Sunday, July 12, 2009

Plumb Lines in Our Midst

Sixth Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 10) – Year B (RCL)
Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Sunday, July 12, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

You know how you have a conversation or an experience in the distant past that somehow manages to stay with you? It’s not like it is always in the forefront of you consciousness, but is nonetheless a permanent part of who you, with the experience occasionally popping into mind, even years later. One of those conversations for me happened when I was a senior in high school. I was in the youth lounge at our church, sitting on the couch. There were only two other people in the room. One was Bobby, a dear friend who is about three years younger than me. The other was Bobby’s sister. I don’t recall now why we were the only ones there, why there weren’t other members of the youth group present.

While I don’t remember what we were specifically talking about, I do remember somewhere in the course of the conversation I said something that included some rather colorful language. I don’t even remember now what it was. But that isn’t important. What I do remember is that Bobby’s whole demeanor, usually very easy-going and jovial, changed in an instant. His face went pale. He sat there on the floor, staring at me with his mouth open, in a look of shock. And then he started crying. Not sobbing, but just a few tears rolling down his face. I asked what was wrong. He stammered a little and said he couldn’t believe that I had just said what I did. And then his voice took on a blaming tone. He went on about how he looked up to me, how I was model for him as to what it meant to be a Christian, how he had wanted to be like me, until now. While I don’t remember verbatim what was said, I do specifically remember Bobby saying that I was always straight parallel lines and right angles. He was using imagery that both of us could relate to. At that time in our lives, we were both fascinated by architecture and he knew that I took a lot of drafting classes in school, requiring the use of such tools as t-squares, triangles, and architect’s scales to draw exact lines according to precise geometric principles. So his simple imagery conveyed a wealth of information – and criticism.

In uttering whatever comment I did, in Bobby’s minds, his mental image of me, that image of precise lines and right angles, had gone askew. The lines were no longer straight and parallel. Those lines no longer met at standard 90 degree or 45 degree angles. He no longer knew who I really was. The reality did not match his carefully constructed model. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was dazed. While I know we went on to talk about Bobby’s feelings and I tried to justify that I was still the same person he had always known, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, the details are lost. But what is permanently fixed in my mind of that conversation, of that experience, was the image Bobby had built of parallel lines and right angles, and how that had been destroyed, or at least cast into doubt – how in the mind of my friend, my very character was being called into question. How would I be able to salvage what, in that moment, seemed to be a rapidly crumbling relationship? The only thing that seemed reasonable in the moment was that to salvage the friendship, I would have to reestablish the image of straight, parallel lines and right angles.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, and I seriously doubt it occurred to Bobby either, but what had happened in that conversation, what had happened in our relationship up to that point in time, was that Bobby had set up an equivalent of a plumb line against which I was being measured – against which our friendship was being measured and evaluated. To refresh your memory, a plumb line is a cord with a weight attached, used to create a vertical line. This vertical line is used as a reference in building a structure, such as a wall, to make sure that the structure is exactly vertical and perfectly aligned. While Bobby did not use this exact analogy, his use of references to straight, parallel lines and right angles was the design equivalent.

Today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Amos has God setting a plumb line in the midst of His people. Just as Bobby was using straight parallel lines and right angles to assess my character and to evaluate our relationship, so too, God is using the plumb line to assess the character of the people of Israel and to evaluate the straightness and trueness of their relationship with God. The questions being asked in such evaluation is “are they conforming to the standards set for them? Are they traveling the straight and narrow, or have they deviated from the path?”

The implication in the story of Amos is that, no, the people of Israel are not following the specified path. In this lesson, God has set a plumb line against a wall built that had been built according to exacting standards. The wall, a metaphor for the life of the Israelites, had been built square and true using a plumb line – the law given at Mount Sinai. But over time, the people had slipped, and are no longer living according to the square and true measure of the Law. They have wandered off, deviating from the straight path of the plumb line. The course being followed is no longer one of straight parallel lines and right angles.

When a brick layer or stone mason builds a wall, he evaluates its alignment using a plumb line. If the wall is not straight and true, not perfectly vertical, the worker has no choice but to tear it down and start all over again. This is the implication in today’s lesson. God has warned that if corrections are not made, if Israel does not return to the straight and true path of the Law, Israel will need to be torn down and rebuilt.

What is important to remember, however, is that the plumb line is not just a tool of measurement, to determine if a structure is square and true. It is also a tool of construction. And, if used regularly throughout the building process, can even be a tool of adjustment, an indicator of how things need to be changed in order for the structure to be brought back into alignment. If deviations are caught in time, the plumb line is not just a tool of assessment and of condemnation. It can also be used as a tool of restoration. In the case of Israel, the plumb line is a tool to bring the people back into alignment with God’s law – to bring them back to faithfulness.

Unlike our Jewish forebears, the measure of our faithfulness is not based so much on the law. Rather, our faithfulness, the structure that comprises our lives of faith, is built on the image and likeness of God. For us Christians, the plumb line is Jesus Christ. It is his image and likeness, the image and likeness of God made flesh, that we can look to and assess how far we miss the mark, how far off from the straight and true the structure of our lives of faith really are. And it is that image that we can look to in order to assess what corrections need to be made in our lives to bring us back into alignment with what and who we are called to be.

This is not always easy work. We see this in today’s gospel lesson about Herod Antipas and John the Baptist. In our tradition, Herod is vilified for executing John the Baptist. He is condemned for giving into his passions, for not having the backbone to stand up to his wife, for being overly concerned with what his guests will think of him if he backs out of his promise to do whatever his daughter asks of him. And maybe this criticism is well-justified. When measured against the plumb line established by our faith, Herod certainly was not following the straight and true in his actions.

But for a moment, I’d like to give Herod the benefit of the doubt. Mark tells us “for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him” (Mk. 6:20). Herod recognized that John was righteous and holy. He recognized that there was something to what John the Baptist preached. While he was still operating out of a place of fear, a place of confusion, there seemed to be that deep part of him that was drawn to John’s message. There was that part of him that recognized the truth in what John proclaimed. There was that part of him that wanted to believe the message. There was that part of Herod that saw the plumb line that John represented, and saw for himself that he was not straight and true. But I think deep down inside, he really wanted to be. He really wanted to be able to conform to the plumb line.

Herod found himself caught between competing standards and expectations: the Roman Empire versus the Kingdom of God, secular versus religious, political versus spiritual, the comfortable versus the uncomfortable, acceptance versus rejection, retribution versus justice, damnation versus grace. I think Herod saw the plumb line hung in his midst. He saw how, in many ways, his life was out of whack, not in keeping with the truth proclaimed first by John and then by Jesus. I like to think, given time, Herod may have come around. If he had had more time to listen to John, to absorb what was being said, to contemplate the truths John proclaimed, Herod might have had a genuine conversion experience. But, we will never know. His hand was forced before he was ready to admit to and stand up for the truth.

I dare say that in many ways, we are not all that different from Herod. We live in a world and society with competing, often contradictory standards and expectations. We hear the words of the prophets raised up by the Church. We see the plumb line set in our midst by our God. We find them enticing, yet perplexing. We know what we are called to do, yet we waver, even resist. But that’s why we do all this in community. We need each other to help us make sense of the plumb lines in our midst, and to help hold each other accountable.

My friend Bobby had an image of me, erroneous thought it may have been, that became a plumb line against which he assessed his own life. The irony was that he used that same plumb line to assess me, and I came up lacking. In so doing, Bobby then became the plumb line for me. Through this mutual exchange, we were both able to assess, to change, and to grow in our lives, as human beings, as people of faith, and as brothers.

Such is the awesome responsibility we carry as Christians. We have Christ as our plumb line, but that plumb line is exhibited and lived out through us. Many times, we are called to be the plumb lines for others – for our fellow Christians, as well as, and particularly for, those who may not know Christ firsthand, but only know of Him through us.

Sure, we’re not always going to get it right. When measured against the plumb line of Christ, we will, at times, undoubtedly come up lacking. But the Good News is that God doesn’t put plumb lines in our midst just to judge us, to find us lacking, and to condemn us to destruction. Rather, God gives us a chance. God puts plumb lines in our midst to help in self-evaluation, for us to assess how we are doing. These same plumb lines give us the opportunity to make corrections along the way, allowing us to be more straight and true in the practice of our faith. That is the grace of God made possible through Jesus Christ. That we are always given a chance – as many chances as we need – to correct the way we are going, to make our lives new again in Him.

So keep your eyes and ears open. You never know where, or how, or in whom, a plumb line may be revealed. But they are there, in the most unexpected places, in the most unexpected people. And while it may not seem like it at the time, they are gifts from God, intended to help make us better Christians, to be more faithful, and to become who God is calling each of us to be.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.