Year B, 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10 July 15, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel…”
Last week we talked about evangelism. I think I was gentle enough. I didn’t get any irate emails. We talked about how to do it, how to spread the Word, namely subtly, Episcopalian-y, showing the love of Christ with a pinch of the Jesus-ness in your own life. Do I hear an AMEN? And we touched on the why, why we need to spread the word. With a world where our closest ally greets our president with a three-story tall inflated and diapered effigy, we all, that includes the cultured despisers here in South Eugene, we all could use as much of the light and love of Jesus Christ as we can get. Today I want to talk a little more in detail about what it actually is that we, that the church, that faith in our Lord Jesus Christ can bring to the world. We need to spread the word. We agreed on that last week. What is it that we have to offer that is so desperately needed… that is our topic for today. Because I get that question all the time. Why should someone come to church? What do I tell people? What do I say that we have to offer that is different than, say, ecstatic dance at the WOW hall?
We really have only one thing to offer… a direct path to the love of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. Not the only path, but a path, our path, which is as fine and direct a path to right relationship with the ground of being as there is. That relationship is what we traffic in; nothing more, nothing less. What you experience when you receive that bread and wine, when you are carried with your neighbor in the hymn or the anthem or the silence, when your heart breaks open, even just a teeny-tiny bit when we pray or kneel in the confession… that is the transcendent God breaking immanently into your life. But how to explain that to your friends over latte’s at the Hideaway???
Our stock answer is: Great is the mystery of faith! That really is the answer because the nature of a relationship with God is generally indescribable besides perhaps with the word Love, and try to define that. A relationship with God means as many things as there are people in relationship with God. And some of us have multiple relationships, or multiple variations of relationships with That Which Is. Who you are, what you need, what you have to offer, that is the foundation of your relationship with God, and much of that changes with the changing seasons of our lives. That is just to say that the heart of our faith, our relationship with God in God’s self, is mysterious, ineffable. It is often not explicable or reasonable or logical (nor does it need to be), and it is certainly not reducible to utilitarian terms.
But that kind of open ended abstraction is soup so thick that to many of the uninitiated, the unchurched or the damaged by church or led by church in directions that didn’t resonate or ring true, those kind of descriptions can seem impenetrable or inaccessible, or just unimportant or irrelevant. “I have no idea what are you talking about. (Nor do I care).” Is a common reaction. So are blank stares, or eye rolls of “you idiot.”
So what do we have to offer to someone who doesn’t recognize the need for a relationship with the divine, and maybe has a fine network of relationships, is immersed in community, or isn’t interested in (or is even disdainful of) the sweet opiate of the masses? You know, most of our neighbors, 78% of whom, third lowest in the nation, do not have religious homes. What do we have for them?
Here is a short list that I came up with:
- Singing together. Where else do you get a chance to do that?
- Intentional silence, and more powerfully, intentional silence together, regularly.
- Truly intergenerational community, life-span community, cradle to grave community
- Continuity with an ancient heritage, the heritage of most of our ancestors
- A wholesome, positive place for children to receive their cultural inheritance as well as a moral grounding.
- Karen’s Cookies.
- A time to face the same direction together, ritually acting together much like folks have done for as long as there have been people, and not just for entertainment’s sake.
- Learning about ourselves, the inner life, the world in different contexts
- A place for comfort and refuge. Solace and strength. Pardon and renewal.
- It makes your mom happy.
- It is good for you. Like the gym or kale, might not be you favorite thing at first, but it is good for you and once you get used to the good stuff, it is hard to go back.
- Church goers live longer. (That’s actually true).
What did I miss? What are other good reasons to go to church? ___ That is all good stuff. And again, as there are infinite ways relationships with God manifest, there are infinite reasons to go to church, many of them good.
Today, this season in history, there is an even more pressing reason than usual for going to church. O, don’t get me wrong, it has been bad for a long time. Yes, the sky is falling right now: that is true. It is also true that the sky has been falling for a very, very long time, maybe even continuously, perpetually falling. But you read the news: immigrant children in detention, decrying the WHO over breastfeeding???? That baby balloon over London sums it up: the sky is falling faster and harder right now than it has in at least a generation. Our readings today, from the Prophet Amos and from St. Mark the Evangelist illustrate a key, and not often enough exercised reason for or benefit of going to church: the religious capacity and imperative to speak truth to power. That alone is a reason to go to church, to acquire the grounding, the religiously informed moral and ethical grounding to speak truth to power.
Think Dr. King. Archbishops Tutu and Romero. Gandhi. Dorothy Day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. St. Paul. They did what they did, endured what they endured because their witness was grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ. It was not just their opinion, their will, but a witness of the Truth conditioned by an historical faith in the context of an intentional, loving community. That is powerful medicine, maybe as powerful a medicine there is for a sin sick world such as ours.
Let’s take a look at Amos. He was a prophet. He was not a professional prophet or son of a professional prophet, not clergy (i.e. not beholden to a class identity or a career path). God plucked him out of Judah and plopped him in the court of Jeroboam to speak the truth. His presence was disagreeable to Amaziah, the king’s priest (who was very much beholden to the powers that be and that be the ones who wrote his paycheck and allowed his head to remain attached to his body). But Amos didn’t care, he was sent by God, “See,” God said to him, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.”
This is a plumb line. A plumb line provides a reference point. What does it refer to? A known point, in the case of an actual plumb line, the absolute center of the earth. It draws a straight line from wherever you hold it to the center of our planet. Inerrantly. Always. Everywhere. (Except maybe the Mystery Spot near Santa Cruz, but that is a different sermon).
This alone is a reason to go to church. A reference point. That is what having a religious life can provide. A reference point. That is what sharing a universe of faith with your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, strangers, intimates, friends in Christ all of them, the dead, the now living, and the ones who will follow us. A reference point. A known point from which you can locate yourself in relation to everything else.
Our foundational reference point is Jesus Christ. He is the Cornerstone. The Word, God became flesh and dwelt among us. In that act, the transcendent became immanent, the ineffable became effable, the abstract became actual. The Christ event placed a reference point to the eternal and actual in the temporal soup of time and space. In that particular time and place, God intersected with this realm and from that point, that reference point, we can locate ourselves in the universe. Once you know that “He is there”, then you can begin to discern “I am here.” You can begin to determine where you are in relation to God via Christ in the Holy Spirit, not temporally so much, but spiritually, morally. Religiously, knowing where you are means knowing where you are in relation to God, more specifically, with the will of God. That is knowing where you are in relation to what is right and what is wrong. Not what is acceptable at this point in time, but what is right and wrong, good and evil. Original sin means we have a choice between doing right or wrong. (Maddeningly, we can intentionally choose wrong). Timshel, we may choose one path instead of another. Thanks be to God, original sin is tempered by the God given ability to discern right from wrong. Again, thanks be to God because we have a lot of choices to make, constantly. Who to vote for. Or whether you need that thing you want to buy or just want to buy it. Or if you should take to the streets, or boycott a corporate evil-doer, or work to resist an evil government or at least evil governmental policies. Or the other important things like remembering to be kind to the jerks in your life, be patient with the frustrating, forgiving of the trespassers. Those are fruits of a reference point.
A reference point is something outside of, not subject to the power of the object at hand. It points true like a compass. Polaris, the North Star. Amos the plumb line. It is not up to you to interpret, or you, or me. That is north. That is straight down. There is an objective nature to a plumb line.
Jesus Christ is our plumb line. He dwelt among us. We have an agreed upon memory recorded in the Gospels. We have our own experience of grace in and by and through Him. But from there… it can get pretty subjective. We are human. But what we have in Jesus Christ, in the two thousand years of Christian revelation and experience of Him, in a shared gospel in the context of a larger shared narrative trajectory and shared traditions, that absolute reference point of God entering this world becomes accessible to us, usable to us, becomes a reference point outside of ourselves. You and you and you and me and all the folks at church downtown this morning, and in Portland and Texas and New England and St. Petersburg and Rome and Damascus and Lagos, in every flavor and language and key, coming from all those different angels… we intersect at that central reference point which helps us find our place, our center; it is the plumb line that points to the heart of God.
So when we read Romans, we can cross reference with St. Augustine who read and wrote about Romans 1600 years ago. Or when we read the Law in Deuteronomy, we read the same words Solomon did, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and Luther and Jesus. That is some continuity. We might not all agree with what x means, but at least we are all talking about x. (That is one of the great utilities of the Creeds. The fact that Christians around the world refer to those same words week in, week out, regardless of what you, we, they believe it means, that we are talking about, engaging the same thing, that is part of what makes us us)!
OK, a reference point: how does this allow us to speak truth to power? It is very simple. We can authentically, responsibly speak truth to power only and precisely because we have access to truth. It is not our truth, but it is Truth with a capital “T.” Religion, religious faith, shared religious practice in historical continuity and the shared reference point outside of ourselves allows us access to Truth. That reference point is the cornerstone of a firm foundation that allows us to speak actual Truth to power. Be it the principalities and powers of this world, or the power of our own precious if not pig-headed opinions, our own propensity to take the easy path, or our own tendency to serve our own interests over those of the commonwealth God has blessed us with. If you have a spot in the cosmos that you can get footing, you can bend your knees slightly, feet shoulder-width apart, balanced… You are grounded in truth. You are imperishable.
Now this is not the only way to Truth, but it is a way, and gathered here on a Sunday morning, as God’s people, citizens of the divine Commonwealth, it is our way. Everyone needs a way.
St. John the Baptist found his footing in the waters of the Jordan, god touched him and filled him with the Word in no uncertain terms. From that, in the community that gathered around him, Jesus came. The heavens opened up over them and the spirit descended and God spoke. As muddy and slow (not mighty and cold as the hymn says) the Jordan was, John the Baptizer knew for certain where he was in relation to everything and everyone else, including God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. And located, he told it like it is. He told Herod that marrying his brother’s wife was wrong. He told everyone to repent, to change the directions of their lives because He was coming, the Word made flesh, and an accounting was due. And he knew he was angering the powers that be, but knowing the truth as he did, as you can, what choice did he have?
And it was so clear that he had the truth. A sure sign was that even though Herod had imprisoned him, “…Herod feared him, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” (From the wicked Herodius, that is). But the power of John’s truth is made clearest in the next sentence. “When he (Herod) heard him, he was perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” Even evil kings know the genuine article when they see it.
Going to church, surrendering to spiritual forces beyond yourself, facing, trying to face it the same direction as your neighbors in this place and in similarly east facing places all over the world over the course of the past two thousand years, you have access to Truth. Your feet can be placed as firmly as John’s in the Jordan, as Amos’ in Jeroboam’s court, as Day’s in the Bowery or Romero’s at the altar or Gandhi’s at the spinning wheel. Because in church, in Christ, it is not about us, not about me or you, but it is about all the Is in the world in relationship with Thou, with you, O Lord. And the matrix of all of those relationships here, between all those Is in relation to that Thou, in there is the truth that will set us and the whole world free. That is what we have to offer here at Church. That is why you should spread the word. That sort of thing, sells itself, you just need to tell people about it. Do I hear an AMEN? AMEN