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Writing in the dust

Ash Wednesday
Preached to the Samford Peverell Mission Community, Devon.
Reading: John 8:2-11

‘… he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery’. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.’

This is a shocking story.
A woman has been interrupted having sex and dragged before Jesus, in the middle of a crowd, by religious leaders demanding her stoning.

Is this why so many of the oldest bible manuscripts simply left it out?
If this was television, there would be a caption before it began.
‘Viewers may find some of these scenes disturbing’.

The story is popularly known as the ‘Woman caught in adultery’.
But beware. It is misnamed.
By the time this story ends the focus of judgment will be somewhere else.
This is a story of men caught in hypocrisy. (And where was the adulterous man by the way?)

It was a sting – a set up. Possibly a rape therefore. Goodness know what it took to plan all this. How do you ‘catch’ someone in adultery (and no, I don’t want an answer)?
And there she is, forced to stand dishevelled and terrified, in full public view, facing brutal death in the name of religion.

But she was set up to set up Jesus. There is no actual interest in her at all as a person.
This is the Law. Will Jesus obey it?

What is it that makes this story so controversial – there in our bibles with [brackets] round it and coy comments in the footnotes. Is it in any way untypical of Jesus?
Did he not constantly shock by who he forgave and showed love to – especially the marginalised and victims of abusive, judgmental religion …. and by his treatment of women in that male-focused culture?
Perhaps it is an outcome of the unhelpful intensity religious worlds still give to the relationship between sin and sex. (And now, as then, it is women who bear the burden of this).

What was the reaction of Jesus?
He speaks as much with his silence and movements as his words. The drama is simply and vividly recounted. (vs 6-10)

He bends down. So he is averting his eyes. I like to think this was respect for the woman. He refuses to gaze on her brutal exposure and humiliation.

He writes with his finger in the dust.

But they keep on demanding an answer from him. Do you obey the law? She must be stoned.

He straightens up – in contrast to the twisted behaviour of those around him.
He is straight speaking too.
‘Let the one without guilt cast the first stone.’

He bends down and writes in the dirt again.

I imagine the action suddenly freezing.
Hypocrisy is exposed.
Accusers silenced.
The trial collapses.
The judges leave – eldest first.

He straightens up again – before the woman. Everyone else has gone.
His words, though recorded, are for her alone. Uncondemned.

But what did Jesus write in the dust?
If only someone had taken a photo.

Some imagine he was actual writing messages  like ‘do not bear false witness’ or ‘judge not’.

I’m with those who think he was doodling. It’s a wise tactic when severely provoked. Pause. Breathe deeply. Take time before responding.
Perhaps he was struggling to contain his anger?
Furious at abusive, judgmental religion that so distorts the face and heart of God.
Fury at the hypocrisy and the brutal exploitation of the vulnerable and powerless.
And as the lead judge keeps shouting at him is Jesus thinking – oh help me not to punch his mean, vindictive face.

But what might he have written?
And what might he be writing now in the dust on our foreheads or at our feet this Ash Wednesday?

One line we hear in this service is: ‘Remember you are dust’.

There are echoes of the story of the first human created out of the dust. That ancient wisdom parable is thought to have found particular significance in the time of King Solomon – which was the high point of Israel’s culture, philosophical thought, wealth, power and worldly status – with all the temptations that go with that. Remember you are of the dust. It is a call to humility.

And it is a surely a word for our times. Out of nowhere a global pandemic has dismantled even the most sophisticated, wealthy, well-resourced structure of our world and left is exposed as fragile, powerless and out of control. Remember you are dust. And some need no reminding at this time – living as they are with the particularly acute expressions of this truth – themselves, their loved ones and in their communities.

And who makes anything of dust? Well God does – as only God can. It clearly does not embarrass or frustrate him. Rather it inspires him.
He creates whole worlds out of this dust.
He creates us out of dust – and leans over and breathes his own breath into the nostrils of the creatures of dust that is you and me. He still does.

It is not that God does not take human sin and waywardness seriously – he does.
But that story reminds us he has a very different way of responding to it.
Neither do I condemn you.

These are tense and anxious times. On social media and elsewhere we are quickly reaching for stones. 
But what if here, at our feet, bent down and silent in the face of our shouty concerns and demands, he is writing other things, there in the dust. Can you think of some?

The other day we walked around the block on a bitterly cold morning. All the cars were frozen hard. On the back windscreen of one was the most amazing frost patterns. Jackie put the photo on twitter. Within a matter of days it had 16000 likes and BBC Winter Watch spotted it and opened their next program with it.

But did you know the reason the ice formed those beautiful, unrepeatable patterns is because there was dust on the window – and other scratches and imperfections. 

‘Remember you are dust’ becomes another way of saying – ‘look, I make all things new’. We need reminding of this. There is another story being told. There always is.

So here, on this Ash Wednesday, we remember we are dust.

But remember what becomes of dust in the will and desire of God.
In humble joy let him write with his finger, in the dust of our being, with all its imperfections, these reminders of his uncondemning love.

Our fragile and broken world is being painfully reminded – you are dust.
But here we renew our hope in what can be fashioned out of dust – as it was in the beginning.

So this Ash Wednesday let us imagine Jesus bending over and writing in the dust of your life and mine his words of eternal life.

Thanks be to God

David Runcorn