Today’s message is about the power of example and the way our lives speak—knowingly or not, and for good or for ill—into the lives of others. We never really know when our actions will leave a lasting impact on someone else. It might be the time we helped someone pick up a bag of groceries she dropped. Or it could be the day we were feeling crummy and were short-tempered with the clerk in the checkout line. Most likely, it was both.
But either way—and if you’re like me, you can probably think of lots of both good examples and the ones you’d rather forget—what we do, how we act, the expressions on our faces, the words we speak—continually, each day, are sharing with the outside world what we’re thinking, feeling, and believing on the inside. Of course, we hope that when others encounter us they feel a sense of kindness, openness, and faith coming from us—shining that of God in us to that of God in them, a divine flow that adds more goodness to the world. But being human, we also have days when we aren’t thinking much about being any kind of example to anyone and we just want what we want and do what we do, forgetting, for a time, how deeply connected we are with everyone—and with everything—we encounter.
That attitude—of disconnection–can become the rule more than the exception when we are living under stress, when there’s pain and fear, division and distrust in the world around us. Even in our mostly quiet, midwestern towns, we are all starkly aware of these harrowing times and the circumstances created by the ongoing pandemic and tension in our world today. In a time when we probably need a feeling of connection—with its kindness, gentleness, forbearance, and patience–more than ever, we may feel cut off, on our own. Our inner reserves of good will are dipping low. We just don’t have the energy to deal with others. So we hurry home, shut the door, put on our jammies, and watch Netflix.
The thing is, being an example, being connect isn’t something we can resign from. Wherever we go, there we are, and if other people are in the vicinity, for better and for worse, our presence is felt and somehow making an impact. It’s the way we humans are made. We learn from each other, we influence each other, 24/7. We catch each other’s feelings (you may remember I gave a message about that a few weeks ago); we lift each other up, and sometimes—accidentally or maybe even intentionally, to make ourselves feel better—we put each other down. Our presence matters. And it is felt. And it has shaping power on the experience of others.
One of the bedrock beliefs of our tradition is that ours is a sacramental faith. That means that to Quakers, faith is not something we try to “look good doing” on Sundays and then go about our normal lives without a care for all the rest of the week. We do our best to live our faith—so that what we believe on the inside steers and guides our behaviors on the outside. That’s how Friends came to be known for integrity in business practices and in life, to care for the friendless and the oppressed, to speak out on issues of humanity and equality and respect for all God’s children. But it didn’t start with big social issues—Friends sought to live their faith and it directed them, heart by heart. That’s how the light of God flows into the world—as the truth known by the soul flows out through the lives and actions of the faithful. Truth makes itself known. Love becomes visible. Goodness prevails.
But living with the conviction of this kind of powerful faith is certainly a challenge in times like these. It is easy for us to feel discouraged, to wonder what good our tiny effort at light-carrying can do. But there’s an easy place to start. I think of a bumper sticker I saw years ago that made me laugh. A simple reminder for a sacramental life: “If your heart knows Jesus, notify your face.”
You may have heard that the former first lady of the state of Indiana, Susan Bayh, passed away day before yesterday at the young age of 61. She had been battling glioblastoma—a terrible and aggressive brain cancer—for more than two and a half years. As news of her death spread, people took to social media to post their sadness and condolences. As I read through their comments yesterday, I saw that over and over again, people remembering her described her kindness, her helpfulness, her generosity in helping others.
I would imagine that’s a legacy that would rest well with many of us. Kind. Generous. Helpful. Sincere. Her presence in the lives of so many—whether they met her simply one time or knew her for decades—left a beautiful, uplifting impression. People felt her giving soul. She made a lasting impact on those lives.
Our presence matters, and the imprint lasts. I was thinking this week about the opposite of that—how so much of the disagreement and conflict in our world right now is fueled by talk, talk, talk—talk on the news, talk by politicians and pundits, talk on social media, ideas and opinions and words–so many words–filling the air and airwaves and Internet. All these ideas and words are simple to create—you know this if you’ve ever had a chatty neighbor–but they have little meaning in a world where actions make things real—good actions, loving actions, consistent choices carried out for the good of others.
And the talk we listen to—what we take to heart—is not without its own impact. It too has its shaping and motivating power. What we think and how we see and what we believe are influenced by all these words, and by the emotions of the people sharing them. And depending on who we listen to, we may see things differently from our friends and neighbors, maybe differently from our own family members. And that makes us feel more alone, more disconnected, when our souls need the reverse.
I thought back to stories in the Old Testament when the people were stirred up and in chaos and had such a hard time holding with any faith to the covenant God had made with them. It seems like over and over again, even though God was on their side, the people turned to idols and kings to lead and protect them. It’s as though they needed something or someone tangible they could see with their eyes or touch with their hands so they could really make the change into this new way of living. Without God in this realm as a present, knowable being, how could they develop trust with this unseen, loving source of life? This was even harder when you consider what they experienced—wars and famine, locusts and floods and plaques. Are those the actions of a loving God? If they couldn’t see him, how would they know?
The people heard many words, so many beliefs, all swirling around with their own fears and wants and hopes for their future. Their belief in God was a tradition, a law, something they tried to live by—often out of fear–but it wasn’t a life-giving spirit of mercy and forgiveness and peace, guiding them toward goodness and a loving relationship with God. That is precisely why Jesus had to come and why the example and person and presence of Jesus is so important, so vital, in their time and in ours.
Back in the 1990s—and you may remember this—a fad swept the country and young and youngish people began wearing bracelets with the letters WWJD. Maybe you had one yourself. I did. WWJD stood for What Would Jesus Do? And it was all started by a youth group leader at a church in Holland, Michigan, who wanted to help her teens think about Jesus’s example of living with love and truth as they went about their daily lives.
The phrase what would Jesus do actually comes from the subtitle of a novel written by pastor Charles Spurgeon in the late 1800s. The book was In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do, and it told the story of a homeless man who walks into an affluent congregation in the middle of worship. People are stunned by his appearance and his presence and his words. The novel is quite compelling–and a little melodramatic—I read it in my 30s, wearing my WWJD bracelet, but it offers a challenge and an invitation to take seriously the way we impact and minister to—or judge and reject—one another.
At first the congregation in the story is defensive and a bit taken aback, but gradually we begin to see how this gentle homeless man inspires change in the hearts of the people without ever intending to cause a change at all. Gradually the group begins to come to life from the inside out, heart by heart, forgetting about things related to status and prestige and beginning to act naturally, freely with kindness and care. A warmth spreads among the people. It’s something we feel only when God’s love is flowing through our actions. All the words in the world won’t bring that inner warmth we feel when the Light of God’s presence is with us.
In our New Testament reading today we heard the dramatic and well-known story of the woman caught in adultery, brought to Jesus by the Pharisees. They are attempting to trap him yet again. They ask Jesus whether the woman should be stoned, which is what it says in the law of Moses. Actually the law states that both partners should be stoned, although the Pharisees brought only the woman forward.
Instead of answering them, Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the dust. For generations, scholars have loved to debate what he was writing. What do you think it might have been? Some take a clue from what Jesus says to the Pharisees—“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” and they suggest that Jesus wrote in the dirt the names of those who have sins they haven’t repented for. So at the same time he’s telling them to search their own hearts before condemning another—which is a good message for us all—he is showing them that their sins are not hidden from him.
As I looked into this, I discovered that there is a verse in the Old Testament—Jeremiah 17:13—in which the prophet mentions writing something in the dust. And there are dire consequences attached. The verse says,
LORD, you are the hope of Israel;
all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the LORD,
the spring of living water.
Perhaps in that moment Jesus, who knew his scripture well, wrote the names of those who—by not being honest about the sins in their own hearts—were turning away from God. Thus his writing was a call to truth—an invitation, really—for the Pharisees to change their minds and turn toward God, the spring of living water in their midst.
At the outset of the story we also heard that all the people had come to the temple that morning and were crowding around Jesus. They witnessed this painful episode: the young woman dragged forward in shame and terror, the intimidating Pharisees challenging Jesus. They must have been afraid they would witness a stoning. They probably knew the girl accused. I think Jesus would have been very aware of the power of his presence right then. He would have wanted to demonstrate clearly and simply to all those witnesses something true about God.
And so peacefully, quietly, Jesus bent down. This was not a move to claim power in the situation. He wasn’t trying to dominate anyone or win anything. It was a gesture to de-escalate an explosive situation. He was making room for truth to arise. Without speaking, he writes with his finger on the ground. On the one hand, this shows he is not swept up in the emotions of the moment—he is thinking other thoughts, listening to God, focusing on something not in the control of the Pharisees. His action also takes the painful and angry focus off the shamed young woman as everyone looks to see what this teacher of God is doing.
Perhaps what Jesus wrote is less important than the fact that we all followed what he did as he did it. Who was being our example there? Certainly not the Pharisees, although they were the learned ones in control. Who in that encounter had the greatest impact on all those gathered that day—and those of us reading about it and studying it 2,000 years later? Our hearts go out to the woman because we have our own need for forgiveness. The Pharisees once again serve as an example of what not to do, these powerful men who considered themselves so righteous.
Jesus was the model, the example, the leader—then and now. His actions, his demeanor, his presence shares God’s truth and leads with love and mercy. Over and over again, Jesus emerges from scripture stories as a gentle, merciful, truthful soul whose life and actions, thoughts and prayers, teachings and healings all pointed to God in everything, always.
The power of his presence was unlimited—continuing across all time–and when we look away from the news and turn toward the quiet of our hearts, it continues to guide us with love and light today. We often forget but there is power in our presence too—for good and for ill–and it matters who we look to as our example. We may never know how God shines the light of His love through a tiny gesture we make or a word we say. Maybe our smile gives someone hope. Or our humor lifts a dark day. A simple kindness we barely notice could be the lifeline that draws a distant heart back within reach of God’s love, helping them feel connected to goodness and hope once again.
What would Jesus do? We’ll know if we search our hearts. He is still doing today what he did then; inviting us to find and share the goodness of God’s love, with truth and mercy and service as our guide. And as George Fox found so many years ago, Christ does come to teach his people himself, step by step by step, helping us learn how to live from the inside out in the flow of God’s never-ending love.
- OT Jeremiah 17: 13
- NT John 8: 1-11