This is the third of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” Here are the links to the other sermons:
Part 1: “…to be the hands of Jesus…”
Part 2: “…to be the feet of Jesus…”
Part 4: “…to be the body of Christ…”

A sermon on Romans 10:17 & John 7:53-8:11

After a Sunday morning service one day there was a young boy named Philip who suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided to become a pastor when I grow up.” She said, “Well, okay, I’m glad to hear this. But I’m curious, what made you decide that? Did you feel God calling you to do this?” “Well,” said Philip, “I’ll have to go to church on Sundays anyway, so I figure it will be more fun to stand up and talk than to sit down and listen.”

My mom always used to quote this Proverb to me that always sounded a little Mark Twain-like to me: “Better to keep silent and people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” It turns out there is a Proverb in the Bible that is remarkably similar to it. Listen to what Proverbs 17:28 says in the Message: “Even dunces who keep quiet are thought to be wise; as long as they keep their mouths shut, they’re smart.”

At some point or another, or perhaps throughout the lives of many of us, we have this tendency to put our foot in our mouth or to say something we shouldn’t say – something foolish, something hurtful, something irrelevant – just to fill the air. Let’s face it, the Scriptures are clear in multiple places about the power of our words – of our voices – of the significance of the content of what we say as well as the timing and the tone. James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, expressing wonder about how the smallest muscle in the human body has the power to inflict the most damage but also to bring about the best blessing and build up someone else through encouragement.

The spoken word is so potent that it is by the act of God’s speaking, according to Genesis, that the creation comes about. God spoke, “Let there be…” and so it happened. John begins his gospel with a take on the creation that speaks to this in saying, “In the beginning was the Word…” And like when some superheroes come to terms with whatever their superpower is, they go through a phase in which they wrestle with this power and how to control it or use it for good, when we discover the power of our words to wound or heal, we struggle with keeping our tongue in check. Some of us, anyway. The alternative, of course, is to just say whatever we want, regardless of how it affects others, or just to say whatever pops up and not care what others think.

But when it comes to things pertaining to the gospel, I think more often than not, we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or of causing harm – to such a degree that we are reticent to say anything about God or Jesus or things pertaining to faith. One of the most beloved quotes we cite is attributed to St. Francis and it says, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” We love that because, honestly, we think it lets us off the hook from speaking any words of truth or grace or about Jesus.

To put it another way, there are two ways in which to share the gospel – through word and through deed. The reality, I think, is that it is so easy to do one and not the other. Some faith traditions are very, very good about sharing about the good news of Jesus Christ through their words, but are sorely lacking in following through with action and building relationships and being the “hands and feet of Christ.” But, conversely, there are other faith traditions, and I think that a lot of us Methodists fall in this other camp, that are very good about ministering through our deeds – by being the hands and feet of Christ, but are reluctant to say anything. Against these tendencies, we have Jesus, who married word and deed such that wherever his feet took him, he taught with his mouth while breaking bread with his hands…he touched and healed the ill and blind and issued the word of forgiveness and grace to set them free…he embraced the children and outsiders and taught about how they were first in the kingdom of heaven…with the miracles of his hands, he also preached with his lips. It’s all through the Gospels! Jesus wasn’t a mime! He didn’t just perform works with his hands, but also spoke grace with his voice. It’s in our liturgy: “Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.” Do you hear the marriage of word & deed?

It’s why, I think, it’s so important for us to include being Christ’s voice in our vision statement – to accompany the hands and feet. And this passage from the gospel is so revealing about what the voice of Jesus is all about – and what it’s not about. And that ought to make us give serious thought to the manner in which we use our voice for the sake of the gospel. For lessons about speaking abound in this story.

Jesus is teaching in the temple in the position of authority by sitting down. Jesus’ voice is found teaching and we as the church ought to find ourselves sitting as his feet as the one with authority by learning from Jesus and from one another about him. So that speaks to one dimension of what it means to be the voice of Jesus Christ as part of our vision.

But I’m particularly interested in how Jesus engages the situation that interrupts his teaching – when these scribes bring and expose a woman caught in the act of adultery. Now this raises all kinds of issues with me – where was the man that was committing adultery? It seems like these “scribes” were more PI’s trying to catch someone in an unholy act than to pursue justice, holiness, and peace. In any case, what becomes apparent is that for them, ultimately, this woman was just a pawn…to try to trick and trap Jesus. They demanded an answer – the Law says this; what say you, Jesus? If he says, “Yes, you have permission to stone her,” this would go against every sort of similar encounter where he had shown mercy directly to the offender and discredit what he had done and said elsewhere. But if he says, “Nah…don’t worry about it,” he gives them ammunition against him to accuse him as a teacher who was breaking ways with the Law of Moses. They thought he was predictable…that he would reply one way or the other, but they must not have imagined how he responded. How beautiful, his response. He stops talking…stoops down…scribbles something in the ground…what he was writing we don’t know…but interestingly this is the only time in the New Testament where it says Jesus was writing something with his finger, just as the only time when it says that God wrote with his finger was when he wrote the Law on the tablets of stone.

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“Hello, Jesus! Give us an answer! Can we go ahead and stone her?” And then Jesus says what is one of the most quoted statements of Jesus – “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” This statement seems so powerful to us…such a burn on the accusing mob. But we also know the end of the story. Suppose we didn’t know the rest of the story…that’s a risky challenge. It would take just one hot-headed self-righteous guy to say, “Psh…I haven’t sinned like her…” someone like what I have heard (or maybe I’ve tended to think)… “They needs Jesus more than I do…” and then the stoning could’ve commenced. What must that woman have thought or feared?

“If they were so scheming as to try to catch me in the act and not ashamed of dragging me out, what’s to stop them from following through?”

But Jesus’ words, Jesus’ voice does something else…in this case as he spoke and then stopped, returned to his scribbling…his voice disarmed the stones of condemnation and judgment. One by one, they dropped their stones and left. Left her alone with the one who was without sin. I love what St. Augustine, one who struggled with lust and sexual sin, said about this – He wrote:

They left the woman with her great sin in the keeping of him who was without sin. And because she had heard, ‘He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone at her,’ she most likely expected to be punished by one in whom no sin could be found. But he who had repelled her adversaries with the voice of justice lifted on her the eyes [and I would add the voice] of mercy.

To be the voice of Christ in this world, like in this story, is to speak mercy where others speak judgment, to disarm the condemnation that even the most rigorous and well-known scholar of the Bible spews to belittle others, to know when to not speak as much as when to speak and when (not if) the right time comes, to speak grace and truth though it may cause others to scratch their heads or drop their stones and move forward in pursuit of a holy love.

When the opportunity came along for Jesus to give a word of judgment, of condemnation, of ridicule, of putting her in her place, he bent down to the ground – called out the judgmental hypocrisy of the scribes – and practiced mercy all the way through. And in mercy, he also isn’t afraid to challenge this woman either – go and don’t sin anymore. “He proclaimed release to the captives.” You’re free – you don’t have to do that anymore. That mercy, that antidote to condemnation, is what inspired Charles Wesley to pen what is my absolute favorite hymn, And Can It Be, the last verses of which say this:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
No condemnation now I dread, Jesus, and all in him, is mine;
Alive in him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown through Christ my own.

Preach the gospel at all times – with your hands, with your feet, and also with your voice – for the times will come when it’s needed. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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