Chapel Sermon - Sunday 28 February
Doing the most loving thing...
Varah, the Samaritans and a woman caught in the act of adultery
Sunday 28 February 2016
The Revd David Johnson
Sometimes being open to other people, and to respond creatively, to have one good idea is enough to define a lifetime and to change the world.
I just want to say a few words this morning about one of my personal heroes: a very unconventional Church of England priest called Chad Varah. He lived from 1911 to 2007.
As a young clergyman in 1935, he conducted the funeral for a young girl who had taken her own life. She had started her periods and did not know what was happening to her. Such things were not talked about she thought she had caught some terrible sexual disease. There was no-one she could turn to and so she committed suicide. Chad Varah said these words "Little girl, I didn't know you, but you have changed the rest of my life for good." He was a pioneer of sex education and the difference it can make to be informed and to talk about things that people might otherwise not speak about.
He became aware that in the greater London area of the time there were three suicides each day and he began to encourage people to come in to speak with him. There were volunteer helpers who made tea and talked to people who were waiting to see him but more and more often, just the experience and to talk to one of these volunteers seemed to be enough. Chad Varah realised that what people needed was not to receive advice but just to be listened to without judgement.
In 1953 he founded the organisation that became the Samaritans who provide support, especially over the telephone, for all those who are distressed and have no-one to turn to. It is not a Christian organisation. It exists to allow people to be listened to without fear of judgement or opinion.
It was this one insight and the creative response that came from it that has given help to countless millions of people. If at any point in your life you needed to turn to them they would be an uncritical source of support.
Chad Varah’s daughter, speaking about her father, said that “on every moral and ethical question, his response was ‘What would Jesus Christ have done?’”
And that really is at the heart of how we should think about all of the problems that we have ‘What would Jesus have done?’ Or to put it another way, ‘What would be the most loving thing to do in this situation?’
It is too easy to think that the right answer to everything in life is found by finding a rule to obey, doing what someone else tells us to do, or weighing up and calculating what will make us or the majority of people happiest. And whilst even religions seem to have their fair share of rules, none of these ways: rules, obedience and moral calculations, are the way of love or the way that Jesus lived.
What makes the way of Jesus difficult for some people is that he does not make rules for people to follow and nowhere is this more difficult than in perhaps the most difficult subject of human behaviour, the whole area of sex and relationships. This is just about the only occasion that we have and it is found in chapter 8 of John’s gospel:
Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They 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. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.* 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’* And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
Jesus is not saying that the woman’s behaviour does not matter. She knows from the seventh commandment that adultery is wrong and that it is breaking the relationship of trust that should exist between *a husband and wife. Jesus tells her not to sin again.
But at the heart of the story is Jesus’ love and compassion and a deeper understanding of the condemnation that people seem too quick and too ready to bring down on others. In the case of adultery in first century Judaism, sadly as it is in some strict Islamic countries, the punishment is to be stoned to death.
Jesus simply says one thing to the angry crowd ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ That is it. Nothing more. And we are left with the enigmatic image of Jesus simply bending down, ignoring everyone, and simply writing with this finger in the dust of the ground.
The crowd are left to realise that they, like all of us, do not have the moral perfection from which to judge and condemn others; and so, one by one, they leave the scene so that all is left are Jesus and the woman.
And the expression of love is given in Jesus’ words ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way...’
I simply hope that we could hold that story in mind when we think about the many times that we judge and condemn others, sometimes by our attitudes and words and sometimes even by our actions.
We are often too quick to judge; too careless in showing our thoughts and feelings by our words and actions. As Robert Winston said in his lecture on Tuesday evening, we are too ready to look for difference; for reasons to seek superiority and advantage. We should value ourselves and see the good in who we all are as unique individuals.
The way of Christianity that I commend to you is not defined in terms of commands to be obeyed and punishments to be feared. The Ten Commandments are not difficult to follow. I hope that none of you feels overly constricted by their demands on you. They are not there to diminish life but to offer us guidelines and values to make life good.
Ultimately we do not need rules or other people to tell us, or complex ways to work out, what we should do. We simply need to ask ourselves ‘what would Jesus have done?’ and ‘what would be the most loving thing to do?’ It does not just mean loving people when we want to love them or when we find it easy to love them. Loving can be costly and risky but it is the way that Jesus lived, with the price he was willing to face. But love is also rewarding and fulfilling.
We can see the inspiration of the love of Jesus behind the life of Chad Varah and indeed the incredible people who work as Samaritan volunteers today. Many years ago I was privileged to have had time to be one of those volunteers and I could not speak highly enough about the training and support and experience of being such a volunteer if you were ever able to support the Samaritans later in your own lives.
Sometimes it is just one creative idea or one loving act that can change the world. Sometimes, for an individual person, it is being loved and being forgiven that can make all the difference.
Revd David Johnson
Dauntsey’s School Chaplain