Holy Mess (6): Judgment

. 10 min read

Christ Church, Mountain Top
to Worship, Psalm 109.21-31
Mark 9.2-8 (Transfiguration Sunday)
John 8.2-11, Romans 8.1-4
introductory academic matter regarding our text from John’s gospel: You may see
in your Bible a notation that indicates that most ancient copies of the text of
John’s gospel do not include this story. Some of the texts include it here or
in two other places in John’s gospel. One family of texts places it in Luke’s
gospel. And, within the story itself, there are some variations of the text,
more than typical. This is the only “free-floating” (Culpepper, 170) text that
shows up in the Bible and there is a good bit of scholarly conversation on this
topic. I read four different academic commentaries on the text and each one of
them had a different approach to the authority and history of this text. I am
not addressing that today, only acknowledging it. It’s in the book, and we’re
using it.
      I do want to make one comment on the
general question of textual accuracy of the Scriptures, because I have heard
from so many folks that, “You know, you just can’t trust the reliability of the
text. Probably early Christians changed things to make it read the way they
wanted.” There is absolutely no evidence that is the case. In fact, the New
Testament includes so many stories and texts that posed difficulties for the
first readers, and they kept those difficulties in the text. There are multiple
variants, yes. That’s because this text, our Bible, was so loved and reverenced
that it was copied thousands of times by hand and preserved and read by
communities all over the world. Having these multiple copies has made it
possible for scholars to reconstruct the textual history of the New Testament
to an accuracy of over 99.9%. So, when you hear someone say, “Well, we just
don’t know what the text originally said”, you don’t need to start an argument
and you don’t need to doubt. Some comparisons: The earliest copies of the works
of Greek historian Herodotus come 1300 after the originals were written, in the
year 900, and there are only 8 early copies from that time. The earliest copies
of Caesar’s Gaelic War are 950 years
after the originals were written, again in the year 900, and there are only 10
copies from that time. The New Testament writings were widely circulated during
the lifetime of the first witnesses to Jesus, and despite being written after
Herodotus and Caesar, the earliest copies date to 130, and we have discovered
over 25,000 manuscripts all of which date within the first 310 years! (Nicky
Gumbel, 8).
theme is judgment, and there is so much to discuss around judgment. As we wrap
up our “Holy Mess” series, we remember that on so many of these issues we have discussed
– human sexuality, human life, church and state, science and faith – we line up
against each other in judgment, as if in firing lines. My hope has been that we
would learn to “be of one heart while not of one mind” (John Wesley).
      Sometimes judgment is all about what I do
to myself. I’m not good enough at this. I performed poorly at that. I lost my
temper. I was rude, and it doesn’t matter that I am really tired – I was just
rude. I’ll never be what I hope to be.

      Sometimes judgment is all about the way we
organize people – each with a unique story – into categories, into boxes, for
easy sorting as “good” or “bad”. Each person gets a label. The language of
judgment, of labels, is such a huge part of our vocabulary. Even if we don’t
utter the words out loud in public, the idea, the phrase, crawls through our
brains. We say them or think them when someone cuts us off in traffic or does
one of a countless other things that frustrate. Most of these pejorative
expressions are focused on observed behavior.

      But it is even easier to pass judgment.
Who needs behavior? We can do it with mostly superficial characteristics – skin
color, gender, social class, religious inclination, political affiliation.
Years ago, Robin was in the grocery store line chatting with the gal in front
of her. “We’re new in the area. My husband’s a pastor.” “A pastor,” she said
with ears perked up. “What church?” “The United Methodist Church.” “Oh.” End of
conversation. We clearly weren’t her kind of Christian. Robin wasn’t rude, had
not done anything offensive. We had an invisible label, but once it was “out”
there was no keeping us out of the “bad” box.
      One of my hopes in this series of messages
was for us to expand the conversations we have around these questions, to
recognize – even in persons who disagree with us – a sister or brother in
Christ. I was recently reading an article on leadership and casting vision for
social change which focused on how important it is to listen to different
ideas. The writers used the phrase, “an echo chamber of the like-minded”, and
pointed out that when we live in such an echo chamber, when all we hear is what
reinforces our own ideas, we become (no surprise!) more set in our opinion
instead of actually understanding the controversial subject better (Lavizzo-Mourey
& Mann). If we want to understand these matters on a higher level, we must
be willing to be pushed, we must push ourselves to learn. On a number of the
questions we have addressed, The United Methodist Church has taken some clear
public stands. But we remain a diverse church, something I personally
appreciate. It has helped me move out of the echo-chamber. I hope that I do not
do to other Christians what was done to Robin in that grocery store.
story from John 8 is full of judgment and judgment language. A woman is caught
in adultery. The man is noticeably missing. Did he jump out the window or was
the whole thing a set-up? Our imagination is invited. “Moses told us to kill
her by throwing stones at her. What do you say, Jesus?”
      So, the judgment of this woman, already
betraying a clear double standard since the man is missing, is now revealed to
be what it truly is – a pretext – a way to judge Jesus. On the face of it, no
matter how Jesus answers he is wrong. He can argue in support of Moses and defy
Roman law, which did not officially permit Jews to execute capital punishment.
He can argue against Moses and defy Jewish tradition and, possibly, a mob out
for blood.
      And, there are deeper matters at stake,
Jesus’ essential identity. St. Augustine imagines the plan of Jesus’
he says, “Let her be stoned,” we shall say to him, “What has become of your
forgiving sins? Aren’t you the one who says ‘Your sins are forgiven you?’” But
if he says, “Let her go,” we shall say, “What has become of your coming to
fulfill the law and not to destroy it?” (Sermon 16A.4, cited in Elowsky, 275).
in last week’s story, the intent is to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. Jesus
bends down to write in the dirt, ignoring their insistent pestering. Then, the
perfect retort: “Whoever is without sin, you be the first to throw a stone”
(8.7). Showing a little respect to the crowd, he bends again to his task of
writing in the dirt. No need to look people in the eye when you have exposed
their naked power play, pulled the curtain on their double standards, and
called the bluff of their indignant justice. Over-exposed, they all leave until
the woman is alone with Jesus. “May they be wrapped in their own shame as in a
mantle” (Psalm 109).
two were left alone, the miserable and
(translation changed by me, Latin, misera et misericordia, Brown, 337). . . . They left the woman with
her great sin in the keeping of him who was without sin. And because she had
heard, “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone at her,” she most
likely expected to be punished by one in whom no sin could be found. But he who
had repelled her adversaries with the voice of justice lifted her on the eyes
of mercy (Elowsky, 277).
triumphs over judgment” (James 2.13).
Rosebrough is a pastor in North Dakota and the “captain” of Pirate Christian
Radio, with the mottos “The truth will set ye free” and “Heretics beware!” His
website markets the Pirate Christian Radio as “an online radio station that is
free from the scurvy plagues of pop-psychology, goofy fads, self-help, pietism,
purpose-drivenism, the prosperity heresy, contemplative mysticism,
seeker-sensitivism, liberalism, relavantism, Emergent nonsense, and the sissy
girly Oprah-fied religiosity that is being passed off as ‘Biblical
Christianity.’ This station defends the
historic Christian faith” (Bolz-Weber, 109).
      Then, there’s Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of
House for All Sinners and Saints, a church that started with eight people, four
of them queer (119). She’s brilliant and funny – a former stand-up comic whose
call to ministry came as she was presiding at a funeral for a friend, in the
comedy club in which they both performed. Her website is “The Sarcastic
Lutheran”. Here’s how she describes Rosebrough: “His ‘I represent the pure
doctrine of the one true faith and here is why everyone but us is wrong, wrong,
wrong’ shtick plays to a devoted and adoring audience who may or may not be
also stockpiling weapons, canned food, and Bibles in their backyard bomb
shelters” (109). I think there’s plenty of sarcasm, and plenty of judgment, to
go around.
      Bolz-Weber was one of Rosebrough’s
targets; he devoted twenty minutes in one broadcast to describing her false
teachings at length. Then these two enemies met each other at a conference. He
said, “It’s weird, Nadia. We obviously disagree about a lot, but something
tells me that out of all these liberal Christians, you and I have a couple
things we might agree on.” They had a long conversation, which Bolz-Weber
described as “spiritual waterboarding (Jesus holding my head under the waters
of my own baptism until I cry uncle).” And she remarked to Rosebrough, “Maybe
you and I are desperate enough to hear the Gospel that we can even hear it from
each other” (112-113). To the surprise of many, themselves included, Pirate
Christian and Sarcastic Lutheran, these enemies, became friends.
two were left alone, the miserable and
. . . . He who had repelled her adversaries with the voice of justice
lifted her on the eyes of mercy (Augustine; Elowsky, 277).
Sin is still sin, still harmful, still isolating, still bad for you. Jesus does
not condemn the woman, for he has come not to condemn the world but to save it
(John 3.17, see also 8.15 and Bruce, 413, 417). However, he tells her, “Go, and
do not sin again” (8.11, RSV).
      Jesus has transformed judgment by mercy. “Mercy
triumphs over judgment” (James 2.13). He writes on the ground, and the
imaginations of Christian interpreters are alive with many possibilities for
exactly what he wrote. I think it is helpful to remember two other times in the
Bible story when God physically wrote. First, God wrote the words of the
covenant, in particular the ten commandments, on stone tablets for Moses and
Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out
of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not
make for yourself an idol…. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the
LORD your God…. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy…. Honor your father
and your mother…. You shall not murder…. You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus
20.2-14f). Covenant, prohibitions, and the basis of judgment.
      Second, in the book of Daniel, a mysterious
hand appears and writes a riddle on a wall in the middle of the king’s party.
Daniel is brought in to give the interpretation: “God has numbered the days of
your kingdom and brought it to an end. You have been weighed in the balance and
found wanting” (Daniel 5). Judgment.
      Third, here in John’s gospel. Jesus bends
down and writes. He transforms judgment. It is an opportunity for enemies to
become friends, for sinners to become siblings, for those estranged to be
embraced. The Bible word is “reconciliation”. Sin is still sin, and we are
still sinners. Sin is still hated by God, precisely because we sinners are so
dearly loved by Jesus. Sin is dangerous. Sin hurts us, and others. Sin destroys
lives. Sin is bad for you. I love my children. And, I’ve hated their sin,
because their sin separates them from me, from each other, and from God. I will
admit to gloating a few times when I caught them red-handed. “I know
everything. Who’s your daddy?”
not Jesus. It’s pretty difficult for me to be honest about sin and really love
someone. If I like the person, I’d much rather smile and ignore the sin
conversation. If I don’t like them, then I’m free to be a hater. At times, I am
prideful or ignorant enough to think that I’m just too cute for anyone to be
concerned about my sin (not even God), OR that I’m just so wretched and
miserable that no one could have mercy on me (not even God).
      In this story, Jesus is surrounded by
sinners. There’s the woman, whose sin has a public label. Then, there’s the accusers
and gloaters, the double-standard dudes, the indignantly just. Jesus does not
accuse or gloat. Jesus, the sinless one, does not pick up the first stone. “There
is now no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.1). Jesus bends
down to write. He bends down.
      St. Bede reflected that we would do well
to follow Jesus’ example: “When we look at some other sinner, we immediately
bend down” (Elowsky, 276). It is humility that forms the platform for
reconciliation, for enemies to become friends, for people as different as Pirate
Christian and Sarcastic Lutheran to hear the Gospel from each other.
the final hymn: Invite to pick up a stone. Not to cast it, but to keep it and
remember that Jesus, the sinless one, refused to cast the “first stone”.
      Nicky Gumbel. 1995. The Alpha Course Manual. Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Ministry
Resources. (Based on research by many others.)
      Risa Lavizzo-Mourey & Fred Mann. 22
January 2015. “Bold but Flexible: How to Effectively Share Your Vision.” Blog
post on Stanford Social Innovation Review website, www.ssireview.org
      Nadia Bolz-Weber. 2013. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a
Sinner & Saint.
New York: Jericho Books.
      F. F. Bruce. 1983. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns.
      R. Alan Culpepper. 1998. The Gospel and Letters of John.
Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
      Ben Witherington, III. 1995. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth
Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
      Raymond Brown. 1966. The Gospel According to John I-XII. Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol.
29. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Company, Inc.
      Joel C. Elowsky, editor. 2006. John 1-10. Ancient Christian Commentary
on Scripture, New Testament IVa. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

      Daniel Charles Damon. 2011. “A Woman Stood
Accused.” (Hymn). Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company.