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Sermons

Leaving Judgment in the Dust

November 02, 2003

Bible Reading

The Lord works righteousness
     And justice for all the oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
     His deeds to the people of Israel.

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
     Slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
     Nor will he harbor his anger forever;
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
     Or repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
     So great is his love for those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
     So far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
     So the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
For he knows how we are formed,
     He remembers that we are dust.

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
     They flourish like a flower of the field:
The wind blows over it and it is gone,
     And its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
     The Lord's love is with those who fear him,
     And his righteousness with their children's children--
With those who keep his covenant,
     And remember to obey his precepts.

(Psalm 103:6-14)

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered round him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.

"Then I do not condemn you either," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

(John 8:1-11)

Reading from Swedenborg

When there is no compassion, selfishness is present, and particularly a hatred for everyone who does not agree. This is why such people see nothing in their neighbors except what is wrong with them. If they do see anything good, they either regard is as insignificant or find a bad interpretation for it. . . .

But compassionate people scarcely see what is wrong with others. Instead, they are alert to everything in them that is good and true, even putting a good interpretation on things that are evil and false. All angels are like this. They receive this attitude from the Lord, who bends everything toward what is good. (Arcana Coelestia #1079)

Sermon

Have you ever seen a Tibetan sand mandala? I once had the opportunity to observe one in the making. I was working at a small private school for girls in Connecticut. A group of Tibetan monks came and stayed with us, and they spent the bulk of their time creating a mandala right in the middle of the school. Our whole community gathered around them their first day, and joined them in prayers as they dedicated their work to the cause of world peace. Then they set right to work. More than a dozen monks spent much of each day on the mandala, taking breaks only to share in meals and conversations with the students.

For a full week the sound of their tools could be heard coming from the main hall in the school as they layered color upon color in a pattern of intricate and stunning beauty. Between classes, sports, and our various other commitments, we hovered over the monks and watched this tremendous work of art take shape--all the while knowing that at the end of the week these men had every intention of destroying their handiwork. And when Friday came, and the mandala was finally finished, they did just that.

The community gathered around the monks once again. After much prayer and chanting, the eldest monk took a small broom and began to sweep up the sand. The colors applied with such painstaking care blurred into each other immediately; the pattern unraveled, and the beauty of a week's skillful work was swept up in mere moments into a small urn. There were gasps of dismay. A few students actually uttered quiet protests, and more than one person cried as the mandala was swept up. We followed the monks out of the school and down a wooded path to a nearby stream, where the sand was released into the water along with the prayers for peace that the monks had imbued into every last grain as they worked. They believed the water would carry their prayers for peace out into the world and effect change.

That week I realized quite clearly that few of us are at peace with impermanence--especially here in the West. We are known for our ability to preserve, store, catalogue, and protect what is precious to us, whether it is art, antiques, or just an opinion. We like to hold onto things. If we made sand mandalas like these in the West, when we were finished we would apply sprays and lacquers to freeze the intricate patterns in space for all time--and then hang our work on the nearest available wall for posterity.

Of course, preserving the mandalas would negate their whole purpose; for their creation is merely the outward form of a spiritual discipline--a discipline of prayer and release. They are created to teach us that nothing here is truly permanent. From dust were we created, and to dust will we return, swept up in the context of time as surely as any one of these Tibetan mandalas.

Jesus wrote in the dust once, and his actions leave us with a similar truth. The story of the woman caught in adultery is at once beloved and highly suspect. Beloved, because for many of us the actions and words of Jesus in this account are essential to our understanding of his character. Suspect because this story is most likely not original to the Gospel of John--or any Gospel for that matter. From the differences in language, and some of the strange and apparently meaningless actions that take place, scholars have determined that this particular story had a life of its own, and that it circulated independent of the Gospels for years before well-meaning scribes began to include it in the canon as best they could. Yet, most scholars would agree that this story, for all its strange history, is in fact a true account of an actual event.

In today's reading, while Jesus sits teaching one fine day in Jerusalem, he is interrupted by a group of scribes who have caught a woman in the very act of adultery. They call on Jesus to exercise his supposed authority as a teacher of the law, and condemn her to death. This may seem to be an extreme reaction, but adultery was as grievous a sin in the context of their culture as it may seem trivial (at least to some) in ours. To feel the force of this moment, imagine this same woman with the blood of her murdered child on her hands, or some such horror. It is important to understand that no one would have thought these scribes were behaving in a petty and vindictive manner--including Jesus. Yet he chooses to see their request as a challenge to be met in a new way; and his response is both cryptic and illuminating. In the Gospel we read that "Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.'"

It is one of the most well-known responses of Jesus in all of Scripture. With ten simple words, Jesus turns the tide. All the momentum building up to this moment is caught up short, and a deeper truth begins to rise to the surface.

As I read this story over again I began to realize that in spite of the sin at the heart of this account, this is not a story about mercy or even forgiveness. I think it is a story about humility. Jesus humbles himself before the crowd. He does not take the opportunity to demonstrate his authority as the son of God to judge this woman, or even to forgive her. Of all the people in that crowd, Jesus was the one man who could have lifted a stone against her and pronounced a righteous judgment; but he chose another way.

There is, instead, a profound humility to his actions and his willingness to keep silent. There is a humility to her actions--for she never asks to be pardoned or protected. And ultimately, the rest of those assembled are humbled as well. As they turn and walk away one by one, it is not because her sin is forgiven, but because in light of Jesus' challenge, her sin is no longer the issue. It is now their sin that is before them, their sin that must be dealt with--and perhaps they are now more aware of the planks in their own eyes than of the speck in hers.

I hear a warning in this story: a reminder that it is at once so easy and so inappropriate for us to judge one another. It is so easy to find fault. It takes minimal effort to forego any tendency toward humility, compassion, or mutual understanding, and instead pick apart arguments and actions, rehash conversations in search of slights or mistakes, dismiss and disrespect others, delve deep into the patterns and dynamics we have established with ourselves and others that are as destructive as they are familiar.

In a world where we are searching desperately for something real, something permanent, something to hold onto, it sometimes seems that the only thing we can count on is that people will disappoint us. And if we are not careful, we may find ourselves taking a perverse delight in how often we are proved right. But hear Swedenborg's words again in light of this story and this tendency:

When there is no compassion, selfishness is present, and particularly a hatred for everyone who does not agree. This is why such people see nothing in their neighbors except what is wrong with them. If they do see anything good, they either regard is as insignificant or find a bad interpretation for it. . . . But compassionate people scarcely see what is wrong with others. Instead, they are alert to everything in them that is good and true, even putting a good interpretation on things that are evil and false. All angels are like this; and they receive this attitude from the Lord, who bends everything toward the good. (Arcana Coelestia #1079)

It is easy to condemn--and the condemnation may even be deserved. But this story calls into question the necessity of condemnation. We certainly have the ability, but do we have the right to condemn each other, if even God in his mercy chooses not to condemn? Or are we being called to another way? A way of humility and compassion? A way that does not place us above each other, but beside one another?

It typically takes very little incentive to get people to respond with righteous indignation in a difficult or tragic situation. But when such an opportunity arises, we need to pause, as Jesus did, and examine ourselves.

Scholars and theologians throughout the ages have pondered Jesus' strange behavior of stooping down and writing in the dust. Was he writing out the sins of the scribes? Was he divining in order to read their minds? Musing? Acting totally unconsciously? Or was he, as Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has suggested, merely buying time? No one knows for sure. And honestly, what he wrote doesn't really matter.

What matters is that ultimately, all of the judgments we pronounce upon one another are as insubstantial as what is written in the dust. What matters . . . what can make all the difference, is a moment of contemplation in the midst of this kind of opportunity; a moment when we pause and ask ourselves what we are really doing. Are we simply working out our own issues of anger, sadness, and frustration on someone else because their actions have given us the opportunity to deflect scrutiny from ourselves? Are we allowing our fear, anger, and disappointment to rule us, and lead us down a path of self-righteousness judgment?

What I realize when I read this story is that the only person I have a right to judge is myself. And even this right should not be taken as an opportunity for self flagellation, or self-degradation, but rather as an opportunity for repentance, and a chance to be conscious of my need for humility and compassion toward myself and others. What is needed is a recognition that I am not perfect, but the Lord loves me anyway, and is willing to forgive what is wrong in me because he is so deeply committed to all that is right.

Those scribes may have had a lot of anger and frustration that would have found a temporary release in the execution of that woman. But Jesus did not allow them the satisfaction. He alone could have pronounced righteous judgment upon her. Of all those assembled, he was the one without sin. But instead he chose another way. When he finally straightened up, he asked, "Woman where are they? Has no one accused you?" And she responded, "No one, sir." Then he said, "I do not condemn you either."

Jesus is asked to act as a judge and he refuses. He demonstrates for us the truth of what Swedenborg says, namely, that God is not interested in judging us, nor are the angels. And ultimately, if we are motivated by true compassion, we will not be interested in judging, either.

Those in heaven take no joy in labeling us as sinners, nor satisfaction in writing all our sins in a book of life, affixing our faults to some permanent record. Jesus here demonstrates that love seeks to let go of what is evil, that it might better see what is good. The Lord and his angels see the best in us, and they call us to do our very best to see what is good and true in each other.

This is the only way a community can survive the imperfections of its essential components: its people. None of us is perfect; so we need to keep our eyes open to see the best in each other, and allow the rest to blow away like dust. Or at the very least, we need to pause when we are tempted to judge, and hold that moment a little bit longer--perhaps just "long enough," as Rowan Williams says, "for some of our demons to walk away."

Prayer

Lord Jesus, it is so easy to see the imperfections and sins of others, and so hard to see our own offenses and our own sin. Thank you for your divine example of showing humility instead of pride, and compassion instead of condemnation. When we are ready to accuse and condemn, help us to pause and consider why we are condemnatory. Show us the evils in ourselves that we need to master, so that instead of condemning, we will help you to separate people from their evils, and bend all toward what is good. Amen.

Rev. Sarah Buteux