Sermon by The Rev. Aric Flemming Jr. MDiv '19, founder of the UNDRGRND Church, Oct. 11, 2020. Courtesy photo.
Good morning to the Memorial Church of Harvard University. My name is Aric B. Fleming Jr. and it is such a pleasure to be speaking with you this morning. I first want to acknowledge with utmost gratitude, the ancestors present with us in this very moment. To those in flesh and those who have transitioned to realms beyond including my late father Aric Sr.
I say thank you to my mother, father, family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, classmates, counterparts, constituents, everybody. Thank you for your fervent prayers to my underground church family for being present here with us today. Lastly, I want to thank the familial colleagues of the Memorial Church at Harvard and especially professor Stephanie Paulsell for this marvelous invitation.
Our second reading from John chapter 8, verse 1 through 11 is what I will read again for your hearing, just to kind of situate us with some context for the sermon that we'll share this morning.
While Jesus went away to the Mount of Olives early in the morning, 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 of Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now, what do you say?"
They said this to test him so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone." and once again, he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. And from now on, do not sin again." The few moments that are ours to share, I'd love if you'll engage my thoughts with this text on the subject, love on the road to justice. Love on the road to justice.
An unjust law is no law at all. I'm sure we've all heard this before. It is a recurring adage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that warns us of the trouble we ensue when we fail to place the metrics of judgment on others while actively working to excuse ourselves from the same measurement. I'll add to suggest that the value of any written law is non-existent if the interpretation is simply unjust.
But my friends, the irony of any written law embodied and implemented by a Supreme Court or our current president, Donald J. Trump, the United States Congress, the American state and/or the local police of any jurisdiction is that the enactment of that law is often set by the powerful to reinscribe a sense of security for themselves rather than securing justice for the most vulnerable. In simple terms as made evident in the verdict of our dear sister Breonna Taylor's case, when we feel like it, we can surely adjust the metrics of judgment toward an end of salvation for the offender and conversely reflect the vulnerable as deserving of the offense to excuse ourselves of the guilt.
Our sister Zora Neale Hurston said at once this way: “If you're silent about your pain, they will kill you and then say you enjoyed it.” Might I kindly render an example for your hearing? For this text itself in the Gospel of John chapter 8, which the populace would call the governing spiritual laws upon which this country was founded, this text in particular, this narrative is not even original to the Greek manuscript of the New Testament, but it's rather interestingly redacted from an addition to the collective canon, a prime example of how the most powerful the government religious and spiritual leaders of the state relate to the laws they make and how they apply what is written versus what is inferred.
Therefore, the fact that I myself would choose to preach from this text this morning is irony in and of itself. What's even more ironic is that the powerful in society see themselves above the laws they make and the implementation of those laws are reassurance that judgment could never be placed upon them because power always believes it is exempt from judgment.
Hence the very reason they even dare to kill Jesus because he exposed the fragility of a written law and juxtaposed it against the authentic power of God when he dare to raise Lazarus from the dead. They said, "Oh, surely he must die now. God has given him power to defy the laws as they are written."
The law that says no work should be done on the Sabbath, but what does one have to do to deserve punishment by death, perhaps to take life from another person, perhaps to deplete the intrinsic value of a human being until there is no humanity yet remaining. Perhaps to blaspheme the power of God by crediting God's power to an enemy of God's spirit, certainly not by giving life to someone should you be put to death.
Certainly not by impartation and sacrifice should someone be put to death. Certainly not by the power of living and giving resurrection, should someone be put to death. And yet all because he raised someone to life against the inevitable phenomenon of death, the lawmakers said he should die. It was the straw that broke the back of Jerusalem's camel that from Nazareth to Golgatha's hill, he dare to heal the sick without insurance for himself, to feed the hungry without a single food stamp, to open eyes and ears to the truth about the oppressed and the oppressor. And he had the unmitigated gall to raise someone from the dead.
And yet we live in a world that would legalize the murder of the vulnerable and elevate the mercy of the aggressor. A law thwarted for grace toward the killer, but no justice for the victim. Therefore, once again, my friends, the significance of the law as we see it is non-existent because the substantive enforcement or inference of that law is inherently predicated upon the needs of those who make them not the most vulnerable.
So I can imagine that might've been a mouthful, but I'll ease your ears at this moment. This text, for example, the Pharisees whom I'll colloquially label as “The Powerful,” brought a woman whom I'll also identify as the “Most Vulnerable,” our credit to our dear professor, Jonathan L. Walton. They brought her to the sanctuary for a sacred worship gathering so they could easily set up the platform to engage the worship, I mean, murder of her life to the public.
Sound familiar, doesn't it? For in these days, Jesus warned us that they would murder and believe it was worship unto God. Because even in our society, there are still sadistic obsessions with murdering Black flesh and displaying that murder of Black flesh as it was in the Antebellum South because it reinscribes the fundamental notion that it cannot happen to the powerful and furthermore, even more, once more, many times more Black souls and Black bodies are lynched and hanged by the nuisance of law enforcement in America without penalty and likewise, what we find even in this text is that the Pharisees earnestly desire to murder this woman.
And they want Jesus to take part in killing her. But our dear sister, Toni Morrison, now an ancestor reminds us in her text, Beloved, that “in this here place, we flesh. Flesh that weeps laughs. Flesh that dances on bare feet and grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh.” You must love that yourself because even in our society, the evils of white supremacy embody a guilt complex that surrounding nations have been aiding and massaging for centuries.
A practice of positioning the vulnerable against the vulnerable. For if they are positioned against themselves even, the powerful will not be charged legally for the murder they commit. And how many times have we seen this in our history, our American history, a history of lynching and murders and rape and abuse, both literally and figuratively taking life from people they did not give it to without shame? Not because they wish to catch Jesus slipping for example, but because they want to use Jesus to feed into the sickness that undergirds the fragility of the powerful legally.
At this moment in our text, the Pharisees are so sick in their minds and in their hearts with wickedness, wrought with the evils of an unjust interpretation of the laws they make. But so convinced that they were right that they bring this woman to Jesus, offering a sacrifice, believing that it was worship unto their God, because they ultimately believe that killing her would in turn kill him.
I know. I know what you're wondering by now. I've unfortunately destroyed for you the fairytale of this text. You will never be able to read this text the same way ever again. But I never gave you the actual reason that I'm preaching from this text. So please forgive me, my friends. You are the Memorial Church. We have a history together. I love you. And I know you love me. It's so wonderful to be back here. Please, I beg of you to forgive me, but I must give you the reason. So here you go.
The reason that I am preaching from this text is because there is an imminent blessing in the irony of this text that is not original to the Greek manuscript either. I am suggesting that the gospel did not end with the original Greek manuscript, but that God is still speaking and still able to speak even in this moment, if you will be humbled enough to even hear the voice.
There is so much more right now in this moment that God has to say to us. For it was the Psalmist who said, "It is he that has made us and not we ourselves.” But still failing recognize their flaws, the Pharisees used their interpretation of the law and juxtapose this woman's vulnerability against it.
So the spirit spoke to me and instructed me to think about this text in this way. “To measure the value of my life up against the woman in our text and to see if I find reason still to conclude that the laws I have placed on her just in condemning her and excusing me.” So Jesus writes with his finger on the ground and we still don't know what it was that Jesus actually wrote, if Jesus wrote it all. But what's even more ironic about this text is that we've never heard of Jesus writing anything.
Yet, we read a Bible full of words he said and spoke. I believe Jesus also understood that the value of any written law is non-existent if the interpretation is simply unjust. So how do we make sense of Jesus writing on the ground? I'm not sure that we can. Not sure that we can make substantive sense of this part of the narrative if the narrative itself is under scrutiny and suspicion.
But we have heard of some of the things that he's spoken. He spoke these words to the Pharisees, to free the Pharisees as the narrative suggests, lest they die from Pharasitic supremacy. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at her.” And the text continues to tell us that they each drop their stones and left one by one from the eldest to the young.
Then this Jesus had the nerve while writing on the ground to ask her, "Does no one condemn you?" Responding with a subtle, "Neither do I," even though the written law says they must kill her Jesus dared to heal her by speaking the love she needed, not condemnation. "Neither do I," he said. “I don't have room to condemn you because all of us are in need of a measure of grace and forgiveness from our God.” And that love spoken is what freed her. That love spoken is what liberated her. That truth spoken in love is what saved her because God was not just speaking then, but God is always speaking now.
Even beyond a law, we ought not keep silent, but continue to speak the truth in love because that is salvation in action. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, indeed. And once again, mother Morrison reminds us, no, they ain't in love with your mouth. What you scream from it, they do not hear. They do not love your mouth. You got to love it because somebody needs to hear the gospel you preach. Somebody needs to be reminded that salvation, liberation, freedom from bondage, abuse, struggle, and pain does not come through the law, but love and only love.
Later, we discover that as they drop their stones against her, they inevitably began recognizing their history of violence and became aware that the sickest people in the synagogue were not actually the woman, but the most fragile characters were actually the Pharisees.
Now this woman is no longer the victim, but she's the conduit for freeing the Pharisees from their own bondage when she was standing in need of freedom herself, such as the text suggests. Because the law is not set to do what only love can do. If the work of justice is to be done in the earth beyond the law, love is the roadmap to the world unimagined.
So let us hold fast to love on the road to justice, though the road is windy. I believe we will get there to the promised land. We will get there indeed if we hold fast to love. Let us pray.