O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of Your people who call upon You, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. – I confess that all I can do sometimes is marvel at the redemptive purposes of God. I know there was some anxiety around here during the Prayer Book revision now close to forty years ago. But think on this for just a second. When those making the changes were selecting Collects and readings in the early to mid 70’s, this was the Collect they wanted us to pray with these readings on this day. Of course, there is no way that they could know what would be happening this week in July 2016, or at least none claimed to be making suggestions prophetically that I know of! But they selected readings and a Collect that just happen to fall this week. Pretty cool, huh?
I am certain that many of my colleagues will be looking at the Good Samaritan as a response to violence to our neighbor, and that is all well and good. We should be looking after our neighbors who are injured, hurt, suffering, or any other negative description you and I can think of. But I want us at Advent this week to take a look at the bigger picture before we focus upon how our individual ministries are used by God to His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. If you are so inclined to follow along, turn in your Order of Worships to our reading from Amos.
I must confess, by the way, that I have, as near as I can remember, only preached from Amos once and taught from Amos one time each. Such is not surprising. There is an alternative OT reading allowed for the Sunday in our RCL, so this reading only comes up every six years. I cannot speak as to why we have an alternate reading, but I would imagine there was some pushback against the inclusion of Amos in our lectionary. Amos was called to preach a harsh word to a people who did not want to hear that word from God at a time when people really considered themselves blessed. No doubt you will want to do some pushing back as I preach on Amos today.
We live in a country not that dissimilar from the northern kingdom. For the wealthy elites, things seem to be going well. Some on the evangelical side of things like to claim that America is the modern Israel, right? You have heard the arguments, especially in the last week. “In God we trust,” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” and “God Bless America” have been well talked about on television and well-memed on Facebook this week. And when we compare ourselves to much of the rest of the world, things really do look good.
At Advent, things are even better. The Holy Cow survey, the professionally assisted study of the congregation that gathers at Advent, that families filled out before calling me to Advent, pointed to a blessed life of privilege. Our average income was 2 ½ times the national average. Most of us feel we have great security in our jobs and our professions. Most have wonderful homes, well-running cars, medical insurance, pensions and savings of some sort, and lots of other things we may take for granted but which our neighbors around this country and this world can only dream. If we accept that suffering is punishment from God for our sins, the corollary must also be true, right? Our blessings are proof that God loves what we are doing. That was the mindset in the northern kingdom of Israel. Things were great, which proved that God was happy with them. The wealthy were making lots of money. Their enemies were leaving them alone. Peace and prosperity always equals God’s approval, do they not?
And poor Amos got the wonderful calling to go and preach to Israel that God was so displeased with them that He was going to cause the Land to disgorge them. Add to that the fact that he was a citizen of Judah, the southern kingdom, and you can begin to get an understanding of how intolerant the northern kingdom was to be to Amos. It would be akin to a Yankee coming to Advent five or ten years before the Civil War and telling us we needed to change our ways before God judged us lacking. How receptive do you think we would have been to that message?
Of course, there are other clues to Israel’s rejection of God and His torah, clues that we tend not to notice. For example, the kingdom is divided. The northern kingdom is called Israel, and the southern kingdom is called Judah. That in itself tells us much about God’s People. In fulfilment of an earlier prophesy and in response to the peoples’ unfaithfulness, God has caused the kingdoms to divide. Another example is the response of the king. Those of you who do not miss church are probably tired of being reminded of the fact that the king is supposed to take instruction from the prophet and that most kings, instead, ignore or even try to kill God’s prophet. Jeroboam is no different. He trusts what is happening around him instead of trusting God and His prophet.
Another sign of the rejection of God is the priest’s response to Amos. Amaziah is the priest of Bethel. That’s an important detail. Why is Bethel famous in history? Remember back in Genesis when Jacob laid down to rest one night and was given a vision of a ladder? What did Jacob name the place? That’s right, God’s place, Bethel. To whom does Amaziah say the place belongs? It is the king’s sanctuary. How shocked would you be if you strolled into church one day and I told you this was the President’s church or the Governor’s church or some other nonsense? Most of you would be offended, rightfully? Bethel was really God’s place, and yet the priest there has forgotten that important truth, as well as the fact that the prophet speaks for God. Things are a mess.
Amos is, perhaps, most famous for this prophesy about the plumb line. Those of you who build or wallpaper may have used one. I think I have a laser one now. But plumb lines are important, if simple, devices. They help us establish vertical lines. That’s an important function, if we want to build buildings that do not fall over. With the big exception at Pisa, Italy, what happens when we build buildings and towers that are off center or “not plumb.” They tend to lean and fall over, over time. Kids playing with blocks learn that lesson at a young age. Plumb lines were the solution to that problem. It allowed master builders to make sure that the building was vertical, well-built, and able to stand the test of time. Egypt used them to build their great buildings and towers. Architects in the Middle Ages used them to erect the great cathedrals in Europe. We marvel at the permanence of such cathedrals or the pyramids or obelisks, but they were built using simple equipment such as plumb lines, to help fight the natural pull of gravity.
Another fascinating bit of trivia, at least to me, about this passage is the fact that the Hebrew word we translate as plumb line is used only once in Scripture. If we did not have the tradition and scholarship of the rabbis and the Church who came before us, we would not know what God was setting in the midst of His people. I joke with people that Hebrew is like combining Morse code and a foreign language. Now, imagine that and only using words once! Yet this plumb line that God is establishing is as unique as the word is grammatically in Scripture. Ponder that for just a moment.
Amos prophesies that God has a plumb line and is setting it in the midst of His people. No longer, God says, will He pass by His people. Clearly, we cannot read that and not hear the allusion to the Passover, when God passed over His people Israel in Egypt. What is this plumb line that God is setting in His people? I think we are meant to see this unique plumb in two ways.
Part of the problem with human nature is the idea that, when things are going well, we seem to believe better about ourselves. Although Scripture testifies adamantly against such an understanding, even Christians fall into that trap of believing that they are getting what they deserve. Think of prosperity gospellers in our midst. Think of those of us who are like Job’s friends. We believe our condition reflects our relationship with God. And, we like to think better of ourselves than we really are. God came to redeem the murderers, the thieves, the hardcore cases, but some “Christians” think that they are not the sinners that others are. In extreme cases such Christians might believe that their sins are not nearly as bad as the sins of others. Jesus died for their sins; mine were not so bad. We have seen this play out in our denominational split of the last decade, have we not? We have seen it play out in our own church. In my first year-and-a-half here, people have been quick to tell me the unforgiveable sins of others and, when challenged in conversations, instruct me that their own sins are/were just “garden variety.” Think I am nuts? Consider those in the congregation with whom you refuse to speak, to socialize, or to love? What’s at the root of that? Where is it ok in Scripture for us not to love one another as ourselves?
I get that such ponderings are hard. Amos’ message is as uncomfortable today for some as it was in the 750’s BC. When things are going well for us, we want desperately to believe that God is pleased with us. Yet God’s revelation is that His character is absolute. God does not sit in heaven creating a hierarchy of sin. All sin, from mass murder to white lies, is an anathema to Him. He can no more be in the presence of and tolerate sin that you and I cannot blink or not breathe. It’s an autonomic response, if we may speak anthropomorphically, of God to destroy sin. Why do you think He hides His face from those who ask in the Old Testament, even His prophets? Why do you think his people are terrified by His voice or even His reflection in the face of Moses?
That plumb line that God sets among His people is His torah, His instruction of what life in full communion with Him is like. We have this modern, fanciful idea in parts of the Church that God gave us the torah when He was angry and Jesus when He switched tactics. The torah was given to a redeemed people seeking to live in full communion with a holy, righteous, just, loving, merciful and “every other adjective you want to toss in there” God! The God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is seen and unseen always reminded His people that He loved the widow and the orphan. Such was His nature that He who was all-powerful cared even for those most forgotten, most at risk, in society. And how have His people responded to their Exodus, to their kingdom, and to His instruction? They have played the harlot! The rich have gotten rich on the backs of the poor. They have abused the very people He loves, and they think their lack of calamity in their lives, both corporately and individually, testifies to their important standing before God. He reminds them that His line is absolute, that they are sinners in His eyes, and that He will judge them just as He promised He would! The land will disgorge them. They will be carried off into their own slavery. Many will die cut off, in unclean lands reflective of their unclean hearts.
It’s warning to us, the new Israel, the Church, that is every bit as clear. As we have celebrated July 4th this week, no doubt you have heard the political “christians” claim that this nation is the new Israel, just as have I. We are the new shining light in the dark world, in God we Trust, and all the evidences of us turning from our God-given responsibilities have filled the airways and our Facebook feeds. And in the midst of that nonsense were three acts of violence that have risen to our collective consciousness. I cannot remember if the shooting in Minneapolis or Baton Rogue was first. And then the events in Dallas, apparently in response to the prior two and many others besides, played out in front of our eyes. All this, of course, comes on the heels of shootings in Orlando and elsewhere. Each time there is an act of violence, we cluck our tongues, gnash our teeth, maybe say a prayer, and then hope it does not happen again. And we are surprised when it does. If God’s plumb line in our midst has taught us anything, it should be that we are every bit in need of a Savior as was His people. For all our technological advances, we are still a people with stiff necks and uncircumcised hearts! We are quick to condemn and to judge, and we are often quick to do so with arrogance and “God agrees with my position” assertions. We who claim the mantle of Christians do a poor job of living the life to which He has called us.
How many of us cling to our weapons, as if that is where our trust is placed? How many of us judge those seeking abortions as heathens, yet do little, if anything, to try and raise those unwanted babies as if our Lord above us loves them? How many of us Christians cross the street to avoid a beggar? Roll up our windows to avoid interacting with those on our corners? How many of us cluck our tongues as we hear stories of the working poor wiped out by medical issues, offering the belated suggestion, “they should have had a better job with better benefits.” I see the squirming. I realize I am hitting close to home. That wonderful modern Amos, Stephen Colbert, got it right some months ago. “If this is going to be a Christian nation that does not help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was as selfish as we are, or we have to acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that, even though He commanded us to love the poor and needy without condition, we just do not want to do it.” Or something like that.
That, of course, points us in the direction of the other plumb line God has set in the midst of His people, you and me. You and I live on this side of the Cross and Resurrection. You and I know, without a doubt, that God has reconciled us to Himself through the death and Resurrection of His Son our Lord Christ. Just as importantly, He has ascended to the Father to create the condition necessary for you and I to accomplish greater things in His Name. While on earth, God’s revelatory power was focused on and through the Person of the Incarnation. Now that Jesus is ascended, you and I and all who claim Him as Lord can be that same focus of His redemptive power. But we have to commit to being that, just as our Collect reminded us. For the new Israel, the Church, the work and person of Christ stands as that plumb line in Her midst. He lived that life that we could not. More amazingly, He showed us that face we could not bear to see in our sinful state. How we act, what we say, what we do, all that we are is measured against that plumb line, brothers and sisters. Each time we gather, we remind ourselves of our shortcomings and sins, ask for forgiveness and help against our unbelief, and then for power to accomplish those things He has given us to do. Every time.
So, how does Advent become a beacon in a dark world? How does Advent become the plumb line to the world around us – a tangible reminder of the world’s need for a Savior and of the fact that the Savior came to save, not condemn, the world? How does Advent attack the evils that plague our world? One ministry, one person at a time. We overcome evil with good, knowing that such is the example set and commanded by our Lord. We may not have all the answers to combat a particular evil, but we know THE answer and we have some ideas and commands. The truth is, some of us are already engaged in this battle.
I have tried to get us to talk frankly of our experiences, both good and bad, as we go about our daily lives and work. I admit it’s tough slogging sometimes, but then things worthwhile are never evil. And we attend a parish which has some interesting diversity, not just in the color of our skin but in our experiences, talents, and calls. Take Billy. He may be the best educated among us. He has an MD and an DDS (we can talk about his common sense for doing both at another time! Lol)! He trains the next generation of doctors and dentists. If you have not heard his story, I commend it to you. He was the first tenured black man at the University of Mississippi’s medical school. He is a leader not just in our parish, but in our community. Ask him if there is a difference between how he is treated by the police compared to say Hunter or Dick. Ask him if there is a difference in the way he is treated by police south of Old Hickory or north. What is the difference? Those lessons he has learned, and those we learn from, could make Nashville’s police force more like Dallas’, where civil rights complaints have dropped 64% the last few years, you know, the ones before the shooting started.
Of course, to do that, we need to be a sanctuary for officers. How many of us are quick to judge the actions of our officers? I admit that the videos I have seen this week are not good. Are there bad cops among our police forces? Of course. They are human beings like ourselves. But, we test them psychologically, we train them religiously—no pun intended—on situations and how to act. We demand that they run to violence even as we are running away. And then we condemn them all when one snaps or one turn out bad. The police chief reminded us of that truth on Friday when he told us that most days we do not show them our love, our respect, and our thankfulness and that he hoped Friday, the day after the shootings, would not be like most days. In our quick rush to judgment, how many of us are trying to carve out sanctuary space for those who protect us? How many of us are extending a hand of thanks and gratitude, a prayer of protection, for those who serve us even as they risk their lives? Talk to a cop, and you may not want to hear how they feel about protecting you and your rights.
Other people are doing other work. Take Jim. Jim should have been a student of Hebrew and Greek. He sometimes speaks in earthy language. You know what gets him the most riled up? The systemic injustices in the world around us. Many of you may not know, but Jim has been mentoring kids through the Tennessee Promise paperwork and bureaucracy the last couple years. That’s the government program that helps low income students get a couple years of college for free. Ask Jim sometimes about the hoops set up in that program. Why, it’s almost as if our politicians wanted to pretend that they cared about poverty and education, but they really did not want to do anything (hear, spend money) to change it! Jim is well educated, a successful businessman, and pretty sharp. And he is reduced at times to cussing out this program. He sees the injustice, howls at the moon and sometimes at me, and then works to help the young men he is mentoring get the paperwork filed and the help offered and needed.
How many of you in the healthcare have given time and talent, pro bono, to help the poor in our midst? You are part of the effort of fighting incredible evil. People in this country are withheld medical care because they lack resources. We refuse to pay living wages, another sign of a “Christian” nation, and then we wonder when they cannot afford medicine. Some help at St. Luke’s in a variety of ministries, others of you participate in other ministries which are just as important. Heck, some of you may be so busy that you really do lack the time necessary to help, but your financial contributions make it possible for those with time to use your monetary resources to minister to those in our midst in His Name.
What is the antidote to racism in this country? The work you and I have been given to do by our Lord Christ. His plumb line reminds us that He hates it, just as He hates all sin. But His plumb line reminds us that it is through loving sacrifice, the care of our neighbor, that we do on earth what is done in heaven. Institutional evils and sins which cling to our hearts may seem too great to confront, but we, God’s people, know better. We can accomplish incredible great things in His name, one ministry and one person at a time. If I asked you before this sermon about the antidote to racism, your answers would have varied, and rightfully so. Some would have said education, some may have answered sharing the wealth, some may have answered reminding people that they are loved, and the spiritually mature may even have mentioned Christ. The truth is that evil such as racism or slavery or whatever is complex. In our finite selves, we may not even be able to see how our work, our ministry in His Name, has any success against evil. But we know that it is happening. All we need are more and more people engaging in His redemptive work, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and the effects of whatever evil will be reduced. To be sure, it will not go away completely until His return and re-creation, but you and I can point the way. We can show and tell others how God’s plumb line made us aware of our need for a Savior, how He has provided that Savior, and how He has made us ambassadors and heralds of the truth that God wins in the end. His goodness and His love conquers evil, even as it embraces all who call Him Lord.
Brothers and sisters, I recognize that this was a hard word today. Likely some of you were as annoyed with my words as Jeroboam and Amaziah were with Amos. Before casting my words in your brain’s trash can and hitting the delete button, though, think back on our Lord’s plumb line. Are you living the life to which He has called you? Are you living the life which draws others into His saving embrace? Are you living the life that shows hope in the face of hopelessness? Mercy rather than condemnation? If not, why not? The words we say each Sunday are not empty and ritualistic. They are reminders of the calling that He has on each one of our lives and the lives of those around us. They are tough words, sometimes to hear, and even tougher to keep in action. But that is why He gave us the plumb line. To remind us that He has redeemed and empowered us to do His will, even in the face of our own death or humiliation, confident that He will be victorious over all evil, even those we have enshrined in our culture, our systems, and, yes, even our hearts. Let us pray: O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of Your people who call upon You, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.