Mrs. Turpin’s Game

September 13, 2020

Summary

The Rev. Dr. Fred. G. Garry
“Mrs. Turpin’s Game”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 7:1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

 

Mary Angevine agreed to serve as the Clerk of Session for First Presbyterian Church of Pataskala.  When she did, there were a couple of things she needed to make clear.  First, women should not be over men; they should not hold positions of authority over men; the bible says this quite clearly.  Second, she will take on such a role for the reason that her husband, Howard, refuses to do it.  Hence, their household was not fulfilling their responsibility to the church.

It was true.  Howard would likely have chosen various forms of physical torture than be subjected to hours of people talking and talking in a business meeting.  He was a farmer.  A dairy farmer who loved to mow grass, had many, many acres of manicured lawn for no other reason than Howard loved to mow.  It wasn’t that he didn’t like to talk.  He did.  Howard could talk your ear off about grass seeds, milking rotations, frequency of mowing.  After that, though, pretty quiet.  Taciturn even.

You might believe that Mary was backward or sexist or ultra conservative.  These are the sort of categories we put with views like Mary’s.  But if those were the categories you used to define Mary Angevine you were terribly, terribly narrow minded.  She was one of the brightest, most sensitive people I have ever met.

To understand her, you need to know she lost her son when he was a boy. A neighbor hit him with his car.  Mary did everything she could to help the man who killed her son not lose his own life in guilt and shame.  She did this as she grieved.  My understanding of grace was born of conversations with Mary.

For her, the Bible was not something you messed with or ignored.  She assumed her understanding, her views, were limited, clouded, far from perfect.  Hence, she did not believe her role in leadership was possible because the bible was wrong.

There were many times I didn’t agree with Mary.  Paul’s understanding of women in the church was . . . well . . . wrong.  And, while like Mary, I saw the bible as beyond my control, things change, life and creation are ever evolving.

In one place we truly agreed.  Where we were in absolute agreement was our teaching today from Jesus.  Given how faulty and limited is our understanding and grasp of the mysteries of life, don’t fall to the temptation of judgment.  Both being students of Calvin’s complete brokenness, the idea that I was sure about something, able to speak without doubt or reservation, just seemed like the worst idea of all time.  A clear path to destruction.

Did I agree with Mary’s rationale for being clerk?  No.  Was she a great clerk of session?  Yes.  Mostly, though, Mary was a great friend who gently, by example and deed, taught me about humility and patience.  Howard gave me great tips about lawn care.

I am forever grateful that Mary was with me those first years of ministry.  The church was caught in a quite a storm.  Conservatives railed that the Bible was clear about homosexuals and theology mattered; and progressives said love is love and the Bible is not a cudgel.  The battle raged.

This was a baptism of fire in ministry.  I could have easily been led to a posture and position of extreme confidence, the temptation to see my role as pastor as one who decides and determines.  Mary helped keep my feet on the ground.

In those first years of ministry, each presbytery meeting was a heated debate; candidates for ministry as they were examined became cannon fodder in our fight.  Where Mary proved a great guide was her persistent humility and unwillingness to trust the heady confidence of each side.  As the months turned into years and the battle continued two things became clear to me: the progressives didn’t know the church they hoped to change and the conservatives hid behind a bible to weather the demand of honesty.

Mary helped me resist the temptation of being judgmental.  Who was I to declare, to determine, to demand?  Life is a confluence of desire for and resistance to change.

When I met Mary, I had no idea how much she herself was judged.  A few years before we met, her daughter Karen married a black man.  This was just outside of Columbus, Ohio.  Not the most inviting place for such a marriage.  Sitting with her, listening to her, I could see her own heart and the heart of her friends, the weight of judgment. She was marked with shame by the good folk.  How Mary knew the need to be honest about our brokenness and to be gracious with each other can only be counted as a gift.  She knew how judgment takes on many forms; and it takes a long time to remove.

There have been a few storms, a few more temptations to be certain, to categorize people since my time with her.  I am still working on the plank in my eye.

For good or for ill, when I think of our passage today, the teaching and riddle of judgment, I am afraid I cannot help but think of the great American writer Flannery O’Connor.  So many of her stories revolve around this theme of judgment and the danger of being judgmental.  She wrote in the south in the 1950s and ‘60s and she was not subtle when she suggested that judgment was part of the culture.

Perhaps her most powerful story on this theme was one called, “Revelation,” where we are introduced to Mrs. Turpin, a white middle class farmer’s wife who is married to Claud.  She has brought Claud to see the doctor after a cow kicked him.  Mrs. Turpin is sitting in the cramped doctor’s office and she does what she always does, she plays her game.

Mrs. Turpin’s game is simple.  She is about to be born and the Almighty gives her a choice.  Does she want to be born as this type of person or that type of person?  Sometimes the choice is rather clear cut.  Would she rather be a wealthy person with low moral standards or a middle-class woman of great moral fortitude?  She would be herself obviously.  But the game can range far and wide and is often played with the people she meets.

Sitting in the doctor’s office with Claud and his bruised leg, she strikes up a wonderful conversation with someone who is clean and well-dressed.  Mrs. Turpin and the well-dressed woman are obviously playing the same game, when someone of the lowest category, what she calls “white trash,” tries to join in the conversation.  This is quite disconcerting.  Yet, in the awkwardness, an insight arises.  The well-dressed woman’s daughter comes into view.

Here is a young woman, college student, reading a large book; she is overweight, unkempt, terrible case of acne, and worst of all a bad disposition, sour.  Mrs. Turpin realizes she has found a whole new category for her game.  This young woman is “ugly.”  Well, that just upsets a whole series of apple carts.  Inquiring minds want to know, what is this new category?

She quizzes this creature with polite conversation so to clarify the category.  For certain she has and always will detest what is unclean, but she had never really given ugly much thought.  With each query she is ignored.  But this makes things clearer and clearer.

I think it was the third unwelcomed question that prompted the young woman to hurl her large book at Mrs. Turpin.  After the book struck her in the head, the young woman lunged at her and began to choke her.  (Don’t be surprised; this sort of thing always happens in Flannery O’Connor stories.)  A melee ensues and the doctor and two nurses wrestle the young woman to the ground and sedate her.  Before she goes unconscious though, a whole other category is introduced.  “You are a warthog from hell,” is the last words her attacker speaks before passing out.

Later that day, lying in bed next to Claud who is asleep, Mrs. Turpin’s game is in disarray.  There are now too many terrible possibilities.  The game is ruined and so is she.  She is not a warthog and no child of the devil.  But is she then ugly? If those were the choices what would she choose?

Flannery O’Connor takes pity on Mrs. Turpin and her game.  She finishes the story with a vision from God.  The Almighty removes the temple curtain and lets her see the gates of heaven and the throng of souls making their way.  Upfront are the lowest of the low, the trash and the undesirables, all the lesser choices of the game; at the rear is Mrs. Turpin with her crew of righteous folk stripped bare.

With the riddles of Jesus, we must first recognize the ruin.  Playing Mrs. Turpin’s game is one of the clearest images of how we ruin ourselves in judgment.  The categories and definitions of better and worse, good and bad, righteous or sinner: the game is easily played.  That the game is becoming blood sport today is not new; it is just the scale and arena.  And we should never be surprised by the game, only its bleak transparency.

What is not clear is salvation.  Not judging and thus avoiding judgment is not freedom.  To avoid catastrophe is no guarantee of success. No.  Our work is only half done if we miss what saves us here, the path of freedom.

Freedom is found in the opposite of judgment.  The opposite of judgment is speaking up for the one who is judged.  Being non-judgmental is good and the key to avoiding ruin.  But if you want to live in freedom where your heart is in the front of the throng walking to heaven, you need to speak on behalf of the judged.  Avoiding Mrs. Turpin’s game means you are not getting worse, making the log in your eye bigger.  Standing up for the fallen, lifting the broken and brokenhearted, that is when the log starts to come loose.

I wonder if that is what I saw all those years ago in Mary Angevine.  She tried to lift up the man who killed her son.  No one could have ever asked her to do it, and no one would have judged her if she hated him.  Simply not hating him can be seen as a profound sign of grace.  But to try to lift him up, console him, help him find mercy?  Well, seems like Jesus to me.

And then to feel the weight of judgment about her daughter and son-in-law.  If you have never lived in the Midwest, in a segregated city like Columbus, it is hard to explain how much judgment Mary received.  No one condemned her or burnt a cross on her lawn.  But she would have been deemed as less.  No matter how bright and kind and gracious: she would have been treated as unfortunate, far down the list of categories in Mrs. Turpin’s game.  A shame.  An object of pity.  I can still hear Mary’s voice find a fierceness when she spoke of loving her family.

Maybe that is it, the salvation.  To speak with a fierce love for the judged, the outcast, the discarded.  It’s not enough to love them, to accept them, to make them feel at ease.  Freedom is when you make clear for any and all, this is a child of God, full of mercy and grace.  This one matters.  Maybe.  I am still learning from Mary, making progress on that plank in my eye.  Amen.

Bible References

  • 1 Corinthians 4:1 - 5
  • Matthew 7:1 - 5