notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
John 8 - Why am I carrying a stone?
Good Shepherd Ash Wednesday 1/3/2006
Isaiah 58.1-12, John 8:1-11
I invite you to grip your right hand. And while your mind is on this, if you like, to close your eyes for a moment or two.
This Ash Wednesday - this Lent - is an opportunity for you to ask yourself, why am I carrying a stone?
We all know the story of the woman surrounded by a mob of angry men, all gathered round her each with a stone in their hand. Jesus saved her from stoning by challenging the enraged men, saying, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7)
If we look at the way of the world, if we are ruthlessly honest about ourselves, we must acknowledge that, just like these angry men who Jesus met, each and every one of us carries a stone.
Jesus understood mob violence. He understood that we all carry around inside us resentment, angry feelings, a thirst for vengeance. We are full of these things because we can't get what we want, and in our frustration and anger we have to blame someone else.
We see this all the time with children. In a room filled with toys, the one toy a child desires is the one toy another child is playing with. We like to think that we adults are above such childish behaviour. And yes, we're more subtle than children, but the truth is we are still just as full of desire for what the other person has. Think of the power that advertising has over us. The advertising industry is huge - precisely because those who run it know that more than anything else, we are ruled by our desires.
But what has this got to do with me and the stone I am carrying? Here's a story to help us make the link.
My brother-in-law got a new sports car last year. He seems to love his car, and he often talks enthusiastically about its powerful engine and incredible sound system. I now find that his constant "jokes" about my old red Rover are more and more annoying. I wish I could afford a sports car, but I won't admit to him - or to myself - that the reason I desire a sports car is envy. If I admitted that it would damage my bruised self-image even more - it would show me up as being petty, slavishly imitating my brother-in-law.
So, I convince myself that the reason I want a sportier car is because sports cars are more enjoyable to drive. The real reason I want a sportier car, of course, is because I want what he's got.
However, since I can't afford a sports car, I become resentful towards my brother-in-law. I won't recognise why I'm resentful. I may say to myself that he's "arrogant" or that he doesn't show me the respect I deserve. While there is much about my friendly brother-in-law that I used to like, increasingly I resent him. And I find myself more and more full of anger, resentment; a thirst for vengeance builds up inside me. I find myself carrying a stone.
I'm not the only one carrying a stone. In fact, everyone else is too. Even though we don't realise it most of the time we're all angry, resentful. We're always cultivating a thirst for vengeance. Even though we'd be shocked if we realised it.
If we realised this our world would fall apart. We need to stick together but our deep-down desires threaten to pull us apart. How awful it is to see small children scrapping on the floor over a toy they both desire. How terrible it would be if I harmed my brother in law - if our family fell apart - just because deep deep down I want what he's got.
This is the age-old problem which has faced people everywhere. How can we stick together, given our human liability to develop rivalries that threaten to destroy bonds of loyalty or even lead to violence?
The "solution" is to find a scapegoat. If everyone can agree that one person is responsible for the growing hard feelings that threaten to destroy a community, then killing or expelling that person can restore peace.
Scapegoating is the way we subdue the resentment, angry feelings, and thirst for vengeance that are the consequence of our rivalries. If we can blame someone else for what is wrong with us, if we can punish them or expel them, then things between us will be right again.
This isn't reasonable behaviour. But it is the way that all communities work.
It's not hard to think of examples of scapegoating and how all this plays out. The classic example is the Nazi scapegoating of the Jews, blaming the Jews for Germany's humiliating defeat in World War I and the suffering in post-war Germany. Some people have said, "All of Nazi Germany went mad," but this avoids the real explanation. What happened in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, and in countless communities and families around the world has a common theme - scapegoating one individual or group of individuals in order to restore peace and a sense of well-being to ourselves.
This is why we are all carrying a stone.
This is why the crowd was gathering around the woman caught in adultery.
It's easy enough to find a scapegoat. It's easy enough to imagine the accusations against the woman snowballing within the crowd that day, going something like, "I hear she is a sinner"; "Yes, I saw her with such-and-such, even though she is married"; "I hear she hates her husband"; "She must have been committing adultery"; "The Law says you must punish adultery by stoning"; "Then she must be stoned"; "Yes, she must be stoned"; and the agreement spreads quickly. A scapegoat has been found.
It's easy enough to find a scapegoat today. In our country where our desires are tickled hour by hour by the advertising that is all around us, making us feel insecure about ourselves and wanting what others seem to have, there are a number of scapegoats regularly trotted out. Asylum seekers, dole cheats, single mothers, druggies, paedophiles, pakis, queers - the names we give them.
I increasingly think that in our society we scapegoat young people. Sure, some young people cause some problems for us, that's true. But to tar all of them with the same brush ... tarring with a brush is a form of torture, unprovoked, undeserved.
Some of us know ourselves what it feels like to be a scapegoat - when a group of people turn on us, for no good reason, punish us, expel us, cast us out. We make scapegoats every day, here, in our homes and streets and churches. Lent is a time to accept this and reflect on it before God.
When Jesus challenged the crowd to produce someone without sin to cast the first stone, he was demanding that someone step away from the crowd and take responsibility for the violence himself. Now, people are very reluctant to take this step, and so in this story we find that nobody came forward to cast the first stone.
Jesus forgave the woman's sin, before she asked for forgiveness or even expressed repentance or regret. Then, he told her to sin no more.
He didn't demand her repentance. If he had then she would probably have started looking for excuses for her behaviour, since presumably she had once felt justified in committing adultery. When Jesus forgave her, he let it be known that God loves her unconditionally, even if she had sinned. So she didn't need to find excuses for her behaviour, and she could then acknowledge her sinfulness.
Unconditional forgiveness is everywhere in scripture: "Then Peter came up and said to him, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.'" (Matt 18:22)
The natural human response when someone offends us is to condemn them, which does two things. First, it gives rise to hate, which results in either escalating offences against each other, or resolving our conflict by our blaming and then victimising an innocent scapegoat.
Second, when we judge and condemn another, we deflect attention from our own contribution to the conflict. While it is often hard for us to see, we are almost always partially to blame when there is conflict that offends us.
The only way to reconcile with our brother or sister without resorting to violence is to genuinely reflect God's unconditional love and forgiveness. Forgiveness is more than a strategy; it is what our faith calls us to do. Just as God unconditionally forgives our own violence and destructiveness, as disciples of Christ and children of God, we are similarly called to forgive.
Lent is a time for fasting, for giving-up, for focussing on God. But Isaiah tells us that more than anything else our fasting must restore us to good relationships with those around us. When that doesn't happen he says,
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Isaiah is telling us that God is not in the slightest bit interested in whether we give up chocolates or fags or drink for Lent while our behaviour remains unchanged - he's after something deeper.
At Lent we must reflect on the stone in our hand - the burden we place on others, the means by which we scapegoat them. We must learn to accept that God unconditionally loves us, and let that lead to our unconditionally loving all other people.
The stone we carry is like the yoke which Isaiah writes of when he says,
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
That stone in your hand -- can you loosen your hold on it, can you open your fingers around it, can you release it, can you let it drop ... to the floor?
 This sermon owes a great deal to Stephen R. Kaufman, Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence, sections 6 and 66, on the Christian Vegetarian Association website.
 Picture credit: 'Fist', by Amy Rawson, www.thirdroar.com