Today’s gospel is, to a great extent, about second chances. Someone who knows about that is an Air Force pilot named Joe Kittinger.
In the late 1950s, Joe Kittinger was the director of Project Excelsior, a government program to develop safety techniques for pilots who had to eject from aircraft at high altitudes. It was dangerous but necessary work. Kittinger never had any problems with his testing, until one day in 1959. During a test flight, he jumped from a balloon more than 60, 000 feet above New Mexico desert. But seconds after he jumped, his parachute chord got tangled around his neck.
It was the worst thing that could happen, at the worst moment it could happen.
His body went into a spin – a death spiral that reached 120 revolutions a minute. Two spins every second. He was moving faster than his body could bear — plunging hundreds of miles per hour. Kittinger blacked out. Incredibly, about a mile above ground, his reserve parachute finally opened, snapping him back into consciousness.
When he came to, he thought he had died. But then, he spotted the parachute open above him. And only one thought rushed through his mind: “I’m alive,” he later wrote, “I am impossibly, wonderfully alive.”
He went on to be honored by President Eisenhower for his bravery and his service to his country. In 1960, Joe Kittinger went on to set the world altitude record, falling 102,800 feet – a record that, to this day, still stands.
I’m not someone who likes heights very much – just climbing into this pulpit is about as much as I can take. But I read about people like Joe Kittinger, and hear how he escaped death, and I’m struck by his words when he understood what had happened.
“I am impossibly, wonderfully alive.”
How many of us know what it’s like to confront certain death – but to walk away, to be given one more chance? How many of us realize what that really means?
Well, Joe Kittinger does.
And so, I think, did the woman in today’s gospel.
Her fall was also dramatic – tangled in the chords of her troubled and sinful life. And at a defining moment in her life, she found herself standing in the middle of a circle of men, as they weighed the stones in their hands and prepared to strike. She undoubtedly knew about other women who had faced those same stones – maybe she had even seen them killed. And there she stood, alone, terrified, maybe wishing she hadn’t made the choices she did, wondering where she went wrong. Wondering which of those faces, the faces of the Pharisees, would be the last she saw.
But then she saw Jesus. “Go,” he said. “And from now on, do not sin anymore.”
And as she staggered away from that encounter, maybe she thought to herself, with a sense of shock, and gratitude: “I’m alive. I am impossibly, wonderfully alive.”
We never find out what happened to the woman – if she followed Jesus’s words or not. But maybe that’s not important. What’s important isn’t the choice she made. What’s important is that she HAD a choice. She had another chance.
“Go and from now on, do not sin anymore.”
With those words, our Lent begins to draw to a close. They are the last words we will hear in a Sunday gospel until we begin Holy Week, and begin the walk with Christ to Calvary. But those words tell us everything.
Look back on this Lent. It began on a cold Wednesday in February. Return to me, the prophet Joel wrote. Rend your heart. And we wore ashes and gave up meat and offered alms. Since then, we have heard the gospels cry out to us, telling us about all these second chances in scripture – about the barren fig tree that was spared, about the prodigal son who was welcomed home, and now, about the woman saved from stoning. Christ’s words to her are his words to us.
“Go and from now on, do not sin anymore.”
Now, here we stand, on a warm morning in March, and we are given new hope. We can take another road, make another choice.
It’s not too late to decide.
Joe Kittinger understood that. “I am impossibly, wonderfully alive,” he said. And he went on to make history.
What kind of history will we make in these last days of Lent? What kind of change will we make in our lives to be ready for Easter?
A popular phrase in the ’70s said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
It’s trite, but it’s true. And maybe it offers us one more way of looking at the road that spreads before us.
Christ’s final command to the woman is so simple, so direct. Go, he says. Begin. Leave this place. Set out on your journey. Go.
He could have ended with that. But he didn’t. What follows are words we are meant to carry in our hearts as we turn our gaze toward Calvary. They are words of mercy. Words of compassion. Words of grace in a world where grace is so often in short supply.
To anyone living with a painful past… to anyone who struggles with remorse and regret….to those who feel they have done something unforgivable…take heart. We can begin again. The words of the gospel remind us that God wants to give us another chance. For some of us, it may be a second chance – for others, a 22nd. But it begins with making a choice, taking that first step. Are we able to do it?
Of all the words in the gospel that we have heard over these last five weeks, these may be the ones that matter the most. They are the great legacy of Lent.
Go, Jesus says. And from now on, do not sin anymore.