Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jesus and the Adultress

Traveling with Jesus:  No One is Innocent
Sermon 2/17/13
First Sunday of Lent

 This past Wednesday, we once again entered the season of Lent.  We observed and experienced the holiness of Ash Wednesday...  We picked up stones - reminding us of the "hardness" that brings weight to our lives.  We were marked with the ashes - a remembrance that we are "dust to dust," that life is short, that there will be sorrow and darkness in this journey.  We were blessed with the words "Believe in the Gospel.  God loves you."  A reminder that through those days of darkness and drear, God is with us.  And on our way out of the sanctuary, we dipped our fingers in cool, refreshing water.  A symbol of being washed clean, new beginnings, forgiven, and free.

Ash Wednesday can be seen as a marker...  Another year has passed.  It's a time to begin examining our faith journey once again.  In the past year, birthdays and anniversaries have been celebrated.  Jobs and careers have shifted or ended.  We've seen tragedies and joy.  Throughout all of our life experiences, we have been changed.  We are not the same people we were at this time last year.  And so we come to another season of Lent as changed people with new eyes and a new heart.

As I was reading one of my favorite blogs last Wednesday, I loved how she spoke of this as a day to consecrate the moments and not just the grand gestures...  A wonderful vision to have as we move into our scripture reading today.  Here is what Sally Howell Johnson (a pastor at Hennepin Ave UMC) wrote:

These seasons and rhythms of the church year are a way of reminding us to do just this.  To pay attention to the moments and not just the grand gestures.  Easter will be the grand gesture and certainly an important one.  It is the day most churches pull out all the stops to tell the story of who they are.  But the truth is we live our lives in the moments.  And it is the moments that beg to, long to, deserve to be consecrated.

Consecrate: to set aside or declare sacred...  It is not a word we use very often in every day speech.  We can tend to imagine that consecrating is something people, usually ministers or priests, do and others cannot.  And yet, at least for me, what I believe is that when those ordained in their faith consecrate... bread, water, wine, people...  what is really happening is the recognition and honoring of the sacred nature that already exists in these thought-to-be-common elements.  It is a deep recognition of the presence of God in all.

{On Ash Wednesday} we take the ashes, black and sooty, a substance that resembles soil and consecrate it.  We say words and make music and hold this black substance at the center of the worship we make.  Finger touches ash and then the forehead of each person who comes to be reminded of the fragile, precious life they are living.  The invitation is to pay attention to how Jesus' life...  going into the wilderness, temptations, healing, laughter, storytelling, time spent with friends, encounters with enemies, betrayal, commitment to God, suffering, death...  informs our own living of these same experiences.  Most of these are not grand gesture times but moments in which, if we are aware, hold seeds of the sacred... 

And so the journey begins...

Beautiful words to lead us into this season of Lent.  For the next several weeks, in our Sunday worship, we will be traveling with Jesus in those last weeks of his life.  We'll be noticing moments that held sacred seeds of teaching...  See people who were consecrated in love, by Jesus.  Be witnesses to small details of the story that happened so long ago - but that affect how we live in this moment, today, right now.

We begin with the story of Jesus meeting the adulteress - a reminder that we all live with a little bit of shame...  Maybe it's the private kind - something that eats at you behind closed doors.  No one knows.  But you know.  And that's enough.  Or maybe your shame is public -  a label put on you by society, a failure, a disease - it could be an imagined shame that you put on yourself or something very real - but whether it is private or public, imagined or real, shame is always painful.  And it doesn't get better until you face it.  Today, this adulteress that we meet represents the shame in our lives.  Many characters in the Bible can.  But we're going to let her embody them all today - a story of failure.  A story of abuse.  A story of shame...  But also, a story of grace.

Reading from John 8:1-11.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple.  A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them.  As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and Pharisees brought a woman they had caught in the act of adultery.  They put her in front of the crowd.

"Teacher," they said to Jesus, "this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.  The law of Moses says to stone her.  What do you say?"

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.  They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, "All right, stone her.  But let those who have never sinned throw the first stones!"  Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.  Then Jesus stood up again and said to her, "Where are your accusers?  Didn't even one of them condemn you?"

"No, Lord," she said.

And Jesus said, "Neither do I.  Go and sin no more."

We like this story, don't we?  But why?  Some of us relate to the Pharisees...  We like to recognize the wrong doing - and do the finger pointing.  For some, we see ourselves as the woman because we realize who is forgiven in this story.  But many of us would prefer to be the crowd...  Neutral.  We want to appear to be followers of Jesus gathered around him to listen to his teaching...  But how do we live out the teaching, once the excitement starts?

Let the story sink in, as I read it in the words of Max Lucado...

That's her, the woman standing in the center of the circle.  Those men around her are religious leaders.  Pharisees, they are called.  Self-appointed custodians of conduct.  And the other man, the one in the simple clothes, the one sitting on the ground, the one looking at the face of the woman, that's Jesus.

Jesus has been teaching.

The woman has been cheating.

And the Pharisees are out to stop them both.

"Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery."  The accusation rings off the courtyard walls.

"Caught in the act of adultery."  The words alone are enough to make you blush.  Doors slammed open.  Covers jerked back.

"In the act."  In the arms.  In the moment.  In the embrace.

"Caught."  Aha!  What have we here?  This man is not your husband.  Put on some clothes!  We know what to do with women like you!

In an instant she is yanked from private passion to public spectacle.  Heads poke out of windows as the posse pushes her through the streets.  Dogs bark.  Neighbors turn.  The city sees.  Clutching a thin robe around her shoulders, she hides her nakedness.

But nothing can hide her shame.

From this second on, she'll be known as an adulteress.  When she goes to the market, woman will whisper.  When she passes, heads will turn.  When her name is mentioned, the people will remember.

Moral failure finds easy recall.

The greater travesty, however goes unnoticed.  What the woman did is shameful, but what the Pharisees did is despicable.  According to the law, adultery was punishable by death, but only if two people witnessed the act.  There had to be two eyewitnesses.

Question:  How likely are two people to be eyewitnesses to adultery?  What are the chances of two people stumbling upon an early morning flurry of forbidden embraces?  Unlikely.  But if you do, odds are it's not a coincidence.

So we wonder.  How long did the men peer through the window before they barged in?  How long did they lurk behind the curtain before they stepped out? 

And what of the man?  Adultery requires two participants.  What happened to him?  Could it be that he slipped out?

The evidence leaves little doubt.  It was a trap.  She's been caught.  But she'll soon see that she is not the catch - she's only the bait.

"The law of Moses commands that we stone to death every woman who does this.  What do you say we should do?"

Pretty cocky, this committee of high ethics.  Pretty proud of themselves, these agents of righteousness.  This will be a moment they long remember, the morning they foil and snag the mighty Nazarene.

As for the woman?  Why, she's immaterial.  Merely a pawn in their game.  Her future?  It's unimportant.  Her reputation?  Who cares if it's ruined?  She is a necessary, yet dispensable, part of their plan.

The woman stares at the ground.  Her sweaty hair dangles.  Her tears drip hot with hurt.  Her lips are tight, her jaw is clenched.  She knows she's been framed.  No need to look up.  She'll find no kindness.  She looks at the stones in their hands.  Squeezed so tightly that fingertips turn white.

She thinks of running.  But where?  She could claim mistreatment.  But to whom?  She could deny the act, but she was seen.  She could beg for mercy, but these men offer none.

The woman has nowhere to turn.

You'd expect Jesus to stand and proclaim judgment on the hypocrites.  He doesn't.  You'd hope that he would snatch the woman and the two would be beamed to Galilee.  That's not what happens either.  You'd imagine that an angel would descend or heaven would speak or the earth would shake.  No, none of that.

Once again, his move is subtle.

But, once again, his message is unmistakable.

What does Jesus do?  (If you already know, pretend you don't and feel the surprise.)

Jesus writes in the sand.

He stoops down and draws in the dirt...  And as he writes, he speaks: "Anyone here who has never sinned can throw the first stone at her."

The young look to the old.  The old look in their hearts.  They are the first to drop their stones.  And as they turn to leave, the young who were cocky with borrowed convictions do the same.  The only sound is the thud of rocks and the shuffle of feet.

Jesus and the woman are left alone.  With the jury gone, the courtroom becomes the judge's chambers, and the woman awaits his verdict.  Surely, a sermon is brewing.  No doubt, he's going to demand that I apologize.  But the judge doesn't speak.  His head is down, perhaps he's still writing in the sand.  He seems surprised when he realizes that she is still there.

"Woman, where are they?  Has no one judged you guilty?"

She answers, "No one, Sir."

Then Jesus says, "I also don't judge you guilty.  You may go now, but don't sin anymore."

Lucado continues, saying:

If you ever wondered how God reacts when you fail, frame these words and hang them on the wall.  Read them.  Ponder them.  Drink from them.  Stand below them and let them wash over your soul...

...{Let God} retell the events of the darkest nights of your soul.

And then listen.  Listen carefully.  He's speaking.

"I don't judge you guilty."

A seemingly small moment...  Jesus even seems to purposefully avoid the grand gesture.  He speaks quietly, calmly, looking at the ground.  Consecrating this woman with his love and forgiveness.

But this small moment is a lesson in life - both then, and today.  Jesus challenged the accusers - before you condemn her, take a look at your own life.  Before you punish her, list your own faults.  Was she guilty?  Probably.  But were her accusers innocent?  None of us really are...

Let's be honest.  It's easy to condemn others.  To see faults, errors, misjudgments.  Our society thrives on this!  Look at our media - almost every news story is about pointing the finger and calling out blame and sin.  But, as Christians...  As the ones who follow this man, Jesus, who writes in the sand and says, "I don't judge you.  Go and sin no more."  Are we more like him - do we follow his example - when we condemn?  Or when we show grace?

He didn't let her off the hook.  She called him "Lord."  She knew who he was...  Can you imagine?  Caught in your worst moment - the moment you hoped would never reach daylight...  To be brought face to face with the one who is called the Son of God?!  Even when everyone else left the scene...  She stood there.  Waiting for the harsh words he would have for her, I'm sure.  But instead, he shows her grace.  "I don't condemn you."  Yet... His next words hint that he knows she was guilty... and expects her to change.  "Go, and sin no more."

You see, the order of Jesus' words is very important.  He didn't say, "Sin no more and then I won't condemn you."  That's what we often say, isn't it?  "Clean up your act and then we will accept you."  Nope.  Jesus says, "I will forgive you and give you the power to clean up your act."  Judgment says, "change or you will be condemned."  Grace says, "You are forgiven.  Now let me also change your life."  We don't change in order to be accepted; we change because we have already been accepted.  Nothing motivates a new life like grace received into the heart.  Grace does what rules can never do...

See?  That's what Lent is all about!  We all have things in our hearts we wish weren't there...  Things we thought, said, did.  The ways we hurt people we loved.  Bad choices.  Mistakes in judgment.  We're human.  We're imperfect.  And that's ok...

This beautiful season of Lent asks us to take the time, to remember Jesus' life and his teachings, to notice the small moments of grace and love, to get quiet in our life and examine where we are today.

Where have I gone wrong?  What choices have I made that have steered me away from my relationships with God and those who are close to me?  Where do I feel that soul-robbing feeling of shame?

When we recognize these deepest, darkest secrets of our souls - we can do something about it.  In our faith life, there is never an absence of hope.  We can confess our troubles, we can ask for forgiveness, we can ask for strength and guidance in turning away from that which haunts us.  And we can count on God to be there...  Writing in the sand...  Such a small moment...  "I do not judge you.  Go, and sin no more."

But what a grand gesture! 

Will you pray with me?

Gracious and loving God, you give us these glimpses into the life of Jesus - in those final weeks leading up to his death...  You give us the glimpses in order to see how we were meant to live.  We learn what it is to give grace to others - to allow room for mistakes and bad choices - and still love the other person.  We learn what it is to truly follow you in how we live our lives.  And yes, we are amazed at the stories of such overwhelming grace and forgiveness.  We think that this is someone else's story - that I could never receive that same gift.  But somewhere, deep in our hearts, we also know that you do offer each and every one of us this amazing gift!  A re-start.  A chance to turn away from whatever holds us in its grasp.  A release from shame, from doubt, from self-hatred.  A release into your waiting arms - open, loving, and forgiven.  For you have said, "I do not condemn you.  Go and sin no more."  Help us, Lord.  Each and every one of us - to believe these words, to feel them deep into our souls, to know that we are yours - forgiven, loved, and free.  Amen.