John 8:1-11 | A Reflection by Dan Spragg
One of the gifts that I was given during my time in Wales was the opportunity to connect with some of my extended family on my Father’s side. He was born in Wales, but immigrated to NZ when he was just four years old. I was able to connect with my Great Auntie and Uncle, Iris and Alan, and their wider family a couple of times during our trip. Their Son, my Father’s Cousin, took us to see the house and shop where my Grandparents had met, the first house they lived in when they were married, the house where my Father lived as a small boy, and the coal mine where my Grandad worked as a blacksmith. The Welsh accent to me seemed familiar and somewhat comforting as it reminded me of my Grandparents. This was a gift to be able to do these things.
Our history is important it seems. Although we don’t often realise it at the time, our history is often more important in shaping who we become than what we give it credit for. This has become more present to me over these past few months. Today I would like to share with you a bit of my story that I’ve been reflecting on recently, the threads that have stood out, then we’ll look at this gospel passage and have a play with seeing how that might fit in.
My first memory of church is one that I suspect many of us have if we grew up in the church. It is of climbing under and around the pews as a little boy. This was at the Methodist church that we were a part of. My next memory of church is of climbing under and around and through the pews at the Baptist church we were a part of for most of my childhood. I also remember hiding upstairs in the balcony seating, making paper planes and seeing our far we could throw them down into the seating below. I can’t remember if this was during a service or not, but I suspect it was!
My parents were always quite involved in the church community. My Father is an accountant by trade, and so he would always help out with the money counting and keeping the books etc. My Mother studied to get her Bachelor in Theology and became employed as a Community Minister in a half time position with the church. I remember many school holidays spending time at the drop-in centre and 2nd hand clothing shop where she met with people from the local neighbourhood. Some of my favourite memories from our time with that church are the lunches at other families houses, people coming for lunch at our house, building a skateboard ramp with friends, and Christmas lunch shared with a large collection of the church and the local community in the church hall each Christmas day. I also remember the Minister coming over in the middle of the night after we arrived home one evening to find our house had been burgled and I remember the men who came and helped Dad remove and replace a large upstairs window because it was old and rotting. By far the important things I have taken from my time with this community was indeed that sense of community; that true sense of Christian fellowship – all of life, the good, the bad, the fun, the serious, the young and the old, all shared together.
My sister and I moved to a church community down the road when I was nearly 13. I followed her. She had friends from school at the youth group, I tagged along to check it out and stayed. It wasn’t a Baptist church. It was a New Life church, an independent Pentecostal church complete with lots of singing, hand waving, body shaking, people falling over, speaking in tongues; the whole nine yards! By the time we came to this community I had been learning drums and percussion for about 6 years. And so, I joined the music team, and some new friends and I started a band. I would end up playing drums in the Sunday services at that Church almost every Sunday for about 5 years, and the band had a lot of fun and got to play gigs all around town.
Now, I wasn’t a terrible teenager, but I wasn’t straightforward either. I’ve always had a strong independent streak. School and I didn’t get along at all really, my Mum and I didn’t get along very well, a few of my best friends were a few years older than me, and had cars, then I got a car, and I discovered things like smoking and alcohol, and as I got older more and more ways to exercise my independence. The normal pattern of things on a weekend for example would be that we would go out on a Friday night, drive around town, eat junk food, maybe play a gig somewhere, then play rugby on Saturday morning, head to church in the afternoon for a band practice, go out Saturday night, drink too much, turn up for the service the next morning hungover or still a bit under the influence, play the first bracket of songs, head down to the park for a smoke during the at least 30min sermon, then come back in time for the last few songs. As I look back on my time with this Community believe it or not I can also remember amazing times of faith development, of being nurtured in the Christian faith. I was baptized at the age of 17 into this community and it was a very real and important act for me. I look back on this time that was a mixture of faith, rebellion, teenage angst, fun, the beginnings of lifelong friendships, beautiful experiences of God’s Spirit, and some strange experiences of what some would try and call God’s Spirit… I look back on all this with a very real sense of the grace of God lived out through a community of authentic and passionate people, through all the ups and downs of teenage life I was welcome – it was home for me, I always had a place there despite how I often was. The important things I have taken from my time with this community are indeed a sense of the unconditional grace of God that can be lived out through not so perfect community, and a sense that God is alive and dynamic and wants to relate with us as individuals and as a community seeking to live and serve together.
I left school early, which was no surprise, and a few events led to my leaving that church community mainly because I began to travel with a band. Over the next year or two I spent time in a number of independent Pentecostal churches. Sharon and I met during this time and so, as is the reason for many people finding new church communities, I started going to the church where she was. This time it was a Presbyterian church.
Hornby Presbyterian was quite a contemporary Presbyterian church with contemporary music and not so much traditional liturgy. I got involved in the music team, and eventually came to help lead the team. Sharon and I made some amazing friends during our time there. We lived locally and our home became a place where we would eat together with friends, we would cry together with friends, we would plan to change the world together, we would seek to serve the local young people by inviting them in to eat, pray, and have fun. There was a lot going on in this church community, from food banks to playgroups, to music, to firewood, to youth group, and older age activities. Most of the large variety came about because the Senior Minister’s (Rev Murray Talbot) answer to anyone who ever had an idea about what the church could do would always be, ‘That sounds great, how can we help you do it?’ There was permission and freedom given to people to serve and express their faith. I take from this experience of church a sense again of the importance of true Christian fellowship, of sharing life together with friends, but also a sense of the importance of variety, of being willing to try new ways of serving the local community, permission to rant and rage about the failings of church, space to share doubts, and space to share dreams about how the church could be different.
As I moved into my two year Ordination training with the PCANZ (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand) we shifted from that congregation to St Stephens, and to St Giles, and into the evolution of The Village, which was a very new experience for me. There were hymns and a more traditional order of service, fewer younger people, and no drum kit. What there was though, was a relaxed atmosphere, a sense of expansive all welcoming grace, a sense of meaning that was to be found in certain traditions and an overwhelming love and concern that we as the church were to show God’s love to the community and be open to God doing the rest.
I tell you all these parts of my story because it has taught me a number of important things. I have learnt that church is in all its forms kind of like the different personalities that we as people have. Some people prefer facts and data, some prefer experience, some prefer emotion, some prefer logic, some are extraverted and outgoing, and some are introverted and quieter. Some can reflect easily beyond the surface, some prefer details at face value, some prefer big ideas and visions of the future. And, just like people being complex and different and unique, yet we’re all people; churches seem to develop sort of personalities of their own, yet they are all churches. Some people are mature, some are immature. Some people struggle from sickness, some experience constant growth and health. Some are open to new experiences, some are stuck in their ways and won’t change, ever. So it is with churches too. I have learnt though that God tends to come and meet us where we are, always. And God comes with love, always with grace and mercy, and yes always with a challenge of truth that if we are willing to take notice will lead to freedom, growth, and life. I have also learnt that it tends to be people, in their various differences, who make rules, boundaries, expectations and beliefs. I have learnt that most of the time this is fine, until we start demanding that others fit in, that our way is the only right way; until we start policing the boundaries, enforcing our rules, and dishing out consequences if they aren’t followed. It seems though to me that God doesn’t really care for our categories.
The parable today you will have noticed isn’t a traditional parable, it isn’t a verbal story but more of an enacted one. Jesus in a way here acts out the parable. The religious leaders seek to trap Jesus in order to condemn him. They use as a tool in their scheme a woman who had, according to them, been caught in the act of adultery. The unusual moment in this story, which is always where the fun is with parables, is that Jesus, when confronted by the religious leaders, stoops down and starts doodling in the sand. What Jesus wrote in the sand is really of no significance, we could call it trivial, rather the important thing seems to be Jesus action of bending down and writing in the sand. Notice what Jesus didn’t do – he didn’t offer a counter argument, he didn’t react, he simply stoops down and doodles in the sand… what he does with this action is refuse to engage in the argument, he refuses to rise to their level of attack, refuses to be determined by their rules, and when he does speak he re-engages at a different level. They have come to him with a legal issue of morality, of an offense committed and an alleged crime needing to be punished. He replies with a levelling of the playing field, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v7) he refuses to engage on their level, and chooses to engage at a far deeper one, one that saw all who were present as equal before God, one that challenged the religious leaders about their own life and conduct to this point, and one that challenged the woman about her life at this point and into the future. In both of these there is the challenge of God’s truth, but also an invitation to step into a new frame, a new way of being and living, one that offers freedom and life, not one defined by consequences and death. In this simple act of refusing to engage at the level of violence, Jesus offered a non-anxious insight, a challenge, and an invitation. He offered them all a chance to live in a world re-ordered.
For us as this year we have wrestled with what these parables of Jesus have to say about how we do and be church here and now, I wonder today if there is a challenge for us to ensure we have the right order of things. It’s no shock to say that we as churches across the globe, across countries, across cities and towns, across streets and roads have our differences… it’s no shock to say that we as people across the globe, across countries, across cities and towns, across streets and roads have our differences. The question for us is as we experience these differences, where do we place God amongst it all? In the midst of all our personalities, found in church, and found as different churches, in the midst of the many theological arguments, in the midst of the many conservative, evangelical, liberal, or progressive preferences and all the spaces in between, where do we place God? Does God only fit into our point of view? I’ve met a few dogmatic evangelicals, and I’ve met an equal number of dogmatic liberals! All who believe and seek to convince everyone else, many times in quite confrontational ways, that their way is the right way, God is on their side and not on the other side. We could say the same also about all the political positions and opinions that fly around in our day and age. Each side equally as dogmatic as the other. As the church how do we respond to both of these? Do we let our rules, our beliefs, our opinions become the only way? Do we enter into arguments at the level of the argument? Do we in fact invent hard and fast categories and order our living in such a way that we dictate where God is or what God says? Do we tell God what is right or wrong? Or do we see Jesus’ response as pointing us to a way where there is always another way. Do we accept that our beliefs and options and categories could potentially be wrong? Do we offer a non-anxious dis-engagement and re-engagement that steps beyond rule and consequence, one that sees us all as equal before God, one that sees God wanting to meet us all with grace, mercy, challenge, invitation, freedom, and life whichever side we are on? Do we let God be God?
Despite all our differences in personality, preference and belief, we as people are all people, and we as churches are all simply collections of people seeking to be the Christian church in our day and age. Can we respond to Jesus’ invitation to live in a different way? Can we respond with a ‘yes’ to a way of non-anxious reflection, a way of equality before God who sits above all our beliefs and opinions, above all our rights and wrongs? Can we refuse to engage with arguments bound by categories of in or out, right and wrong, rules and consequence, and instead engage in the ways of grace and mercy? Can we let God be the one to offer the challenge of truth to us all wherever we stand?
We as the church are called to bear witness to the good news of Jesus. We are all beloved children of God, every single human being. This is how God sees us and this is how we are called to see each other. That is the identity we are called to inhabit. When we truly step into this, this is where we will find freedom and life for us all.
We enact the response of Jesus, we enact God’s invitation and challenge today when we gather around the table and celebrate communion together. This table where all are welcome, no matter age, race, sexuality, theological, or political preferences… around this table where we are all found together as beloved children of God. So let this moment of communion be for us both a remembering but also a committing… a commitment in the face of so many prevalent categories of right and wrong, to live beyond these categories into the invitation and challenge of God’s love and grace.