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).

plumbline1

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 The heavy weight at the end of the line was originally made of “plumb,” or lead (that’s why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb).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)

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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.

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