A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 3, 2019
University Baptist Church
During Women’s History Month and the Lenten season, we are looking at several stories stories of women. In the weeks to follow this one, we’ll look at famous women like Naomi, Hagar, Delilah, Mary Magdalene, and even an obscure mother named Rizpah. But there are three other women that we will look at whose names are not remembered. Their actions are remembered, but not their names. The Woman at the Well, the Woman with the Alabaster Jar, and today’s story, the Woman Caught in Adultery. We know the leper named Simon, the blind man named Bartimaeus, but not the names of these women. These women were only know by their supposed sin.
Today, we look at the woman caught in adultery. I said the woman “caught in” adultery, and that is how John 8 introduces her. But this is not a trial. The Pharisees show no evidence. They don’t provide the presence of the man with whom she committed adultery. At best she is the woman “accused of” adultery. Tradition has given her the name of Mary Magdalene, perhaps as a way to discredit the most powerful woman in Jesus’ inner circle. But the Bible never mentions her name.
But she wasn’t really on trial in this scene. Jesus was. She was a pawn, guilty and condemned because no one questioned the religious leaders. Jesus’ teaching was causing a stir, and they held a public trial to discredit him. Jesus was on the trial in the court of public opinion.
Moses’ law in Leviticus says that any one being caught in adultery should be stoned to death. Here’s what Leviticus 20:10 says. “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Notice that Jesus’ accusers don’t bring in the man.
Now, the Pharisees and the scribes knew that Jesus was on the side of life. In fact, on a number of occasions he said that he came to give life to people. And not only that, but that he was the way the truth and the life. This, of course, would later be called blasphemy by these same religious leaders which resulted in Jesus being hung on a cross.
So it would seem that if Jesus followed the law then he would have to sentence the woman to death. And in so doing, his followers, who were getting out of control by now, would become disillusioned and leave him. If on the other hand he says to let her live, they have him in the trap. For contradiction Moses’ law he would have to take the rap. They shot questions at Jesus who just sat there drawing in the sand. And the woman, we can imagine, sat before him awaiting the inevitable. She had seen what a mob could do.
This past week, the United Methodists had a specially-called General Conference to decide how the church should handle matters of human sexuality. Not all matters of human sexuality. It did not address clergy abuse or pedophilia or male domination or even adultery. It was dealing particularly with homosexuality. After impassioned pleas not to, the international Methodist church narrowly voted to support a traditional plan which would serve to block movements for inclusiveness. It would outlaw LGBTQ clergy and ban same-sex marriage in Methodist buildings, and Methodist clergy who performed them would be subject to losing their ordination rights and their church position. The LGBTQ people and their allies identified with the woman accused of adultery.
Many of us watching the spectacle play out this week have PTSD reactions to similar fights in similar denominations, even Baptists. I received a booklet in the mail this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of Soulforce. I saw pictures of a much younger version of myself. I was at the General Assembly meeting in Cleveland Ohio back in 2000. I was arrested alongside Arun Gandhi, Yolanda King and about 200 others. For the record, Ihve been arrested at 3 Baptist events, too. All of those arrests were in trying to push and pull denominations toward acceptance and inclusion and away from judgment and persecution.
Ken Sehested, former director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and a current pastor in North Carolina wrote the following words:
Today’s hard news from the United Methodist General Conference made me remember something a friend (and United Methodist pastor) wrote some years ago about another travesty in the Wesleyan tradition.
“John Wesley recognized such violence hidden in the clean and tidy profits of slave traders and owners. He exposed it, addressing them with the fire of a prophet: ‘Thy hands, thy bed, thy furniture, thy house, thy lands are at present stained with blood.’
“He drew the Methodist societies effectively into abolitionism. The ‘General Rules’ [of the Methodist movement]began with the commitment to give evidence of salvation by ‘Doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced.’ ‘Doing no harm’ is an 18th century synonym for nonviolence. . . .“The founding conference in the US called for the expulsion of any member participating in the slave trade . . . little by little that commitment fell to the temptations of mainline compromise. By 1816, a committee reported to General Conference that ‘in relation to slavery, little can be done to abolish a practice so contrary to the principles of moral justice . . .the evil appears past remedy. . . .’” (Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Of Violence and Hope: Death Undone,” Response magazine)
This quote’s purpose is not to make anyone feel better. It’s simply a reminder that days like today are not new—and they will likely happen again in the future. What I am sure of is that, now and in the future, those steeled by Wesley’s courageous gospel vision are resilient and will continue to be troublesome to the wall builders. Today’s evil “appears past remedy.” But only for a time. Times-up is coming. Attune sorrowful hearts to that melody that can only be heard by storm-stilled attention.
No doubt more than a few will respond to this insult by joining the ranks of the “dones”—as in, I’m outta’ here, done with the church altogether. If so, I urge you to resist the temptation to play solitaire in your spiritual life. Find another community of conscience and conviction, one that actually gathers, whether explicitly oriented to some faith tradition or not.
Too much of the “nones” tradition, of those claiming no religious affiliation, is fueled by the increasing isolationist tendencies that plague modernity in all its forms. The powers that be want to turn us all into consumers. That kind of “freedom” is the worst kind of bondage.
As Wendell Berry says, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”
The expansive dream of the Beloved Community to which we pledge allegiance is but an empty slogan unless rooted in actual communities that, in one way or another, involve entangling with others. That’s how our choices refine and our voices resound.
Remember one more wise word from Wesley: There are no “Holy Solitaries . . . no holiness but social holiness.” (prayerandpolitiks.org)
The woman was accused of adultery. But she was really just a pawn in a trap designed for Jesus. And Jesus, God bless him, refused to play their game. He refused to get himself ensnared in their little spider web of deceit.
We know what happened, he invoked the wisdom of old Solomon to actually trap the mob, and you and me, too. He said the famous line, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.” And they all went away leaving her with Jesus. Jesus recognizes her as a pawn in the men’s little power game. A woman who longed to say “Me Too” to anyone who would listen. Thank God Jesus was there to say, “I hear you. I see you. I don’t accuse you. Go live your life with dignity and integrity.”
This is truly a story about sin. But whose sin? The woman’s? The Scribes and Pharisees? Jesus’? Ours? Jesus was saying that we had better be careful when we try to define the narrow door through which we are to go, for we might well squeeze out some of the hope and some of the compassion and some of the mercy and some of the spirit. And if we do that, then pretty soon we realize we are going through the wrong door.
If you tried to nail down the scriptural definition of sin, you might have a hard time. You could certainly come up with a long laundry list. Some of them would contradict each other. Anyone who has ever read the book of Leviticus knows full well that there are plenty of sinful things that we do all the time.
Jesus knew of the problem we have with sin. He knew he could not win an argument about sin, even if he was to play the scripture proof-texting game with them. Here’s my definition of sin: anything that stands in the way of right relation with God or God’s people. So that would include all sorts of isms: racism, sexism, ageism, me-firstism, heterosexism, classism and even judgmentalism. It would include violence of the bomb, the bullet, the ballot, the tongue and the heart. It would include all of the barriers we set up to deny that there is hope in this world, for to deny hope is to deny God.
Bruce Bawer, in his book “Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity” makes the distinction between law-based Christianity and love-based Christianity. He argues that the church in defining itself has focused so much on the legalistic aspects of Christianity that we have choked out the inclusive love-message of Jesus. Today’s scripture is the ultimate love over legalism proof-text. And yet, so many focus on the “sin no more” closing line than on Jesus’ ethic of refusing to abuse anyone. We all know that religion has been used as a convenient tool of abuse.
Jesus told a simple truth. He chose not to get into an argument about which sin was the worst. He said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” All of a sudden those stones became too heavy. I think they began to cry out. I like to think they became the building blocks of the foundation of a new tomorrow. Sisters and brothers, when we are confronted with the opportunity to do good or to do harm in God’s name, God wants us to do good.
Jesus said to the woman, “None now stand accusing you, go your way and sin no more.” And with that simple act, the stones of domination and sexism and abuse and violence with which religion has built tall walls began a tumbling down. May it be so in our lives and for our world.
May we sin no more in word, deed, action or inaction. May we not settle for the traps set by our law-obsessed accusers, but instead be open to opportunities to practice grace and acceptance. Then we are not only refraining from harm but we are doing good which is the heart of Jesus’ message. May we do good, all the time. And in so doing may we set ourselves free. Amen.