Women’s Conference – June 19, 2021
“With Merciful Love”
Ezekiel 36:23-28; Titus 3:1-7; John 8:1-11

What an incredible gathering – what a great day to celebrate our faith in Jesus – what a powerful sign of hope your presence here today is to our world.  We join together at a time that we pray is the end of an incredibly long and painful journey through a once-in-a-century pandemic.  In so doing, I know that your hearts are filled with gratitude to God for his abiding presence on this journey.  I also know of your resolve to proclaim in your lives the same merciful love of God that has so generously carried all of us to this moment as disciples of Jesus.

Thank you for your courageous witness – for your desire to refresh your faith – and for your commitment to living the good news of Jesus.

This has been a tough year, hasn’t it?  About a year and a half ago, we confronted the harsh reality of a deadly virus that enveloped our lives as it infiltrated virtually every part of the globe.  To date, the virus has claimed over 177 million victims with 3.8 million deaths worldwide, including over 600 thousand deaths in our country alone.  For those of you who have suffered loss or grief, we pray for you and your family today in a special way.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that for all we’ve learned from our experiences during this past year, it has taken us quite some time to understand one very important lesson:  that for as wise and learned as we see ourselves to be, we are ultimately not in control of our lives.  That role belongs to God.  And that divine responsibility flows into our lives, as St. Paul reminds us today, “not because of any righteous deeds that we have done, but because of God’s mercy.”

Today’s gospel story from St. John speaks powerfully to the reality of our need for a savior and to the merciful love of God.  The encounter between Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees, and the woman caught in adultery also teaches us a great deal about judgment, forgiveness, reconciliation and especially our relationship with Jesus.

In January 2019, Pope Francis invited all of the bishops of the United States to participate in a weeklong retreat, which was led by Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household since 1980 when St John Paul II was Pope.

For all of the challenging, consoling and thought provoking words that the Cardinal shared with us, one presentation stood out to me.  He asked us to consider ultimately how we pray and how we engage God in our lives.  And he began by reflecting upon a somewhat technical distinction between the kerygma – a Greek word which refers to the proclamation of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ – and the didache – the law and the moral life that would follow that first proclamation and that we are all called to embrace.  Bear with me for just a moment.  This isn’t as complicated as it sounds!

Here’s what the Cardinal was saying. Simply put, it’s the proclamation of the good news of the Gospel and the love of God that leads to one’s first personal encounter with Jesus.  At the core of that proclamation is the reality that “Jesus is Lord.”  …  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Only once we’ve been embraced by the love of God can any of us move to authentically embrace God’s law and the moral life.

Translate this into our lives:  You know better than I that in raising a child from birth, we don’t first teach that child a list of rules and regulations on how to live.  Of course not – because an infant can’t understand such things.  But the same infant will respond to love!  As such, our first encounter with an infant child is love and care.  Only as that child grows and comes to trust us and the assurance of our relationship and the depth of our love will that child respond to what we teach and how to best live his or her life.  …  Why would we ever think that our relationship with God would be different or more complicated?

It’s not surprising, then, that Pope Francis goes to great lengths to stress the unique place of our encounter with the love and mercy of Jesus, noting that “nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation” of Jesus’ love and mercy in our lives (EG 164-165).

We’ve all had such experiences, haven’t we – experiences that pour into our hearts the love, mercy and life of God?  …  While having been raised in a faithful Catholic family since birth, my first personal encounter with Jesus during which I confronted my life and God’s mercy in relationship to me came in my college years at the University of Pittsburgh during college during a weekend campus ministry retreat.  An African American preacher who worked with Dr. King in the civil rights movement of the 60’s – Dr. John Perkins – spoke the first night of that retreat.  I recall like it was yesterday the words he shared.  They were meant for me!  He said, “We can be so focused on rituals and practices in our faith tradition and meticulously following them that we can miss Jesus.  Nothing can take the place of a personal relationship with the Lord – who stands at the door of your heart and knocks to come into your life – not because you’re perfect, but because he is and he is rich in mercy.”

Those words changed my life!  They are the reason why I set aside my intention to become a dentist and, instead, study for the priesthood.  …  I suspect most of us have had some type of similar experience that is likely the reason why we’re here today – don’t you agree?

The point of all of this:  We can become so reliant on ourselves, our piety, our understanding of church laws and rituals, our need to be righteous, that we forget the heart of what and who we proclaim and to whom we pray.  We can focus so much on the completeness and orthodoxy of our faith, that we fail to appreciate that the Church’s origin is not a law – but a person.  And as Pope Emeritus Benedict often reminded us, that person is Jesus – God’s great gift of love and mercy – our savior – who calls us to relationship.

Now let’s go back to today’s gospel passage.  There’s a lot going on in this passage, isn’t there?  Look at the key players in this exchange.

There are the scribes and Pharisees.  Admittedly, their approach to morality does have a certain appeal:  find the problem and cut it out!   But Jesus challenges them to something more.  He encourages them to put down their stones of indignation, anger and self-righteousness and instead to look into their own hearts to begin to discern what drives any and all of us to sin.  …  “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  …  In other words, he calls them to set aside their own rationalizations and excuses and embrace the love and mercy of God that we all so desperately need.

Then there is the woman caught in the act of adultery.  She knows her shortcomings better than anybody does.  Given the nature of the encounter, one can imagine that the woman doubts that God could ever forgive her for this unforgivable sin.  …  How could her husband forgive her?  …  What would her family and neighbors think?  …  Worst of all, how could she ever forgive herself?  Yet, into the midst of all of her feelings of guilt, remorse, and uncertainty, Jesus engages her with words that are life changing:  “Has no one condemned you?”  The woman replies, “No one, sir.”  To which Jesus responds, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

Now think back to the words that I shared with you earlier in these reflections about the initial proclamation of salvation that led each of us to an encounter with Jesus.  …  Because he is rich in mercy, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

The real miracle of today’s treasured gospel story is less the fact that Jesus convinced the scribes and Pharisees to walk away and much more the relationship between the woman and Jesus, the “incarnation of mercy,” as the great St. Augustine refers to him in a commentary on this very passage.  The woman changed not because the Pharisees held before her a law to be followed.  She changed because she first encountered the mercy and love of Jesus.

So the question for me and for you today as we gather in prayer and reflection is quite fundamental to our lives as Christians and disciples of Jesus.  Through what lens do we look at Jesus?  …  Do we see him as a God who measures our worthiness of his saving grace by the perfection of our lives?  …  Or do we see him as “Lord,” “Savior,” and the incarnation of God, who comes into our lives first “with merciful love,” since on our own, we cannot save ourselves?