Forgiveness (the “rock sermon”)

Good morning, Friends!


Sometimes I think that people listen better, and remember more, if they have something to hold in their hands during worship.

So this morning, we’re handing out rocks. And I’d like you to hold them in your hands for just a few minutes, as we listen to today’s Scripture together.

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 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. 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.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

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. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

– John 8:2-11

I want to tell you something really interesting. This story which we just heard was so controversial in the early church, that it was left out of some of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible. If you look in some editions of the Bible even today, you won’t find this story there – or you may only find it in small print, down in the footnotes. This story was such a hot potato, that a lot of Christians didn’t want to hear it.

Are each of you still holding onto your rock? OK.

Every time I have used this text in a sermon, the first question people always ask is, “Well, where was the man in the story? Wasn’t the man equally guilty? Why didn’t they want to stone him, too?”

And you know, you’re right. According to the Law of Moses, both the man and the woman would have been guilty. Both of them would have been stoned to death. There’s no reason for the inequality here.

Stoning, in the Law of Moses, is not just a figure of speech. Stoning was a form of capital punishment. It was reserved for the severest offenses.

If you want to look it up, some of the other offenses punishable by stoning include:

  • idolatry – that means worshiping other gods
  • sacrificing children – that’s an almost unimaginable evil
  • violating the Sabbath – a lot of us would probably get in trouble over that!
  • here’s an interesting one – allowing your ox to run wild and to injure or kill other people. If your ox has hurt or killed somebody in the past, and does it again, the owner is liable for what happened, because they should have known better
  • being rebellious against your parents – oops, I guess a lot of us would get in trouble there
  • drinking and using up all your parents’ money that they need to support themselves in their old age – that’s considered a capital offense
  • showing contempt for the name of God
  • prophesying in the name of other gods
  • using a medium to consult the spirits of the dead or using the services of a magician

All of these things were considered capital offenses. They were punishable by stoning, just the same as adultery.

According to the gospel, this woman was brought before Jesus as a test case, to see what Jesus would say. The setting was in the Temple, where Jesus had been teaching. It was a very public place, and this was a public effort to put Jesus on the spot and to make Jesus look bad. It was a setup. They were trying to trick Jesus.

According to the strict letter of the law, anyone who was a witness to a crime was bound and required to be one of the executioners. If you saw the act, you had to help punish it. Anyone who refused to help punish the act, was considered to be equally guilty, along with the perpetrator.

So, they were really putting Jesus to the test. The answer Jesus gave, could not only discredit him, in the eyes of the people who were listening to his teaching. If Jesus pleaded for mercy, his answer could also, at least theoretically, have made him liable to the same religious lynch law that the woman was threatened with.

This is a story with a lot of sharp edges. Are you still holding on to your rock?

One of the things we pride ourselves on these days, is being non-judgmental. But being non-judgmental isn’t something which springs from the core of our life experience. It’s more a form of social politeness. We think it’s rude to point fingers at certain social sins and personal failings. It’s not polite to talk about what other people do in private.

It’s the same thing in counseling. One of the first rules of counselling is that we’re supposed to maintain a neutral stance. We’re supposed to have an open and accepting attitude towards other people.

“What’s good and right for you is good and right for you, and what’s good and right for me is good and right for me,” we say, and that’s all there is to it.

The trouble is, that isn’t where Jesus is coming from in this morning’s gospel.

When they brought the woman before Jesus, Jesus didn’t say anything about what she and the other man had done. Maybe she hadn’t consented to the activity. Maybe it was rape.

Jesus didn’t say that what she did was right. He didn’t say that what she did was wrong. He didn’t make a big speech. He didn’t denounce anyone. It says that he bent down, and started writing with his finger on the ground.

Did you ever wonder what he wrote? I’ve wondered about that.

Do you suppose Jesus might have written out the two great commandments, the only two things that really matter, according to his teaching? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. . .” (Mark 12:28-31)
Or Jesus might have written down one of his favorite quotations from the prophet Hosea: “I the Lord love mercy, and not sacrifices. . .” (Hosea 6:6)

It doesn’t say what Jesus wrote. It only says that the scribes and the Pharisees, the people who wanted to keep the record book on everyone else, kept pestering Jesus. They kept pushing Jesus, clamoring at him, trying to force him to say something, one way or the other.

Finally, Jesus stood up, and he said, “Whoever is without sin among you, throw the first stone. . .” Then he bent down, and started doodling with his finger in the dust again.

In one of the oldest manuscripts of the gospel that we have, it says that this time, Jesus started writing “the sins of each one of them on the ground. . .”

Hmm, hm hm hm hm.

Greed. Hatred. Lying. False witness. Rage. Arrogance. Pride. Underpaying your employees. Blaming other people for what you’ve done.

Hm hm hm. Not saying anything. Not pointing fingers. Just writing things down, as if Jesus knew what each one of them had done. Big and plain, in letters anyone could read.

And as people saw what Jesus was writing, they shut up. And one by one, they drifted away, ashamed.

Being non-judgmental doesn’t have anything to do with politeness, or with psychological theory, or with political correctness. It has to do with recognizing that none of us is without real sins – real things that we have done, or that we have failed to do.

Being truly non-judgmental, for the Christian, has to do with recognizing that the stone we have in our own hand, could just as easily be aimed at us, and not at others.

Most people that I know, including myself, are not Christians. We carry rocks around in our hands, all the time. We’re ready to see other people punished, but not ourselves. We’re willing to judge other people, without being judged in our turn. We’re ready to see that tiny little speck in someone else’s eye, and we miss the great, big, giant log in our own.

I think that a lot of our Quaker testimonies are based on our own self-righteousness. “I’m so proud to be a humble Quaker!”

I think we need to remember that the things which make us distinctive are really supposed to come from a sense of repentance, from recognizing that we too have been involved in things that lead towards death.


And that is the difference between being truly non-judgmental, and faking it. Being truly non-judgmental has to do with recognizing my own sin, my own failure, my own human brokenness.

It doesn’t have to do with toleration or being polite. It has to do with mercy, and forgiveness. Not judging means forgiving others, because I recognize how much I need forgiveness myself.

Have you still got that rock there in your hand?

I know people who carry rocks around with them, throughout their entire lives. They’re always ready to throw rocks at other people at a moment’s notice. Forget what their day job is – their full-time occupation is being angry, being judgmental, being ready to throw stones.

If we remembered the love which has been shown to us, so many times. If we thought about the mercy which has been shown to us, for all of our many mistakes. How could we possibly judge our fellow human beings?

And yet we still carry these rocks around with us, all the time.

I’d like you to think about conversations and feelings that you’ve had in the past week. Think about the verbal exchanges, and think about what you wished at the time, and afterwards.

We are so quick to judge other people. And we are so unwilling to change ourselves. We want God’s mercy for ourselves, but we’re so unwilling to extend it to other people.

I had the ushers hand out those rocks to you a little while ago, so that you could feel the sort of things that we throw at each other, all the time.

Feel that rock that you have in your hand for just a moment.

Feel the sharp edges. Feel the weight of it. Feel in your arm, what it would be like to throw it. Imagine what it would be like, to strike somebody else, another human being, with that stone you’ve got in your hand.

People throw rocks at each other all the time, all over the world today. Sometimes it’s in the streets, in trouble spots and ghettoes and shanty towns. Sometimes it’s in families and relationships, where people bruise and batter and abuse each other.

Sometimes it’s with bullets. Sometimes it’s just with words, oh-so-polite, but deadly. Sometimes we don’t even say anything – we just judge one another, silently, poisonously.

Sometimes we pray, “Lord, I thank you, that I am not like that other person, over there. . .” And we don’t realize that the judgement flies back in our own faces.

We forget that our prayer should be, “Lord, help me to be truly better. You know who I am, Lord. You know what my feelings really are. You know my heart, and my thoughts. You know what I’ve done, and the violence that I’m capable of. You know how wrong I’ve been sometimes. Lord, please help me to forgive my brother, or my sister over there, because You have showed mercy to me. . .”

At the end of this morning’s story, Jesus looked up, and he saw that all of the hypocrites, all of the would-be goody-goodies, had left. And there he was, standing alone, with the woman who had committed adultery.

Jesus didn’t excuse what she’d done. He didn’t ask her to explain it. He simply asked, “Where are they? Where did everyone go? Isn’t there anyone left, to condemn you?”

And she said, “No one, Lord. . .”

And Jesus said, “Then I don’t condemn you, either. Go home, and don’t sin again. . .”

I think that’s the gospel.

That’s the good news, about how God really works in the world. And I think it’s the greatest good news around.

God is not in the punishment business. God is in the mercy business.

God hates injustice. God loves truth, and fairness. God loves freedom, and restoration of everything that’s right.

But God never made us the judge and jury. God doesn’t tell us to throw rocks at anyone.

This story isn’t in the Bible because God excuses wrongdoing of any kind. This story is in the Bible, because God wants us to be merciful, not self-righteous. And before we throw one more rock at anyone in the world, we should look at ourselves first.

I’d like to ask you to do something a little bit different this morning.

Usually, after the message, we settle back into quiet worship. And sometimes people stand up, and say things in response to what I or some other speaker has said.

This morning, I’d like us to do that. But I’d also like to offer you an opportunity.

During our quiet worship, as always, I would like to invite anybody who has a word on their heart, to share it, as usual. But I would also like to invite anybody, who feels ready to do it, to come down here, to the front of the room, and drop your rock in one of the buckets here.

It’s a symbol, of letting go of the tendency or the willingness to judge, that we all share as human beings.  It’s a symbol, of forgiving someone who has hurt you, or offended you.

You don’t have to bring your rock down and drop it. Nobody’s forcing you. Nobody’s keeping score. Maybe you feel shy. Or maybe you’ll want to take your rock home with you, and throw it away some other time. Or maybe you’re not ready to let go of it.

It’s just a way to show yourself that you understand and believe what Jesus said in this morning’s gospel. Or maybe it’s a way to pray, to ask God to help you to let go of the sin of judging other people.

I don’t go in for symbols, much, but this is a pretty powerful one for me. I let go of all of the stones and missiles that I fling at other people. I let go of the judgments that I hurl at them. I let go of all of the ugly words and ugly thoughts that I have.

I release those other people, and I ask God to release me from the judging that brings me under condemnation as well.

So, let’s settle into quiet worship. If any of you feel led to say something, that’s OK. I will be the first to let go of my stone, because I feel a need to be released from this sin. Anyone else who wants to do so, is welcome.

Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Brown

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