Monday, April 27, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "To Forgive the Thirst"

John 8:1-11

And Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he returned to the temple. All the people gathered around him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, 4 they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. 5 In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” 8 Bending down again, he wrote on the ground. 9 Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week Two

In her right hand is the power and accuracy to hurl a baseball faster than I could as a grown man, and with much more precision to boot.  In her voice is a story that captured the hearts and attention of an entire nation.  And in her heart is, well, an awful, awful lot of forgiveness.

Back during the Little League World Series, Mo’ne Davis became a household name for her heroic pitching performances in a mostly male-dominated sport.  But she also seriously bucked the meathead-jock stereotype in interviews with her incisive and insightful quotes—to the point that she already has a memoir out.  By contrast, at her age, I was content with beating Ganondorf over and over again in the final level of The Legend of Zelda.

Sadly and perhaps inevitably, Mo’ne Davis also attracted trolls and jerks who wanted nothing more than to make themselves feel taller than by putting this adolescent girl of color back down, calling her “trash” and saying things like, “the real question is, can she cook?”  The worst, though, came from a college baseball player, Joey Casselberry, who, incredulous at the attention Mo’ne was attracting, tweeted, “Disney is making a movie about Mo’ne Davis?  WHAT A JOKE.  That slut got rocked by Nevada.”

This wasn’t a peer of Mo’ne calling her a slut—this was a college man, quite a few years older than her and legally an adult.  The reaction from Casselberry’s college was simple and swift: they kicked him off their baseball team.  But Mo’ne, once again taking the media pedestal with both hands and standing upon it aloft, said this:

Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone deserves a second chance.  I know he didn’t mean it in that type of way.  I know a lot of people get tired of seeing me on TV, but sometimes you’ve got to think about what you’re doing before you actually do it.  I know right now he’s really hurt, and I know how hard he worked just to get ot hwere he is right now.  I was pretty hurt on my part, but I know he’s hurt.  He’s hurt even more.

Holy fastballs.  Somebody, nominate this kid for a Nobel in something, anything.

And I tell this story not because it is merely one about forgiveness, or advocating for second chances.  I tell it because it is a story of someone who, when publicly shamed with the label “slut,” recognized that it was in fact her harasser who was far more wounded and broken than she would ever be.  As is the case here, in John 8, with the woman caught in adultery and her fervent accusers.

This is a new sermon series for us, to begin a not too terribly new is a few weeks old, at least: Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many Christian mystics throughout history, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s often soaring word choice, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the individual disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we’re back on course, this time with Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigns to the voice of the apostle Andrew:

And again (Jesus) looked into her eyes, and He said, “You have loved overmuch.  They who brought you here loved but little.  But they brought you here as a snare for my ensnaring.  Now go in peace.  None of them is here to judge you.  And if it is in your desire to be wise even as you are loving, then seek me; for the Son of Man will not judge you.”

And I wondered then whether He said this to her because He Himself was not without sin.

Imagine that thought crossing through your mind…you believe in Jesus, you have even felt called to follow Him, but you’re still trying to figure out exactly who He really is.  And honestly, you can’t blame Andrew if he did in fact wonder that.  None of the other eleven apostles had quite figured out who Jesus was and what He really meant, never mind that the crowds that followed Jesus got it just as wrong as well, trying to carry Him off to crown Him as their conquering king to violently overthrow the Romans.

And really, this situation would have been so beyond the norm for anyone who witnessed it, they all would probably be left wondering, “Who the heck is this guy who stands in the way of executions and forgives the condemned of their sins?”  Honestly, it was kind of what I asked myself about Mo’ne Davis…who is this girl stands in front of the people who slut-shame her and forgives them for doing so?

We ask that about people who so greatly challenge our assumptions of what we believe to be true that we often cannot help but do a double-take.  And the assumption in New Testament Israel, ever since the Torah was handed down to Moses up atop Sinai some 1,400 years ago, was that adultery was a capital crime, punishable by death by stoning.

Except that it wasn’t really punishable by death, at least, not for both culprits.  You’ll notice that this anonymous woman’s dance partner, whoever he is, is conspicuously absent.  You’ll also notice that she is treated as a means to an end, and that end is to entrap Jesus, not to actually strive for justice.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves here: how often have we used a woman as a means to an end?

How many of us have used a woman for our own selfishness or gain, to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to her, or to make ourselves look better by going out with her, or to make ourselves act bigger by talking down to her?

Because that is what is happening here.  The woman isn’t being asked what happened, or what should happen to her.  Jesus is.  The woman isn’t just talked down to or compared against, she is treated as a complete, utter non-entity, worthy only of the role of prop in this ongoing drama that John’s Gospel depicts of the Pharisees and Sadducees scheming against Jesus, a drama that, at least in John, stretches all the way back to the very beginning of Jesus's ministry, which is where, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John places the cleansing of the temple and its subsequent backlash.

This treatment of the anonymous, adulterous woman then gets played out, again and again, in our own lives, in our own media, and sometimes, by our own voices, simply because that is what we do when we are so thirsty for validation in our lives that the only way we think that we can obtain it is by treating someone else as so unworthy of us that we must cast them away like a used plaything.

But when someone treats you like that?  That’s the key thing—it’s directed at you.  It’s inherently personal.  Maybe we should all be able to be like Taylor Swift and shake it off (I also feel like I might be going to hell for making a Taylor Swift reference, especially if God is, say, a Katy Perry or Lady Gaga fan instead..."That pastor should have known what my musical tastes were, and he made a T-Swift reference!  Smite!"), but we—and I don’t really mean we here, I mean women—shouldn’t have to shake it off: such insulting names shouldn’t be used to begin with.

Yet Mo’ne Davis does, and she forgives Joey Casselberry to boot.  She gets called the slut, but still steps out in front of the stones being thrown at him.  She didn’t have to, and shouldn’t have to, but then again, Jesus didn’t have to stand in front of the woman caught in adultery and keep the temple authorities from stoning her—and He certainly shouldn’t have to, and I’ll let C.S. Lewis explain why:

Though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the center of Christian morality is not here.  If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power and of hatred…That is why a cold, self-righteous prick who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than the prostitute.

Writ onto this story from John 8, the men who have brought this adulterous woman to Jesus may well be closer to hell than she is.  And Jesus knows it.  But now, so does the woman.  Her sins are forgiven, and she goes in peace to not sin more.  And here, once more, I pick up where I left off with Khalil Gibran’s words, as spoken by Andrew, about this amazing teacher who even forgives sin and who He might really, truly be:

But since that day I have pondered long, and I know now that only the pure of heart forgive the thirst that leads to dead waters. 

And only the sure of foot can give a hand to him who stumbles. 

And again and yet again I say, the bitterness of death is less bitter than life without Him.

May our own thirsts for sin be forgiven by He who has conquered sin.  And may we too come to embrace the reality that such forgiveness makes even death less bitter than life without Him.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 26, 2015

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