On June 26, the Reverend Sandy Webb preached at First Unitarian Church of Memphis: The Church of the River, in its guest preaching series. He spoke on three texts: the Gospel of John, 8:1-11; Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man & Immoral Society; and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham City Jail.
When Jack Richbourg invited me to preach here this morning, I had to make an embarrassing confession: “I don’t speak Unitarian.” As our conversation moved forward, Jack assured me that you enjoy hearing from a variety of traditions during your summer preaching series. Here’s hoping he was right! I have chosen as my text this morning one of the most beloved stories in the Christian tradition, John 8:1-11, the quintessential example of mercy triumphing over judgment.
Let me paint the scene for you: After a long day of frustrating Pharisees and disturbing the peace, Jesus withdraws to the Mount of Olives. He leaves the city’s formidable walls, passes the Garden of Gethsemane where he will later pray, and finds himself a quiet place on the hill. The afternoon is still on the Mount of Olives, and groves of scraggly trees shade him from the hot Middle Eastern sun. From this high ground, Jesus looks back on Jerusalem and reflects on how divided and tumultuous it is. Even then, people were fighting over religion, and Jesus needed what we all need sometimes – a little break from daily life to remember what really matters.
When Jesus returns to the city, he draws a crowd and begins to teach. Jealous, the scribes and Pharisees – the people who usually teach the classes – devise a way to embarrass him before his students. They catch a woman in the act of committing adultery. (“In the very act,” scripture says, though her companion is never mentioned.) They throw the woman down on the ground and tell Jesus the terrible thing that she has done. “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” they announce, as if Jesus did not already know. “What do you say?”
The scribes and the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus, but he refuses to play their game. Instead, he answers them in a way that no one was expecting: Go ahead and stone her, he says, but the first stone goes to someone who does not deserve to be stoned himself. The crowd gets quiet quickly. Jealousy gives way to embarrassment, and the mob begins to clear.
Alone together, Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers him, “No one, sir.” And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Jesus, the only one who could have thrown that first stone, lets the woman go.
The story of the woman caught in adultery comes halfway through a section of St. John’s Gospel that scholars call the “Book of Signs” – ten successive chapters in which Jesus makes his case for being the messiah. The “Book of Signs” begins at Cana, where Jesus shows us that he has the ability to change water into wine, the power to make ordinary things extraordinary, and the resolve to keep the party going at all costs! After Cana comes the cleansing of the temple, the conversation with Nicodemus, and a whole string of healings and transformations.
The “Book of Signs” culminates with the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but right here in the middle of it, we have an act of unbounded compassion: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Hymn writer Daniel W. Whittle and composer James McGranahan capture the beauty of this phrase in a hymn dated to the late 19th century: “Neither do I condemn thee, O sing it o’er and o’er; Neither do I condemn thee, Go and sin no more.”
Christians love the story of the woman caught in adultery, because we can all put ourselves in the place of the adulterous woman. We all have so much in our lives and in our pasts of which we are ashamed, so much that we think is beyond the boundaries of what can be forgiven. The story of the woman caught in adultery assures us that we are never too far gone. But, in loving so much the first part of Jesus’ blessing – “Neither do I condemn you…” – we often overlook the second part – “…from now on do not sin again.”
Not being much of a fire-brand, pulpit-pounding preacher, I will let each of you develop your own list of personal vices and transgressions – and I will let you do that on your own time! What I want us to talk about this morning are the sins that we commit together, those for which we all share responsibility.
Writing in the early part of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr gave us the idea that sin is more than an individual problem. There are sins that we commit individually, those actions and inactions that serve to separate us from God and from each other. But, there are also sins that we commit corporately, those actions and inactions that serve to advance our situation at the expense of others, those actions and inactions that perpetuate an unjust status quo because we are unwilling to part with our privileges.
Niebuhr writes, “[The] dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is…a vision prompted by the conscience and insight of individual man, but incapable of fulfillment by collective man…[Collective man’s concern] is not the creation of an ideal society…but a society in which there will be enough justice…[to avoid] disaster.”
In other words, our individual desire is for a world in which everyone has enough, in which everyone lives in safety, and in which everyone is treated fairly. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, our tendency is to take more than we need, and to privilege the few over the many. This has manifested itself in many ways over the years and around the world: British colonialism, the Baltic and Armenian genocides, the Holocaust, South African apartheid, American slavery and civil rights, just to name a very few. These atrocities were not committed by individuals, but by huge numbers of individuals that got all caught up in an evil that was larger than any of them.
History proves Niebuhr’s point: Societies are often willing to let divisions to grow, they often allow different classes of people to form, and they often make compromises about how much justice is enough justice – as if there could ever be such a thing as enough justice. These are the wrongs that it is hardest to right, because we do not have individual control over them. When a community goes awry, it takes a community to set it right.
The passage that I selected for you from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail responds directly to corporate injustice, and specifically to civil rights for African Americans. It is not directed to hate-filled fundamentalists, but to those who would call themselves moderates – including, I must admit, a number of Episcopalians. Citing Niebuhr by name in his letter, King speaks on behalf of a group of people who believed that the amount of justice their society had decided to afford was not, in fact, enough.\
King writes: “[Though] I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”
We began this morning with a story from St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus chose mercy over judgment. Christians love this story because it is so easy for us to identify with the woman caught in adultery. Perhaps we need to learn how to love it just as much when we identify with ourselves with Jesus, the one who chooses to show compassion when compassion is neither required nor expected.
A few months ago, I heard Stephen Bush, the Chief Public Defender for Shelby County, speak about the work of his office. He said, “No one is ever as bad as the worst thing that he has ever done.” Stephen’s words ring true for me this morning: Jesus saw a woman who had done something bad, but he knew that her bad act was not all that she was. Jesus looked past the tarnish and saw the reflected image of God shining back at him. We must learn to do the same.
The woman in today’s story is unnamed. She could be any one of us, or any of the women that we meet later in Jesus’ story. What if the woman caught in adultery ended up being Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ most beloved disciple and the first witness of the resurrection? Or Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who anointed Jesus’ feet? What if she was the wife of Clopas, who stood vigil at the foot of the cross when all of the men had run away? Scripture does not tell us what becomes of the woman caught in adultery. It is possible that she returned to her life of sin, but my hope – and the hope for each and every one of us – is that she found herself entirely transformed through her experience of grace and that she went on to share that grace and compassion with others when it was neither required nor expected.
Jesus said, “…from now on do not sin again.” We can hear these words as an individual direction to live a better life. But, we can also hear these words as a divine commission to become a band of extremists who not only reject but seek actively to change the unjust and selfish ways of the many communities to which we belong.
 The “Book of Signs” is generally said to begin with the Wedding at Cana and end with the Raising of Lazarus, comprising John 2 through John 11 in most translations.
 Reinhold Niebuhr. Moral Man & Immoral Society. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001, reprint of 1960 edition. 21-22, emphasis added.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. James M. Washington, Ed. New York: HarperOne, 1986. 297-298.
 Cf., John 12:1-8, John 19:25, John 20:11-18.