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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at email@example.com to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A Pastoral Resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Non Lectionary
Exodus 34.1-10, Psalm 103, Ephesians 4.25-32, John 8.1-11
'The Man Who Wrote Twice'
There is a scene in the movie Steel Magnolias where one of the characters says, "If you can't say anything good about anybody, you just come right over here and sit next to me."
The way it works is very simple. I know something wrong that you have done. Now, whenever I look at you, I see you through the lens of that mistake. I hold you in your sin because your sin is now the filter through which I will always relate to you. You are the young woman who had an abortion at sixteen. You are the man who was caught cheating on his wife. You are the person who had a drinking problem. I cannot let go of your sin, indiscretion, weakness.
Therefore, I hold you in your sin.
People who hold public office don't always declare everything that has ever happened to them not necessarily because they are trying to be dishonest. They simply know what some people will do with some things. Even debts that have been paid. Even mistakes that have been corrected. It doesn't matter. What matters is that once some people know something about you they will never let go of it. We hide our sins because we know that if they are not hidden they will be held. Skeletons are kept in the closet because we know that some people will hang them on the porch. Then the only access to who we are will be through the dead bones of our mistakes.
It is why many people move away from where they are known. People who do not know them cannot hold them in their sins. Negative gossip. It is hard to resist. "I heard that Jack once . . ." "Apparently, Marg used to . . ." It passes the time. It is flattering to the ego. At least you're better than that pathetic mess you've just put under the microscope of public scrutiny. Holding people in sin is the perfect accompaniment to lunch.
Until it is you who are held.
I'm not sure why the story contained in John 8.1-11 is not proscribed even once in the three year Lectionary cycle. I do know it is a mistake not to include it; for it is a story about all of us and a story for all of us. It is a portrait of Jesus at his best, the teacher with a difference, the man who puts words and actions together in a way that encounters people and invites them to change. It is also a highly symbolic, literary invention with layer upon layer of meaning.
The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand before all of them . . .
The scribes and Pharisees are doing what they do best: catching, surrounding, staring at, holding - the special gift of the self-righteous; and they are good at it. Sin sticks. Ask anybody who has been made to stand there. However, there are some people who hold people in their sin for a living. They think of nothing else; and they are single-minded about it. "How can I use this about her in order to get something on him.
" Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say? They said this to test him.
They have nothing on Jesus; but they are after something so that they can hold it against him.
Jesus says nothing about Moses and the law. Instead, he performs a symbolic act.
It is not important what he wrote. What is important is that he wrote with his finger, that he wrote it on the earth and that he wrote twice.
In the book of Exodus we are told that the ten commandments were written on stone tablets with the finger of God (Exodus 31.18) and that when Moses found the Israelites committing infidelity (adultery) with another god, he threw the stone tablets at them in fierce judgment. So God had to write the commandments a second time and told Moses to hide himself in a rock while he passed by so that Moses would see something he had missed the first time (34.6).
It is this revelation the scribes and Pharisees have forgotten: that God's glory is steadfast love and endless forgiveness. There is no judgment in God. There are no sinless ones, and, therefore, no one who can cast the first stone. Holding others in their sin while holding yourself innocent is delusionary and only perpetuates the cycle of sin for everyone.
There is an alternative to the holding stare of the self-righteous and Jesus is trying to demonstrate it. He bends down and stands up, then bends down again. He does not stare. He refuses to hold the Pharisees in their sin. He is inviting them into a new way of being: the land of mercy.
"Heard" does not mean Jesus spoke loud enough. It means they got it. Jesus' answer was so well-aimed that they had nothing left to say. The revelation to Moses was an invitation which they had forgotten - an invitation to be as God is: merciful and gracious. But they refused it and walked away, beginning with the oldest. How hard it is see yourself in a way that contradicts that well-polished image! How hard it is to let go of someone you have enjoyed holding in their sin! The longer we live in the land of judgment, the harder it gets to embrace the alternative.
And so the one who was caught-brought and made-to-stand-there is left only with one who honours her by calling her "Woman". The one who refuses to hold people in their sins reminds her of her dignity and life-giving power. Although this woman, known as "the woman caught in adultery" has only one line in the story, it is an important one. The circle of accusers has left; and it is to be hoped her "no one" includes herself. Judgment is nowhere to be found. Only mercy.
In this season of spirit, we would do well to ask ourselves: what does it mean to live in Jesus' spirit? When we have his spirit what do we do that is distinctively him? In one of the Easter texts, Jesus tells us when he says to his disciples,
This is not a formula for ecclesiastical power. This is the condition that characterizes our communal life. We can hold each other in our mistakes or we can let each other go. We can be a prison to one another or a source of release. Any bets on which option Jesus prefers?
The next time you come upon someone's failure and are tempted to bend over and pick up a stone, remember that you also have the power to let them go. And when you come upon someone else's failure and are again tempted to bend over and pick up another stone, remember that you also have the power to release them. And when you come upon someone else's failure . . . and feel like picking up another stone . . . Living in the land of mercy is not easy, is it? We gravitate easily to holding in sin. We have to work at letting go. Joining the human race is not as easy as it looks. Most of us do it only under duress.
Thank God for the memory of the man who bent down and wrote twice.
Study and Reflection
Exodus 34.1-10 - The passage must be read in the context of the entire story of the giving of the Ten Commandments beginning in chapter 31. No sooner does God lay down the law than Israel breaks it (chapter 32), prompting Moses to throw down the tablets of stone on which the law was written, breaking them. In effect, Moses stones the people for their infidelity, which in typical patriarchal manner is understood as adultery: Israel running after another God. The scribes and Pharisees in this week's gospel know this story. They also remember a law grounded in this kind of fierce judgment. What they forget is the second giving of the commandments and the remarkable revelation of God that goes with it (verses 6,7).
Ephesians 4.25-32 - For people who supposedly believed in the love of God in Jesus Christ, many early Christians apparently needed reminding on a regular basis about how to treat one another. In particular, they needed reminding about how to stop fighting and how to forgive. Apparently, wanting to hold people in their sins and to punish them were hard habits to break.
John 8.1-11 - This week's readings are a deliberate departure from the Lectionary in order to listen to two stories in scripture that cry out to be heard. Whatever reasons ecclesiastical scholars have had for not including the first 11 verses of John in the church's liturgical journey, they pale in comparison to the need to hear and understand this most important of all Jesus' exchanges. We hope this week's linkage with the story from Exodus and reflection on holding in sin prompts for you both insight and transformative action. It is a story intended to provoke both.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - In A Man For All Seasons the betrayer of Thomas More says, "I've lost my innocence." Cromwell replies, "You lost it some time ago. You've only now just noticed." In this week's gospel, Jesus confronts a woman's accusers with their own sin. The noticing hurts; and they walk away rather than accept Jesus' invitation to live in mercy. Why is it that we are always surprised when confronted with our own sin?
SPECIAL THANKS - I am indebted to Father John Shea for this week's sermon, which is an interpretation of some of Jack's remarks from many years ago at a workshop I attended in Toronto. I am glad I found the notes; and this is the first opportunity I have had to use them!
HYMN: We Gather Here
copyright - Barry Robinson 2000, 2003 page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2000, 2003 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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