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 and I to ask ourselves, 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 that we all carry around inside us resentment, angry feelings, a thirst for vengeance. We are full of these things because we are full of desires, and when we can't get what we want, 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. It makes us want what other people have got - all the time. 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 cousin got a new 4x4 car last year. He seems to love his car, and he often talks enthusiastically about its powerful engine and comfortable seats. I now find that his constant "jokes" about my little muddy Hyundai - which on steep hills slows down almost to a stop - are more and more annoying. I wish I could afford a 4x4, but I won't admit to him - or to myself - that the reason I desire a 4x4 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 cousin.
So, I convince myself that the reason I want a 4x4 is because 4x4s are more enjoyable to drive and more practical. The real reason I want a 4x4, of course, is because I want what he's got.
However, since I can't afford a 4x4, I become resentful towards my cousin. 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 cousin 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 fighting on the floor over a toy they both desire. How terrible it would be if I harmed my cousin - 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 that we are always liable to develop rivalries that threaten to destroy bonds of loyalty or even lead to violence?
The "solution" is to find a scapegoat. If we can agree that one person is responsible for the growing hard feelings that threaten to destroy a community, then we can restore peace by killing or expelling that person.
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. If my cousin and I can find someone else to focus our negativity on, then that will bring us together and things will seem all right between us 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 happens everywhere - scapegoating one individual or group of individuals in order to restore peace and a sense of well-being to ourselves. In our country we find a number of scapegoats being regularly trotted out. Itıs their fault - the asylum seekers, dole cheats, single mothers, druggies, paedophiles, pakis, queers - the names we give them. Theyıre often the most vulnerable people in our community.
That is why we are all carrying a stone.
And that 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.
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, even here, in our homes and villages 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 from the crowd step forward to take responsibility for the violence which was brewing. 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, trying to justify herself. But 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 freely admit her sinfulness.
Unconditional forgiveness is everywhere in scripture: "[w]hen 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 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,Isaiah is telling us that God is not in the slightest bit interested in whether we give up chocolates or cigarettes or drink for Lent while our behaviour remains unchanged - he's after something deeper.
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.
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 in response let God lead us towards our unconditionally loving all other people. If we can drop the stone then we can begin to live generously and lovingly towards others.
The stone we carry is like the yoke which Isaiah writes of when he says,
If you remove the yoke from among you,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?
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.
 This sermon owes a great deal to Stephen R. Kaufman, Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence, sections 6 and 66, on the All Creatures website.
 I previously preached this sermon, in a slightly difefrent form, on Ash Wednesday 2006 at The Good Shepherd, West Derby: archived here.