Annual PRIDE Community Worship Service, Seattle, Wash.
Reading: John 8:1-11
(Visual Note: There is a pink shirt and blue breast cancer tie hanging on the front of pulpit.)
This is my shirt of shame. It’s a gorgeous pink cotton dress shirt that I used to get particular pleasure out of wearing. I bought it a couple of years ago for Easter and have also used it to wear on days when I want to support women who have or who have survived breast cancer. I used to think I looked great in pink! I even got this nice Breast Cancer tie with the little pink ribbons across the blue background to wear with it.
A couple of months ago I wore the shirt to my retail job at Penney’s in Bellevue Square to celebrate my own sister’s 18th year of breast cancer survival. It turned out to not be a great day. One of the other employees was being very difficult and kept demanding her own way rather than following procedure. Though I tried to be patient and understanding and reflect Christ’s treatment of others in my supervisory capacity after repeated incidents with her, I had had enough and I spoke rather harshly to her. Now, I really don’t need this microphone, my voice booms out across rooms and people literally jerk their heads around to see whose talking. It used to be very useful when I needed to quiet down an auditorium of noisy children in public school. So, of course, everyone heard me tell the young lady that I was in charge and we would do things my way.
A customer, who this particular saleslady was helping, had not heard what my co-worker had repeatedly said to me, only what I said to her, decided that she needed to come to the young lady’s defense and confront me in front of everyone present. (She did not know that I had already apologized to the young lady for my outburst.) In short, the customer told me that she was tired of men attacking women verbally and that she wanted me to know that she was particularly displeased with my behavior. That much would have been okay but she didn’t stop there. She finished her rather extensive dressing down of me by saying, “You are nothing but a fat old man in a gay pink shirt!” I turned to her and said, “Cheap shot, lady.” To which she responded, “Yeah, well, you’re still nothing but a fat old man in a gay pink shirt.”
The rest of the evening I found myself wondering, is that the way everyone is seeing me: Just a fat old man in a gay pink shirt? Were people looking at me in my gay pink shirt and snickering. It shouldn’t have bothered me: I am totally out at work, and everywhere else in life. It’s not like my being gay is some great secret. After all I am the pastor of an LGBT congregation.
But the confrontation with this woman psychologically took me back to my middle school and high school years when other students ridiculed me for being gay. It made me remember being threatened with physical violence just because I was gay. It reminded me of the times so-called Christian leaders had tried to tell me how unacceptable I was to God because I was gay and how I had no choice except to change myself into something I wasn’t. I spent a sleepless night reliving the incident over and over again. It was so traumatic for me that I stopped wearing my gorgeous pink shirt. I haven’t worn it to work since then.
My humiliation that day, though, pales in comparison to what happened to the woman in the scripture passage. She is dragged before Jesus and thrown down in the Temple Court where he is teaching, charged with adultery, caught red-handed in the very act. They demand that Jesus make a judgment on the woman based on the Law of Moses which said that persons caught in such situations should be killed. They even have the stones ready to carry out the sentence upon his ruling.
Let me ask you a question though, “What’s wrong with the situation in today’s scripture?”
The man she committed adultery with is missing.
Yes, where is the man? You can’t commit adultery without a sexual partner.
Some have suggested that the situation was a set up both for the woman and for Jesus. The Pharisees and lawyers had conspired together to trap the woman in a questionable situation so that they could in turn trap Jesus into saying something that they could use against him.
It’s the classic no-win situation for Jesus. If he says that the woman is guilty and should be killed according to the law then they can make charges against him to the Roman authorities who reserved the death penalty only to Rome. But if Jesus didn’t condemn her then they could incite a riot against him with the people because he had refused to uphold their own Religious Law. They reasoned that they had Jesus over a barrel and there was not much he could do about it.
However, they were looking at things the way most of us look at things: right or wrong, yes or no, as if there were only two possible options. But Jesus, in the creative love of God, surprises them by taking a totally unexpected option. He doesn’t answer them. Even though they have set him up as judge over the woman he turns the question upon them. While they are still shouting at him, demanding a quick answer, Jesus bends down and writes something in the dust. I can’t help but wonder what he wrote. Some think he wrote a list of sins the men might have committed. I think he probably wrote the very law of Moses regarding the situation from Leviticus. Which is from where they misquoted their charges against the woman. For there it says that both the man and the woman should be killed.
They have set this up like a court, so Jesus the judge of this court, calls for witnesses when he says “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.” From what I understand, throwing the first stone was reserved for the one who witnessed the crime and reported it to the authorities. So who witnessed this crime? Well, I suggest that the witness was the very person who had set the situation up to trap the poor lady. To admit that you were present while the crime of adultery may have been interpreted as confessing that you were the male figure who sinned along with the woman. Which means that you also deserved to be killed.
The concern of the legal experts and the Pharisees is not for the woman caught in sin, nor even for Jesus. It is to uphold their own understanding of their scriptures which Jesus is turning upside down by ministering to and accepting people they thought were outside of God’s love. Jesus the friend of the leper, the widows, the orphans, the hated tax-collector, the handicapped and ill, is hanging out with all the undesirable people that they believe are unloved and unwanted by God.
This poor woman is probably a widow, may have had children she was responsible for providing food and life. In that society a widow had no rights, could own no property, and if she did not have family that would take her in she was left to fend for herself and her children out on the street. Essentially she was homeless, living off of the handouts of others.
Forced into prostitution to provide for herself and her children she was the perfect foil for the Pharisees and lawyers to use to trap Jesus. They had no problem with heaping shame upon her and using her as a weapon against Jesus because they thought her beneath them for she was already condemned by God for her sinfulness or she wouldn’t be a widow and she wouldn’t be out on the street. Wasn’t it obvious! God had already pronounced God’s rejection of her according to their way of thinking. Why not use her just like others had used her, for their own purposes and desires. And they called themselves men of God? Ridiculous!
Jesus has taken their strict interpretation of the law and lifted it to an even higher level of application. After issuing his demand that the ones who witnessed the crime should be the ones who throw the first stone, Jesus writes in the dust again. By now they have read whatever it was he wrote first and they have begun to understand that if they respond to his question they may well be convicting themselves of the very religious laws they had sought to uphold.
What did Jesus write next? I would like to think that he wrote from Deuteronomy 19:17-19: “the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you.” Jewish tradition interprets this passage as saying that if you do bear false witness against another in which the death penalty is the possible punishment, then you would be condemned with the death penalty also. Oops, perhaps they forgot about that one – until Jesus reminded them.
There is something else going on here that many people miss. Jesus is making a statement about who he is and with what authority he is speaking. Jewish tradition and the scripture say that God wrote the Law given to Moses with God’s own finger in the stone. So Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, writes with his finger the holy law in the dust of the ground. I believe that would have infuriated the legal experts even more, leaving them beside themselves and enraged with anger, but unable to respond to the very situation they had set up, but which Jesus now owns completely.
One by one the men leave beginning with the oldest, also significant in their law because it is the oldest, the elders of the community, who were charged with carrying out the punishment of any crime. The wiser and older men see that the trap they set for Jesus has now been sprung on them and they depart before they can be implicated and accused as bearing false witness or worse.
Soon, Jesus is left with the woman to whom he says, “Where are those who condemned you?”
She responds, “There is no one who condemns me.” And she was right. There was no one left to condemn her. The only one left with her was Jesus, Jesus who did not condemn her, but who wanted her to live life without shame or condemnation. So he says to her, “Go and do not sin.” He does not list rules for her to follow. He does not extract a promise from her to never sin again. He does not tell her that she should avoid prostitution in the future, nor does he give her any particular advice about how she should live her life. He just says, “do not sin,” which means to me to not do anything that separates you from the love of God.
You and I have a problem. We let other people and circumstances separate us from the love of God in Christ. We let the shame we feel about the way other people tell us we should live, act, talk, and walk and believe take control of our lives and paralyze us from being the person God created us to be.
The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” Not even the shame you may feel about who you are or even how others think about you can separate you from the love of God.
It’s time that you and I realize that we need to get rid of the shame that controls our lives and live in the love of God in Christ. It’s time to take it off, take it all off!
(Visual Note: Bawdy music begins. At this point I do a modified Strip-Tease by removing my jacket, shirt, and tie. Music stops as I pick up pink shirt and blue tie. I continue speaking as I put the shirt and tie back on)
I told you that I had been unable to wear this gorgeous pink shirt because of what the woman said to me and the shame I felt at what she said. Well, I’m getting rid of the shame today and putting on my gay pink shirt. I can be proud of who I am, of who God created me to be and put back on the shirt I had been proud to wear, proud to declare my support of women who suffered from cancer, proud to be OUT about who I am and not afraid for all the world to know.
When other people twist the words of the Bible to condemn you and make you feel unworthy of God’s love and acceptance you remember this story in which Jesus gave a woman back her pride in herself and let her know that she was not a reject, for God in Christ loved her and lifted her up to begin again. Just like her, you are God’s own beloved child! God can do the same thing for you if you will do your own strip tease today, get rid of the shame, take it off, take it all off, and begin to live in the love of God.
Indiana native Rev. H. Ray Neal served as associate pastor of MCC Knoxville and pastor of MCC Seattle. He earned bachelors and masters degrees in elementary education from the University of Indiana and a masters in religious education from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.