore it? Rave against it? Or would she learn and grow from it, would she become more? We don’t know. But it completely altered her world.
Talk about reversal. In the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of Luke in particular a major feature of the kingdom of God embodied and proclaimed by Jesus is reversal. This could have been a vision in the Gospel of Luke who preaches reversal – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – from beginning to end. Mary sings in her Magnificat that in God’s new world God scatters the proud, but gives strength to the weak. God brings down the powerful, but lifts up the lowly. God sends the rich away empty, but fills the hungry with good things. In the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14 the house is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In God’s household everything is turned upside down.
The woman in O’Conner’s story must face the truth that her elistist world where she carefully distinguishes between the blessed and the passed over, between who is “in” and who is “out” is a social construct that is false and erroneous. This proud woman is made to face the reality that her foundation for life is based on lies, prejudices, and deceptions. That’s hard to face – confronting the reality that your life has not been based on the truth at all, but on lies and illusions. Most of us are too afraid too even entertain the thought, so we never ask the hard questions.
Will she ever be able to settle back down into the same arrogant, respectable, self-righteous worldview again? Will she be able to go back to hiding behind her self-delusions? Will she be able to continue to shamelessly and self-confidently judge others based on her comparisons and classifications and categories of worth and value? I don’t see how. The message from the girl and the vision in the field turned her world upside down. The question now is: Will she allow the revelation to crack open her blind and deluded and hardened heart, so that the light of God’s grace can get in and transform the darkness? And that’s a question we all should ask.
In our passage from Acts today Peter tells the apostles and disciples in Jerusalem about a revelation he received. How important was this vision? Well, Luke narrates it twice. Luke tells the story in chapter 10 and then has Peter repeat it in chapter 11. In his vision a large sheet descends from above with all sorts of unclean animals. Peter is told to prepare the meat of the animals and eat, in direct violation of the laws of purity that Peter’s Bible said came straight from God. This rocks his boat. And apparently Peter needed some persuading because this scene with the sheet dropping and Peter being told to eat occurs three times in the vision. Slow of heart we all are.
Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who would have been regarded by many Jews as an enemy of the Jewish people also had a vision, and was led by the Spirit to request that Peter come to his house. Under normal circumstances Peter would not have dared associate himself with an unclean Roman military leader who had a hand in the oppression of his people. But these are not normal circumstances are they? So Peter goes with them to Cornelius’ house and shares with Cornelius and all present the good news. As Peter speaks the Spirit comes upon all of them. Then Peter draws this conclusion from his revelation: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him (respects him, reverences him – one does that by respecting and reverencing all human life) and does what is right (that is, what is merciful and just) is acceptable to him” (10:35). That’s what Peter learns from the revelation. The revelation turned Peter’s world upside down and broke down deeply entrenched longstanding prejudices and boundaries.
I believe that God is always trying to prod us along, to get us to evolve, to move us forward, and that inevitably involves letting go of some belief, some idea, some practice, some attitude, or some behavior that has become deeply embedded in our souls. The story of Peter’s evolution from exclusion of non-Jews to inclusion based on the universal Lordship of Christ does not come without struggle. For Peter it took a revelation, it took a vision. But let’s give Peter some credit. Peter was open to the vision. He trusted the vision. He followed the vision. And he arrived at a new place. The Spirit is continually coaxing us, enticing us, luring us to new places. But of course, the Spirit can only prompt, not force; the Spirit can only invite, not coerce. We must be willing to go where the Spirit is leading us, even if it means we have to leave what is comfortable and familiar behind.
Often what is needed is a new revelation, a new vision that enables us to see our world - our relationships, our work, our understanding of God, our connection to all creation, our calling and vocation, our gifts, our community – in a whole new way, from a new perspective. This revelation can come to us in a multitude of ways and through diverse means. The revelation can come through the reading or proclamation of scripture, through the lyrics of a song or a passage in a book (you know, so much of my evolution/growth over the years has come through reading, I often wonder how preachers who don’t read have anything helpful to say). A revelation can come through a conversation with a friend, or through a scene in a movie or a novel, or through a dream, like Jacob had in the night about a stairway to heaven.
I guess for you and me the question is: Are we ready to receive it? Are we open to new insights, fresh perspectives, new revelations? Or are we stuck? Are we too afraid to move on? Have we dug our trenches so deep we can’t see a way up and over them? Have we become too defensive and too proud to admit we could be wrong? (I’m sure I am wrong about a whole bunch of stuff) Can we admit that we have a lot to learn and a lot more evolving/growing to do? Are we willing to pursue truth wherever truth can be found, and not automatically assume that we have some special corner on the truth?
Peter Enns, who teaches at Eastern University has a new book out titled, “The Sin of Certainty.” I love that title. I haven’t read the book yet, though I have read a couple of reviews. Here is a quote, “All Christians I’ve ever met who take their faith seriously sooner or later get caught up in thinking that God really is what we think God is, that there is little more worth learning about the Creator of the cosmos. God becomes the face in the mirror. By his mercy, God doesn’t leave us there.”
God doesn’t leave us there – that should be good news. God gives us new revelations. The Apostle Paul called his encounter with the living Christ a revelation of grace. We all need such revelations because we all have blind spots. We may not think we have blind spots, but of course, if we knew where our blind spots were, then we wouldn’t be blind would we? We don’t know, and that’s why we need grace, we need help, we need new visions and revelations that will enable us to see what we haven’t been able to see up untill now.
Maybe our Gospel reading today could function as a revelation of the essential nature and activity of God in the world and in our lives. This passage in John 13 gets to the heart of what authentic religion is about: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” By the way it’s not really new. This has always been basic to who God is and what God wants. It’s new in the sense that we have a human teacher who beautifully embodied and incarnated this love. Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” How did this basic, foundational reality of authentic discipleship ever get pushed out to the edge of Christendom, which is what has exactly happened in institutional Christianity? If more Christians would awaken to the primacy of this reality we could make a huge difference for good in our world.
Our Good God, sometimes we become so entrenched in negative attitudes and hurtful beliefs and destructive behaviors that it takes a revelation to get us on a more positive, constructive path. Let us be open to such revelations. Let us be teachable, moldable, formable. Give us the courage and capacity to trust that you will provide the grace we need to leave old, familiar ways and find a new way that is more centered in and expressive of your love.