March 22, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
John 8:2-11, Romans 12:9-21
Change the Ending, Change the World
Following the rules. It’s how we get through kindergarten or high school, how we manage to play a Baroque concerto, or win a basketball game, or drive a car, or get out of the building during a fire. Sometimes it seems like we give our lives to the learning and following of rules.
Often, the problem is not the rules. The problem comes when we give the rules too much power. I have done this. I’ve thought, I know, we could create a policy, then we’ll never have to deal with this issue again. Or I buy the books that promise clear instructions for revitalizing the church, or praying well, or training the dog, thinking if I just find the right set of directions, that will make all the difference. Then I’ll always know what to do.
At first glance, this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans sounds like a list of rules for our faith:
Rejoice in hope.
Be patient in suffering.
Persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints.
Extend hospitality to strangers,
Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
Weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with each other…
That’s not even the whole list. If this were issued to us as a set of Christian requirements, I can imagine having second thoughts about signing on the dotted line. Because if these are the demands, they are intense: Be patient in suffering. Bless those who persecute you. That’s a lot to ask of anyone! Who does Paul think he is, telling us how to live our lives? If you’re hearing this today and thinking the last you thing you need is another set of rules for your life, I don’t blame you at all.
But there is another way to hear this scripture. At the church where I did my internship, the senior pastor often used this passage as a Benediction at the end of the service. As you could guess, he did not put on a thundering voice and begin by saying, “You’d better….!” or “We’d better…!”
Instead, he would look at the people with love, then he would recite this scripture with his soft spoken sense and just a splash of a dare. Look, if this is who we are, then this is how we mean to live in the world. Look, here is a plan for a plot we can wage together. Then they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Then our systems of rules might not get the last word…
Today our second scripture comes to us as a folk story that got folded into the Fourth Gospel. Whether these events actually happened, or whether this is a well-loved legend, either way, there is something we can learn about Jesus’ approach to following the rules.
What happened was the scribes and the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus. They found a woman accused of adultery. They made her stand in front of Jesus while they asked him, What do you think we should do? The law of Moses commands us to stone adulterers, but the Roman law does not allow Jews to carry out executions. Come on Jesus, which rules are you going to break? The rules of our faith or the rules of the land? Choose your own ending.
Jesus chooses neither of these options, thank you. Instead, he turns the whole scene around. He bends down and writes something on the ground with his finger, and we don’t know what he writes. We don’t know whether Jesus looks this woman in the eye, whether he sees that she is not just a prop for their ploy. I really wonder whether he looks at her. What we know is that Jesus tells those men who accuse,“You go first. Let anyone among you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
They don’t do it! Nobody throws any stone. Instead, the first one turns and walks away. When he does this, he makes it possible for everyone else to do the same. The ancient systems of laws don’t get the last word, that’s given to Jesus who tells this woman, “Go on your way and do not sin again.” Now what do you suppose happens the next time…
Friends, we live in a culture so dominated by systems of rules, it is easy to feel helpless up against them. Back in my day, the scantron machine graded standardized tests and required the use of a number two pencil and only a number two pencil. A person could take the Ohio ninth grade proficiency test and get every answer right, but if he were using sparkly crayola markers, forget it. The system can’t process sparkly marker ink. Go get your driver’s license photo taken in Iowa and try to smile, I dare you. If you show any teeth in your photo, the system can’t process it. I bet everyone here has tried to to make some kind of request that the system cannot process.
Even our criminal justice system works the same way. Officers are bound by institutional policies. Judges are bound by sentencing guidelines. We might all agree that some of the procedures don’t make good sense, but rules are rules, and what can you do. It seems like we’re all made to submit to rules that cannot be changed. Until that is exactly what two families managed to do.
This story has a terrible beginning. When they were both nineteen years old, Conor McBride and Ann Grosmaire were dating. One day they had a lingering argument that turned into an awful fight. Conor shot and killed Ann. Sadly, we can imagine this; we know too many stories that start out this way. What happened next was a journey that surprised everyone involved. (I encourage you to read the whole story by Paul Tullis in the New York Times Magazine, and I’ll include the link with my sermon manuscript on our website.)
As soon as Conor’s parents heard what happened, Conor’s father rushed to the hospital and met Ann’s parents. Ann’s father described seeing Christ in his daughter and hearing her call for forgiveness. Around the same time, as Conor is being processed into jail, he named Ann’s mother as a person on his visitor list. In the months that followed, Conor’s parents and Ann’s parents formed an alliance.
When it was time for the prosecuting attorney to meet with Ann’s parents, he explained that Conor was charged with first degree murder, but that the state’s office actually has great latitude in recommending sentencing. This caught their attention. The prosecutor thought he was offering a measure of reassurance implying the range of options for Conor’s sentence. But when Ann’s parents heard this, they decided to turn the whole scene around.
In the coming months, upon a suggestion from the prison’s chaplain, Conor’s mother found an expert in restorative justice. (Put simply, this is a practice that involves the victim and the offender sharing conversation which leads to the offender making amends.) Could there be this type of conversation with Conor? This restorative justice facilitator contacted Ann’s parents and learned of their support. Remarkably, the state prosecutor agreed to their proposal as well. Working with the chaplain, this whole group organized a group conference with Conor.
On the day of the conversation, Ann’s parents held her picture and tried to represent her presence in this gathering. They described their love for Ann and how this incident has changed their lives. Then Conor gave the whole story of what happened. It was not an accident. And yet he was overcome with remorse.
This whole conversation was devastating and healing. It did not make everything all better. It did function as a pre-plea conference, and it had the effect of reducing Conor’s sentence. But he still went to prison, and Ann is still dead. Their parents still grieve.
This conversation also proved that our legal system is not a scantron machine. Ultimately, it is made of people — people who step into the middle and change the ending, people who feel the weight of the stone in their hand all ready to throw, and instead toss it on the ground and walk away, people who step into prescribed sentencing guidelines and say, “This time, we’re going to do something else.” And what do you suppose happens the next time…
The story of Conor, Ann, and their families is unusual. It might not be the right course of action for every family. But by changing the system, they proved it could be done; they introduced a new possibility. When Jesus offered mercy to the accused woman and those scribes and Pharisees, he proved it could be done; he introduced a new possibility. Now those of systems of rules don’t get the last word after all. Change the ending of one story, now the world is not the same.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul implores these early Christians to forgive. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God… If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty give them something to drink…” Paul quotes the Proverb, “by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads” (Proverbs 25:21-22). And Paul should know, for he had been an enemy to the early Christians. Ananias brought him food to eat and something to drink. This act of compassion changed the ending of Paul’s story.
There is good news. No system of regulations can tell you that you better forgive. No system of rules can stop you from forgiving. Whenever we make the choice to forgive, it changes the ending of the story. It proves that the rules don’t get the last word, that mercy is a viable possibility. Every act of forgiveness makes forgiveness more possible, it makes our world more forgiving. See, we do not need to be overcome by evil. Together we can overcome evil with good. Then the world won’t be the same. Thank God. Amen.