Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Get Stoned

We should begin our considerations of the woman caught in adultery, of course, by noting that the stoning referred to in our Gospel reading this evening is quite different from what we mean on a University campus by “getting stoned.” Both are deplorable, the stoning referred to in our passage even more so as its practice continues in some societies in our world today, especially against women. On the other hand, Jesus being stoned would certainly go some way toward explaining his odd behavior. In response to the question posed by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” If everyone else there were stoned, it would go a long way toward explaining why no one seems to have remembered what he wrote! But, no, neither Jesus nor anyone else present there, that we know of, was stoned. To suggest that they were would be an ahistorical and anachronistic interpretation out of sync with the liberal theological tradition we stand in here at Boston University.

Still, we are left with the perplexing question, what was Jesus writing? There have been many attempts to answer this question, some based on historical evidence, others arising from pastoral need. All of them are speculative. Of course, the status of the whole passage is speculative as well. The most ancient sources lack it entirely. Some that have it have it earlier in chapter 7, others append it to the end of the whole Gospel, and yet others hand it off to Luke. Unfortunately, we cannot possibly sort out the question of the historicity of the passage here, but thankfully Dr. Knust over at the School of Theology is writing a book about it and I am sure she would be happy to explain the whole thing to you if you are so inclined.

So where does this leave us? We still do not know what Jesus was writing and we have virtually no historical ground to stand on in answering the question. Well, since all of the possible answers seem to be speculative, we should feel free to be speculative as well. Come; let us speculate. After all, it is the only thing we know of that Jesus ever wrote!

What might we speculate? Well, some speculate that Jesus was just drawing lines in the dirt while he was thinking. Yes, even Jesus doodles. This makes some sense to me. I know I doodle in the margins of bulletins during longwinded and boring sermons. (Hey! Put that pen away!). Others speculate that he was writing the names of the accusers in accordance with Jeremiah 17: 13, “those who turn away from you shall be written on the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” This seems a bit like proof-texting. Others speculate that he was following Roman legal practice, writing out the sentence before delivering it orally. Of course, the idea that Jesus would emulate the legal system that would eventually put him to death is at least ironic. One of the oldest interpretations is that he was writing the sins of the accusers. Admittedly, this would have made it very difficult for anyone to claim they were without sin and then cast the first stone, but then the conclusion of the passage would have been virtually foregone.

One of the reasons the location of this passage is questioned is that it does not quite seem to fit. Prior to the passage Jesus is out in the countryside of Galilee preaching the good news and stirring up trouble. Following the passage, Jesus launches right back into the message: “I am the light of the world.” But here, in the first eleven verses of chapter eight, Jesus quietly and calmly manages the situation by subverting the question the authorities pose, and then is left alone with the woman they had caught in adultery. This is a very different Jesus. More importantly, it is a very different judgment.

Indeed, if anything is clear about this passage, it is that it is about judgment. The scribes and Pharisees accuse a woman of adultery and ask Jesus to pass judgment. Most of the speculations that have been offered have to do with what kind of judgment Jesus passed. The doodling Jesus speculation points toward cool, calm, rational judgment. The naming Jesus speculation points toward a scribal judgment based on the prophetic literature. The Roman Jesus speculation points toward political judgment. The sin-writing Jesus speculation points toward revelatory-religious judgment.

But is it really about judgment, or for Jesus is it about the judge? Jesus’ question to the scribes and Pharisees is subversive precisely because it calls into question not their judgment but their capacity and right to make judgments at all. Jesus sets the standard for the qualifications of any who would have judgment at sinlessness, a standard the scribes and Pharisees and everyone else who was in the temple could not meet. Of course, setting such a standard is a judgment in its own right. Recognizing this leaves the door open to Jesus’ own standard being turned back upon him. Who is to judge whether Jesus meets the standard for passing judgment? The scribes and Pharisees certainly would have called this into question. After all, Jesus was running around the countryside deceiving the people, from their perspective.

Ultimately, what should have happened is what we might call the judgment paradox. Anyone who might pass judgment must be sinless, but who has the right to make the judgment of sinlessness?

The funny thing is that the scribes and Pharisees never point this out. Given that they were not stupid, there is nothing explicit in the story that explains why they would not take this route of escape. How does Jesus avoid such an accusation? Well, now we are back to speculation. The only piece left in the story is what he has written on the ground.

So, here is my theory. What was Jesus writing on the ground? Jesus was writing his own sins.

Clearly, this throws a monkey wrench in the Christological gears. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be perfect because only a perfect sacrifice can atone for the sins of the whole world? To be perfect, doesn’t Jesus need to be sinless? If Jesus was writing his sins on the ground, this implies Jesus had sins, so Jesus was not sinless, so Jesus was not perfect, so the sins of the world are not atoned for. Oh dear, we are not saved.

No. Wait. Stop. Atonement theories like these were imposed on Jesus long after he walked this earth. It is we who think we need Jesus to be sinless to save us, not Jesus who needs to be sinless to save us. Remember, Jesus is fully human and fully divine. To be human is to sin. This is what we recognize today, Ash Wednesday. Jesus is human; Jesus is sinful; Jesus saves.

Dear friends, we find in this Ash Wednesday Jesus who writes his own sins on the ground a way forward in making judgments in a sinful world. Who determines the sinlessness of the judge? Those being judged. This is the way out of the paradox. The scribes and Pharisees turned and walked away because they saw Jesus write his sins on the ground and when he then turned the judgment to them they knew that his judgment was true. By confessing his sins, in writing them on the ground, Jesus repents of his sins and is cleansed, healed, forgiven. The sinlessness of the judge is not in never having sinned but in accepting the judgment on sin, of confessing, repenting and being forgiven.

Here we are. It is Ash Wednesday. We come and receive the sign of the cross in black, dirty ash on our foreheads or on our hands. Just as the Ash Wednesday Jesus writes his sins on the ground, let us accept the ashen cross as a confession of our sins, a sign of our repentance, and let us journey together through Lent toward forgiveness and new life in Christ.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that the Jesus who writes and so confesses his sins and repents meets the standard to make judgment. And Jesus does judge. Jesus judges the scribes and the Pharisees. They accept his judgment in light of his sinlessness through the cleansing of confession. He judges the woman. His judgment is just. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” The judgment of the sinless is mercy. If we accept the sign of the cross in ash, thereby confessing our sins, repenting, and walking in the sinlessness of forgiveness, our judgment must be mercy. This Lenten season, let mercy lead and forgiveness reign. Amen.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Called to Transfigured Life

2 Corinthians 4: 1-12
Mark 9: 2-9

It was one of those deceptively beautiful winter days. I stepped off the “T” into blue skies and sunshine paired with bitter cold and biting wind. After making my way, shivering, across Commonwealth Avenue, I looked up at the sculpture prominently located just left of center on the Marsh Chapel Plaza. Fifty abstract bird forms flying in an upward arc, cast in iron. There is something liberating and hopeful about the flight of birds that draws to mind the spiritual and the transcendent. It is little wonder, then, that they become focal symbols of our religious spaces, like here at Muller Chapel, and of our religious communities, like the Protestant Community dove and heart. Our birds in Boston represent the fifty states, and the freedom they express is the liberation from segregation brought about in the civil rights movement, significantly through the leadership of Boston University’s most famous alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On that chill winter morning I considered, as I climbed the stairs into Marsh Chapel, that something of Dr. King’s dream, of Dr. King’s vision, would be realized later that day.

Just before noon I walked into the student union and climbed the stairs and entered the large ballroom. It was standing room only. The whole hall was packed with students and faculty and staff. And it was silent. Aretha Franklin sang; (that bow was something else). The oath of office was administered, sort of. Four musicians from four racial and cultural backgrounds played together (or as it turned out mimed in time with a recording) a great American folk song set by a great American composer. And then there was the speech. On a cold and blustery January day, a mere month ago, President Barack Obama stood before a crowd of millions in Washington and billions around the world and delivered his inaugural address.

It was not the most inspiring speech any of us had ever heard, but its honesty was deeply refreshing and the tone was poised for a moment of great social turmoil. As I listened I looked around the room. No, Dean Elmore, our dean of students, was not there. He had received a ticket and gone to Washington. No, Katherine Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and director of the Howard Thurman Center, was not there. She too had received a ticket and gone to Washington. No, Mark Gray was not there. Oops! There he was! On the screen! Sitting ten rows behind the new President.

And then, there, toward the end of the speech, right after stating as clearly as possible the challenges to be faced in the days, weeks, months, years ahead, a line caught my ear. “This is the source of our confidence.” Confidence. What a wonderful word, confidence. It denotes nobility and grace and freedom. It is a standing up in the face of tragedy, solemnly facing the solemnity of the relentless working of things.

But where, where is the source of this confidence? Oh! There it is! Just then came from the mouth of the newly inaugurated President the most profound theological sentence thus far in the 21st century. “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

There are many theological winds blowing about in the world today. Some of them are hot air. They would have us believe that our future is determined, that our destiny is inevitable, and that those who might stand in the way are doomed to God’s wrath on the slaughter bench of history. And so I give thanks to God for blowing me toward a fresh wind, a great wind out of the Northeast, a cold snap that shocks the lungs and reminds us to breathe. In these past four years I have found myself at Boston University, a lighthouse shining the beacon of responsible Christian liberalism, a bedrock of American liberal theology, a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the Gospel of grace and freedom.

And so I ask you, is it not the case, do we not know from our experience, that the future is not determined but open and full of possibilities? Is it not the case, do we not know from our experience, that destiny is not inevitable but what we make from the realization of some possibilities and not others? Is it not the case, do we not know from our experience, that our futures are intimately tied up with the futures of everyone else such that when those who have much have too much and those who have little have too little the whole house of cards comes tumbling down?

The past is past. It is fixed. It is determined. It is the future possibilities as they have been actualized. We cannot change them, much as we might like to. We may have chosen wrong and it may be that we should have actualized a different possibility. It may not have been such a good
idea to eat that seventh bowl of chili at the cook-off yesterday. It may not have been so wise to invest in real estate. It may have been foolhardy to go crashing around in a foreign nation with an alien culture. And so we come, Sunday by Sunday, to confess our regret and remorse in contrition and compunction. The most ancient prayer of the church is still the most profound. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

But if we are going to have any hope for the future at all, that we might choose differently next time, that we might choose rightly next time, that we might actualize the possibilities of justice and mercy and peace, then we must accept the forgiveness Christ offers. We must accept it and move forward in light of our remembrance of our own best past. Not all of our choices were wrongheaded, and there are those in our history who have come alongside us and shown us the way. Teachers. Mentors. Friends. Pastors. Coaches. Parents. Siblings. Civic leaders. We have chosen well at times; after all, we are here. We have seen others make right choices, and we can choose to follow them.

Yes, the past is fixed, but the future is open. We read this morning of Christ upon the mountain peak bathed in the light of transfiguration. What is this transfiguration light? It is the light shining forth of all of our future possibilities. For Jesus, as he stood on the mountain, the future was entirely open. Now, two thousand years later, we know what happened. Jesus went to Jerusalem and confronted both the temple authorities and Roman imperial power. He was crucified, died, and was raised. But then, standing on the mountain peak, crucifixion was not the only option. The future of the son of God was totally open, his destiny entirely undetermined, and the freedom of God burst forth in transcendent light.

We too are called to live transfigured lives. Our lives are full of future possibilities. An Ithaca College education prepares you for lives lived in love of God, in pursuit of excellence, and in service to the world. Even so, it does not determine us. I should know. I majored in music here at IC. Now, I am in ministry to 40,000 at the fourth largest private research institution in the United States. Moving freely into the future is not a rejection of the past. The past cannot be rejected. But it is a free appropriation of the past into whatever future possibilities are available, and they may not be the ones we expect.

The disciples, on the other hand, were confused. They wanted to build three booths, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. They did not understand that the future cannot be contained. Moses actualized for the Hebrew people a future they could barely hope for as they suffered under slavery in Egypt. Elijah actualized a future for the Israelites in right relationship with God instead of the abasement they were practicing before idols. And Jesus, Jesus actualized a future of redemption from sin that binds us to the past and liberates us to actualize our own futures in grace and freedom. The transfiguration continues in you and in me.

And what of now? What of the present moment? We know that the past is fixed and the future is open, but what are we to make of the present? The present is the moment of choice, the moment when one possibility is chosen among the kaleidoscopic opportunities. Does God tell us which possibility to choose? No. I had to choose to go to Boston. I had to choose to go into ministry. I had to choose ministry at Marsh Chapel over starting a doctoral program immediately. The choice is ours. If it is not, then God is to blame for human sinfulness when we choose wrongly. But God is present in the choice. President Obama is right. God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. It is we who do the shaping, but it is God who calls us to this work.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we can, by the grace of God, move forward into an uncertain destiny in confidence. Certainty is not possible. Certainty is only available to those who cling to a determined future and an inevitable destiny. The truth is, though, that the future is open and so their certainty is false. Abandon certainty and step out in confidence. There are choices to be made among the future possibilities in our lives, and God calls on us to make them. To live in confidence is to see the transfiguring light of the future possibilities and to step out into the call of God and choose among them. The confidence of Christ, expressed in humility, enabled Jesus to endure the pain of crucifixion, calls to memory our own best pasts, and frees for us the possibilities of our futures. “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Amen.