Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Godís Plumb Line"

July 15, 2007
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Amos 7:7-17 and Luke 10:25-37

Order of Worship

            Iím not much of a carpenter. I lean on my father-in-law for expertise in that field. What I know of carpentry could fit in my little toolbox. I do know, however, what a plumb line is. Have you seen one? Itís not a fancy piece of equipment. It depends upon gravity and a sense of perspective. All it is, is a weight with a string attached. Thereís more to it than that, of course - but not much. When putting up a wall in a house, you use a plumb line to determine if itís up straight. With the weight hanging by the string, gravity doesnít lie. If the wall and the string run exactly parallel, your wall is up right. Why does this matter? Well, a wall usually supports something, like a roof, or a second story. If itís not up right, with time the structure can pull apart, and perhaps fall.

            The book of Amos gives us a picture of God as a carpenter. Speaking to this Hebrew prophet, God is standing beside a wall with a plumb line in hand. I wonder how much Amos knew of carpentry. After all, his experience before God called him was with sheep and sycamore trees. Apparently, though, Amos knew a plumb line when he saw it, and recognized enough of what God was trying to say to realize that a wall was in danger of falling. Oh, that wall didnít belong to a physical building. No, with that plumb line God showed Amos how out-of-kilter Godís people were. That particular wall was leaning dangerously.

            What do you do with such a wall? Somehow it has got to be corrected or, like the town of Jericho long ago, everything will come tumbling down. Fixing it might just involve tearing that wall down. In fact, with plumb line in hand, thatís just what God was saying to Amos, and thus to the people of Israel. Here they had a magnificent structure, but the walls were off-kilter. Of course, without a plumb line and a sense of perspective, you wouldnít know it. To the naked eye, it looked just fine. But looks can be deceiving.

            "Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Thus, said the law of Moses (Deut. 6:4-5). Good words. Easy to say. Not so easy to do. Not back in the days of Amos, nor today. Those words operate like a plumb line in our lives. Measured against our wall, what does the plumb line indicate? Are we loving the Lord with heart, soul, and might - that is, with every molecule of our being? Is the Lord our God, or are we leaning toward other gods?

            That was what Godís plumb line asked back in the days of Amos. And from this perspective, the wall of Godís People was in danger of tumbling down. The rich and powerful hedged their bets - giving lip service to the God of Israel, listening to his prophets only when the words were comfortable. However, they depended upon other sources, just in case this God proved not-so-effective. They had their little sanctuaries to other gods elsewhere. Just in case. Only, they leaned more toward these other "high places" as time went on. The wall of Godís people was in a precarious position.

            What are our "high places," our sanctuaries to other gods? They may not be overtly religious as in olden days, but our graven images are just as real - be they the watches many of us wear upon our wrists, or the baseball caps we place on our heads. "Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart," the law of Moses continued. "Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:6-9). Are the gods of expediency or leisure capturing our hearts? Do time or pleasure keep us from doing what is right? These are only two examples of modern day gods.

            Weíre not that different from the contemporaries of Amos. Flowing out of their diminished love for God was a faulty love for others. Oh, they were still into worship, mind you. They brought their offerings to the Temple, and spoke the right words, but what really mattered to them was revealed in the love they failed to show the marginal ones among those whom God loved. They sold poor people into slavery who could not pay their debts, poor people who could not even pay for a pair of sandals. They trampled the poor and needy beneath their feet, shoving them out of the way in the streets (2:6ff). They filled their mansions with items stolen from the poor, taken through crime and violence (3:10). The question of how Godís people treat those who are broken and beaten has always been part of Godís plumb line.

            "I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them!" God said through Amos. "When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry!" (Amos 5:21ff). That sounds like a plumb line to me. How about you?....

            A man who studied the law of Moses once asked a question of Jesus. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Luke says that this fellow spoke up in order to "test Jesus." It would do us well to remember that such testing questions were a common teaching technique among rabbis. We donít need to visualize sinister motivations behind this guy. Perhaps it was an honest question he had wondered about. Could be he saw himself as contributing to the discussion, just like we do in Sunday School. Regardless of why he asked his question, Jesus responded with one of his own, thus throwing the student back upon what he had already learned.

            "What does the law say?," Jesus asked. That student knew Godís plumb line. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself," he replied, adding the second greatest commandment (Lev. 19:18) to the first (Luke 10:27). "Thatís the right answer," Jesus responded. "Do this and you will live." Godís plumb line measures not just what we say, but what we do with those words.

            Now, did the student ask his follow-up question because he was on a roll, discussion-wise, or because he really cared about the answer? Luke only says he wanted to justify himself, which could mean a number of things. If he cared more for the classroom banter, his concern mightíve been that he not ask a stupid question, but rather one which was profound and thought-provoking. Maybe he really did care about the answer, though, and with how his own life measured up to the plumb line. If his own wall was out of kilter, it could be he was looking for a loophole in the law. Luke tells us nothing else about this man, so we donít know. This man could be you or me, for that matter.

            Whatever the case, his question, "And who is my neighbor?," served as a stepping stone to another of Jesusí stories. This parable is so familiar to many of us that we could tell it by heart. Itís about Godís plumb line in action, only it has a kicker at the end that disrupts everything, in effect tearing down an off-kilter wall. You know the story. A battered and broken man lies beside the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Those very place-names should warn us that something different is occurring. What happened at Jericho? Walls came a-tumbliní down, right? Jerusalem is tied to Jericho by a band of robbers, their victim, and three men walking downhill.

            We donít have to attribute vicious thoughts to that Priest, and the Levite who followed him. All Jesus said is that they passed by on the other side of the road when they saw the beaten and broken man. Perhaps weíd expect more of these upstanding citizens, but then again, their shoes may feel very comfortable to us as we walk in them. There are a thousand-and-one reasons for not stopping - from being late, to being afraid. My parents taught me never to pick up hitchhikers. Thereís good reason behind that teaching. Stranger danger. Is this only a modern concern? I think not.

            For whatever reason, the Priest and Levite donít respond to the need of this battered and broken man. How did their actions measure up to the plumb line? Like many of our own, not so well, though there are, as I said, a thousand-and-one reasons why. So who comes along next? The last person youíd expect to do the right thing. "Samaritan" doesnít have the ring today it did then. Weíre too used to linking "Samaritan" with "good." In Jesusí day, however, those two words did not fit together for anyone who called himself a Jew. We have to fill in the blank with our own modern-day Samaritan. Who would you least expect to do the right thing? Is there anyone, or any group of people of whom you think the worst? Who is "good for nothing" in your eyes? Behold your Samaritan.

            And Jesus places this person at the center of his story, as the very one who stands straight next to Godís plumb line. How dare he do that! Itís not fair. Of course, Jesus did this on a very regular basis, so that the powers-that-be wanted him to go somewhere else, just like they wanted Amos to do. As Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there" (Amos 7:12). These words of Amos, these stories of Jesus tear walls down that we donít want torn down.

            And Jesus asked that student of the law after his story was finished, "which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" What else could the man say, but, "The one who showed him mercy." ... "Go and do likewise." Jesus finished.

            Now, as I said, I am no carpenter. But I do know someone who was raised in the home of one, and Iím not referring to my wife. Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter; Jesus, Son of God the carpenter, knew all about plumb lines and other tools of the trade. A contemporary of the early church, a rabbi named Akiba, once said that "study of the Law is of higher rank than practicing it." Jesus, on the other hand said, "Go and do likewise." Godís plumb line. That lawyer full of questions knew the right answer. But Jesus responded, "Donít just say it, do it." Godís plumb line. Do you hear the call of the carpenter?


This sermon was published in Lectionary Homiletics, June/July 2004, vol. XV, no. 4, p.57.

(para traducir a espaŮol, presione la bandera de EspaŮa)

 

©1998 and 2007 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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