Sermon Transcript 5.22.22
Early in the morning, he again came to the Temple… Jesus is speaking in the Temple publicly. Jews of all sorts of different classes and allegiances are gathered. This is the place of worship. It has a series of courtyards. The courtyard of the gentiles, where everyone can come the marketplaces are there. Devout, purified Jewish women can go a little bit farther to the court of the women, then there's a court that only the Jewish men can get to, a court for only the priest and in the center, the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest can go – and only a certain number of times during the year. Jesus is out in the marketplace area. He's leading ,he's teaching… he has some opponents - in fact by this point in John there are some in the religious authorities that are seeking to arrest him, even, perhaps, to kill him. Certainly seeking to disrupt his teaching - but he is a known, welcome, even authoritative presence in the Temple
I think sometimes we lose that context when we're reading these stories, particularly perhaps in John. We read a well-known story from John 8. Some pharisees bring a woman before him, The text actually tells us they're trying to trick him, they're trying to entrap him to get him to say something wrong in this public setting so that they can then justly persecute - but did you hear how they addressed him? Teacher… this woman has been caught in the very act of adultery. Teacher, the narrator may have given us their true motives, but at least publicly they're addressing him with a title of respect – Teacher. Quite literally that's what rabbi means in our modern context. Teacher… so at least the address acknowledges his religious authority. This woman was caught in the very act and per the Levitical code, having been caught in the very act, having more than two witnesses against her, the proper judgment is to be stoned to death. Now, particularly with our modern sensibilities, we might…. you know if she was in fact caught in the act… pretty much has to be at least one other person involved, right? Where is that person?
But that's not really the issue of the story here. It's a legitimate question for us to ask, but if we just dismiss the story by bringing up a very good point of justice, we're not listening closely enough. Jesus, being faced with this charge, “she's been caught in the very act!” says nothing.
Instead, he kneels down and just begins drawing in the dust and we don't know what he's drawing… is it symbols? is it juw5 doodles? is it words?
There's a wonderful, I believe it's 1928 film, silent movie by Cecil B. DeMille
Called King of Kings. If you ever get a chance to see it it's magnificent. DeMille wasn't particularly a believer, and he mixes and matches stories through the gospels and tells stories in a whole different order, but he depicts them so well. In this scene, Jesus starts writing what appear to be Hebrew letters and - I don't know if they're actual Hebrew letters. I don't know if he had that attention to detail, but in amazing cinematography for the time, the Hebrew letters morph into an English word that we can read and it says things like Liar, Thief, Adulterer!
Over and over, each man that holds a stone then drops it, you know in the classic overacting silent movie style. Each one is just horrified, and guiltily runs away and crowd disperses. So DeMille’s interpretation is that what Jesus is doing is accusing those who accuse her. The text doesn’t tell us what he drew but the stands up and says “let he who is without sin cast the first stone, then he goes back to drawing.
One by one the crowd disappears. All those who were so sure of their judgment a few moments ago, so sure they were in the right to enact justice … have seen or heard or felt something in their own conscience. They are convicted. They've dropped their stones. They've melted back into the crowd and we just have Jesus and this accused woman and he says to her “where are your accusers?” She says “I don't know?” Jesus says to her “then neither do I condemn you… go on your way and from now on do not sin again.”
Does he pass judgment? No, but he does challenge her. Whether she was or wasn't guilty of this particular thing, she's been set free and she now has an opportunity again to make choices. She has, in one way of thinking, quite literally been born again. Just now from facing certain death and judgment, she now has been freed a different kind of justice.
This isn't about punishment and guilt, this is about choices and opportunities and truly loving relationships with God and neighbor. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.
This story illustrates John 3:16 and 17
This accused woman who has given a new lease on life and a challenge to sin no more; to recognize the love and the grace she has been granted to live her life in light of Christ's grace.
As I’ve said several times recently, a United Methodist of grace is not that we are guilty and not punished even though we deserved it - it's that we are sick and God wants to make us whole. We are sick sin, it is a dis-ease, a imbalance, a disorder in what we were supposed to be and through the grace of Christ and our response to it, we are made well. We are invited to wholeness. We are invited to share God's love and grace with our neighbors to drop our stones and instead work towards the beloved community, to work towards restoration.
I've mentioned several sermons now a philosophical or theological concept of the imago dei - the image of God. We usually talk about that in Genesis. We are created in the image of God, male and female in image of God. We bear God's image. That is not about how we look - it's not that God is an old man in the clouds and that we look like God especially if we have a long white beard… no! It's that we are creative, that we are compassionate, that we are able to love. The image of God is the capacity God has given us within his creation to be co-creators with God; to care for creation, to care for one another, to love even enemies. Last week I was going to show a video and we had some disruption from the sound system but I want to again share this wisdom because one of the points of our reading of scripture as United Methodist is we recognize that there's not just one story here. Rather there are layers of stories that sometimes push against each other. The code from Leviticus that that crowd was holding stones to enforce is an important part of scripture, we don't just ignore it, but we read it in context with these other stories about who is qualified to cast judgment, about recognizing our own sinfulness. We read these stories together, wrestling with them. There is not a single story.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk on the danger of a single story and I think it helps to explain United Methodist theology. She is not a United Methodist, but she taps into something that is important for our understanding and I invite you to listen to her words about the danger of a single story.
(note, these are 3 minutes of excerpts from a 19 minute presentation. The full presentation can be found at this link. I highly recommend it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg&vl=en )
“I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call the danger of the single story. I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to University in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked to hear what she called my “tribal music” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey…”
“After I had spent some years in the US as an African, if I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and aids, unable to speak for themselves, waiting for a kind, white foreigner to save them…”
“So that is how to create a single story. Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.”
“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was ‘such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel.’ I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.
It would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans… and now, this is not because I'm a better person than that student, but because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler, Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskill. I did not have a single story of America. I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all the stories of that place or that person.”
The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. Stories matter, many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of the people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (/end video)
What is the story of the woman dragged into the courtyard of the Temple? Accused! caught in the very act! those accusing her tell one story. They reduce her to that one story. It may or may not even be true… but it's one story. Jesus sees her many stories.
Jesus tells a story of redemption, drawing in the dust that God took and created the first human. The dust that God breathed life into. The dust that God created humans in the image of God and empowered them to be creative and loving.
So often we reduce one another to a single story we try to proclaim our righteousness and our being in by finding somebody we can cast out. That's not Jesus’ way. Jesus’ way is one of inclusive love, of restoration, of wholeness, of individuals and communities reformed; of challenging artificial boundaries and single stories.
As we read John's gospel over and over Jesus is crossing boundaries that have been imposed in the name of righteousness and showing God's love and inclusion and wholeness. Jesus shows us how to overcome evil with good how to love even those who would persecute us. It's a tall order. We are called to be Christ-like. We are called to reflect God's image and God is love.
Be not overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. Be not overcome and yet sometimes we read these stories and we say well everything's relative… anything goes… we can't judge. How do we overcome evil if we don't name it? How do we overcome evil if we don't realize where God's boundaries are? If we don't recognize that very often our systems that which we call good is producing evil. We draw red lines around neighborhoods and will only loan to certain people…
It's a GI bill so that everyone who served our nation to rid the world of a great evil might have an economic leg up, that we could build our nation – but then systemically excluding certain people from receiving those benefits. Uban renewal projects that drive highways that break up some neighborhoods we now drive past on the way to the suburbs… We have system upon system upon system like that that over generations creates imbalances. Imbalances that you and I didn't make, but that you and I have benefited from and then when the momentum to address some of those systemic evil starts gaining too much power… we start deflecting with legal theories and names, scare mongering and division.
Our call is to be Christ-like. Our call is to challenge systems of injustice, especially those systems that we however unwittingly have benefited from.
I want to go back to the text here for a moment too because it's a wonderful illustration of that one of the challenges of reading John's gospel collectively, especially in our context white largely middle class. Over and over John's gospel literally says “the Jews: “The Jews” did this, “the Jews” did that - but if you're reading John's gospel it's not collectively all of them as one monolithic block. There are factions. It's the religious authorities (and not even all of them) that challenge Jesus. Jesus and his disciples and most of his followers are Jewish - but by the time John's gospel was written - and we'll look at this again next week - those who believed Christ was who he says he is had been cast out of the synagogues and while it would be painful for us to be cast out of first United Methodist church for some reason it wouldn't be the end even in a small town like Fort Scott there's what, seven, eight Christian churches? At least a couple of which share most of our theology… We could find another church home. The synagogue, in the first and second century, especially in smaller townsm meant you were a pariah. It affected your ability to engage in commerce and particularly if you're going to try and uphold your understanding of religious tradition and eat kosher and do things like that - if you were not part of the synagogue, the exemptions that allowed you to participate in civic life in the roman empire were no longer offered and so you would either have to avoid the market and the political world completely or you would be forced to eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. The only exception of that was if you were a Jew in good standing. If you've been cast out of the synagogue, it's a crisis and John's community has been cast out of the synagogue. They're angry about it and it comes through in the writing – “the Jews.”
think about our own political parties imagine if your son or daughter joined the other one! Some of us have lived through that ,in fact part of my mother and I's teenage angst was that we didn't see eye to eye politically I was a political science major and I was interested and I was active and so we were quite literally working publicly on opposite sides of core issues. It's difficult when we have those kinds of disagreements and we want to make it right by just getting rid of everybody that's wrong but life is more complex than that. We have more in common than we disagree on. It seems like sometimes we fight hardest with those we have the most in common with. We can sit down at an interfaith meal with all sorts of people who we have deep theological disagreements with but man get three Methodists in a room and bring up one of those hot topics and we're at each other… or three democrats… or three republicans or three libertarians. We fight most bitterly with those we’re closest to. One of the unfortunate effects of that human propensity is that throughout history people have turned to John's gospel, Christians have turned to John's gospel and seen that it's “the Jews” fault and if we just get rid of them… the Christ killers… everything will be better. Now ironically the people that have that anti-Semitic approach, very often if you delve into their Christology, their understanding God so loved the world he gave his only son that Christ had to die on the cross in order to free us from our guilt in a legal framework. They hold it was necessary – divinely ordained! and yet still they “the Jews” are the evil ones even though by that theology they literally did what God required… and we overlooked that it wasn't “the Jews” that killed Jesus… it was in fact the roman empire at the request of some Jewish authorities the Temple having been subsumed into the power structure so if you wanted to get along with the power structure of Roman authority you would cooperate. How often have we seen a politician that wants power and their message their way of interacting changes… chasing whatever offers the most momentary power and that's not true just of one party but of any party. We see these changes in history. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And throughout history we have tried to make ourselves feel good by casting others out … most horrifically perhaps with anti-semitism. One of the interesting things about our Methodist movement is there are so many different Methodist identities. Methodist churches in different countries the United Methodist church which once was the M.E. North and the M.E. south. There are a whole bunch of other Methodist churches – the AME African Methodist church and AME Zion… the - CME it used to be Colored Methodist church now it's called the Christian Methodist Church. Denominations that started because african-American leaders were literally, physically removed from sancutaries just like this one because they were supposed to sit in the back and they came up to the communion rail. Dragged out of the service… Now you and I didn't do that.. but the legacy of those actions is why all of our faces are basically the same color this morning. These kinds of divisions break the body of Christ. They betray the image of God. Male and female, red and yellow and black and white in the terms of the old Sunday school song. All…all are beloved… all are an intentional part of the diversity of God's creation.
At the end of that story of the woman accused of adultery there's an interesting switch Jesus is again speaking to the pharisees and if you haven't been aware of the context one might think… who's he talking to everybody left? But no they're still in the marketplace, in the busy courtyard of the temple. It's just that small group that was accusing the woman that has dispersed… they blended back into the crowd. Jesus now addresses the crowd and particularly the authorities and he says “I am the light of the world.” We take that metaphor and we celebrate it especially at Christmas, in the midst of darkness in the northern hemisphere “I am the light of the world!” We sing songs of light and hope. In the first century particularly those who thought he was going too far, was claiming to be equal with God would have been scandalized by this statement. The first thing God calls into being is light and you remember how Moses learned who is sending me? God responds not with a noun but with a verb “I am!” I am is sending you. Throughout this section of John there's tension between the religious authorities and Jesus and his followers and the debate is about Moses and Abraham and who is whose child and who has a demon. Jesus says “I am the light of the world” Throughty John Jesus uses this “I Am” formula. I am the living water he told the samaritan woman at the well. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way the truth and the life. I am the true vine.
So often we take these and we say you are part of this only if you agree with me. You can receive communion only if you agree with me. My understanding of Jesus is the way the truth and the life and you have to do what I do - that's what religious authority twists us into
Jesus is the truth – not one understanding of Jesus. It’s not about me. You don't have to agree with me - everybody let out a big sigh - you don't have to agree with your crazy pastor. I'm sometimes wrong! Robin's up there she'll confirm it for us.
What I seek to do, and I often fail, but what I seek to do is resist evil in whatever form it presents itself. To resist injustice to recognize how I've benefited from it, to challenge those kinds of distortions of systems.
To meditate on these images, these ways of Jesus describing himself to find connection,, then to help you find connection. To walk your path - not make you walk mine. I'm elated if our paths coincide and we walk together. I think more often our task is to cast that reflected light of Christ on each other's paths when we meet, that we might see our path ahead even if it doesn't go exactly the same direction.
All these stories – the different places he goes and he treats individual people individually. He treats communities as communities. He doesn't try to make them all be the same thing - so why should we? He doesn't give us a single story, even of who he is - he gives us multiple metaphors because at different stages of life, different metaphors will mean more to us. They will connect better.
I want to continue with a couple of those metaphors. We know the Good Shepherd. We usually preach the Good Shepherd from Luke. Uou know going off to find the one and leaving the 99 behind. It doesn't make a bit of economic sense. It doesn't even make a lot of sense in terms of justice. But, oh my goodness, if you're that one…. Have you ever been that one? I've been that one. Oh thank God that he's willing to leave the 99 and find the one.
John's gospel also uses the image of the Good Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd, the sheep know my voice” but it also uses a metaphor we don't talk about a lot. “I am the gate” In the first century, there would have been sheepfolds in the fields to protect the sheep from predators overnight. You would take your flock and you would herd it into one of the sheepfolds basically just a round of stones, usually with an opening for the sheep to go through and then the shepherd would literally sleep in the doorway to keep the sheep in and the predators out. The shepherd was the gate. Jesus is using this metaphor. Jesus is not only the good shepherd, Jesus is the gate. We go in, we come out at Jesus behest. We follow Jesus call. I am the gate, he says, the hired hand runs away, the hired hand doesn't care about the sheep. The good shepherd stays even at risk and then he starts talking about laying down his life. He switches metaphors again.
One of the things about John's gospel is that Jesus is presented as fully divine and always in control. We saw that a couple weeks ago… Woman that is your son, son that's your mother. Creating that new relationship even while suffering on the cross. He's in complete control here too, in the Temple, in the marketplace, speaking to the crowds and the religious authorities. “I am the gate” – I control the coming and goes. I lay down my life - no one takes it from me, I lay it down. Jesus knows what's coming and Jesus is intentional about it the sacrifice. He lays down his life to change us, to break bonds of sin and death, to give us a new life lease on life that we are not condemned but that we might go on our way and sin no more.
And for my path, one of the most profound statements in scripture occurs in John chapter 10. In the midst of these debates, having used these metaphors, Jesus says to the pharisees “I have other flocks” Have you ever thought about that line? “I have other flocks.” What does he mean? I don't know specifically what he meant, but I distinctly remember the day on my journey when I read that and it hit me that he might not just mean the Baptists down the street. What it did for me was help break open my attempt to be absolute about my faith and sometimes to use that as a way of dodging my call to ministry. We are called, we are sent, we are equipped with certain stories with certain metaphors that make sense to us… with gifts and graces and we are called to be the body of Christ in conjunction with others. We are not called to impose our understanding on others, to make others be just like us, but to follow our path and shed light on others. “I have other flocks” - it may in this context simply mean that both Jews and gentiles are called into the church. It might mean that other ways of being faithful also lead to Christ even if they don't use the same metaphors and vocabularies. I don't know for sure, but my journey, even though it's never strayed very far from the banks of Christianity, has been deeply shaped by individuals who call other faith traditions home. I wouldn't be a Christian pastor today if not for the probing, insightful questions and comments of a Muslim man whose goal was to help me find my path - not convert me to whatever he thought. But too often we have one story about Islam and they have one story about Christians and it's about beating each other over the heads and killing the heretics.
We forget, while we our team was conducting the crusades and very often turning against each other - their team was preserving algebra and philosophy and the knowledge that brought Europe out of the dark ages. But we don't tell both those stories. We only tell the stories where we're the good guys and they're the bad guys. We need more than one story. We need to tell our stories boldly, proudly, and we need to remember that Jesus has other flocks. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and through him all things were made… all things.” Not just my things… and we need to challenge evil when our team or their team is getting too fundamentalists and thinking it's time to pick up stones and throw them at each other. We need to say wait… that's not Christ-like. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
It doesn’t go over well among the religious authorities sitting there hearing all of this. Some say “he has a demon!” But others say “can one with a demon heal the blind?”
Next week we'll continue this series and we'll look at the story we skipped over today in John 9. The story of a man born blind and whose sin caused it and how Jesus responds I hope you will join us for part two.