A Sermon for Covenant
“No-Shows and Nobodies”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
September 28, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Likely you understand the disappointment of someone making a promise to you but not following through. A friend tells you they are going to do a thing, and then they do not do it, and it hurts. For all these years, all these centuries, the religious leaders had been saying they were preparing for the coming of the Messiah. But then he came, and they turned up their noses.
This must have stung God, to be rebuffed by the people who so devoutly praised him. Jesus would have expected these to be the people who would show up where he showed up, eager to be his friend, but instead they stood him up. They were no-shows, expect for when they showed up to harass and question and mock him.
In today’s story, they interrupt him mid-sermon and demand to know who gave him authority to speak? What was perhaps a quiet teaching moment before they barged in morphs into drama, and if anyone in the crowd weren’t listening before, they are all ears now, holding their breath anxiously for Jesus to reply.
Jesus is calm. “I will also ask one question,” and the chief priests do not question him on this. “If you answer, I will answer,” Jesus responds as if he has the authority over how this conversation unfolds, and no one argues with his bargain.
In essence, Jesus asks them where John’s authority came from, and the quicker-witted among the elders begin to realize questioning Jesus in public might not have been the smartest plan. While they feel indigently certain that he has no divine authority to be teaching in the temple, if they let on this is how they feel, they may very well have a uproar on their hands from the people who think not only John but also Jesus is a prophet. Jesus doesn’t avoid their question at all, but he does save them from a riot.
And of course Jesus does not stop the conversation there, but launches into one of his stories. “What do you think?” Jesus asks, which is technically his second question, but who’s counting? “A man had two sons,” he begins and by the end he seems to have made a very simple point that anyone could understand about true obedience: The one who obeys, though he initially declined, has done better than the one who says he will obey but does not.
Jesus’ more subtle point is this: he is telling the chief priests and the elders, “It is not too late for you. Though you have declined, you can still believe.” Jesus reminds them explicitly that unlike the first son they did not change their minds . . . YET. But Jesus seems to think they will. Jesus must have hope for them because he does not say they will not enter the kingdom of God, only that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter ahead of them for these unlikely ones have already changed their minds and believed.
Though Jesus is holding out hope for his accusers, in their eyes, he might as well have called them criminal, to suggest that the tax collectors and the prostitutes were ahead of them.
In one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Ruby Turpin is a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman who gives to those in need and prides herself on her good disposition. One day, in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, she observes the people around her. There is a nicely dressed woman across from her, with whom she makes pleasant small talk. There is a man who appears to be sleeping and a normal-ish woman who seems alright, though common. Then there is a dirty child accompanied by his white-trash mother with snuff-stained lips and ratted hair. Next to the nicely-dressed woman is a teenage girl with an ugly face reading a book. She appears to be the nice woman’s daughter, though the resemblance is faint.
There is gospel music playing faintly in the background, and Mrs. Turpin sings along softly to herself, “wona these days I know I’ll we-eara crown,” while she scans the room and thanks Jesus for all that he is given her in life. She counts her blessings and is overcome with gratitude.
At one point, a black delivery boy enters the waiting room, and after he leaves, the waiting patients launch into a conversation about niggers, how niggers expect to be treated like white folk these days, and how they are trying to improve their color. The white-trash woman is especially adamant that the niggers ought to be shipped back to Africa, where they came from. Mrs. Turpin thinks to herself, “There are some things worse than being a nigger,” and she silently thanks God that she isn’t white trash, that she isn’t a nigger, and, with a glance at the scowling teenager—that she isn’t ugly.”
Throughout the conversation, Mrs. Turpin is aware the teenage girl with the pimply face and the book is glaring viciously at her every time she speaks. “I’ve never done anything to you,” she thinks to herself and continues discussing niggers, though she eventually remarks out loud what she’s been thinking all along, that there are some things worse than being a nigger. She is thinking specifically about the dirty woman and her pitiful child, and then Mrs. Turpin remarks aloud, “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.’ Overcome with joy and feeling, Mrs. Turpin cries, “Oh thank you, Jesus. Jesus, thank you!”
At that comment, the teenage girl hurls her book at Mrs. Turpin’s head and the book smacks Ruby Turpin in the eye. The girl lunges from her seat, hurdles across the room, and chokes Mrs. Turpin by the throat. The girl declares, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” The startled room leaps to action. The doctor rushes out and sedates the young girl, and eventually an ambulance arrives and carries the girl and her mother away. Once they are gone, the white-trash woman remarks passionately to the room, “I thank Gawd I ain’t a lunatic.”
Mrs. Turpin, however, is rattled to her core that anyone would call her a hog from hell, and she is especially disturbed such a vicious comment would be undeniably directed at her, when there were clearly others in the room more deserving of such a label. Once she gets home, she cannot let the incident go. She rolls it over and over in her mind, furiously defending her virtue against all attacks.
This goes on for hours in Mrs. Turpin’s mind until she finds herself staring blanking out at the field behind the family’s pigpen. Suddenly she has a vision.
“There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk . . . 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 tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers 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 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 even their virtues were being burned away.”
After the vision, Mrs. Turpin slowly makes her way back inside her house. “In woods around her the invisible crickets had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
The Jesus story and the Flannery O’Connor parable got me thinking: What if the fundamentalists go leaping into paradise ahead of us, free, truly free, for the first time in their lives? What if the filthy rich float right in, light and airy, unencumbered by the weight of their wealth at last? What if the rude and the arrogant folks parade in with goofy, lit-up grins freed forever from the insecurities and fears that made them harsh and unkind? What if all the people we think are nothing like us go running in at full speed, and seeing them run will be a purgatory vision where all our virtuous opinions and positions fall away and God’s love and mercy turns out to be larger, far larger than we ever thought possible. And when the shock of it fades away, we will finally enter too, fully grateful, not that we belong but that everybody does, realizing we were fools to ever think it would be otherwise. To ever think mercy would be anything other than concretely real, even for our enemies.
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” John declared, and maybe there is not a one of us yet who really believes him, that not just my sins but your sins too can redeemed. The sins of the world—all that is evil, all that is harmful, all that is violent and oppressive and dehumanizing—the Lamb of God has come to take it all away. If only, if only we could believe him and do as he does and live as he lives.
Whether you are righteous or reluctant, eagerly religious or cautiously reserved, you enter the kingdom of heaven, that is to say, the kingdom enters you, as soon as you believe the mercy. If you do not enact the mercy towards your neighbor, you have yet to believe. Amen.
 Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation.”