Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I am a Pharisee

I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, January 29 as part of the community's ongoing exploration of the Gospel of John. The text is John 8.1-11; read it here.

Before we read the text I pointed out that for most of the first millennium of the Church's history (until about 900 CE) this passage does not appear in most manuscripts of John's Gospel and there is almost no commentary on it from Greek commentators. A theory about its exclusion is that Jesus' generosity made leaders in the Early Church, who were committed to very strict discipline, uncomfortable.

I really like for things to be fair.
I like rules.
I am an enneagram 1 – organized, efficient, and with very high standards – for myself and others.
My high standards far too easily turn into being overly critical of others and myself, expecting perfection from all.
I want to be right.
About everything.

Believe it or not, I played football once upon a time.
I was ten years old and a lineman.
I hated it.
No, I didn’t hate it because I got hot and sweaty
or had to wear pads
or the time it took up.
I hated it because I felt like I was then only one who got it.
I would come home from practice and rant about being yelled at that day.
“You could drive a Mac truck through these gaps!” the line coach had shouted…as those to my left or right stood too far apart from me.
“WHY DON’T THEY GET IT!?  The play is white, so you go right! It rhymes!”

While my self-perception is that I’m striving for excellence, that is easily not others’ – particularly teammates or younger brothers’.
Self controlled? Yes. Rigid? No.
I like my systems that others or I have put in place – particularly when or because they work.
If they don’t, I prefer to change the system the appropriate way rather than ignore it completely.
Systems protect people.
Systems keep people safe.
Systems save time.

If the characters in John’s Gospel are screens onto which we can project ourselves, I would most likely be a Pharisee.
They had inherited a tradition that kept them distinct.
It kept them in touch with God.
It defined who they were, and the woman in today’s reading broke it.
They come to Jesus as he’s teaching with her and want his judgment.

These Pharisees have brought a woman who was caught breaking the law.
These men who want to be right have come to trick Jesus and test him.
Perhaps this test comes after Jewish leaders had lost the power to execute.
If Jesus sides with the woman he ignores the Law.
If he orders her death, the civil authorities will be thoroughly displeased, to say the least.
Jesus doesn’t answer their questions, though.

These are people concerned for the words of the law, but not its intentions.
They aren’t concerned with her relationships and how her adultery may have broken them.
They don’t question her spiritual state or even if she’s penitent.
There is some suggestion that rather than trying to win her love back, her husband found people to witness her sin to bring her to trial.

As concerned as they were for the law, they weren’t concerned about her.
They cared more about being right than showing love, and the Law existed to give guidance on showing love to God and neighbor.
Jesus, however, loves the woman.
Instead of answering any of the mob crowd’s questions, he makes a judgment that if any of them is without sin they should start throwing the rocks.
No one does.
They all leave,
one by one,
starting with the elders, those most steeped in this tradition.

When he finishes writing in the dirt Jesus looks up at her and asks where everyone is.
A crowd came. Now it’s gone.
“Has no one condemned you?...Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

If the character’s in John’s Gospel are screens onto which we can project ourselves, that means we can find ourselves in two positions in this text.
We have a crowd of me: Enneagram 1s who want to follow the laws and enforce the rules.
And we have me, broken, scared, and just out of danger being told
“Neither do I condemn you,” and being sent to sin no more
And we have Jesus, whom we all imitate, challenging the zealots and loving the guilty.

Jesus’ sentence isn’t fair.
She had been caught in adultery, and that was against the Law.
There were two witnesses other than her husband, with whom her relationship was broken.
The system protected her husband’s relationship.
While Jesus is expecting that a zealous crowd here be totally honest in their motivations, he still spares the woman.
The Law was very clear in its letter.

God’s love for us in the intent of the Law isn’t fair, though.
Rather than being condemned we’re told to go and sin no more.
No matter how many times we are caught in unfaithfulness to our promises, messing up, failing to love God and our neighbors.
Each time we’re told, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

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