The Plumb Line – sermon on July 12, 2015

Amos 7: 7-15        God showed me another vision. I saw God standing beside a wall that had been built using a plumb line. God was using a plumb line to see if it was still straight. And God said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”   I answered, “A plumb line.” And God replied, “I will test my people with this plumb line. I will no longer ignore all their sins. The pagan shrines of your ancestors will be ruined, and the temples of Israel will be destroyed; I will bring the dynasty of King Jeroboam to a sudden end.”

Then the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam, king of Israel: “Amos is hatching a plot against you right here on your very doorstep! What he is saying is intolerable. He is saying, ‘Jeroboam will soon be killed, and the people of Israel will be sent away into exile.’”

Then the priest sent orders to Amos: “Get out of here, you prophet! Go on back to the land of Judah, and earn your living by prophesying there! Don’t bother us with your prophecies here in Bethel. This is the king’s sanctuary and the national place of worship!”

But Amos replied, “I’m not a professional prophet, and I was never trained to be one. I’m just a shepherd, and I take care of sycamore-fig trees. But God called me away from my flock and told me, ‘Go and prophesy to my people in Israel.’ You say, ‘Don’t prophesy against Israel. Stop preaching against my people.’ But this is what the Lord says: ‘Your land will be divided up, and you yourself will die in a foreign land. And the people of Israel will certainly become captives in exile, far from their homeland.’”


Mark 6: 14-29       King Herod heard about the deeds of power done by Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was much perplexed; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came for Herodias. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” Herodias answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oath and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.

On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.


Sermon: The Plumb Line                                     by Rev. Doreen Oughton                             

When I worked in addictions treatment, I contacted the high school in my town and offered to work with them in whatever way might be helpful. One of the health teachers invited me to her class to talk about my work with driver alcohol education and other court intervention services. There was a boy there who was completely, completely stoned – bloodshot eyes, silly grin, and as the class went on he couldn’t keep his head up and kept it down on his desk the rest of the time. I kept looking over at the teacher to see if she noticed, and what she might do about it. She did nothing. I was very uncomfortable, but figured I should follow her lead. After the class ended, I commented on the boy, wondering if she’d noticed. She said yes, that sometimes things like that happened, but she didn’t want to get anyone in trouble so let it go. I said something like, “you don’t have to report them, but it might be worth saying something.” The whole thing really troubled me. This teacher thought that her only options were to ignore it or punish it. I wondered what might be going on in the mind of that student and the others there. I guess they might think she is either too stupid to notice, or really doesn’t care about them. I really believe kids acting out so obviously are already in trouble, and rely on caring adults to intervene.

I thought of this incident as I was reading the Hebrew scripture passage from Amos – with God holding the plumb line and saying, “I will no longer ignore their sins.” Israel had been doing well. It was at its peak in territory and prosperity. It was a time of peace, with no invading nations to defend against. And yet God calls Amos from his shepherding and tree-tending in Judah to carry a message against Israel. Though many prospered, not everyone did. In fact, there were gross inequities between the elite and the poor. The wealthy landowners manipulated debt and credit, using the smallest of loans to take confiscate land from the small farmers and ensnare them into indentured servitude. And God was ready to challenge the ways of this kingdom, ready to show they didn’t measure straight and wasn’t stable. God was ready to knock it down and start over.

The book of Amos is a tough one. God really blasts Israel through Amos – angry accusations, promises of doom and destruction, disgust at worship rituals, empty with the lack of justice in the land. It is the angry, punishing God that is so off-putting to the SBNR’s, the agnostics and atheists. And yet here it is in scripture, and it might behoove us not to ignore it.

And then we have the reading from the Gospel of Mark, which starts with Herod hearing about the work of Jesus and his disciples, and the rumors that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life. And then comes the story of Herod and John, how Herod had arrested and then beheaded John. In that story we have not an angry, punishing God, but an angry, punishing queen and her weak-willed husband. And the differences are obvious. To me, it is the difference between a teacher who sends a kid to detention, or even suspends him, for coming to class stoned, and a teacher who suspends a kid for challenging the teacher’s drug use. The first is trying to steer the kid away from self-destruction to a way of living that will enhance the child, not the teacher. The second is about protecting one’s destructive way of living no matter the cost to self or others.

I admit that I struggle with the notion of a God who judges – who holds that plumb line and determines whether I’ve grown too crooked to continue. We are not structures built by God. We are creatures who were given life and mind and soul, and given these things to use freely. So why would God punish us for the choices we make? Does God need us to behave a certain way? Of course God is a mystery beyond my understanding, but still I try. I think about my own role as a creator of sorts – as a mother. I know it was my responsibility to help my children grow up in a way that enriches them and the world around them, but at some point their choices are their own, and not about me. I can’t imagine raging at them as adults, feeling it is my right to punish them, believing it is their job to please me. Of course I prefer that they live in certain ways – that they treat themselves and others with respect, that they have good manners and honorable work, that they use their money and resources wisely. But I don’t know that I need them to do so. I don’t know that I would be outraged if they didn’t. I can still be the person I want to be, regardless of what they do.

So I find myself wondering, why does God care if the wealthy of Israel exploit the poor? And as soon as the question forms, I see the rub – I want a God that cares about that, and not just for the sake of the poor. I don’t want a God who is like that teacher in the classroom, either inattentive or uncaring. Granted I don’t really want a punishing God either, but I trust that God knows there are more than the two options. Our kids often construe as punishment actions parents take to build them up. No TV, so they might read or interact with people instead. No soda in the lunch box so they don’t have a sugar crash in the afternoon class. Hide away the 2-wheeled bike that was a gift from Uncle Jim until the child is able to ride safely and responsibly. Not punishment – boundaries, guides; plumb lines in the building process, not pulled out after construction is completed. (maybe not threats, but predictions. A crooked bldg will fall, etc)

I wanted to address the issue of divine judgment, but I also wanted to talk about the other theme running through these readings, that of what we do when we have been or are being judged. In the first reading, the high priest first makes sure the king knows he is not part of this intolerable prophesying. Then he tries to silence Amos, telling him to go back to Judah. This priest, who took vows to serve God, makes it clear that it is the king he serves, the sanctuary is for the king, the worship nationalistic.

And then there is Herod. He has been judged by John the Baptist – that camel-hair clothed, locust-eating, fire and brimstone preacher. John says Herod has sinned by taking his brother’s wife as his own. So Herod has him arrested, and yet continues to listen to John, and even enjoys listening to him. He is perplexed by what he says, which says to me that Herod is trying to understand what John is saying. He is struggling. Also, he knows in his gut that John is a holy and righteous man. Scripture says he feared him, but often that doesn’t mean to be frightened so much as to be reverent, maybe a little awestruck. Whether out of fright or reverence, Herod is protective of him, doesn’t want him harmed.

But then there is Herodias, who is not at all reverent about John. She was resentful of him, hated that he was trying to stir things up about her marriage to King Herod. It must have been a more advantageous match for her than she’d had with Philip, and she didn’t want John ruining that. She would love to see him dead, and is willing to use her dancing daughter to make it happen.

It’s hard to open ourselves to judgment, isn’t it? Or maybe you want to call it feedback. It’s hard to look at certain truths about ourselves, and when someone tries to hold up a mirror for us to look, we often try to break it or claim it is not a mirror at all, but a picture of someone else. Do you remember ever having to face a hard truth about yourself? Do you remember how it came to your attention? I remember I was in graduate school for counseling psychology, taking a class in group dynamics. The class itself was run like a therapy group. And the teacher challenged me one day, noting that I was always smiling, even when my voice sounded angry, even when I was talking about painful things. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I was embarrassed and angry. Right away my defenses kicked in, and my head roared. But I didn’t say anything for a minute. I was probably still smiling. And then I started encouraging myself to listen, to take it in. I was able to see that in a way it was a compliment that the teacher confronted me. It said she had confidence in me that I could take it. It said she cared and wanted me to be a good therapist, so was willing to point out something that interfered with that goal. And it changed me. Not perfectly. I still smile sometimes even when I am uncomfortable, but I am less likely to do so. I am less likely to give facial expressions that don’t match my words and feelings, and I think that gives me more integrity.

And I’ll tell you that some of the bravest, most amazing people I’ve met are those in 12-step recovery programs. They actually go looking for feedback. They have practices and meetings that center around self-judgment – searching out defects of character and making lists of people they’ve harmed. And the spiritual growth and strength of character that result from this just blows my mind. I mean think about all the destructive things people do to avoid self-judgment – drinking, drugging, putting down others. And the things done to silence others who might judge us. Herodius isn’t the only one who would kill over it. Herod isn’t the only one locking up his accusers.

We try to avoid and silence the very voices that would set us free. The active addict is dying in her efforts to secure her right to use. The serial adulterer is cutting himself off from meaningful, life-giving connection to a true partner. The nation that denies and minimizes the racism that is woven into its fabric extends the suffering of all its people for generations to come. We cannot change what we do not and will not see.

Is it possible to get to a place of welcoming judgment … of ourselves. I’m sure we are all very happy to judge others, right? But that’s not what I’m talking about. Can we make a shift from hearing criticism as an attack to hearing it as help? And I guess even when it comes to judging others, can we intervene in love with the sincere motivation of helping someone rather than just feeling better about ourselves? Doing so takes love, and lots of it, so please make sure that it is there before you offer judgment, even on your own life. The twelve stop program doesn’t start these inventories until there is a solid foundation of trust in a Higher Power, and lots of peer support. And perhaps there are principles here we can apply not only as individuals, but as a church. Can we open ourselves to God’s plumb line and see where we may have gotten off track, where we may be operating in ways that interfere with our primary purpose? It takes a lot of love, but I think the love is here, right here, among and within and around us. Let us seek the truth, as the truth will set us free. May it be so.