The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2018
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Many of you know that I come from middle Georgia, from a town called Sandersville, a town known for agriculture for most of its history but, for the last century, known more for its deposits of a mineral called kaolin--a white clay, a china clay, used first for porcelains and pigments and now more often as an inert coater and filler, often in papers for high speed printing processes. Your service leaflets this morning undoubtedly have a high content of kaolin in them. That’s what makes the paper more opaque and more smooth so it prints relatively nicely.
Kaolin was a big part of my early childhood years, and for part of his life my father worked at a large locally owned mining firm in Sandersville where, among other things, he coordinated the construction activities of outside contractors across the firm’s middle Georgia operations.
This sort of work involved coordinating between the architects, the engineers, the draftsmen, the estimators, and then the crew foremen to make sure that the slurry tank, or the box car loading platform, or the crude storage warehouse that had been ordered was actually being built properly--that the work that had been contracted was being carried out properly.
My father was not an engineer, though if you gave him a pencil and a piece of paper he could sketch out about anything that needed to be built, whether it was made of wood or steel or concrete. He could figure it out, design it pretty accurately, and build it himself.
So he had a bit of a dog in the fight when working with someone else’s blueprints.
You can imagine his delight when, one summer, he came home from the plant one day for lunch, telling a tale of a construction project he was supervising--a loading platform for box cars carrying kaolin. The engineers had drafted a plan to build a loading platform, a ramp of sorts, for a front-end loader to drive on up and over the elevation of the box cars so that the front end loader could dump its bucket full of clay over into the box car. Simple idea, really. But the engineers had failed to take into account--and this is what vexed my father to no end--the wheels of the front end loader itself. They were large, and the bucket itself wasn’t capable of extending very far out in front of them. When the ramp was build, just to specification, and the first front end loader went up it, it stopped short of the edge of the box car. The wheels couldn’t get out far enough to get the bucket over the edge. The front end loader couldn’t deliver its cargo. And the ramp had to be demolished, redesigned, and built again.
If only the engineers had taken into account all the variables!
If only they’d dropped a plumb line from the front of the bucket down in front of the tires of the loader, they’d have known how many more feet they needed to give the ramp for it to achieve the purpose it was built for.
Do you know a plumb line? It’s a weighted string, a string with a piece of metal, usually, at the end, held up at a point and held straight by gravity. It shows a straight vertical line. We use a level now--a glass bubble level when I was growing up but now often an electronic level--to make sure things are plumb, or level, or true. But in the days when this church was built, and in the days of Amos to be sure, a carpenter would have used a plumb line.
(If you’ve lived in Saint Hilda’s House, you’ll wonder if the carpenters there had left their plumb lines at home, but that’s another matter entirely.)
The plumb line sets the standard. It’s a point of reference. If something is off, or wrong, the plumb line shows it. If you want something to be right, look to the plumb line.
In today’s first lesson, the prophet Amos relates that God is holding up a plumb line for Israel. Showing what the kingdom looks like. And pointing out how God’s people have strayed from the divine truth--the plumb line.
Amos prophesied almost three thousand years ago, around 750 BC during the reign of King Jeroboam of Israel. It was a time of great peace and unprecedented prosperity in Israel; people were making money left and right—the marketplace was humming, trading was good. Life was great. But Amos saw something else going on—he saw a neglect for the poor—for those at the margins of society. He saw that the people who had something—the folks who had enough—were getting more—and the folks who were in need were getting even less. As wealth grew in the kingdom, the gap between rich and poor stretched to a breaking point. And so Amos called on people, in the name of God, to care for the poor. And he called out their greediness--and their dishonest dealing. Here’s a little of his indictment, which we don’t get in our reading today:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practise deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ (Amos 8.4-6)
It’s a stinging indictment—a call to repentance—a turning to God first before commerce—an observance of Sabbath. A change to honest dealing, to fair trading, from cheating and stealing. And a turning towards life—especially respect for the lives of the poor—more than the value of money, goods, or commodities.
Does that sound like a voice we could use today? What would Amos say to us today—to how we keep the Sabbath? How we find balance in our lives—how we put God—and time for God—first in everything? What would Amos say to our world about how we do our deals—how we make our money—who wins and who loses—how we play the game? And what would Amos say about the poor among us—folks who are working multiple jobs but still need to visit the Soup Kitchen because they can’t make enough to pay for rent and groceries? What would Amos say about folks that can’t afford somewhere to live, whether because of poverty, or addiction, or disability, underemployment, or whatever thing that keeps them bound, take to our streets or even shelters to find a place to lay their heads? What would Amos say to us today?
Would he remind us of God’s plumb line?
When I read this gospel lesson six years ago at another parish, as I was reading the story of John the Baptist’s beheading, a young man, dressed all in white, with a full scraggly beard and long hair and sandals, came down the center aisle; I remember thinking, “This guy should play Jesus in a television movie…” He stopped halfway down the aisle as though he were going to enter a pew, but he did not--he just stood there-- and, just as I reached the ending of the gospel lesson, the part where John’s followers bury him, the young man raised his arms and shouted, “I have seen John the Baptist! And he lives!”
Ushers intervened, the sermon went on, and later, after I recovered from my initial astonishment, I grew curious about what the man would have said had I asked, “Where is John the Baptist? And what does he have to say to us today?”
And that’s what Herod was afraid of. He was afraid that John the Baptist, whom he had killed, was raised again, and would agitate, and proclaim God’s kingdom, just like Amos was doing. That he’d be called, along with all of God’s people, to repentance--to change. And he wanted to live according to his own terms.
Little did he know that it was Jesus of Nazareth, not Elijah or John the Baptist, but the very Son of God, who was proclaiming the kingdom--holding the plumb line--calling God’s people to a greater truth, a way of being in the world, of loving God and one another--that would change all of creation.
We have a plumb line in the revelation of the law to God’s people, in the revelation of God’s love to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. We have a plumb line in the experience of the kingdom of God coming near. We know what the kingdom looks like because Jesus shows us.
Lately it seems that our society has made an idol, a false plumb line, out of jurisprudence, out of the very laws we have made as a society. We’ve heard voices from the political spectrum holding up following the law as the standard of how to live a common life together--rather than the standard of the kingdom of God, the mercy and love of God. Now, I’m not suggesting we don’t need laws. We do, and as a part of our social contract they’re important ways we organize our common life together. But just by purportedly following the law, we as a society have separated children and families at our southern border as a result. We’ve locked up a disproportionate number of our brothers and sisters--a disproportionate number of people of color. We’ve just followed the law.
On the other hand, we also hear a drumbeat for prophetic speech and action in our church. To be like Amos. To be like John the Baptist. To speak truth to power. To individually and collectively speak out as a prophetic act. And we know that communal action, community activism, does move policy, does get a conversation started in the national discourse, does have an impact. Activism is a valuable part of our common lives together.
But I wonder if having a prophetic voice is enough.
But did you notice what Amos says, when Amaziah, the court prophet, upbraids him? “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” (Amos 7.14) Amos, with a wry retort, locates himself among the poor, not those in power. Among the ordinary folk, not the professional prophets. He is only a shepherd, he says, and to make a little money on the side, he tends the tiny figlike fruits of the middle eastern sycamore tree, which need to be pricked with a sharp stick to help them ripen. Not a cash crop, but more like picking wild berries or fishing in the river to supplement your supper.
Amos is not the professional prophet that Amaziah is. He just sees the truth and speaks it. And calls the world to repent, to change, to live differently.
John is not a professional prophet—he’s Jesus’s strange cousin that happens to see that the kingdom of God has come near. And he calls people to turn, to repent.
And God has called them both to tell the truth. To show the plumb line. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. To point towards Jesus.
Friends, Jesus is calling us to tell the truth. To repent. To turn towards God with everything we have. And to be the ones brave enough to say, this is the right thing to do. And then to do it. We are the ones to speak on behalf of the values of the kingdom of God--but also to live our lives as Christians according to the values of the kingdom of God. We are the ones to live differently. Even if we’re herdsmen and women and dressers of sycamore trees.
It is dangerous work to speak up and live for the good news of Jesus. It is dangerous to live differently in the world around us. John the Baptist loses his head and is laid in a tomb. But we remember our Lord’s empty tomb.
And we remember the words of Amos. I am not a prophet, but a dresser of sycamore trees.
Amos, John, and ultimately Jesus are all calling us to repentance.
To live differently. To change our lives. To live according to the vision of the kingdom of God.
All of our plumblines, our laws, our policies, our liturgies, our speech, can be measured against this one plumbline: Does this show God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ?
All of our lives exist for one purpose: to share and to show the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Are our walls crooked? Our windowsills sloped? Does our ramp not meet up where it should? Of course our world does not meet up to the plumb line. The kingdom of God has come near but is not yet fully realized. But that doesn’t mean that we should despair.
The good news of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is coming and is here. We know what it looks like when Jesus comes near. And Jesus is saving us. Jesus is redeeming us. Jesus is remaking us into the people that live in that new way, in that new life, that Jesus describes when he reads Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free… (Luke 4:18)
This week, this summer, this life, look at the plumb line. And make sure that everything we do shows God’s love.
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