This sermon is for an Ash Wednesday service at a senior school. The Bible reading is John 8:2-11.
Aisha was thirteen. Already in her young life she had suffered more than anyone should ever have to cope with – she was always in trouble at school and found it difficult to make friends, and then, on the way to visit her grandmother she was attacked and raped by three men. When her aunt took her to the police station to report this as a crime, she was told that the fault was hers. On October 27th, 2008, she was taken, screaming and crying, to a stadium where, in front of an audience of a thousand people, she was stoned to death. Some of the people who attended her killing tried to save her, but they were met with gunfire, which killed an eight year old boy who got caught in the crossfire. Two innocent children, two young victims, died that day.
Amnesty International responded with this statement: "This was not justice, nor was it an execution. This child suffered a horrendous death …This killing is yet another human rights abuse." The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women, which had been launched just a year previously, implored its members to write to leaders, begging them to take action so that no such violence should never again be meted out on girls and women.
Nine years later, The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women has become ‘Stop Stoning Women’ and is linked with similar organisations such as The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, and Amnesty International continues its work. But the reason these organisations exist is because the stoning of women is still, in 2017, legal in ten countries.
Phew, you might think, thank goodness the UK isn’t one of them.
Well yes - and no. Take Sarah Lynn Butler, Tyler Clementi, Ryan Halligan, Hannah Smith, Ronan Hughes, Jessica Logan, Grace McComas, or David Molak. Not names that you might recognise, but all British and American young people who took their own lives after being the victims of cyber bullying. We might not pick up stones and boulders in the UK, but the words we type shielded by the anonymity of our computer screens can be every bit as deadly.
We live in what is increasingly recognised as being a culture of shame and bullying, of ‘trial by media’ and ‘the court of public opinion’ as celebrities from Taylor Swift to Sam Smith are shamed for being too fat, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too sexy, too sexless, too stupid, too elitist, too old, too young, too anything. “We smack each other in the press and we don’t print retractions” says U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton.
Even national treasures like Sir Ian McKellan are not immune from public shaming; Ian McKellan, who marches at Pride and is a Stonewall Schools Ambassador was asked in an interview whether he regrets waiting until the age of 49 to come out as gay. “You know”, he said, “When I was growing up in 1950s England... Homosexuals were shamed publicly and imprisoned.”
I asked my fourteen-year-old daughter to name me a celebrity who has been publicly shamed. ‘They all have’ she replied instantly.
So why do we do it? Well, it might be that this shame culture is the shadow side of the public honouring of people which is also a feature of our society – we’ve just had a glittering array of such honouring in the season of awards ceremonies such as the Grammys, the Oscars and the Brits. Any sociologist will tell you that honouring people and shaming people are two sides of the same coin.
But that doesn’t explain why we do it.
I think the answer is simple: because it feels good. For just the briefest of moments, it makes us feel superior; it narrows the gap between us and the impossibly high pedestal on which we place our contemporary idols. Whatever our defects and deficiencies might be, at least we’re not them; at least we’re not the soap star who’s let herself go or the singer with that terrible fashion faux pas or the politician with the unfortunate turn of phrase.
And of course this happens in local communities too. However subtly we do it, we are tempted to shame each other, because it makes us feel better about ourselves, the pack mentality of the stone-throwing crowd giving us a momentary sense of belonging and acceptance. But it’s a false acceptance, because deep down, we know that the crowd could turn on us at any moment. It’s our own deep insecurity that leads us to shame others. If only we knew that we were created by God, known by God, accepted totally by God, loved extravagantly by God, we would not feel the need to shame each other.
So we come to another shamed woman who is to be stoned to death in our reading from John’s Gospel. Stoning was, in Jesus’ day, part of the Law of Moses – Sharia Law is not the only legal system to include stoning – so the trick question put to Jesus is this: are you going to keep the law, or condone a violent murder? Jesus comes up against such trick questions all the way through his life – but here, it’s not just about quick-witted intellectual fancy footwork; a woman’s life is at stake. In response, Jesus says nothing. Instead, he stoops down, and writes in the dust. What does he write? One ancient manuscript suggests that he writes a list of the sins that the men have committed; but we don’t know if that’s true.
Maybe the point is not so much what he writes, but the physical action that goes with it. He stoops down, he touches the dusty earth with his finger, and in that motion God himself, in the fully human and fully divine person of Jesus, physically connects with a violent and vengeful world, a world that shames and shuns and slaughters. That’s the heart of the Christian Gospel right there.
The Hebrew word for ‘dust’ is ‘adamah’, from which we get the name Adam, the Bible’s first human. Jesus reaches down, touching the dust, touching our humanity. He does the one thing that the crowd can’t do – he connects with his humanity. And when Jesus does speak, his words are transformative. What about you? Jesus asks, turning the to the accusers. Can you connect with your humanity? With your fragility and your fears? With your sin and your shame?
This is exactly what Ash Wednesday invites us to do; to connect with our humanity, to recognise ourselves as human, as mortal, as imperfect; as too fat, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too sexy, too sexless, too stupid, too elitist, too old, too young, too anything – and to find in that connection with ourselves the free and full forgiveness of the God who created us from the dust of the earth and loves the very dust of our humanity so much that he stoops down to touch it – and us - time and time again.
There is nothing more liberating that this life could offer. In those words, ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ we don’t hear condemnation but acceptance. We don’t hear hatred or shame, but love and recognition. Like the woman in John’s Gospel, we are free to go and sin no more; to become more liberated of all that would shame us in the secret places of our own hearts.
In this service of ashing, you are invited to connect with your humanity, and to know God’s love for you and in that love, a freedom to become more fully the person God created you to be. As we do this together, we connect with our shared humanity, and we find the freedom to overcome the vengeful violence of our shame-addicted society; the freedom that allows each one of us, in all our flawed humanity, to thrive. Amen.