March 12, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Many years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Well if I were to write a similar book it would be titled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned Riding a School Bus!” For instance, I learned you don’t want to sit in the back of the bus. If there was trouble on the bus it typically happened in the back. Those were the ones who wanted to be as far away from the driver as possible, and some of the first dirty words I ever heard came from the back of the bus.
Then there were those who sat in the front of the bus. They wanted no trouble at all. They followed all the rules. Then those in the middle didn’t necessarily follow rules, but they weren’t looking for trouble. I was a middle of the bus person.
When I was in about first or second grade, there was a girl on our bus who was very outgoing, happy, and confident. I remember things she would say and do in class that exuded this self-confidence and made me feel like, “I wish I was that confident.” Of course, teachers loved kids like this. She would get called on a lot. She was the one the teachers frequently recognized. Which, of course, meant some students were jealous of her.
So back to the bus. One afternoon we were riding home and I became aware of a commotion in the back. A few boys started saying this name over and over. Its always boys who start something, isn’t it? Well, I could see they were directing this name at this girl. They were taunting her and I could see she didn’t like it. She finally said to them firmly, “Stop.” But what did that do? It just egged them on. So they got louder, and then other kids around them started joining in. And then she got louder, “Stop it! I don’t like that. Stop it!”
The bus driver didn’t seem too concerned. After all there was always some kind of noise coming from the back of the bus. But this day was louder than usual. It became like a loud chant. And then the bus pulled up to this girl’s stop. And I’ll never forget her running off the bus crying, and the kids opening the windows and yelling the chant again and again as the bus pulled away, and this girl walking down her street with her hands over her ears crying.
The things you remember. What I learned on the bus that day was when enough voices join together they can tear down the most confident of souls.
The question of Jesus we consider today is one that is most important for any person who has ever been torn down by criticism and condemnation of others: “Where are your accusers?” It’s the simplest of the questions Jesus asked, but the conditions surrounding it are anything but.
I want us to consider this story from the perspective of two levels of accusation. There are two types of accusation going on in this story and the first is Accusation For Things We Don’t Deserve.
Notice how the story begins. Religious leaders bringing a woman to Jesus they say was caught in the act of adultery. It makes you wonder how she was caught? Was there a setup? Did a jealous husband tip off the religious police, so that they hid in the home? Were they looking through a cracked door? And if so, just how long did they look? There was a rabbinic tradition at the time that said if you see your fellow Israelite about to sin and can stop that person, you are obligated to do so.”
So clearly these religious people aren’t concerned with rabbinic tradition. And then they show that they aren’t overly concerned with following the Torah. They tell Jesus “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”(v. 5). Well, they weren’t quoting the law correctly. It says in Leviticus 20:10: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Where is the man? It takes more than one to commit adultery, where is the other person? Why did they bring just the woman?
Isn’t it funny how prejudice and biblical faithfulness can serve as a good cover for each other? Just a thought.
Of course, the story makes it very plain what’s going on. “(The religious authorities) said this to test (Jesus), so that they might have some charge to bring against him.”(v. 6) They were there to trap Jesus. That’s all they wanted to do. If they could get Jesus to disagree with them and not pronounce such a sentence, then he goes against Mosaic Law. Of, if he agrees with them and condemns the woman, then he risks losing the favor of his followers.
What this shows is that the woman was nothing more than a pawn. She was just the bait. They had another agenda. There are people like that. They accuse but they don’t care about the person, they just want to condemn and run down. And Those who just want to accuse usually have other agendas.
Sometimes people do that because it’s the only way they know to feel better about themselves. To feel good about who they are, they have to make you feel less about yourself.
Sometimes it’s because people are simply taking revenge. They feel hurt or wounded by you, but they can’t just say that and talk it through, they have to make you feel wounded.
Sometimes it’s because of prejudice. People pound you with accusations, just looking for you to make a mistake, not because of who you are, but because of your sexual orientation, your skin color, your nationality.
Sometimes we face accusations for things we don’t deserve. Have you ever faced an accusation like that? Did someone ever tell you,
--You’re a failure?
…You haven’t done enough?
…You’ll never amount to anything?
Maybe it’s something else, a different accusation but something you don’t deserve. Some of you can go right back to the moment this first happened. You remember the very day on the bus and something another kid said. You can remember the classroom and what the teacher told you, or the coach or a parent. And something about that accusation has stuck with you all your life.
But, and this is very important, not everyone who points out a fault has wrong motives. We all have faults. No one is perfect. We need people who help us see ourselves as we really are, but these are folks who do care about us. Their accusation is never to lessen who we are but make us better.
You could call this the difference between critics vs. prophets. Critics just stand on the sideline and tear down. Prophets speak truth and help us become better. Prophets can be brutal in pointing out fault, but they always include a picture of a better future. The challenge is knowing the difference between the two.
There’s a story about Cab Calloway, the legendary jazz musician. One night at a famous jazz bar he introduced a promising, young saxophone player. After the player finished his set, a self-appointed critic said to him in front of Cab, “Man, you’re not that good. All you can do is play like Charlie Parker.”
Cab took the saxophone and handed it to the man and said, “Here, you play like Charlie Parker!”
How different would the critic’s remarks have been if he said, “You’re as good as Charlie Parker. You’re going places!”
How can we tell the difference between a critic and a prophet?
Here are a few questions that can help:
--Is someone just telling me what I can’t do or do they also point out things I can do?
--Is someone just making me feel worse, or also encouraging me to believe I can be better?
--Are there people who show up only when I fail to point out what I did wrong? Are there people who show up only when I do well? And are there people who show up at both times?
--What are other ways that help you determine the difference?
Clearly in this story there is a level of accusation for something undeserved. A woman has been turned into an object of others agendas.
But, there is another level of accusation in this story and that is Accusation for Things We Do Deserve. Regardless of the motives of the religious leaders, you are still left with a woman who has committed a moral failure. And not only that, her failure has now been paraded in front of the entire village, her family, and God. Can’t you imagine in that moment she was thinking, how can I go on with my life?
The religious leaders say she should die, and she’s probably thought, “I’ll take that!” But “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”(v.6) There has been lots of speculation about what Jesus wrote. Some say he wrote the sins of the religious leaders in the dirt. Others say he was just doodling, buying time while he thought of a reply.
But Dr. Gail O’Day says actually in the ancient middle eastern world, doodling in such a manner was a way of saying, “I refuse to answer you.” Its kind of like when you are talking to someone and raising a difficult subject, and they keep watching TV. And finally you say, “Did you hear what I asked?” and they motion for you to get out of the way of the TV. What are they telling you? That they want to watch TV? No! They are saying, “I’m not having this conversation.”
You could say, that as Jesus doodled in the sand he was giving a finger to the leaders!
But they won’t leave him alone. They keep badgering like kids on a school bus. So Jesus finally stands and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v.7)
Let’s understand that Jesus doesn’t mean you have to be sinless in order to judge. If that were the case there would never be convictions. Alex Murdaugh would be walking free right now. Instead, Jesus doesn’t let those who judge get away from judgement themselves. Otherwise we will become people who find fault but never improve ourselves. If we never allow ourselves to be judged, we just become fault finders.
Bless my dad’s heart, for a number of years he let their house fall into disrepair. The back steps gradually crumbled, there were cracks in the ceiling, paint chipping on walls. He was always going to get to it and had a plan. But the funny thing is, when he came to our house, he would say, “You need to repair these steps. You’ve got some rotted wood you need to replace. You’re going need to do some painting soon.”
Over time it became something our family would laugh about, but it does show that we all tend to spot the faults in others we have within ourselves. Sometimes what we are most dissatisfied about ourselves is what we see in others.
Jesus won’t let the religious leaders get away with this. “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” One by one, they all leave. They dropped their rocks on the ground and walked away leaving just Jesus with the woman. He said to her, “Where are your accusers? (v.10) This is the first time the woman has been addressed. This is the first time someone treated her like a person and spoke to her.
Then Jesus asked a follow up question: Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” You deserve a second chance.
A few years ago a number of Robert Downey Jr.’s colleagues were asked who they would rather be: Tony Stark, the fictional genius / billionaire / super hero Iron Man? Or Robert Downey Jr. himself. It wasn't even close. People overwhelmingly would rather be Robert Downey, Jr.
That's somewhat surprising, given the actor's tortured existence just 20 years ago. He had been demolished by addiction to cocaine and heroin and spent years in prison and was virtually blacklisted by Hollywood. Directors were wary of Downey's track record of failing to show up for work, and insisted on the prepayment of an exorbitant insurance premium to cover non-performance.
The guy who first stepped up and paid the premium, in order to give Robert Downey, Jr. another chance, was Mel Gibson, which is ironic given what happened with Gibson. He had seemed like a strong family man who had it all together, then an alcohol-fueled, racially insensitive outburst landed him in Hollywood's version of Outer Mongolia.
In 2008, Robert Downey, Jr. was honored by his peers with a special "comeback" award. He asked Mel Gibson to be the presenter. Here's what Downey said that night when he came to the platform:
I asked Mel to present this award to me, because when I couldn't get sober, he told me not to give up hope, and he urged me to find my faith - didn't have to be his or anyone else's, as long as it was rooted in forgiveness.
And I couldn't get hired, so he cast me in the lead of a movie that was actually developed for him. And he kept a roof over my head, and he kept food on the table.
And most importantly, he said that if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoings, and if I embraced that part of my soul that was ugly - "hugging the cactus," he calls it - he said that if I hugged the cactus long enough, I'd become a man of some humility and that my life would take on a new meaning.
And I did. And it worked. All he asked in return was that someday I help the next guy in some small way.
It's reasonable to assume that at the time he didn't imagine the next guy would be him. Or that someday was tonight.
So anyway, on this special occasion... I humbly ask that you join me - unless you are completely without sin (in which case you picked the wrong industry) - in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have [offered to] me, and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame.
He's hugged the cactus long enough
There are times we all need to hug the cactus. We need to acknowledge our faults, not make excuses for them or blame others. Own it ourselves, so that we can receive the forgiveness Jesus offers. So that we can receive his words to us, “Neither do I condemn you.”
Notice in the story, that when Jesus came on the scene the accusers eventually fade away. The rocks they wanted to throw are on the ground. No one is holding them anymore. What Jesus says about is holds greater authority than what they say. Their words are overruled.
Have you wrestled with any accusers in your life? Maybe accusations you didn’t deserve. But you have lived with what they have told you. Remember, Jesus helps them fade away.
Maybe you have faced accusations you know are true. And perhaps the worst accuser is yourself. Its time to accept Jesus’ word to you, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. Your life is a second chance.”
As we close…