A sermon based on Ephesians 4:1-16
If I could have assigned advanced reading for this week, I would have. Something tells me it would not have been universally well received. Also, the reading I would have assigned is by Flannery O’Connor and she’s… well… colorful. The short story is titled, “Revelation.” It begins in the doctor’s waiting room, where Mrs. Turpin, a large white lady walks in and sizes everyone up. Mrs. Turpin does plenty of sizing people up in her day to day. She identifies a child in a dirty blue romper who clearly has not been raised well. Not only did he not offer her his seat, his mother didn’t tell him to. His mother was clearly the worst kind of person. What Mrs. Turpin termed “white trash.” She had some other categories. Some that I choose not to repeat, because I find them deeply offensive. She was pretty certain that her lot in life made her better than other people. She was sure to be kind to black folk and white trash, because she figured that’s what Jesus wanted her to do. But she certainly wasn’t ever going to sink to their level. A pleasant woman sat with her college-aged daughter in the waiting room. This woman was someone Mrs. Turpin could understand. She clearly understood the way things were. Her daughter though, she had such a scowl and her face was blue with acne. Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age. She herself was a larger woman, but she had always had good skin. Forty-seven years old, but not a wrinkle in her face. Mrs. Turpin thought about how unfortunate looking this college-aged woman was and she thought about how lucky she was that God had made her who she was.
Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep at night, Mrs. Turpin would wonder who she would have chosen to be if Jesus had made her choose between being black or white trash. There in the doctor’s waiting room, she saw just how unpleasant her life would have been if she wasn’t who Jesus made her. The pleasant woman asked the white trashy woman what was wrong with her son. She explained that he had an ulcer and that the only thing she could ever get him to eat and drink was coke-a-cola and candy. That’s all you try to give them to eat, thought Mrs. Turpin.
The acne afflicted college-aged girl scowled at Mrs. Turpin. I haven’t done a thing to you, she thought silently. She tried to make conversation with the girl but she just continued to stare without answering Mrs. Turpin’s questions. Mrs. Turpin and the pleasant lady spoke about the girl’s disposition. The pleasant lady explained that there wasn’t much she could do with her now that she was grown. The girl continued to scowl at Mrs. Turpin. “If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “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, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud.
That’s when the book the girl was holding hit Mrs. Turpin directly above her left eye. And then the girl attacked her, clamping her hands around Mrs. Turpin’s throat. Everything went blurry, but finally they got the girl off of Mrs. Turpin and she could breathe again. Mrs. Turpin looked at the girl, who was being physically restrained, and asked, “What you got to say to me?” The girl whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Later, at home, Mrs. Turpin was haunted by the girl’s words. She found herself out by their hog pin, asking God, “Why me? 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.” How am I a hog?” she demanded. “Exactly how am I like them? If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then.” Mrs. Turpin continued on about the order of things and how she could act or be if that’s what God wanted. “Put that bottom rail on top,” she exclaimed. “There’ll still be a top and bottom!”
As the sun slipped behind the trees, she saw it there in the sky. A streak like a bridge going from earth into the heavens. A whole company of souls were on it, tumbling toward heaven. Whole companies of the kinds of people she was thankful not to be, leading the charge. Freaks and lunatics were shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And then, at the end of the procession, there was a whole group of people she recognized as those who had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. They were going on behind the others with all of their dignity, keeping good order and acting with respectable behavior. Only their singing sounded on key. But she could see it. Their shocked and altered faces showed it. Their virtues were being burned away. As the vision faded, the crickets were chirping all around her. All she heard though, were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
2 Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, 3 and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. 4 You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
We love to organize ourselves into race, class, gender, social status. It is so easy to look at others and put qualifications on their status. Who are they compared to who I am. “We who are many are one, for we all partake of the one loaf,” those are some words we hear at the communion table. No one gets priority at Christ’s table, no one gets turned away. If you want to experience the grace of Jesus Christ through the means of communion, please come. Communion is a practice of the church which forms us in unity. Some are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers. But we are all being equipped for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ. It’s at the table that we find unity, at the table that we are sustained by grace. Communion is a tangibly important practice for the church. There are no divisions at the communion table. No status checks. No “ok” from the guard.
Mrs. Turpin didn’t get it. She was too busy categorizing to see the point. We’re all on the same bridge. Some of us are just having a better time rejoicing than others. One loaf, one body. We all belong to Christ Jesus. The practice of communion brings us to the table with anyone who showed up that day. Whether we think someone is worthy or not is irrelevant. It’s the practice that says, “This is grace. And that’s for everyone and everyone needs it.” God’s goal is to form us into mature adults, measured by the fulness of Christ. Unity is the way we get there and Communion is a practice of unity. We hear the story of Mrs. Turpin and we think, “I’m glad I’m not her.” But we all have some similarities. Maybe not as unabashed, maybe not as thoughtless, but Mrs. Turpin suffers from the human condition.
I worked at a United Methodist camp in Oxford, Mississippi where, for one week every summer we were host to a camp full of developmentally disabled adults. It was a week full of growth, and challenge, and a WHOLE lot of fun. Each counselor was assigned one adult to be their camper for the week. We were with them from morning to night, we shared cabins, and we lived together for that week. My camper’s name was Casey. She was considered one of the more difficult campers there. Hard to understand, hated everything to do with water- canoeing, swimming, showering… It took her a while to get wherever she was going, she’s a great camper, just takes some special care. Well, Casey gets to camp and we CLICK. I mean, I don’t know what it was, maybe that we both really like quoting movies and TV shows, but we were great. We’d walk around picking up rocks and I’d put them in my pockets so she could put them in her suitcase (a ritual her parents really appreciated when they came to pick up her suitcase at the end of the week). But there were definitely things that were challenging. Meal times were a MESS. She’d prefer not to use her fork, so that meant lots of food everywhere. By the time it got to be Thursday, I was exhausted. We’d had a pretty good week, but it was taxing. We got to dinner Thursday night and I was tired. I knew that we had to get to the talent show right after dinner and I knew that it would take us some extra time to get there. We walk into the dining hall and what’s for dinner? Beeferoni. Great. So, inevitably I look at Casey midway through the meal and there is beeferoni EVERYWHERE. I mean all down her shirt, on her shorts, on her face. I was frustrated. Why couldn’t she keep the food off of her for ONE MEAL. ONE MEAL. We didn’t have time to go back to the cabin and change. And the ordeal it was going to be. It was too much. I was so frustrated… and then I looked. And there I was at dinner, not having noticed that I had gotten beeferoni all down my shirt, all down my shorts, all over my face. These ideas I had about who I was versus who Casey was were completely wrong. We were the same.
It is at communion that we make this truth something people can touch, taste, and smell. The unity of communion isn’t an idea, it’s a practice that is drawing the church into who Jesus Christ is calling us to be. It is our declaration that we may hold some similarities to Mrs. Turpin but that we won’t let that be the final word because Jesus won’t let that be the final word. In Christ Jesus we are all one and all are welcome at the table.
-- Rev. Samantha Lewis Associate Pastor