Stay thirsty, my friends | Sermon for Proper 24C

At St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin (where I serve as deacon) we’re in the middle of a six-week series of sermons on the Beatitudes, sayings of Jesus that are found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew.

Jesus is addressing Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, a mixed crowd of believers and non-believers, those who think they belong and those who have been told they don’t.

He says we are “blessed” – happy or fortunate – when we are poor in spirit, when we are meek, when we mourn. He’s announcing the coming of God’s kingdom, where things are as God intends them to be.

Today we’re on the fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Righteousness is when things are as God intends them to be.

Righteousness comes from the Greek word dikaiosune, meaning fairness or justice; my wife tells me that in German, the word for righteousness is like “richtig” – meaning that things are done correctly.

Righteousness is divine approval; what is deemed right by God.

Those who are righteous are those who are as they ought to be. Those who receive a righteous judgment are those who are treated justly, fairly, correctly – as God would have them treated.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, are those who eagerly desire to see everyone treated as God would treat them.

Fr. Aran told us two weeks ago about the rabbinical way of riffing on Scripture in what is called a “remez.” I want to riff on just one word, the word thirst – righteousness may feel like too big, too abstract a concept. Thirst we can understand.

A remez is the second of the four traditional levels of interpretation of the biblical text the historical, philosophical, homiletic, and mystical.

So here’s another philosophy – a remez – about thirst that you’ll recognize:

“Stay thirsty, my friends.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World does not really hunger or thirst for righteousness, does he? He thirsts for adventure and acclaim that set him apart from other people. In fact, with his recent well-publicized blast-off to Mars, he’s about as far apart from us as he can get.


He’s more “up in heaven” than “down here on earth.”

The flip side of that beer commercial (on the day before my third sobriety anniversary) is a very down-to-earth story about Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frustrated by the slow growth of the AA Fellowship, and anxious about the thousands of copies of his “Big Book” Alcoholics Anonymous remaining unsold in a warehouse, he spoke to Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who appeared at his New York apartment one cold, rainy evening in 1940. As the story goes,

Soon Bill was talking about all the steps and taking his fifth step (telling the exact nature of his wrongs) with this priest who had limped in from a storm. He told Father Ed about his anger, his impatience, his mounting dissatisfactions.

“Blessed are they,” Father Ed said, “who hunger and thirst.”

Bill replied, “Is there ever to be any satisfaction?”

Father Ed said, “Never. Never any. Keep on reaching – in time your reaching will find God’s goals, hidden in your own heart.”

He reminded Bill W., “You have made a decision to turn your life and your will over to God … you are not to sit in judgment on how God or the world is proceeding. You have only to keep the channels open … it is not up to you to decide how fast or how slowly AA develops … For whether the two of us like it or not, the world is undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.”

Father Ed basically describes the pattern of the Christian life, what we call the way of the Cross, and Bill began to learn that night that he had to turn his thirst for success and the approval of others toward self-sacrifice instead, putting down his own ambition in favor of working his own program, one day at a time.


“We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

We Christians learn about the way of the Cross, what we call “the way of life and peace,” from Jesus himself, especially from the way we see him act as the end of his life and ministry draws near.

The Beatitudes come from the beginning of his ministry, where he is drawing large crowds.

But even before that beginning, just after his baptism, Jesus had to face a trial of temptation. He is alone in the desert and the Devil appears to him.

“You look hungry; why not make these stones into bread?”

Jesus realizes that he must turn his own hunger, his concern for his own life and ministry, his power as God’s beloved, which could just make him self-sufficient, into concern for others. He must aim his hunger elsewhere, as the Word of God will teach him.

His ministry must be about feeding others (and with overflowing baskets of bread, in fact) while he eats the bread of life from God’s word which, as Paul later reminds Timothy, “is useful for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

But at the end of his life, on the night before he died, he is once again all alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” Perhaps in his Agony he remembers his own parable “about the need to pray always and not lose heart.”

“I’m thirsty,” he says to the Father, “but I don’t want to drink this.”

“Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.” The prayer he taught to his disciples – the Lord’s Prayer which we pray daily in the church, the Lord’s Prayer that many AA meetings close with – rises to his own lips: “Thy will be done.”

Jesus must aim his eagerness for the Kingdom of God, finally, away from all success, away from the crowds, away from his closest friends, and toward the one final act in the drama of redemption which only he can perform.

He gives up his freedom. He is bound and arrested, tortured and mocked, beaten and finally crucified as though he were a murderer or a thief. He endures injustice and unfairness and what is not right for the sake of the whole world.

As he hangs from the cross, Jesus says with nearly his last breath, “I thirst.”


He aims what he thirsts for at the heart of the Father, and “earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God” (BCP 287).

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 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Being filled in the sense that Bill W.’s story and more importantly, the example of Jesus, suggests is less about the achievement and more about the process.

The fellowship is growing too slowly for the Wall Street money man’s tastes, but it’s not about him. He must work the Steps himself and stay humble.

The Devil is persuasive to a hungry man in the desert, but he resists the temptation to use his newfound power for himself only.

The cup is bitter, like “sour grapes that set one’s teeth on edge,” like sour wine mixed with gall, but the thirsty man drinks it so that God’s will for the whole world will be fulfilled.

Over time, and with constant practice, as we do our best to set aside our ambitions and focus on our own way of the Cross – as we try daily simply to carry out our ministries fully – we will find that our reaching and God’s goals have become one.

“It’s not up to you to decide … We are meant to thirst. What matters is where we aim what we thirst for.”

Righteousness will come about not because we aim to “save the world” – which Christ Jesus has already done anyway “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (BCP 334) – but because we aim what we thirst for, our ambitions and desires, at what we can do for the sake of others today.

So, stay thirsty, my friends.


2012-08-06 13.03.01

Solemnly engaging to conform

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?


 I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. (BCP 526)

Engaging to conform

I have already been living under this vow for 20 years as an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, but I have been invited to reflect on it again as I prepare for ordination to the priesthood.

First and foremost, I believe the center of this particular vow – in response to the bishop’s questions about loyalty and obedience – is the promise to engage to conform.

Doctrine, discipline, and worship may be the legal matter of this vow, but conforming (both willingly and readily) is the spiritual energy of this promise made by bishops, priests, and deacons at their ordination.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

We live in a culture that does not value conformity, but rather tries to sell us on the endless allure of newness, entrepreneurialism, start-ups, and fashion.

Being transformed away from that culture, away from conformity to that world, means the “renewing of our minds” toward the good, the acceptable, the perfect. Being transformed toward good requires the paradoxical conformity of humility.

Humility means learning the hard lesson that there are people who know more, and know better, than I do. As I have realized often in my professional career and in 20 years as a deacon (and more recently in three years of recovery), I can learn from the experiences of people who know what I need to know only to the extent that I am willing and ready to conform to “the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery,” or to the experience of my colleagues, or to the practice of the Church’s disciplines.



I have been taking an online Canon Law course through Bexley Seabury this fall, so I now happen to know that where clergy discipline is concerned:

Discipline of the Church shall be found in the Constitution, the Canons and the Rubrics and the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer. (IV.2)

The church’s disciplines are not random, but have organic beginnings in the early Church and have developed over time as society has changed.

In our particular branch of the Church, we have disciplines that include organizing ourselves in General Convention and dioceses and parishes, agreeing how we will worship (down to the fine print), and setting out requirements for ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons.

Engaging to conform to the discipline of the Church means willingly working within the political structures of General Convention, the diocese, and the parish – even if you are working ultimately to change those structures.

It means willingly participating in an ordination process that involves many other people, even if (as my faculty advisor observed a long time ago) it’d be easier just to stand on the street corner and say, “I’m a preacher!”

Napoleon Dynamite Gosh

It means willingly observing the fine print of the prayer book or other services authorized by Convention, whether you agree with the changes or not.

I’ve always worked in large, bureaucratic organizations, so I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact that there are policies and procedures – disciplines – that govern the way we live, and work, and worship together.


Together or alone, we Episcopalians worship God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, in the Name of Jesus Christ.

In just the same way as the disciplines of the Church have changed over time, so too has the Church’s worship, whether personal devotions or corporate prayer.

From the very basics – fasting and the Lord’s Prayer – to personal prayers several times a day, to gatherings of Christians morning and evening, to splendid Byzantine liturgies and daily Latin Masses, to monastic offices, to worship in the vernacular and the Reformation focus on the reading of Scripture, the Church’s worship has changed and evolved in myriad ways throughout the 20 centuries since Jesus’ time.

Engaging to conform to the Church’s pattern of worship means, for me, praying “by the book” using the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

Though the public offering of the Daily Office has not been required of clergy in the American Episcopal Church as it was in England, it’s the heartbeat of the English prayer book tradition and an unparalleled practice for hearing and responding to the Holy Scriptures. Other forms of personal prayer, like meditation and Centering Prayer, supplement the offices and give me a chance to be silent and receptive, communing with God in that way.

Secondly, even though for a long time Sunday worship in the English and American Church featured Morning Prayer and only occasional Communion, the pattern since 1979 (and in many places even before I was born) has been to celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and on other Major Feasts. The prayer book rubrics are clear on the subject.

I read an article this week in The Living Church by Andrew Pearson, a cathedral dean who says “we are a Morning Prayer parish in the first place, already differentiating ourselves from nearly every other Episcopal church in the United States.”

Engaging to conform, to my mind, means setting aside that kind of idiosyncratic preference in favor of practicing and promoting the Church’s current pattern of corporate worship.

It’s often said (by Episcopalians, at least) that “praying shapes believing.” Practicing the Episcopal Church’s discipline and following the pattern of the Episcopal Church’s worship reveals the Episcopal Church’s doctrine.


According to the canons of the Episcopal Church:

Doctrine shall mean the basic and essential teachings of the Church and is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. (IV.2)

In the parishes and dioceses of the Episcopal Church we baptize new members of Christ’s body, making and renewing promises before God as we recite the Apostle’s Creed.

We pray morning and evening, reading from the Holy Scriptures and reciting that same baptismal creed. We celebrate the Holy Eucharist every Sunday, reading from the Holy Scriptures and reciting the Nicene Creed in affirmation of the faith we hold.

We confirm lay persons and marry people and ordain ministers in the context of the Holy Eucharist. In other sacramental rites, we reconcile the penitent, pronouncing on them God’s absolution; we minister to the sick, laying hands on them and anointing them with oil for healing; we bury the dead, commending them to God in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Exsultet at Holy Communion

Our doctrine is our common prayer, and it is to be found in its disciplines.

My teaching over the years – in the catechumenate, in abuse prevention training, in Deacons’ School, in Episcopal 101, at retreats, on this blog, in Education for Ministry – has been, and will always be, rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and the Holy Scriptures, as the Episcopal Church uses them.

I stand willing and ready once more to engage to conform.


Peace with every step

 If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. (T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)

There is only one way into a labyrinth. It’s not a maze, but a winding path.

Earlier today at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin — at Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor training — we watched a video called With One Voice.

Contemporary mystics from 14 spiritual traditions, monastics and lay people, men and women, spoke of the universal human experience that mystics have, even though they seem to pursue many different paths toward (or following) that experience.

One of the mystics who spoke, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Yoga Center, suggested paradoxically that “there is only one path. That path is you.”

In just the same way, there is only one path into the labyrinth, and you must take the winding road toward the center.


As you approach the center, you come very close, but then the winding path leads you farther away, back around for another loop.

Similarly, as you leave the labyrinth, retracing your steps along the one path, you seem to get quite far along, and then you suddenly find yourself near the center again.

There’s a quality like breathing to a labyrinth — the rhythm of going in and back out, out and back in again.


As I approach ordination to the priesthood, I have been walking for the past few months in company with members of my discernment group (a priest, a deacon, and two lay people).

I am feeling the same sort of in-and-out, near-and-then-far sensation as in the labyrinth.

Some days, the prospect of beginning a new pastoral ministry seems crystal clear and tantalizingly close (what are we waiting for?), then a question from the group causes me to wonder if I’m really as ready as I think I am.

Other days, it feels like Jesus might have felt at the beginning of Mark’s gospel: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness ….” I’ve had a chance to meet many members of the new congregation, and it feels in some ways like we’ve already started. But the ordination date hasn’t even been set.

Back to the center. Loop back around.

Perhaps I should “put off sense and notion,” as Eliot suggests. I’m not here to “verify,” to nail things down, to organize the whole project. Other people, like my bishop, are in charge of that.

Perhaps all I need to do right now is kneel right here, where prayer has been valid. I know from experience that the DeKoven Center is just such a place.

There is only one path, and it will wind wherever it leads, to the center and back again, as long as it takes.

victory of life and peace

In the temple and house to house

[The council] were convinced by Gamaliel, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and [house to house] they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. (Acts 5:39-42)

It seems to me that this passage is a pretty convincing place to locate the beginning of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Every day …

… in the temple and house to house …

… those who were considered worthy
to suffer for the name …

… did not cease to teach and proclaim.

The apostles were flogged, and they rejoiced.

They were ordered not to speak, and they did not cease to teach and proclaim.

Here’s an example of their proclamation, a song we still sing at Morning Prayer more than 2,000 years later:

A Song to the Lamb Dignus es
Revelation 4:11, 5:9-10, 13

Splendor and honor and kingly power *
are yours by right, O Lord our God,
For you created everything that is, *
and by your will they were created and have their being;
And yours by right, O Lamb that was slain, *
for with your blood you have redeemed for God,
From every family, language, people, and nation, *
a kingdom of priests to serve our God.

And so, to him who sits upon the throne, *
and to Christ the Lamb,
Be worship and praise, dominion and splendor, *
for ever and for evermore.

As we continue reading the next few chapters of Acts, we will see the apostles appointing seven deacons to serve the needs of the Greek-speaking believers as well as the Jewish believers. The song they sing is for “every family, language, people, and nation” — for the whole kingdom of priests.

The deacon Stephen’s preaching — not his table service — gets him stoned to death. He is the next one to be “counted worthy to suffer for the name” (Acts 7:60).

The violence against all of the believers is mounting.

Saul begins to follow the church, persecuting the believers. As they are “every day in the temple and house to house,” so he is “ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women” (Acts 8:3).

But “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4). Eventually even Saul is “counted worthy to suffer for the name,” and his conversion leads him to travel widely, entering house after house again, only this time to form churches.

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, Christ the Lamb.

Worthy are you, when you suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. The church thrived and grew when the going got tough. Even today, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian).

Mideast Egypt The Christian Vote

A blood-spattered poster of Jesus Christ is seen inside the the Coptic Christian Saints Church in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria (CNS).

Worthy, too, are the priesthood of all believers, those who sing the Lord’s song “every day in the temple and house to house.”

Worthy are you, when you proclaim the good news of Christ not just at church, but also as you go about your daily life.

A Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.


Slow down | Summer Sabbath time

As I observed in this month’s parish newsletter, when my Episcopal 101 class at St. Thomas Church looks at the Church Year, we sometimes talk about how the 50 days of the Easter Season are one-seventh of the calendar.

Easter Season is to the whole year as Sunday is to each week. Just like we put on our “Sunday best” and celebrate the Eucharist on Sundays, the whole Easter Season is a high point in the church’s calendar.

Calendar of Church Year 2015-16

I think it might be the same way with these late summer months of July and August. The next several weeks, about one-seventh of the calendar, are sort of like Saturday.

In the Jewish calendar, Saturday is the Sabbath day, the day of rest. Honoring the Sabbath, in the Biblical story, means taking time off from creating in order to relax and enjoy the fruits of creation. After six days of creation, God rested on the seventh day.

Have you noticed how in these summer months, things tend to slow down a bit? We may spend more time on the deck or patio grilling out, or we may cancel our evening meetings because people are traveling to see their families.

Slowing down is an important part of our human experience. God made it so from the very beginning.

We humans often have a hard time observing the Sabbath, though – at least I know I do!

Sometimes, we make rules about relaxation or we overschedule our rest time, which really means we’re still controlling, still working – and it sort of defeats the whole purpose.

“I’m going to the cookout for 60 minutes, then I’m going to the graduation party for 45 minutes, then we’re all going to enjoy miniature golf this afternoon, then we’re all going to Grandma’s house for dinner.”

What can you do in this “Saturday” of the year – the next few weeks – to be kind to yourself and to give yourself a chance to rest?

You probably still have to work, and you probably can’t really control that, but what can you do to “unschedule” the rest of your time?

A Collect for Saturdays

O God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.(BCP 99)

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Sabbath Manifesto

For some quick ideas about observing Sabbath time, check out the Sabbath Manifesto, whose “cell phone sleeping bag” is pictured above. The Sabbath Manifesto promotes ten principles for a weekly day of rest, starting with “Avoid Technology.”

A green olive treein the house of God

A green olive tree in the house of God | Sermon for Proper 11C

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)


The earthy smell of the olive trees in Gethsemane, ancient and alive at the same time, reminds Jesus of Martha and Mary. He smiles in the dark, his face wet with tears.

His disciples follow him as best they can, but look at them sleeping over there on this night so heavy with decision!

The men and women who crowd around him are sometimes caught up in his vision of the kingdom of God, sometimes seem to understand what he’s trying to say, but it’s his friend Mary who draws the vision out of him, whose listening ear gives him space to talk.

And it’s Martha who makes a home for him to rest in, to eat and drink and recover from the stress of his ministry.

He’s in agony now in the grey moments before dawn on this Friday morning, his heart racing just as it was when he heard that his friend, their brother Lazarus, had died.


Martha challenged Jesus right there in the road when he finally arrived — “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hands on her hips, she gets right in his face: “You should have done something!”

Martha’s love drives him to tears, the living water pouring from him in waves of grief and love, like healing oil for his friends, for her and Mary and Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” he says.

“Unbind him.”

The wailing of the mourners in Bethany is silenced, and all he can hear is tree limbs creaking in the breeze. The scent of the grave clothes is sharp and pungent, earthy and spicy.


The first time he had come to Bethany, the whole house was warm, and the aroma of bread and spices filled his senses.

Martha was cooking something delicious – everything she made was delicious – and she gave him some green olives to eat before dinner was ready.

She chided Mary for not helping, but he laughed and said Mary had chosen the better part, and it would not be taken from her.

Mary held a rose in her lap, and she was listening, helping him to relax and put his thoughts in order while Martha busied herself in the background. The sharp taste of the olives kept his mind from wandering.

“You are busy with many things, Martha. There is only one needful thing.”

Like a green olive tree

On one knee in the crowded Jerusalem street, he struggles to rise. The earthy scent and the deadly weight of the wooden beam press him down, causing blood to flow freely from his wounded back and head.

Later, as he hangs from the cross, his breath getting shallower and more labored in the noonday heat, he is given a taste of sour wine.

His eyes close. What he wouldn’t give for another taste of green olives, for another evening in the warmth of Martha’s home!

Pain pierces his hands and feet in waves of grief and love as he stretches out his arms, offering himself with the same gesture she made when the meal was ready and she invited him and Mary to come to the table.

“Take, eat …”

“They know not what they do … but now I know what I am doing.”

“Lord, I know that the Messiah is coming.”

“I am the resurrection and the life … O Martha, believe.”

His vision of the kingdom completely clear now, he speaks to the one hanging next to him.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”


In the garden of Gethsemane stand olive trees that are more than 2,000 years old.

Fr. Aran tells me they still smell earthy and spicy, ancient and alive, just as they did in Jesus’ time.

They have endured the endless agonies of men and women down the centuries, continually bearing fruit from their gnarled limbs and giving oil for healing.

Another beloved disciple and friend of Jesus did catch his vision and followed the Way of his Lord into old age. In a revelation, John glimpsed “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

In the center of the heavenly city flows the river of the water of life, “and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree – like a green olive tree in the house of God — are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).



The plumb-line, the crossand the circle

The plumb-line, the cross, and the circle

A parishioner reminded me earlier this week that I sometimes get political in my sermons. That was before two black men were killed by police and before five Dallas police officers were killed and seven others wounded by a lone shooter, a veteran who had served in Afghanistan. This morning I promise not to get political.

First of all, I am not a black man. And I am not a police officer. And I am not a military veteran. And I do not want to presume to speak about their frustration or their suffering or their families’ grief.

Instead I must offer some prophetic and pastoral words today. I am a Christian and an ordained minister, and the words of the Scriptures are directed at me, at us. It is my responsibility not only to heed the words of the Scriptures but to help you heed them, too.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors.

But first, let me start with a joke.

The Plumb-Line

I spent six hours driving back and forth from Charlotte through the mountains of western North Carolina for a business meeting on Friday. As I drove, I couldn’t help thinking of George Carlin’s observation that “anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac.”

This is precisely the kind of “judgment” that the Scriptures condemn, the judging of other nations as good or bad, the judging of other religions as right or wrong, the judging of other people as worthy or worthless.

The prophet Amos shows us, in a vivid image, why our judgment is flawed.

He sees in a vision “the Lord standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand … then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb line in the middle of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 7:7-8).


A plumb line, for those who may not know, is an ancient tool to help builders make their work straight and level. The heavy weight at the end of the line was originally made of “plumb,” or lead (that’s why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb).

But that’s not the point; the point of Amos’ vision is that only God’s judgment is perfect, and when he holds a plumb line up to humanity everything is crooked in comparison.

Every nation, even our beloved America, is crooked.

Just last Monday – it hasn’t even been a week! – we prayed on Independence Day to the “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.”

Righteousness and peace? What a crock! What a self-righteous, violent, chaotic nation we are proving to be, if we could only see straight!

Just like the king of Israel, our nation won’t stand for judgment. And too often, our denominations and we religious leaders do just as Amaziah did and turn away the prophets for disturbing the peace. “Go somewhere else with your protests and activism; stop calling into question our righteousness and peace.”

Just like the priests of Israel, compared to God’s plumb-line, every denomination, every religious leader, is out of true. We offer our “thoughts and prayers” again and again and again, but we don’t get political in our sermons because we don’t want to rock the boat or offend anyone. Or we do get political in our messages, teaching (whether we mean to or not) that power and politics and success are what really matter.

But every person, every single one of us, is at least “half a bubble off plumb,” too. And here’s where it gets personal. What’s really happening when God’s plumb line hangs beside us is that we are ashamed. We see ourselves clearly, and we are ashamed.

Reflecting on “Dallas and American Contradictions,” Alexandra Petri wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that,

Being told that you aren’t living up to your own standards is an uncomfortable thing. …. [T]hat is an unpleasant thing to discover about yourself. So a lot of the anger in America now resembles the anger that you have at your mirror. ‘This isn’t what I look like,’ you say. ‘I look much better than that.’ It hurts to realize that the only reason you thought you didn’t have wrinkles was because the lighting was poor. But it’s not the fault of the light.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves …

The Cross

We see ourselves clearly, and we are ashamed. The plumb line just hangs there, but we feel like we are being sentenced. Because we are ashamed, we try to deflect attention away from ourselves, to justify our behavior.

The lawyer came back at Jesus with a second question “wanting to justify himself.”

That’s an important “hinge word” to pay attention to. Because our behavior – our living up to our national ideals or our keeping the commandments – has been called into question, we are ashamed and we try to justify ourselves.

“Our nation is not so bad.” At least America is not a warlike country invading other sovereign territories at will and destroying people’s homes and cities.

“Our political candidate is not so bad.” You know, the other ones misbehaved, too.

“Our religion is not so bad.” At least we’re not preaching violent fantasies and subjugating women and minorities.

So much of what we say and share on social media serves this self-justifying need – “I’m not so bad.” Other people are much worse.

At least I’m not like other people.

Does that sound familiar? It should, because it was the punch line of another parable Jesus told, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Justify is a hinge word because it has two meanings – we justify ourselves because of our shame, but the Gospel tells us our shame has been lifted and we have been justified by the grace of God through Jesus’ self-offering on the cross.

Paul writes that

while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

We must not try to justify ourselves – we must not try to take away our shame by deflecting attention onto others. We ourselves are the ungodly, the sinners for whom Christ died on the cross.

But do you hear the good news? We cannot justify ourselves, because in Christ we are justified by grace, through faith.

In the Advent season, the priest prays right before Communion that “we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold Christ at his coming.” Christ’s self-offering on the cross is the hinge that turns our self-justifying into justification.

The cross, standing stark and upright, takes up the plumb-line of God’s judgment and transforms it into the symbol of God’s grace, erasing our shame and fear.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors.

 The Circle

One of the loveliest prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is this prayer for mission:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)


What could you accomplish if you could act without shame or fear, without the need to judge others, without the need to justify your actions?

You could accomplish just what the Samaritan man did in Jesus’ parable. You could stop focusing on yourself as better than anyone else, you could stop justifying your action (or inaction), you could see someone hurting and stop and help them.

The “Good Samaritan” is not actually the focus of today’s parable – even the way we talk about it shows that we miss the point. The Samaritan man focuses on the one in need, cares for him without judging him, and doesn’t have to spend any time justifying his inaction.

The Samaritan man – and us, if we follow Jesus’ invitation to “do likewise” – doesn’t waste any time deciding whether the man is worthy or deserved what he got, or should have given the robbers what they wanted. He simply binds his wounds and takes him somewhere safe.

My wife recently had tears in her eyes as she described to me how one father of an Orlando shooting victim refused to claim his son’s body — he hadn’t known his son was gay until he was killed — and how a local Seventh-Day Adventist Church offered to hold funerals for victims of the massacre who had no other place to go. She grew up in the SDA church, and had given her denomination up years ago for their judgmental attitudes, but here they showed that their focus was on the victims and their hurting families.

What Jesus says to the lawyer is that inheriting eternal life has nothing to do with judging others wrong. God’s plumb line makes clear your own crookedness.

It has nothing to do with justifying your actions by deflecting attention onto the sins of others; the cross casts its long shadow on your own sinfulness, at the same time taking away your shame and freeing you to act without fear.

Inheriting eternal life, according to Jesus, has to do with lessening the suffering of the people in your path. You don’t have to care for everyone, but you do have to respond to those who cross your path who are hurting.

Whether people meet you online or in person, on social media or in social settings, you create the circle of Christ’s outstretched arms of love; you bring people into Christ’s saving embrace.

Alongside the cross and within the circle of Christ’s love, the new plumb-line hangs as straight and true as ever: Did you lessen the suffering of the people you encountered today?

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors, for God’s sake.

Go, and do likewise. Amen.