See the scribes and the Pharisees cooked up a scheme to put Jesus to the test. One morning he was teaching at the temple. The scribes and Pharisees interrupted him, making a woman stand in front of the crowd. “See Jesus, this woman has been accused of adultery. The Law of Moses says she shall be stoned to death. So here she is.” Then they smartly stepped back, leaving Jesus and the condemned woman to face the whole crowd. People had begun gathering rocks.
Now all the eyes of the people are watching him: Is Jesus going to break the law of our faith and spare this woman’s life? Or is he going to prove his faithfulness, observe the law, and initiate her execution? (You can hear their silent taunting.) Go ahead and try to get out of this one, Jesus. We’ve got you trapped. Now. Whatcha gonna do?
The Bible says Jesus knelt down and wrote something in the dirt on the ground, and the only people in all the world who know what he wrote were standing in the crowd that day. Jesus stood up and turned the test back on the taunters. You’re accusing her of sin? said the Lord. Let anyone without sin throw the first stone.
He bent down and wrote something more in the dirt, while one by one, starting with the elders, the people dropped their rocks on the ground and went home. This is when Jesus spoke to the woman for the first time. He issued her pardon.
This scheme was designed to force Jesus to choose between breaking the law or killing a woman, so Jesus did the one thing evil cannot endure. He offered another choice. In their world and in ours, evil gets its power by convincing us it is the last resort; it is the only viable choice; it is our only option; so what are we going to do… This is evil’s signature move, and Jesus knows that. So here’s another choice. Jesus told the crowd: You could choose to save her life. You could choose to put down your rocks and go home. You have more power than you think.
If we learned what this story is trying to teach us, you’d think this woman would be last person in all the world to ever be at risk of execution. You’d think the crowd would learn, they could choose to put down their rocks or their cross and go home.
You’d think we could learn how to put down our weapons and walk away…
This year during Lent, the people of Church of Peace have been reading a book by Bryan Stevenson called Just Mercy. All through this book, Stevenson, a defense attorney, illuminates how the criminal justice system in the United States is broken and dangerous. What I find so powerful is that he does this by telling the stories of actual people. Stevenson ends his whole book with the story of an older woman who was sitting in the hallway of the courthouse.
Now he didn’t mean to meet her there. He was at court representing two different clients, and both had won their release from prison. So you can imagine how Stevenson is soaring through the hallway, then he sees this woman sitting on the marble steps. He realizes, he has seen her at the courthouse before. This time, she summons him over, and he sits down beside her.
Turns out, she is not family member of a defendant. As she explained to him, “I just come here to help people. This place is full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here.”
She goes on to describe how her young grandson was murdered fifteen years ago by some other boys. Back then, she came to court every day on her grandson’s behalf to see the boys found guilty and sentenced. She expected that this verdict would help her feel better, and it did not. It made her feel worse.
So this woman decided to keep coming back to the courthouse, to make herself available to sit down next to people who are in pain. In my line of work, we call this offering a ministry of presence. What she calls it is stonecatching.
She explains it like this: “When I first came to court, I’d look for people who had lost someone to murder or some violent crime. Then it got to the point where some of the ones grieving the most were the ones whose children or parents were on trial, so I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it…. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”1 Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel and Grau: New York, 2014. pages 307-308.
Now I know. This woman at the courthouse is invoking the scripture we just heard, but she’s inventing a character that wasn’t there. You remember, there were no official stonecatchers stationed at the temple! The scripture is not a story about intervening in an execution; it’s a story of choosing to stop one before it starts. It’s also a story we have not managed to live up to very well.
In our world, in our criminal justice system, there are laws designed to throw rocks at people who are most vulnerable —people with mental illness and addiction, people in poverty, children. The system does not give us the choice to put down our weapons and walk away; that’s not how it works. In our world, we don’t get to drop our rocks on the ground and go home. Not one of us could stop an execution tonight if we tried! We don’t have that kind of power.
Thank God for this unnamed woman at the courthouse. Like Jesus, she understands that evil relies on us believing we have no other choice. Here an old woman in the hallway of a courthouse presents another option.
Now just for a minute, consider her power. She is not a juror or a judge; she’s not in the room overturning guilty verdicts. She isn’t bringing murder victims back to life.
What she’s doing is watching for hurt, then catching the stones with her own hands. She is showing up in a place of horror bearing the peace of Christ in her being. Whenever you bring the peace of Christ into horror, you will see this happen: First the horror changes. Then the story changes.
There is no way to bring compassion into a scene of violence and not have that compassion make a difference. For one thing, the people who are most vulnerable will notice you. They will see the peace of Christ in you, now you’ve gone and proven to them that they are not alone; they are not forgotten.
For another thing, when we make it our business to position ourselves as conduits of peace, somebody else who will notice are the other stonecatchers. This is how the old woman recognized Bryan Stevenson soaring through the halls. This is how we’ll find each other in the crowd, the peace of Christ pouring from one of us into the other. And I know. And I can’t promise you that it will stop the crucifixion. And I can promise you the work of pouring compassion into horror will absolutely change the story; it will change the world.
In just a few minutes, we will hear the story remembering the execution of our Savior. Why do we do this to ourselves every year? It can’t be just to solidify the narrative of violence until we grow so numb that we resign ourselves to its inevitability. It can’t be just to rehearse how sinful we are to make Jesus die for us. There has got to be a better reason for telling this story year after year!
What if, we keep on sharing this story because you and I are training to live in this world where there is still violence, where there are still executions. What if we have come here to practice bringing the peace of Christ right into the horror…
There’s nobody here who can’t do this. You don’t have to sit outside a courtroom to do this. You already know where the suffering is, all of us do. You already know where your compassion is.
Imagine if we could bring our own compassion into harmony with the unnamed woman who stood beside Jesus in the temple, then went home unkilled.
You know we could bring our compassion into harmony with the peace of the old, unnamed woman at the courthouse. Her eyes are fixed on those who are most vulnerable. Her arms embrace the grieving. Her stonebattered hands wipe away every tear.
We could bring our compassion into harmony with the unnamed women at the cross. The Bible says, they watch from a distance. They see the whole thing then these women interrupt the expectation of retaliation by proving —there is always another choice. And it’s no coincidence that these women are the ones who are there when the story takes a turn.
The women at the cross have come to catch the stones, and you know, their work is ours to continue, and you know it will not leave the world the same.
Peace be with you. Christ be with you. Christ have mercy upon us.
|Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel and Grau: New York, 2014. pages 307-308.