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Not too long ago I was digging through one of the storage closets at home and I came across a box with all of my high school yearbooks. You’d be right if you guessed that I spent the rest of that evening lost in memories, looking at photos, and remembering friends I haven’t seen in ages.
At the very end of each yearbook is a section called “World Beat.” It’s a sort of “year in review” section that summarizes the major events that defined the year. The September 11th attacks took place during the first week of my senior year and, as you’d expect, the first several pages of that “World Beat” section in my senior yearbook are filled with terrible images from that day. A little further in there’s a snippet about Apple’s sleek new iPod that allows users to store and playback a mind-blowing 1,000 digital songs for on-the-go enjoyment. I was also reminded that the first Harry Potter movie smashed box office records in 2001, and that Rolling Stone named U2 their “Band of the Year” that year, which, I think, was pretty well deserved.
It struck me as I was looking through my yearbooks that those years were filled with a lot of memories I want to remember and some that I wish I could forget.
What events will fill the pages of your 2015 “year in review”? What memories will you hold on to and treasure for years to come? What from the past year will you be happy to leave behind?
By all accounts, 2015 has been a hard year. The catastrophic rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East has spread terror and misery throughout the world, and has triggered a massive humanitarian crisis as refugees flee the regime’s atrocities. Closer to home, our country continues to be brutalized by gun violence; mass murders have become part of the American way of life. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter activists are challenging all of us to come to terms with the racism that’s baked into our society’s systems and institutions, and to come to terms with the racism that festers in our own hearts. And in the heat of a presidential campaign, our political discourse is dominated not by fresh ideas that call upon our cherished ideals and give hope for the future; rather, politics today is dominated by fear, mistrust, and vulgarity that turn us against one another rather than bringing us together.
But for some of us, as this year draws to a close, these larger issues barely even register as we struggle to deal with the chaos, adversity, and despair that consume our own lives. A marriage in shambles. A child mired in addiction. A parent whose dementia has stolen their humanity. A spouse who remains unemployed months after a layoff. A devastating diagnosis. Mental illness. Loneliness. As if any of these things aren’t hard enough on their own, many of us are driven by embarrassment or shame to keep up the appearance that we’ve got it all together—that everything is alright—and we end up going through it all alone with nobody to support us.
I’ve been trying to put myself in the shoes of the woman in today’s Gospel lesson. Talk about shame. This woman is dragged before Jesus, accused of adultery, and put on trial. For a woman in the ancient world, being accused of adultery would have been bad enough. But what’s worse, this woman is just a pawn in the religious authorities’ efforts to trap Jesus and get him to say something they can use to condemn him. The truth is, if the Pharisees and Scribes were really interested in putting this woman on trial, according to Old Testament law they would have had to produce witnesses to corroborate the charge brought against her. But they don’t bring forward any witnesses. And that’s because they’re not really interested in conducting a trial. They’re just using her, taking advantage of her. They don’t have any qualms about dragging her through the mud and publicly smearing her if there’s a chance her case will help them bring Jesus down.
Of course, Jesus avoids the trap. “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” he says, and the crowd disperses. They realize that none of them are in a position to condemn her. “Neither do I condemn you,” he tells the woman. “Now go on your way and sin no more.”
The promise of today’s Gospel is a promise of new life. It’s a promise that the past doesn’t define our future. Everyone in this Gospel lesson is invited into a new life. Everyone is given an opportunity to break with old ways of judgment and condemnation, and to enter into a new world marked by mercy. The woman is invited to leave behind sin and shame and live in the freedom of forgiveness. Her past is no longer a weight around her neck or a scarlet letter on her chest. Jesus grants her a second chance and a new future. As you look back on 2015, if you feel like you could use a second chance and a fresh start, today’s Gospel is good news for you.
Meanwhile, the Scribes and Pharisees are invited to walk away from a life of manipulation, exploitation, and hypocrisy. They may not yet be able to see how the system that they’ve created to benefit themselves is actually corroding their humanity. But Jesus does, and he invites them into a new way of living. He suggests they come to terms with their own sin before passing judgment on others. He invites them to practice mercy rather than condemnation. Imagine a world where where more of us were inclined toward mercy over condemnation. How much more harmony could we achieve if more of us answered Jesus’ call to practice forgiveness, to have grace with those who have done wrong?
As we close the book on 2015 and reflect on the year past, it’s good to remember that whenever God’s people have felt trapped by their past failures, or crippled by their present circumstances, God has responded with words of hope: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? The first things have passed away. See, I am making all things new.” May it be so in 2016. Happy new year.
Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).