By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
April 15, 2018
Scripture: John 8: 2-11
A man named Shon Hopwood grew up in David City, Nebraska. Do you know David City? Well, it’s a nice community. It’s a small town of about 3,000 people, with a low crime rate. Shon was lucky: he was born into a good family. He had good Christian parents who encouraged him to be self-reliant and responsible. It seemed like he had just the right start in life to grow up and do well: to be a positive contributor to society.
Well, Shon went to college, and like a lot of people, it wasn’t his thing. So he went into the Navy, served for awhile, and was discharged for medical reasons. He went back to David City, got a job, things looked okay. Until one day, his friend Tom invited him out to the bar for a drink. And Tom said, “What do you think about robbing a bank?”
And rather than say, “What, are you kidding me?” or “No, of course not,” Shon’s response was “Yes, that’s a great idea.”
And that’s how Shon Hopwood became a bank robber. In fact, he recruited some friends and robbed five banks in rural Nebraska before he was caught and sent to Federal Prison.
I learned about Hopwood in a radio story on NPR this week. They were using him as an example of someone who seemed like he had all the advantages and opportunity to be a fine, upstanding member of society. Yet that one conversation with Tom in the bar caused his life to have a radically different trajectory.
The story ultimately was about whether we can predict what a person’s future life will be based on their history. To find out, a couple years ago, a professor at Princeton University put on a competition for computer programmers. He challenged them to create a program that would predict which children will be successful in life and which will not.
Here’s how it worked. The professor had information about 5,000 children. And the computer programmers were supposed to predict – by looking at the children’s experience and history from birth to age 9 – what each child’s GPA would be at age 15. The professor had high hopes, but it turned out that none of the computer models could consistently predict how any individual child would do. Scientists can of course identify patterns – things that generally make kids more successful – but they could not apply that to one individual kid and guarantee that kid would succeed or not.
The bottom line to the story was that there is a lot of randomness in the world. Our lives are not pre-determined by some scientific set of data. And part of that is because we have the radical freedom to choose – for better or for worse – how we will act in each moment. Shon Hopwood choose pretty poorly back in 1998.
Today’s scripture points us to that radical freedom to choose, unencumbered by our past choices, because of God’s forgiveness. When the woman caught in adultery stands before Jesus, he simply says to her “I don’t condemn you. Now go and sin no more.” It’s not that her previous actions don’t matter. It’s just that she is free from them. Whatever has happened in her life or whatever mistakes or bad choices she had made, when standing before Jesus, she is free to act differently. She is free to go forth and live in the way that God desires for her, untethered from her past.
We have the same freedom. When we have sinned, when we have acted in ways that have separated us from God, Christ grants us the freedom to choose differently from this very moment forward. And even beyond that – when we have made mistakes, when we have been negatively impacted by random bad luck, or other people’s bad behavior – we still are free to go forth and live in the way that God desires for us. To go forth and sin no more.
But. And. To receive the freedom to choose God’s way again and again, we have to let go of judgment. In today’s scripture, the scribes and Pharisees are very busy judging this woman. They drag her before Jesus as a kind of test. For them, being judgmental of others is what determines if you are really teaching the truth. If Jesus doesn’t condemn this woman, they figure, then he is guilty of breaking the law of Moses. They want to expose Jesus as a false teacher.
So they drag her in front of Jesus and say, “Hey, this woman was caught in adultery. The law of Moses says we need to stone her for that. What do you say we should do?”
Well, Jesus is having none of it. He doesn’t even answer and instead, bends down, and writes in the dirt with his finger. Commentators tell us that this was Jesus’ way of dismissing them. He wasn’t even going to engage with them. But the scribes and Pharisees persist, so Jesus finally stands up and says to them “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Then he starts writing on the ground again. Kind of like, “okay, I’ll wait.” And of course, the scribes and Pharisees slink away. None of them was without sin. None had the right to judge her or stone her. So the woman is left standing there alone with Jesus. He straightens up and addresses her this time, saying: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” And she says, “No one, sir.” So Jesus sends her off, too, saying “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
In this passage, Jesus frees all these people from judgment. I mean, the scribes and Pharisees may not have liked it, but I think Jesus is doing them a favor. He is showing them that they don’t have to be burdened with the need to judge other people. If they have sinned (and all humans have sinned) then judgment is not their job. And then Jesus unburdens the woman as well. He doesn’t suggest that she should stand around being ashamed. He doesn’t tell her to atone for her sin in some way. He simply says, “I don’t condemn you either. Go and sin no more.”
Now this is more mercy than most of us (maybe any of us) can muster. When someone sins, when someone does wrong, I think it’s human nature to want to judge and punish folks. But more than anything else, I think this scripture tells us that judging is not our job. And this frees us to let go of the burden – I truly believe that it is a burden – of feeling like we have to spend our time judging others and judging ourselves.
I think those two things are wrapped up in one another. How often is our judging of others a reason not to look at our own behavior? How often is our judging of others something we use to feel self-justified? “Well, maybe I’m not living a perfect Christian life, but I’m doing a heck of a lot better than those people.” “Maybe I haven’t helped people as much as a I should, but look at them! They deserve to be in a bad spot because of what they have done.”
That kind of judging – that’s not our job. And thank God it is not! I am not telling you this to judge you. (Not my job, right?) I’m telling you this because I think it is so darn liberating. You don’t have to judge others; you don’t have to judge yourself. It’s not your job. You can admit where you have sinned and where you have made mistakes and fallen short. You can admit where you have not loved God and not loved your neighbor as yourself. And you don’t have to get stuck there. You can live in a new way. You can hear the words of Jesus: “Go now and sin no more.” Go! Live differently! You are freed from the past! You can choose differently. You can live differently as an individual person.
This is also true of us as a society, as a community. We can acknowledge our collective failings and not sit in judgment of ourselves or others. Instead, we can live differently. We can acknowledge our past and present sins of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, classism; and we as a culture can choose to go and sin no more! Especially today as we recognize Native American Ministries Sunday, it is important to acknowledge the sins we have committed against Native people in the past. But we do not need to get stuck in judgment. We can go and sin no more. We can live differently. Instead of seeking to erase Native American identity (as many churches, including our own United Methodist Church has done in the past), we can choose differently to support and stand in solidarity with Native American people.
When we let go of judgment, we have this exquisite freedom to choose in every moment. We have the freedom to go and sin no more in every moment. That is why none of those computer models worked. Even with the worst histories, we can choose differently, and live in the way of Jesus from this moment on.
Which brings us back to Shon Hopwood. While he was in prison, he was approached by a fellow prisoner to help him draft a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. And despite having only a high school education, Shon wanted to be helpful. So he said, “Okay.” And they worked on the petition, sent it out, and Shon kind of forgot about it…until the day when he heard his friend yelling to him across the prison yard that the Supreme Court had accepted the appeal Shon had written…which as you can imagine, is pretty unusual for someone with no college degree and no formal legal training.
Fast forward sixteen years, and Shon Hopwood is now a law professor at Georgetown University.
In every moment, we can choose to be weighted down with judgment for others and ourselves, or we can choose to go and sin no more. We can go and choose the life of love and mercy and justice and hope and abundance and peace that God wants for us. We can choose to walk in the footsteps of Jesus – no matter where we have wandered in the past.
So go. Be unburdened, starting in this very moment. And sin no more.
May it be so.
QUESTIONS FOR CONVERSATION / REFLECTION
- What do you most often find yourself judging other people about?
- What do you most often judge yourself about?
- Tell us about a time in your life that you either carried or let go of a burden (whether judgment, guilt, shame, regret, anger, or something else). What happened? How did that feel? How did it make a difference in your life?