This is the text of the sermon I preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday, November 6, 2016 as part of a pulpit exchange with their Pastor, Lehman Bates.
It begins with a stoning and it ends with a stoning, and in between there are some important teachings about truth and judgement, and there’s one big challenge. That's my 15-second synopsis of the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John, the passage my friend, and your pastor, suggested that each of us preach from this morning.
It all starts with what’s come to be known as “the story of the woman caught in adultery.” We’re told that a woman had been caught in the act of adultery, and that the "teachers of the law and the Pharisees" brought her to Jesus to ask him what they should do with her. It seems that they wanted to test him … to trip him up.
Now, the Law of Moses was very clear -- she should be stoned to death. But Jesus had a reputation for being merciful and compassionate, and of saying and doing things that weren't necessarily in accord with what the Law of Moses taught.
They must have been feeling pretty proud of themselves, because it could seem that no matter what he said, they'd have him. We’re told that he had just sat down in the temple courts to teactea and a crowd had gathered, waiting to hear his words about God's love. So, if Jesus said that the woman should be stoned in accordance with the law, he'd look to the crowd as if he was flip-flopping on his whole "compassion thing." But if he said that they shouldn't stone her -- said that here in the temple courts, no less -- he'd prove that he was not the good, observant Jew he claimed to be.
Now, before we go any further I want us to be clear about what was at stake. When someone is stoned -- as people still are in some parts of the world today -- a group of people take rocks of various sizes and throw them at someone until the cumulative effect of all that blunt force trauma leads to that person's death. It could take minutes; it could take hours. However long it takes, though, stoning is an extremely awful way to die.
In all of the ways we humans have devised to kill one another, crucifixion, of course, is unimaginably brutal. The lynching tree is hardly better. Being shot while playing with a toy gun by a police officer who'd arrived on the scene less than two seconds before he fired and who then refused to offer any first aid to your twelve-year old self is right up there. One thing these all have in common is that they not only accomplish their intention of killing the person, they also send a message. They're not just a means of execution, they're also an example. They're an expression, and a reinforcement, of the power dynamics at work in a society. And they’re all legal. That's another awful thing ... not only could somebody do these things, but according to one reading of the law, at least, they’re supposed to.
So that was the trap. Jesus either had to condone such a heinous act, respecting the law but betraying his values, or refuse to go along, staying true to his principles but breaking the law. Well, Jesus was too smart to be so easily trapped by so simplistic a seeming dichotomy. He didn't answer the question they asked. Instead, he gave them the answer to the real question at hand: who gets to judge.
Who are you, who am I, who are any of us to judge? Who, here, hasn't made a mistake at some point in our lives? Who here hasn't done something we wish we hadn't done, wish we could take back, wish we could go back in time to un-do? In other words, who among us here, today, right here and right now, has not done something for which we, ourselves, could be judged?
That's the question Jesus answered that morning in the temple courts, with a crowd around him waiting to hear his teachings, and people who wanted to test him and prove him wanting, and that poor, frightened woman who could have been any one of us. He didn't answer the question of whether or not it was right to follow the law. He answered the question of who has the right to judge another. No one. Not one of us. He answered by saying that the person who had never sinned should be the one to cast the first stone, and we're told that one by one -- starting with the oldest, the scripture points out -- the people in that crowd, that mob, that had gathered to murder that young woman they had not only judged but condemned, dropped their stones and walked away. Every single one. And when they had all gone, Jesus asked the woman a question, "Does no one judge you?" "There's no one here," she said. "I don't judge you either." Jesus replied. "Go and sin no more."
That’s the first stoning of the two stonings, and the first teaching about truth and judgement. The truth is that none of us is free to judge another, because each of us has our own things for which we could be judged. No one can cast that first stone. But we know this, don't we? I mean, you and I, we've heard this before. We've probably even said it to people. Maybe we've even tried to live like that a little bit, from time to time.
But seriously now ... how are we supposed to go through life not judging? We're in the final days of the Presidential campaign, and it all comes down to a choice between two major party candidates, and a handful from third parties. But how do we choose among them if we don't judge -- judge their words and their deeds, judge their temperament, their character? How do we choose who gets our precious vote if we don't judge them?
And if you pay even the slightest attention to the news, you hear day in and day out of terrible things happening -- in our world, our country, even right here in Charlottesville -- things that seem to cry out for a response. But knowing which ones to respond to, and how to respond, often requires us to judge. To judge who is the victim and who is the perpetrator; to judge the impact as well as the intent. How can we not judge? And even in our families -- I'll bet some of you are thinking, "especially in our families" -- it would be impossible to avoid all judgement. And it's not just that sometimes we can't help it; it's that so much of the time we seem to have to.
In verse 15, Jesus says something interesting: "You judge by human standards; I pass judgement on no one."
Huh. "I pass judgement on no one.” What are we supposed to make of that? "You judge by human standards [but] I pass judgement on no one."
There are a lot of commentaries written about this passage, written by all kinds of scholars, with all kinds of points of view. I know. I looked at a bunch of them as I was writing.
But what I want to say to you this morning is not something I red in any of those commentaries, but something that I heard as I was meditating on the text itself. It came to me that every time we judge something, someone, we're expressing an opinion. You judge me to be a kind person, because everything you know or have heard about me leads you to think of me that way. But you can't really know, can you? How often have we heard the neighbors of a serial killer being interviewed, saying something like, "he always seemed like such a nice person." So when you or I judge someone to be a kind person, or a not-kind person, we’re not stating a fact as much as we are offering an opinion.
But Jesus says that he "pass[es] judgement on no one." I think what this means is that he doesn't have opinions about who a person is. He knows, really knows -- he can see, really see -- who we are. He doesn't have to judge. The beautiful 139th Psalm says:
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
I think that Jesus is saying that he doesn't have to judge, doesn't have to rely on mere judgement, because the One he calls Abba, Father, knows us better than we know ourselves. And he knows the Abba, he knows God, with such intimacy that what God knows, he knows. "... I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me," Jesus says in verse 28. "The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone ..." That's verse 29. Jesus doesn’t have to pass judgement because he knows God, and God knows us.
This is where we get to that big challenge. Jesus not only says that he doesn’t need to judge because he knows, he also says, essentially, that those who are judging him are doing so because they don’t know.
Your Pastor told me that he said something of the sort from this very pulpit not that long ago. It is so much easier to know about God, than to know God. It is so much easier to embrace the concept than to make the connection. Far, far, far too often religion becomes focused on the rules, when it’s really about the relationship.
42 Jesus said to them [and this is still from John 8], “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? […] 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
It’s a good thing that Jesus doesn’t pass judgement or he might have had even more to say!
But that’s the thing. If I look at myself honestly in the mirror, I have to acknowledge that this isn’t a mere judgement. It’s not just an opinion. It’s the truth. I don’t know God with the fullness God invites me to. I don’t tend to, care for, cultivate a relationship with the Nameless One such that I, too, might call God “Abba.”
There’s an old joke that a great place to hide from God is in church; the best way to hide from God is to become a minister. I have so much “sacred” work to attend to that I can run out of time for the holy communion with God that gives that work Life. (Have you ever noticed that if you rearrange the letters in the word “sacred” you get the word “scared”?)
You probably have your own version of this same problem. There’s so much to do taking care of the kids, trying to make ends meet, caring for grandkids (or grandparents), making a plate of something for someone in need, dealing with the courts, struggling with an addiction, trying to make a difference in the world, trying just to get by. There’s so much to do that we’re often more Martha than Mary. And if you’re anything like me, you judge yourself – and maybe judge yourself harshly – for that. The funny thing is, that judgement can become one more thing in the way of deepening our relationship – the guilt that we’re not as intimate with God as we know God wants becomes a stumbling block to really knowing God at all.
In the little time I have left I want to offer some good news. That’s what preachers are supposed to do, right? It’s in this chapter of the Gospel of John that Jesus says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The fact that we don’t know God as deeply, as richly, as God would like is only part of the truth. The other part is that God’s okay with that. We judge by human standards, we live by human standards, because we are humans, and God knows that. God doesn’t expect any more of us than that. God is patient and kind. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. That’s good news.
And that good news, that truth, can set us free from the guilt and shame that holds us in bondage because God tells us – God promises us – that there is no one here who can judge us, tells us that there are no stones ready to fly, because there is no one who can cast that first stone. And through the eyes of Jesus God looks at us just as Jesus looked at the poor, frightened woman, and says, “I don’t judge you either. Go and sin no more.”
One last thing. I said that this chapter begins with a stoning and that it ends with one. It seems that the folks Jesus was talking with that morning in the temple courts didn’t like the truth he showed them about themselves, didn’t like being told that they knew more about God than they knew God directly. So they did what we humans so often do when we don’t like the message we hear, they judged, and condemned, the messenger. John tells us that that crowd picked up stones with the intention of stoning Jesus. But while they were gathering their weapons, Jesus disappeared.
And, apparently, this didn’t deter in him the least. He went right back with his mission of spreading God’s love. John’s 9th chapter begins with Jesus healing a man who’d been blind since birth. May we pray that our blindness might be healed, so that we might drop the stones in our hands and stop fearing the stones in the hands of others, so that we might focus our hearts on the God who sees us, and knows us, and loves us.
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