ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 15, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
A PLUMB LINE
Amos 7: 7 – 15; Mark 6: 14 – 29

Today we’re doing a morality test. You’re a photojournalist in Miami covering a hurricane. You’re trying to shoot a career-making photo. There’s severe flooding, wild winds, and chaos everywhere. People are being swept away and disappearing under the water. You see a man in the water fighting for his life. The raging waters are about to take him under forever, but you can still save him. Suddenly, you realize the man in need is Donald Trump! You have two options: You can save the President, or you can shoot a dramatic Pulitzer Prize winning photo. The question is: “Would you select colour film, or go with the simplicity of black and white?”

Throughout life, moral dilemmas challenge us. Because our society values individualism and freedom, morality is seen as the imposition of out-dated rules by self-righteous people. Last week I shared an article which began, “In an era where God has no part in many lives, morality cannot be forced on people. People are not listening to those who appear arrogant and moralize, yet don’t practice what they teach.” This attitude of anger, the judgements of hypocrisy and the rapidly changing mores of our culture have silenced many Christians. Earlier we read about God giving the prophet Amos a vision of a plumb line. God declares, “Look what I’ve done. I’ve hung a plumb line amid my people Israel. I’ve spared them for the last time. This is it!” (Amos 7:8) Does God have a plumb line today? Against what does he measure people? What values are we to live by? Do Christians have anything to offer the world around us which may be helpful, or should we just go along with the majority singing, “It’s your thing, do what you wanna do”?

In attempting to honour God’s Law, some Christians hold rigid moral views, criticizing those who waver. In the past, this was evident in the temperance movement or the treatment of unwed mothers. Today, we can be black or white in our views on abortion or LGBTQI people. Jesus warned us not to be judgemental, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment” (Matthew 7:1). Sometimes, Christians lack compassion or place themselves above others which is ironic given we don’t always live by our own standards. We fail. We’ve all failed. Self-righteousness reveals our pride and hypocrisy and turns people off.

What’s more disturbing than our hypocrisy is that righteousness through the Law contradicts the gospel. When we focus on rules and morality, Law becomes more important than grace. The Christian faith recognizes no one is “good” by our own strength. Our faith begins, not with perfection, but with confession. As John writes, “if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing” (1 John 1: 9). Our faith addresses human failure as God extends grace and forgiveness to us through Jesus Christ when we admit our faults and desire to change. We’re all in need of God’s continuous mercy and strength. Forgiveness is nothing to be smug about, “Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!” (Ephesians 2: 8 & 9) To think our faith is about keeping rules or enforcing morality is a distortion. When we judge others, we use the Law to condemn them without giving them hope. People who condemn us for our inconsistent behaviour don’t understand the Christian faith; it’s not about being good, it’s about our need for grace. The Law simply shows us that need.

Jesus gave us another plumb line, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list” (Matthew 22:37). In the book of Amos, God is angry at the Israelites for worshipping other gods. God has an expectation of his people. We’re in a covenant relationship with God which requires faithfulness. God wants our love. He’s wounded when we run around with other “gods”; when we idolize things, so they’re more important than He is; when we chase after fulfillment from other sources; when we adopt the ways of other religions; when we sink our souls into temporal things which we then rely on, when we speak of God in derogatory ways; when we can’t be bothered to worship. God longs to be first in our hearts. More than a rule book, the Bible is where we meet God. It allows us to know God and build a relationship with him. We gain insight into God’s character. We learn what makes God smile and what doesn’t. Loving God leads to holiness. To be holy is to be set apart from common things for a special purpose. God doesn’t anticipate everyone will be holy, but the Church is to be different in this regard. Christians are to be pure in our devotion to God. When we’re holy, we’re faithful to God and live to please him. This plumb line measures whether or not we’re Loving God.
The other plumb line Jesus set is our relationship with others, ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ We live in a time when we love things and use people. Many people are disengaged from their true self. This detachment is seen as people collect material possessions while pushing down concern for those in poverty; as people cheat and destroy others to get what they want. We see it in ungrounded parents who are so in need of stimulation they neglect their children for a fix or a party. For many, sexual expression is no more than scratching an itch and anyone will do. While the Bible has many rules to curb behaviour, it isn’t until Christ that our alienation from God and self is addressed. Human beings are more than our animal instincts, we’re created for a purpose. We’re called to love. The brilliant writer, Oscar Wilde, had a complicated relationship with Christ and the Church throughout his life. He was also gay. On his death bed, it is said, Oscar was reflecting on Christ’s command to love and asked a friend, “Those young men – did you really love any of them?” His friend paused and admitted, “no”. Disturbed by the way he had used people and his failure to love, Oscar called for a priest, made confession and was baptised. He confessed something deeper than his actions, he confessed the attitude of his heart. This plumb line measure whether or not we are really Loving People.

The trouble is: love can quickly be reduced to sentimentality – to “being nice” or accepting. We can stop seeing the world through God’s eyes. Our second reading was about John the Baptist’s interaction with King Herod. Herod had set up house with his brother’s wife. John didn’t tell him, “I love you like you are, don’t ever change.” He called Herod to repent. What did he base that on? In our society, acceptable behaviour is based on “doing no harm”, protecting the vulnerable and disempowering the strong. So, it’s OK to tell lawyer jokes, political jokes, or jokes about rich white Christian guys, otherwise jokes about race, gender, eth¬nicity, religion, sexual orien¬tation, or physical or cognitive ability are considered morally offensive. We don’t know if Herod and Herodias were hurting anyone – his brother may have been happy to be rid of her. Neither party was vulnerable; both had influence in state decisions including who gets beheaded. And while both were more powerful than the average citizen, Jewish royalty was also under the tyranny of Rome. John’s criteria were different. They had to do with Herod’s relationship to God. Herod was hurting God and alienating himself from God. They were harming God by doing something contrary to God’s will. John knew this because it said so in the Law (Exodus 20:14). He spoke up out of concern for both God and Herod. He didn’t want Herod to suffer the consequences of his actions and he didn’t want God to suffer. Herod was quite open to hearing what John had to say. He liked John. They had a relationship. His wife, not so much. Perhaps she thought John was self-righteous. Clearly his words played on her conscience.

When it comes to God’s plumb line, there are some things we learn from this:
• God’s will is not irrelevant. Living to please God reflects our love for God.
• Dismissing moral standards is not love. Love doesn’t force its will on others, but it does know what it values. It is concerned for the well-being of God and others.
• God has expectations for his children. God has set us apart to reflect his holiness. Attempting to uphold and live by certain values is one way we respond to God’s love, much like a child behaves in certain ways, not to gain their parents love, but to make their parent proud and happy. For those within God’s family, we do our best to live in ways that make God smile.
• John was motivated by love not self-righteousness. Before we judge, we need to examine our motives. We need compassion. Life is complicated. There are at least 50 shades of grey. People need someone to walk beside them, not someone who condemns them and walks away.
• We are accountable to one another and need to be open when another Christian speaks to us. We don’t grow by cutting off heads or cutting ourselves off from our faith community.
• When we speak to people outside the Church, we need to build friendships of genuine concern. We need to have discussions and develop sensitivity to the other’s openness to what pleases God.
• We need to be self aware. Sometimes we judge out of fear. “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear” (1 John 4: 18)
• John’s encounter with Herod happened before Jesus’ death and resurrection. John had only the Law to go by, we have grace. Rather than attack people with judgement and rejection, whenever we are concerned for someone’s soul a better place to start is with the gospel. With the good news that God loves them and longs for them, God has redeemed them, God’s wishes them an abundant life and God can transform them to make new life and wholeness possible. He’s doing it for us and he will do it for them. There’s hope for all of us and we’re living proof.