Every so often when a newcomer comes to our church, I will be asked this question: “I saw in your bulletin the words, ‘We reserve the right to accept everybody.’ What does that mean?” It’s a good question. I asked it myself the first time I came to this church over eighteen years ago. According to my predecessor, Rev. Dr. Dan Ivins, who served this church as pastor from 1975 to 1984, he came up with the slogan as a reaction to segregationist policies of the South in the 1960’s. You may recall that many restaurants in the South, and in other places, used to post signs in their windows, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” I suppose the idea was that if you reserved the right to refuse service to anyone, you couldn’t be accused of racism if you refused service to a certain color of people. Dan said he had in mind former Georgia governor Lester Maddox standing at the door of his Atlanta restaurant with an ax handle in his hand to bar the entrance of anyone he didn’t want to come inside.
Dan suggested that Village adopt the opposite slogan as its motto to signal that everyone would be welcome at this church. You might be interested to know that Dan has taken that slogan to every church he has pastored since he left Village in 1984. He introduced it to the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Alabama, and then to the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, Maryland. Dan even got it printed on the church sign in Silver Spring. Dan told me that his former churches in Birmingham and Silver Spring are still using the motto. He was pleased to know that we still use it too. When Dan was called to his present church in Sun City, Arizona a couple of years ago, he introduced the saying to them. Dan said he had to fight for it in Arizona. That may explain why he will soon be leaving that church in Arizona to become the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Portland, Oregon.
“We reserve the right to accept everybody.” Some people like the sound of it. For others, however, it makes them nervous. What are the implications of such a slogan? Does that mean that anything goes? Does it mean we make no moral discernments or judgments about right and wrong? Does it mean that personal morality really doesn’t matter? No, on all counts. “Accept” is not the same as “approve.” Acceptance doesn’t mean approval. As Christians, we’ve got a pretty good idea of the way that God wants us to live. As Christians, we have rather clear standards of right and wrong. As Christians, we adhere to a high standard of personal morality. As Christians, we do make moral discernments according to our best understanding of the scriptures and the life and teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Reserving the right to accept everybody doesn’t eviscerate personal morality. It simply means that we recognize that every person is a beloved child of God, at once a sinner, but also a person for whom Christ died.
In the history of this church that slogan has been broadened to include more than racial equality, although racial equality is certainly an important part of it. Thirty years ago, when this church was just getting started, divorced people carried a certain stigma in the eyes of many Christians and most churches. Frankly, divorced people were made to feel like second-class church members. Many churches had policies that a divorced person could not be elected as a deacon or serve in other leadership positions. Back then for a minister to divorce often meant the end of his ministerial career. But this church has a long history of welcoming and accepting people who have gone through the trauma of divorce. That doesn’t mean that we approve of divorce or believe that divorce is a good thing. Clearly, the biblical ideal for marriage is a lifelong commitment of husband and wife. To be true to the biblical ideal, we must hold up marriage as a permanent, indissoluble union of a man and a woman joined together by God himself. But sometimes the reality doesn’t live up to the ideal. Sometimes marriages do end by divorce—what then? Does the church turn its back on divorced people? This church has said “no.” The church has said no to turning its back on divorced people because ours is a God of forgiveness and mercy and grace.
That’s the rub, isn’t it—balancing the law of God and the judgment of God with his forgiveness, and mercy, and grace. It is a delicate balancing act—condemning sin without condemning sinners. Our scripture for this morning is one of the most controversial passages in the entire Bible. It has always been so. In many of the early manuscripts of the Bible, this passage was not included. Yet scholars are almost unanimous in believing that this passage represents an authentic event in the life of Jesus. Why was it not included in so many manuscripts of the gospel of John? —probably because it was so controversial. Read one way, it sounds like Jesus was soft on sin. Eventually, however, this story was included in the Bible because it was just the way Jesus typically acted.
Jesus was teaching on the grounds of the Temple. The scribes and Pharisees saw an opportunity to entrap him and embarrass him and discredit him. They brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of committing adultery. Apparently, there was no doubt that the woman was guilty of violating one of the Ten Commandments. Her sin was obvious and verifiable. It seemed to them to be a clear-cut case of right and wrong. The woman was wrong, they argued, and so they had every right to exact a strict punishment upon her. According to the law, adultery was punishable by death, usually by stoning. In one of the most intriguing details of scripture John tells us that Jesus bent down and wrote something with his finger in the sand. Scholars have speculated for centuries about what Jesus wrote. Maybe he wrote down all ten of the commandments, not just the one about not committing adultery. Maybe he wrote down the names of all those accusing the woman. Maybe he just doodled in the sand—we don’t know. But when the accusers kept questioning him, Jesus stood and looked them in the eyes and said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Once again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. The silence was deafening. One by one they began to slink away, beginning with the elders. Finally, no one was left but Jesus and the guilty woman. Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No sir,” the shaken woman replied. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said. “Go, and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus was not soft on sin, but he did have mercy on sinners. In no way did Jesus excuse or minimize or rationalize the woman’s behavior. Jesus called her behavior a sin. Jesus condemned what she had done, but he did not condemn her. Jesus told her not to sin again, to leave her life of sin. You see, Jesus had a higher purpose than condemnation. As John said earlier in his Gospel in chapter 3, verse 17, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” This is the difference between law and grace. The law was given to condemn. Grace was given to save and redeem.
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner’s magazine, has called racism “America’s original sin.” Just as Jesus said to the woman, “Go, and leave your life of sin,” Jesus says to the church today, “leave the sin of racism.” It’s a word of judgment, but also a word of grace. Today we take it for granted the church is open to persons of all races and ethnic backgrounds. It is a sad fact that many churches in America are still racially segregated, but the barriers that separated races in the past are coming down and many more churches are working to become more racially inclusive. This church has included persons of various races from the very beginning. There are Hispanic names among the charter members of this church, and African-Americans have been active members and participants going back thirty years. But the battle against racism is far from won. The challenge for us is to build on this tradition of racial inclusiveness and strive to make our church even more diverse and reflective of this community. The largely Anglo composition of this church is reflective of the way this community used to be, but it’s not that way any more. This community has become much more diverse and it is my fervent prayer that this church will become more diverse as well.
Today the issue of divorce is not nearly as divisive as it was thirty years ago. To be sure, divorce is still a tragedy that afflicts far too many families, and this church and every church must do all that we can to help marriage partners stay together and work out their problems in grace and peace. But even though we continue to work against divorce, we no longer stigmatize divorced people as second-class Christians. We recognize that God is often at work in the aftermath of divorce to redeem those who have been broken and to bring about healing and growth.
I have one absolute certainty about everybody who enters the doors of this church—every person who enters the doors of this church, including me, is a sinner. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as Paul said in Romans 3:23. Some of our sins are more obvious than others. The sin of divorce is much more obvious than the sin of greed or selfishness or envy or idolatry or hatred and bitterness toward another person. It’s easy to condemn the sin of a racist like Lester Maddox who stands at the door of his restaurant with a pick handle while ignoring the more subtle racism that influences where people live and send their kids to school and even go to church. But the good news of the gospel is that sin—both overt sin and subtle sin—has not the final word. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus’ final word is not condemnation but grace. Jesus knows we are all sinners. Our sinfulness is the reason that it was necessary for Jesus to die on the cross. Jesus died not to condemn us but to save us. His final word to us is not judgment and punishment but mercy and grace.
Author Gordon MacDonald believes that one of the primary missions of the church, perhaps the primary mission, is the offer of grace. MacDonald said, “The world can do almost anything as well or better than the church. You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.” We who have received the grace of God through our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ have a unique gift to share with the world—the gift of God’s grace.
Some of you remember that I began my ministry with this church eighteen years ago this month. Even if you remember that, you might not remember my first sermon here at this church a couple of months before that was as a candidate to become pastor of this church. After meeting with me and Linda on several occasions, the Pastor Search Committee invited me to come and preach a “trial sermon” before my name was presented to the congregation for a vote. Even if you were here, you may not remember that the text for my trial sermon was the text for today, about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. I chose that text because to me it represents the heart of the gospel and the essential good news of Jesus Christ. Technically I began my nineteenth year as pastor on January 1 of this year, but we had guest preachers the first three Sundays in January so this is my first sermon as I begin my nineteenth year among you. I could think of no more appropriate text and no better theme to highlight what I perceive my ministry and the ministry of this church to be about. We are about grace. We are saved by grace, we live in grace, and we are on mission to share God’s grace with others.
We reserve the right to accept everybody, as God in Christ Jesus has accepted us.
Bruce Salmon, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
January 26, 2003
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