Archive - Jul 14, 2019

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What's My Plumb Line?

My sermon as prepared for delivery on July 14, 2019, Pentecost 10 C, at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Hamden, CT.

You can listen to the recording on Soundcloud

O Lord, mercifully receive our prayers and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do and have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

When I preached here last March, I started off with a request for forgiveness that I’ve borrowed from the Orthodox church. If I have sinned against any of you or hurt any of you in any way, known or not known, I am deeply sorry, and I ask your forgiveness. Thank you.

Let me start off today with a question. How many of you have heard the story of the Good Samaritan before? [Raise hand…Pause… look for hands] I kind of figured that would be the case. The story of the Good Samaritan has become part of the fabric of our society. As an illustration, let me tell you a story of when I was in college.

One of my classmates did a research project on whether or not reading the Bible had any effect on how likely someone is to help a person in distress. She had two groups of high school students that participated in the research. They were told they were being tested on how much they would remember of a text they were assigned to read. Half of them were given a text about some scientific information and the other half were given the story of the Good Samaritan.

After they had read the text the were told to go to a different location to take the test. On the way, they passed an actor dressed as a homeless man who would start coughing and collapse. I was that actor.

After the experience, the researcher asked me if I did the same thing each time. Some people claimed that they saw me but that I didn’t cough or collapse. Others said they didn’t see me at all. In the Gospel, we read that the priest and the Levite actually saw the person who had been attacked by robbers and quickly passed by. I suspect that many of us are more like some of those students. We don’t even see the suffering around us. We don’t see how we contribute to that suffering.

I don’t remember the details of the results of that experiment, but I seem to recall that it was something like, listening to someone speak about the story of the Good Samaritan for ten minutes didn’t really have much on an impact on people’s lives.

This leaves me with the question, what am I doing up here? Maybe we should just sing another hymn, or something. Or, maybe the reading from Amos can help us. How many of you know what a plumb line is? For those who don’t know, a plumb line is a line with a weight on the bottom to help in building straight walls.

On our first lesson, the Lord says to Amos, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people”. Taken by itself, that sounds like good news. God will set things straight. When we hear from Isaiah, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God”, it is in the context of God comforting God’s people.

But Amos is a different story. The Lord says to Amos, “the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste”. As we look at changes in the climate driving storms like Hurricane Barry onto our coast and at children of God being held in horrible conditions at our border, the doom Amos talks about may feel a little too close to home.

As I was reading the description of Amos’ audience in one of my commentaries, I was struck how similar things sound today to how they were in Amos’ time. In her commentary on Amos, Amy Erickson writes, “The audience of Amos’s message is one familiar with luxury and wealth. Amos directs his words to a society he characterizes as dominated by structural injustice.” We are a nation today, burdened by structural injustice. Erickson goes on to speak about the “deep divide between the living standards of the rich and the poor”. You see this, oh so clearly, around San Francisco where the average rent for a 800 square foot apartment is $3,612 a month and where many are homeless.

There do not seem to be easy clear answers to the problems we face. We need to think about how we can best be neighbors to the homeless, to those facing flood waters, to those fleeing violence in their native lands; to those who have fallen among thieves. We need to have serious, respectful discussions about how we live out our baptismal vows to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. It isn’t easy.

Maybe we try to address these problems be arguing with people we don’t really know on Facebook. I suspect that in most cases that is at best as effective as yet another sermon the Good Samaritan.

Amos provides a different starting point. God showed Amos “a wall built with a plumb line”. What is the plumb line in our lives? It seems as if for too many in our country right now, the plumb line is money, power, or influence. For too many, it does not seem to be about loving our neighbor, especially if that neighbor is somehow different from us, is facing tough times, or has fallen among thieves.

Isaiah tells us about God’s plumb line. “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line”. Elsewhere, righteousness is spoken about in terms of concern for the poor, the widowed, and children. How are we doing at making righteousness and justice our plumb lines?

Last week, Bob encouraged us to think about what’ve done, what we’re doing, and what we should be doing going forward. We’ve done a lot of great things: Abraham’s Tent, Dinner for a Dollar, Girls Friendly Society, Vacation Bible School, Arden House, Faith Study Group, and the Older and Wiser group Are just a few examples.

These have all furthered righteousness and justice, but have we been intentional about righteousness and justice? Are there ways in which we are unintentionally thwarting righteousness or justice? Are their people who have fallen among thieves around us that we are not noticing?

As a final thought: Recently, I saw a post online in which a family is leaving church after the service and the husband is saying, “That was a great sermon on sin, I felt like the pastor was speaking directly to the man two pews in front of us.”

I hope there aren’t similar reactions to this sermon. I would like each one of us to think about our plumb lines. What is it that centers us, that drives our every action? How can we align this more closely with God’s plumb line of justice and righteousness? How can this inform our discussions going forward on what we ought to be doing as a worshipping and serving community? As we think about how we should love our neighbors, remember the words of Jesus, “Go and do likewise.”

O Lord, mercifully receive our prayers and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do and have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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