As a kid, I watched a lot of The Brady Bunch.
My sister Karen and I would often sit in front of the TV, legs criss-crossed while following the adventures of the Brady clan. It would come on every afternoon around 4 or 5 and I remember thinking that Marcia was the bomb! Who didn’t want a girlfriend like Marcia? Anyway, one of my favorite episodes was called “Greg Gets Grounded.” Do you remember this one where Greg nearly crashes the family station wagon because he’s reading the jacket cover of his new album while driving? Peter who was in the car with Greg, lets it slip what Greg was doing and Mr. and Mrs. Brady ground Greg and tell him he can’t drive the car for a week. Greg is distressed because he has a big date that weekend and so he borrows a friend’s car instead. As usual, Mr. and Mrs. Brady find out, but Greg argues with his dad and says, “I didn’t disobey you. Your exact words were that I couldn’t drive OUR car, but you didn’t say anything about driving someone else’s car.” Mr. Brady says, “Greg, you knew what we meant when we grounded you.” But Greg argues, “Yeah, but Dad those weren’t your EXACT words.” Mr. Brady, in a very sly move, decides to let Greg off the hook by instead making his son live by “his exact words.” Needless to say, after doing chores at 11:00 at night, Greg finds out VERY quickly that living by the letter of the law isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and admits he was wrong.
How many of us have at one time or another lived by “exact words?”
Either to prove a point or to avoid doing something you didn’t want to do, how many of us have used this kind of Greg Brady logic? Probably most of us. And sometimes we get so hung up on the “exact words” that we end up behaving in ways that are wrong. Just this week there was a horrific story about a nurse in Bakersfield who followed the rules to the letter and sat by while an elderly woman died. Literally sat by and watched while a woman was dying on the dining room floor of a senior living complex. Apparently, an 87-year old woman named Lorraine Bayless collapsed to the ground and one of the staff, a nurse named Colleen, called 911 to get help. The operator, realizing the seriousness of the situation, told the nurse that someone needed to administer CPR to Ms. Bayless and the nurse refused citing company policy as her excuse. The operator pleaded with Colleen to do it to save her life and if not her, then to hand the phone to someone who might. Colleen refused. Literally refused. But perhaps the most disturbing part of the call was when the 911 operator asked her, “Is there anyone that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?” And in what seemed to be a very cold and callous reaction, the nurse said, “Um, not at this time.” Her adherence to the “rules” was so great that she allowed a fellow human being to die right in front of her without so much as lifting a finger beyond calling 911. What’s worse is that she is a self-admitted nurse and still refused to do anything because of the “rules.” She was following the “exact words” of the company and in her mind that trumped the life of another person.
But was she following the spirit of those “exact words?”
Too often our “exact words” become weapons or shields against others, but this isn’t their intent. The intent of the law and the intent of rules are to lay down a guideline to better living. But they are NOT meant to be used as instruments or tools to harm others. Yet throughout our history, we have done exactly that – we have used the law as a means to an end instead of adhering to the spirit in which it was made. Too often we have used the law as a means to our own ends instead of adhering to the spirit in which it was made. We hear about one such case in our reading of the Bible today. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to the Gospel according to John, chapter 8 beginning with verse 2. John 8:2. This will probably be a very familiar story if you’ve been in church for a while. It’s the story of the adulterous woman. And in the story, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees are at it again. They try to trip Jesus up – trying to get him to contradict the Word of God so that they have some justification in getting rid of him. And this isn’t the only time they do this. At various points in the Gospels they try to trap Jesus with their clever questions and arguments. Last week we talked about how they questioned Jesus about eating with sinners and next week we’ll talk about how they questioned him about paying taxes to Caesar. But they also questioned him about divorce, working on the Sabbath, fasting. And they keep hoping that he’ll make a mistake somewhere so they can be rid of him. In this passage they question Jesus about this woman who commits adultery and this is where we pick up in the Gospel narrative. So if you’ll please rise as we share together in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, verses 2-11, let us hear from the Word of God.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 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. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.” Please be seated.
Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
Jesus didn’t sidestep the law. He didn’t contradict the law. Instead he improved upon the law and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And they were stuck. None of them qualified and they knew it. They were hoping Jesus would say something they could hang him on, something that showed he really was either a heretic or a lunatic, but instead Jesus turns the tables on them. He doesn’t deny that this woman broke their laws and customs, but instead says in his own way that only someone who is sinless has the right to stand in judgment and if a sinless person was found who thought she deserved this punishment then it would be justified. Ironically, Jesus is the only sinless person. So one by one, they go away and Jesus instead of seeking justice offers mercy. “Neither do I condemn you,” he tells the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus had every right to throw the book at her.
Or a stone. She violated the law and the law demanded punishment. But as the only one worthy of issuing that punishment, Jesus chose instead the path of love and grace and mercy. As it says in Hosea 6:6 and again in Matthew, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. This is the kind of God we worship. One that is not interested in being judgmental but instead is concerned about offering grace. That does not mean that God will not issue judgment, but simply that judgment comes in God’s time and not our own. God wants to offer us as many chances as possible so that we can come to know him and desire to live a life that pleases him. He makes it really easy to understand, too. Love God, love your neighbor. Very simple rules. And we take those rules and use them as a battering ram against people who don’t believe exactly what we believe.
In the past, the Bible has been misused to justify offenses of the worst kind.
It’s been used as a tool to justify racism, sexism, spousal abuse, attacks against gays and lesbians, the destruction of the environment, destruction of property, and other horrific tragedies, and yet it is clear by simply reading the Bible that God wishes for none of these things. They are inconsistent with everything we know about God. But people pick and choose the passages that fit their argument best to rationalize their own bad behavior, and this is what I call Multiple Choice Christianity. Multiple Choice Christianity. You take a passage from column A and a passage from column B and you come up with some derivation of Scripture that suits your needs. But as H.G. Wells once said, “Satan delights equally in statistics and quoting Scripture.” Because like statistics, you can shape and bend Scripture to say almost anything when you choose to ignore all the facts. God doesn’t make it hard to understand and yet too often Christians have done a good job of twisting the message and life of Christ into a pretzel. But the message is simple: love God, love others. Love God, love others. This is the greatest commandment and as Jesus said, all the rest rely on these two things.
When I first moved to Georgia, I had a hard time finding my way around.
Ask Cassie and she could tell you. Everything was named “Peachtree.” You’d think they could come up with some original names for streets. There was Peachtree Ave, Peachtree Street, Peachtree Circle, Peachtree Battle (I don’t know how you end up naming a street Peachtree “Battle”), Peachtree Road, Peachtree Blvd, Peachtree Industrial Pkwy, and that’s just to name a few. Needless to say I needed a map. I didn’t have a GPS and so I was often driving around the city with one eye on the road and one eye on my map. Well, I guess this particular day my one eye missed the streetlight that was red. There were these two stoplights in a row and the first one was green and the second one, only a little farther away was red. And I just went right through that second light. Completely oblivious, I kept driving and out of my rear-view mirror, I see this police car with its lights on. I pull over like a good driver, not wanting to cause any trouble, and the policeman pulls over with me. I’m totally shocked. That is until the officer comes up and says to me, “Did you notice that you ran through a red light?” I told him, “No, sir. I didn’t see it.” I look back and sure enough there was a second light. I felt doomed. Not even a week in my new city and already in trouble with the law. But then the officer did something completely unexpected. He said, “You’re new around here aren’t you? Well, next time be extra careful. That light can be pretty hard to see. Welcome to Georgia. Have a nice day.” Now by any measure, he had the right and some might say the duty to write me a ticket. But instead he showed grace. His example of grace meant so much to me, because I had not deserved it. I had done something wrong and the punishment was well documented, but instead this police officer extended grace and grace can go a long way in any relationship. Challenge yourself not to be judgmental. When you are tempted to lay down the law, instead hold back and offer grace instead. You may be right as rain. You might unequivocally be able to prove your point, but sometimes we get farther with grace than we do the law. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.