Monday, April 1, 2019

Sermon: “Rock of Ages: God’s Mercy”, John 8:3-11/Jonah 3:10-4:11 (March 31, 2019)

(This sermon is the third in our Lenten Series, "Rock of Ages", in which we're exploring how rocks can symbolize different characteristics of God and of ourselves.)


Today’s scripture readings come from two stories that we’ve all heard countless times before. Those of us who grew up in the church have been hearing the story of Jonah since our earliest days of Sunday School, and while children’s Bible storybooks don’t usually cover “The Woman Caught in Adultery” for some reason, it’s still one of those stories that most of us know by heart. They’re so familiar, in fact, that if we’re not careful, we might miss what they’re really trying to tell us, because they’ve turned into the mundane background noise of our faith. We assume we’ve already learned their lessons because we’ve heard them so many times before. But what if I were to reframe them, maybe give them a different ending? What might we learn from a story told in a way that isn’t familiar to us? Let’s find out…

In 2019, the politicians and televangelists brought a woman before Jesus. She’d been caught acting in a way that was contrary to the letter of the moral law, but honestly, what she’d done specifically isn’t particularly important to the story. (Too often, our understanding of the original Biblical account is diluted by the fact that modern society doesn’t consider adultery a capital offense. We erroneously assume that Jesus’ reaction is simply the more reasonable one. That’s not the point of this story at all.) So picture the most morally repugnant thing you can imagine—she’d done that.

The leaders said, “Pastor, this woman was caught doing something unarguably horrible. This is an affront to our moral sensibilities! According to scripture and church policy, we must excommunicate her and publicly shame her as widely as possible, so that all might know that this sort of immoral behavior is unacceptable. Furthermore, we believe that we’re morally obligated to create civil laws that would punish her more severely for such a transgression…maybe with extended jail time or a heavy fine. What do you think about all this?”

Jesus looked down and wrote on his iPhone with his finger. They continued to question him, so he looked up and said…“Yeah, whatever. That sounds pretty reasonable. If she’s done something wrong, she should be punished as severely as possible, right? That’s what justice is, after all.” Looking down again, he continued writing on his phone (maybe he was playing Candy Crush or something; I don’t know).

Finally, Jesus looked back up and said to the woman, “Aren’t you sorry now that you did such a terrible thing? Have you learned your lesson?” But the woman was no longer there, because of course the politicians and televangelists had immediately dragged her away to impose whatever punishments they could dream up in the moment and to start working on ways to better control her in the future.

Jesus never saw that woman again.

That…doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Aside from the fact that it’s obviously not the way we learned this story, it just doesn’t sound like something Jesus would do. I don’t know about you, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable to think about Jesus saying things like, “Now that you’ve been punished, have you learned your lesson?” There’s a profound disconnect between this and the Jesus that we actually encounter in scripture. And it just feels WRONG.

And yet…if we were to replace Jesus’ name with anyone else’s, how easy would it be to believe that this very exchange could happen today? Pretty easy, I’d say. This version’s jarring nature wouldn’t seem nearly as pronounced with any other human endorsing the woman’s punishment. This seems to imply that humanity’s sense of justice is at odds with a divine sense of justice. And it makes me wonder what right we have to call ourselves the people of God when we prioritize our own justice over of God’s?

It’s not that we’re unfamiliar with what divine justice looks like; we just don’t like it—and that’s not a good look for us. Another story about God’s justice, the story of Jonah, is taught in Sunday Schools and Bible Camps everywhere. But for some strange reason, we tend to end the story before we get to the part that we read today. Could it be, perhaps, that it paints a not-so-flattering picture of our human perception of justice? Instead of rejoicing in God’s mercy towards the Ninevites, Jonah throws a temper-tantrum that would put a two-year-old to shame. Because of his utter disgust with God’s decision, he melodramatically proclaims, and I quote, “You may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.” He couldn’t abide the “injustice” of God’s mercy, so he went outside of the city to pout in the vain hope that God might change God’s mind and smite the city after all. I can picture a disgruntled Jonah sitting on a hill and throwing small pebbles at the city in indignation like a disappointed bully. He’s so stubborn that the story ends unresolved, with God asking a question that goes unanswered: “Why shouldn’t I take pity on Ninevah?”

In case it’s not completely clear by this point, GOD’S SENSE OF JUSTICE IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM OURS. God’s mercy isn’t informed by bias and doesn’t come with conditions. Obviously, humanity’s “justice” is saturated with bias and conditions—the law of Moses says that BOTH the woman and man caught in adultery should be stoned, but who were the pharisees most concerned with punishing? And Jonah flat out told God that the reason he didn’t want to prophesy to Ninevah in the first place is because he didn’t WANT them to be forgiven. It’s hard to argue that humanity’s justice is superior when it’s so easily swayed by…well…our humanity.

Furthermore (and perhaps more significantly), whereas human beings tend to value cold, “objective”, eye-for-an-eye consequences, God’s justice goes hand-in-hand with God’s mercy. God’s justice REQUIRES mercy, not because it’s faulty or weak, but because it’s effective. When Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore,” he’s not “letting her get away with it,” as all too many of us might assume. Jesus’ mercy has a very practical purpose: it creates an opportunity for the woman to continue growing in her relationship with God and to do better next time.

What happened in my imaginary retelling of this story? Was the woman transformed for the better by humanity’s idea of justice? Of course not! Because she was immediately and mercilessly punished, her conversation and relationship with Jesus ended the moment she was wrenched away from him. Even if she were to find herself in Jesus’ presence again afterwards (which, keep in mind, would have been impossible in the case of stoning) their relationship would have likely been irreparably damaged. So whose justice do you think has a better result? God’s—which is necessarily tied to mercy—or our own vengeful version?

The biggest problem with our rejection of mercy is that this attitude is in direct conflict with scriptural law and the Great Commission. After all, what’s the point of the law if not to help humanity become closer to God? We’re called to bring others to God through Christ…but through our blind adherence to law and humanity’s "justice", we inadvertently create a chasm far too vast to be overcome by those we punish in God’s name. When we neglect mercy in our thirst for retribution, we’re cutting others off from relationship with ourselves and with God. Punishment is negative reinforcement that, in an absolute best-case scenario, STOPS something from happening and creates a dead-end. God’s justice requires mercy, because its goal isn’t to stop bad things, but to CREATE good things. Punishment closes a door; mercy opens up a new way forward by inviting us to reimagine the future and create new opportunities to be and do better.

Through God’s mercy, Christ is inviting us to consider the rocks NOT thrown; the weapons NOT wielded in punishment or vengeance. What are the opportunities that we gain by being merciful to each other? Opportunities not just for ourselves, but for the future of God’s kingdom? Instead of raising stones against our neighbors in an effort to squelch “bad behavior”, let’s consider what might happen if we committed these stones to a higher purpose. What if, instead of being symbols of aggression and punishment, stones became symbols of mercy and new creation? What sort of world could we create together if we chose to use our stones as building blocks instead of instruments of control over others? Imagine a world where, when faced with a woman caught in adultery, we hand her the stones intended for punishment and ask, “What can we work together to build with this?”

Remember what Micah says the Lord requires of us: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. It’s possible for justice and mercy to coexist. It’s REQUIRED that justice and mercy coexist. If we think it’s not, then we’re employing a version of justice that God doesn’t recognize. The next time you go to raise a stone against your neighbor—even if it’s a metaphorical stone (which I certainly hope it would be)—think about whose justice you’re enacting. Think about the difference that mercy could make on that person’s journey and the paths that you could open up before them. Think about the punishment that you deserve but have been spared from because of God’s mercy and love. Once you’ve thought about all that, decide what to do with your stone. I hope you choose to place it on the ground, alongside all the others that have been placed in pursuit of God’s justice. Together, we can use the stones not thrown to lay the foundation of the holy future that God wants us to build together. Amen.

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