Here is my sermon from today's Ash Wednesday Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:
John 8. 1 - 11 is a story in which the accusers of the woman caught in adultery are shown as living in the black and white world of the Law. In the black and white world of the Law, everything is clear and everything is simple. “This woman,” they say, “was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our Law Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death.” If you do wrong then you are punished. No consideration of circumstances or motivations, no compassion for a fellow human being, no opportunity for restoration or rehabilitation, and no equality, because in this story it is the woman, not the man, who has been brought from the very act of adultery to be tried.
In the black and white world of the Law, there we find no consideration, no compassion, no restoration, no equality. The black and white world of the Law has no colour because it has no nuances, no distinctions, no difference, no variation. People often like to live in the black and white world of the Law because everything is easy to understand and easy to put into practice - no wrestling with difficulty and no struggling with conscience - but it is also a harsh world without understanding, without compassion, without forgiveness.
The hands of the accusers point away from themselves towards the woman. This is our common response as human beings to our own fallibility and failure. Instead of acknowledging our own shortcoming we attempt to distract attention away from our selves by identifying a scapegoat and angrily pointing out that person’s many failings. We are often very successful in covering up our own shortcomings when we adopt this tactic but the reality is that we are being hypocritical.
By bending down and writing in the sand with his finger, Jesus creates a pause that is pregnant with the possibility of other points of view, other perspectives, other understanding. When the simplistic rush to condemnation is halted, other questions immediately arise to muddy the waters which had initially seemed crystal clear; what would be the compassionate response, the restorative response, the forgiving response?
The words which follow this act of writing in the sand, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her,” are words which undermine the black and white world of the Law by revealing the hypocrisy at its heart. The reality is that each one of us has broken the Law and each one of us are sinners. If that is so, on what basis can one sinner presume to judge or condemn another? To do so is a gross act of hypocrisy which multiplies one sin upon another.
Jesus and the woman by contrast live in a world of love. They live in a world without condemnation – “Is there no one left to condemn you?” Jesus asks the woman. “No one, sir,” she answers. “Well, then,” Jesus says, “I do not condemn you either.” They live in a world where second chances and fresh starts are available – “Go,” says Jesus, “but do not sin again.” This world of Love is a world where nuances exist, difference is recognized, and variation is understood. Therefore choices and chances exist which simply did not occur in the black and white world of the Law; in the world of Love a multitude of sins are covered over (1 Peter 4. 8).
What does all this have to do with Ash Wednesday? As the sign of the cross is marked in ash on your forehead, these words are said: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” In this service, therefore, we acknowledge both our sinfulness and our mortality recognising the link between the two – the wages of sin are death.
The ash mark on our forehead is a public acknowledgement of our sinfulness but, because it is formed as a cross, it is also a sign of the forgiveness we have received. We are saying that we no longer live in the black and white world of the Law where sin automatically leads to death. Instead, like the woman caught in adultery, we have been accepted and welcomed into the world of Love by Jesus himself.
He says to us what he said to that woman, “I do not condemn you … Go, but do not sin again.” Those words are spoken to us all whether we were the accused or whether we were those who accused others. Whichever we may be, we are called to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
This Lent we have the opportunity to explore this in practice as we are showing crucifixion drawings by the artist Francis Bacon. Bacon was an atheist, whose lifestyle was promiscuous in many ways. It would be easy to criticise him and his crucifixion images and yet through his reflections, over many years, on the crucifixion there is much for us to see and appreciate, disturbing as his images may be. Our Lenten exhibition will therefore challenge us to look outside of the black and white world of the Law and embrace the world of Love. May we rise to that challenge.
Valerie June - Trials, Troubles, Tribulations.