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If a pastor is truly blessed by God in their life of ministry, they might have one moment in a worship service so shining and shocking that it will elicit from the congregation an audible gasp.

Here is my story, from some years ago. The scripture for the day was the wonderful and terrifying John 8, the narrative commonly known as “The Woman Caught in the Act of Adultery.” I was preaching on the section that describes when Jesus, after the woman has been dragged before the crowd and accused, “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”

This section has always intrigued me. Firstly because it’s the only time in the Gospels that we see Jesus writing anything at all. Secondly because I feel this is Jesus expertly and mercifully drawing the eyes and the attention of the accusers and the crowd off of the woman (who, as some commentators suggest, might be standing there stark naked, having been pulled right out of her bed of sin) and onto himself, providing a possible moment for the de-escalation of calls for her stoning death. Even the woman’s own eyes might have gone to Jesus as he knelt down and began to silently write in the dirt. So surprising is this move!

I wondered aloud to the congregation what Jesus might have been writing, mentioning that I had once read a suggestion that Jesus was writing the Ten Commandments. A hand in the congregation went up; it was Anna’s hand. Anna was an elderly, long-time member of our congregation, a very proper lady who had a lot of very rigid ideas about morality. She proclaimed loudly, “I think he was writing, ‘Thou shalt NOT commit adultery!’”

Sitting just behind Anna was Kent, a middle-aged man with special needs. He leaned forward and put his hand on Anna’s arm, and in a stage whisper that the whole sanctuary could hear, he said, “Oh but Anna, what about, ‘Thou shalt not kill?’”

The congregation gasped audibly with one voice at his words. Just remembering it now makes me break out in gooseflesh. That little interaction was worth a thousand sermons, capturing perfectly the meaning and the message of John 8, the steely Law of Moses was tempered by the gentle Law of Love. The misogynistic blood-lust of the leering religious leaders was derailed by the silent, stooping Jesus. Piety fainted at the feet of compassion.

As a pastor, I confess I mostly assume that the work of engineering a “religious experience” for the congregation is my responsibility. If you want something done right, after all, you have to do it yourself. But this is not so. To read the Gospels is to see that when believers gather for worship or fellowship, God only knows what can happen!

Mark 1 speaks of a man in the synagogue gathering, his demon possession heretofore asymptomatic, who cries out at the sound of Jesus’ voice. Luke 7 tells of a civilized dinner at the home of an elite, interrupted by a strange woman who splashed around perfume. Luke 5 shocks — Jesus is just preaching in a house when suddenly dust and ceiling tiles begin to fall, and a lame man is lowered down. In each of these stories of unexpected events, let us please believe that there were many “gasps!”

“Thou shalt NOT commit adultery.” “Oh but Anna, what about, ‘Thou shalt not kill?’” The gasp that arose from the congregation was proof that God’s own Self had invaded our worship service. Any work that was “mine” that day was truly done in a moment by Anna, Kent, and the Holy Spirit. God had broken through.

Thanks be to God!

Emily Ratering-Youngberg

Emily Ratering-Youngberg is the pastor of First Reformed Church in Little Falls, New Jersey. She’s married to a math teacher, and they have two teenagers. Emily also sews and collects science fiction first editions.


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