Topic: Compassion Scripture: Romans 14:7–14:12, John 8:2–8:11
As a youth director for close to a decade, I played a lot different games with my students. You name it, I probably did a version of it. I’ve played dozens of card games and board games, Ultimate Frisbee, kickball, mat ball, whiffle ball, and probably more than 20 versions of dodgeball. I’ve played games with cool names like Manhunt and games with less cool names like Steal the Bacon. We used hockey sticks, pizza boxes, finger darts, bowling pins, and more over the years. I’ve seen dodgeball moves that could make ESPN’s Top 10 and I’ve had kids so good at hiding for Sardines that I actually wondered if they just walked out and went home. I even played a game called Werewolves where kids played characters like Cupid, the Ice Cream Man, and a Dentist. But in all my years of youth ministry, no game impressed me more than Bigger or Better.
If you’re not familiar, the idea of bigger or better is that you start off with something small and relatively worthless. Say, a pen or something like that. You then go to another group or person and ask for something bigger or better than that. So they trade a pen for a pack of gum. And then they trade the gum for something like a Frisbee and so on.
The best I ever saw was a group at the Creation music festival. Creation is the world’s largest Christian music festival and usually has somewhere around 65,000 people. It’s unreal. But I saw one church where the leader gave groups of their students a pack of Tic-Tac’s and told to go out and get the biggest and best. One group started off by trading that pack of Tic-Tac’s for a package of Swedish Fish and kept going until they ended up trading a poster signed by the popular Christian band the Newsboys for a custom-built Corn Hole set. I think out here in the Midwest it’s called Bags. It was pretty neat.
The concept always struck me though. Starting with something with some or limited value and gradually going up the ladder until you’re left with something really remarkable. Well, that’s kind of what I want to talk about this morning. You’ll notice my title has the sort of feel of an equation with the greater than symbols and all. That’s because I want us to think about ways we can grow or become greater in our capacity to be a good neighbor.
For the past few weeks we’ve asked this question, “Who is my neighbor?” How we answer that question and what we do with that answer is a big part of our identity as followers of Christ. And I want to lay out the possibility that maybe our answer to this question is more like a pack of Tic-Tac’s than it is custom gaming equipment. In other words, maybe there’s a way for us to get bigger and better at how we answer our central question and what we do with that information. To begin that exploration, we’ll look at a fairly popular story about Jesus. The story of the woman caught in adultery. It’s in John 8:2-11.
This is one of those stories that just seems to embody everything we love about Jesus. He is one who defends. One with profound wisdom. One who opposes broken and twisted systems. And, as an added bonus, we find he likes to doodle just like many of us. This account is short in length but deep in richness and impact. And, as is often the case in situations like this, there is more than meets the eye. This event occurs well before the Pharisee’s form their plot to kill Jesus but they are growing more and more impatient with this seemingly vagabond rabbi and his disruptive teachings. And so, they set a trap. Almost every commentator will remark how this series of events just seems way too far outside the realm of coincidence. Adultery was just as common then as it is now. But the punishment was much steeper. And as the saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” And yet, the man involved in this offense is nowhere to be found. And so taking on the role of the detective, commentators have pieced together what likely transpired.
The Pharisee’s growing displeasure with Jesus reached a point where they needed to publicly knock him down a few pegs. What better way to do that than to put Jesus in a lose-lose scenario? He can either condemn a woman to death or let a guilty woman walk free without justice. And so, this woman is likely the pawn in this elaborate scheme. The man would have possibly been given some form of amnesty, so as to trap the woman and have all they need to bring Jesus down. They then throw this woman before Jesus in what is now a public trial. Again, not the norm. These types of proceedings would have been held in the courts, not out in the open. So, you have this terrified woman exposed and vulnerable before a group of strangers.
The Pharisee’s are standing like hungry dogs ready to pounce on any word Christ utters. And Jesus. What does he do? He draws in the sand. Like some of you, I’m a bit of a tech nut. Caitlin will be the first to tell you I spend too much time with a screen in front of me. And sometimes she has to catch me and bring me back. You probably know what I mean. You’re in a conversation but totally tune out as you scroll through your feed and then you hear the elevated volume and that dreaded question: “What did I just say?” You reach into your depleted memory banks for a word or phrase and pray it’s relevant. “Uh, you were saying what we we’re going to have for dinner.” “Nope.” BUZZER SOUND. Wrong and you’re caught. Well, I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here. Jesus isn’t lost scrolling through the sand. Maybe he’s frustrated with the religious leaders. Maybe he’s heartbroken by both the actions of this woman and the fate awaiting her. Maybe he’s trying to center himself. We don’t know. But we do know that he then speaks. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Mic drop. One line. Boom. The Pharisee’s have concocted this elaborate, devious plan. They’ve brought Jesus into a lose-lose situation. They’re about to have him under their thumb. And then, nothing. With one sentence Christ turns the tables and shifts the leverage against the guilty woman onto the accusers themselves. Leon Morris says, “When the force of Jesus’ words struck home they were no longer interested in her sin, but in their own.” One by one, starting with the eldest of the religious leaders, they walk away. You can almost hear the sound as stones fall to the ground and footsteps crunch the sand and gravel. Until it is only Jesus and this adulterous woman. Jesus freed this woman from the condemnation she deserved and told her to leave her life of sin. And the scene ends.
Through this whole series we’ve been asking the question of “Who is My Neighbor” and trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do with the answer to that question. Well, in this account we learn that our neighbor can sometimes be the one who is accused, vulnerable, isolated, or in danger. It can mean someone we may rarely, if ever, truly interact with in our normal day-to-day. It also means we may need to step up our game when it comes to being a neighbor. And this is where the math of my title comes in. I think there are roughly three levels of how we take action when it comes to the life of another or a significant issue or event. We can stand up. We can stand with. We can stand for. And if you look at my math, I’ve shown you. I think these have different values. Standing up for something is the easiest. In terms of bigger and better, it’s the Tic-Tac’s of compassion and action. It’s not that standing up for something doesn’t matter but instead that it can often cost us very little.
Applying a bumper sticker to our car, throwing something up on our social media, making a monetary donation. All of those actions, like awareness and charitable giving, are important but they are also low requirement on our part. Then we move up a level. Standing with. This is where we take our place alongside the vulnerable or the isolated or the one in danger. Maybe a protest demonstration. Even something as simple as standing up to a bully at school. The key feature of standing with versus standing up, is that when we are with someone, it forces us into movement. We have to take up space around our neighbor. Today this seems more common than any other time I can remember. Which is potentially a really good and powerful thing. The hearts of individuals are being turned and drawn to defend and support causes or people in need. But you’ll notice this is in the middle of my equation. It’s not the greatest. And there’s one reason why. We can leave. Often whenever we choose. If things get intimidating or violent, we can fold up our sign and return home. If the bully is too strong, we can turn and give up the fight. You see, our investment is there but it’s conditional and often temporary. We can stop or leave whenever we want to. Which brings us to the final and most costly of the options: Standing For.
Now it’s easy for this to be confused with Standing Up. We sometimes say we “stand for” something. But this is different. Because unlike the first two, this cannot mean a cause. It has to mean a person. Because when we stand for someone, we literally take their place and whatever may come from standing in for them. Pain, fear, insult, prejudice, hate, violence…it is now ours and not theirs. It is probably easy to realize why this is the rarest of the options. But it is the stuff of inspiration in history books and film and it is something that has been on my heart for about a week now. About two weeks ago I spent several days outside Atlanta at a conference for next generation and family ministry pastors. 100 of us were invited to participate in three days of intense, inspiring, life-giving dialogue about family, church, and how the two really can be one. I heard from some of the most innovative ministry leaders in the country but the last person our group heard from was the Rev. Dr. Bernice King – the youngest daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As you can imagine, she is a truly inspiring woman. She shared precious memories of her father and mother with us. And it should come as no surprise that she spoke with us primarily concerning the issues of race and culture and the role the body of Christ has to play. Her words were rich and vulnerable and genuine. Despite having such profound experience, she spoke with an urgent tenderness. Throughout the conversation she and a few other voices shared their hearts and their encouragements with us. In terms of our message this morning, one element has been replaying in my mind all week. “True reconciliation is your joys are my joys and your problems are my problems.” This statement emerged from the panel discussing the difference between a response founded in guilt or shame and a response founded on true conviction. It emerged when they discussed the difference between racial diversity and what true reconciliation and community could look like for all people. “Your joys are my joys. Your problems are my problems.” That is as true a definition of what it means to “stand for” than I could ever imagine. That is the work of a neighbor.
It’s the work of Christ. We read an account this morning of a woman who was isolated, afraid, convicted, and in life-threatening danger. Christ embodied and spoke forgiveness, mercy, and life into the darkest of corners. And we know that it was not the last time that Christ would stand for someone. He stood before the courts and received our guilty verdict. He stood before the soldiers and received our beatings. He stood before the crowds and received our ridicule and shame. And he stood on our cross, our death, and took it for us. Our guilt, our pain, our shame, our death.
Christ didn’t merely speak out against those things. He didn’t stand with us as we endured them. He stood for us in our place and took them entirely upon Himself. Church family, I was moved by what Bernice King shared with me. And it set an unreachable itch within me to find what my role is as a husband, a father, and a pastor within the theater of this equally tragic and beautiful world. But it is only by the work of Christ that I am able to think, pray, or do any of it. His is the example I want to follow.
His is the example that Bernice King referenced over and over again. We may never be able to fully comprehend the scope of the answer to the question: Who is my neighbor? And so, just as Jesus did when he told the story of the Good Samaritan, it serves us best to throw open the gates of definition and treat all as neighbor. But not only to stand up for them. Not only to fill our Facebook pages with current event snap shots and witty memes. Not only to stand with them. To participate in events that have start times and end times on our calendars. Those movements are important and play a part but they are not the finality and I believe they fall short of the example we were given by Christ. No, somehow and someway we have to discover how to stand for our neighbor. How to make their joy our joy and their problems our problems. How to find a love that is reaching and uncomfortable and inconvenient but also a love without limits or a quitting time. We have to grow bigger and better in our response and action.
I’ll confess to you that I don’t know even what my role is yet in this story. But I’ve been urged and driven to find out. Maybe that’s a journey we can take as a church. I’ll close with one more word from the Rev. Dr. Bernice King. She said, “The best thing for the next generation is an example.” “Our job as the body of Christ is to be an example and show the world how it is done.” Let’s pray.