Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Using our plumb line – Sunday 11 July 2021 – 6th Sunday after Trinity

Sermon for Sunday 11 July 2021 at Holy Trinity Geneva – 6th Sunday after Trinity

Texts: Amos 7: 7-15; Psalm 85: 8-end; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6: 14-29

Using our plumb line

‘And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”. And I said, “A plumb-line”.  And the Lord said to me, “See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel”.

I don’t know what experience you have of plumb-lines so it’s probably worth reminding ourselves what they are. A plumb-line is a weight, suspended by a line used mainly by carpenters and those involved in building to make sure that they keep their work straight.  As they find the find the vertical axis pointing to the centre of gravity, they ensure the work is right, centred and justified.  The plumb-line sets the standard and does not change with the will of the carpenter.

I have actually used one when redecorating my home many years ago.  It was an old Victorian house and the walls certainly were not straight.  So using a plumb-line actually helped us to ensure that we hung the wall paper straight and we felt very chuffed with ourselves until we realise that we had managed to put one sheet with the design of roses climbing upwards and the second, with them descending in quite the wrong direction!

And the importance of having a plumb-line, or what happens when we don’t have one, is very central theme in our readings today. We see what happens when people try to live their lives without a central reference point to measure their decisions and actions. They also challenge us to think about what, if anything, we are using as a reference to establish how far the way we are living our lives measures up to what God may be asking of us.

For Amos, the 8th century prophet who was carrying out his ministry in the Northern kingdom of Israel, the vision which God showed him of the plumb line, revealed to him just how far the People of Israel had moved away from what God was asking of them as His chosen people. Originally from the southern Kingdom of Judea, he had moved to the Northern Kingdom where he was increasingly struck by the corruption, indifference and cruelty he observed in the everyday behaviour of the people he was living amongst.

So, for example, he witnessed that despite their claims to be a holy and god-fearing people, they were actually quite happy to follow other gods if they thought they might help boost their interests.  What it more, Amos witnessed that they were deeply hypocritical in their religious behaviour.  At one point, he described them as rushing through their religious feasts and observances so that they can go on oppressing the poor and making more money.  What is more, far from their faith leading them to greater compassion and care for the poor and the outsider, they are ruthless in squeezing them economically for all they can get whilst all the time, professing to be a holy people.  They are like those whom Jesus was later to described a ‘whitened sepulchres’ – beautiful on the outside but deeply corrupt and unpleasant within. 

Amos is clear that they have moved far away from God’s plumb-line. He prophecies destruction that will follow – a destruction which was to come, although not for a few years yet.  In the meantime, Amos’ message is deeply unpopular. He is told in no uncertain terms to get out – to get back where he came from so that the king and the people can go on with their lives of idolatry and oppression, untroubled in conscience by the words and warning of this prophet.

There are parallels although not exact ones in our gospel today in the actions of Herod Antipas and his family. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of King Herod, the Herod who had encountered the wise men, and he was tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, that is, a ruler with limited powers, under the authority of Rome. He had come under heavy criticism from John the Baptist for divorcing his wife and marrying instead, the wife of his later brother Philip. For this, he had imprisoned John,

However, it is clear from the gospel accounts, that despite this, Herod regarded John as a holy man, and used to listen to him regularly even whilst he imprisoned him. In one early translation of Mark’s gospel – which in our version today, is translated as, ‘When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him’ is translated as, ‘When he heard him, he did what he (i.e. John the Baptist) said, and he liked to listen to him’.   Herod recognised John’s moral authority and was moved by him, even though, as later events were tragically to show, he did not have the strength of character to follow this through.

For then comes the night of the fateful banquet.  Herod, who was deeply ambitious, had gathered around him the shakers and movers of Galilee – those on whom he relied both to keep and bolster his position in Galilee. For Herod was desperate to have their support in his ambition to be made king of the region. Carried away by his desire for power and to impress, possibly his incestuous desire for his stepdaughter Salome and probably a lot of strong wine as well, he rashly offers after she has danced for them, anything she wants to ask for, up to half of his kingdom.

  It is an act of pure madness. But when, on her mother’s immediate prompting, she asks him for the head of John the Baptist, Herod feels trapped.  He summons the executioner, the fateful deed is carried out in the darkness of the dungeon in which John is held, and in a macabre spectacle, the head of John the Baptist is brought and presented to Salome, just as it might be another dish at the banquet. It is a grim reminder of what can happen when we ignore that plumb line or moral compass within us and instead, allow ourselves to be driven by darker forces of fear, ambition and lust within us.  Incidentally, in Herod’s case, his ambition backfired.  Hardly had he sent his appeal to Rome to be made king, when he was unceremonially removed from office by the Emperor and sent into exile.

And we can also see parallels between what happened to John the Baptist as Herod loses sight of any plumb line in his life, and what will happen to Jesus when he is brought before Pilate. For again, in Pilate’s case, we have a man who is not only convinced of Jesus’s innocence, but also, in one gospel account at least, is also has his own wife’s testimony that she is convinced that he is innocent and that Pilate should let him go. Yet despite this, Pilate, terrified of what will happen to his position if the crowd riot and he can’t control them, gives way to them.  He succumbs and gives Jesus up to the baying of that crowd, whilst quite cynically, distancing himself from the plumb line of his awareness of what is just and right. 

Both he and Herod glimpse the demand of truth and justice which, in turn, reflect the truth and justice of God.  Yet both of them, in the end, betray that vision, because of the weakness of their characters – the plumb-line does not have sufficient hold on their consciences and on their actions. 

Both cases, remind us of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt has called ‘the banality of evil’. That is that evil is rarely overtly evil things which we choose, but more often, the weakness in our own moral character which allows us to carry out evil deeds without evil intentions, through disengagement from the reality of our evil acts.  Looking at this from in relation to the Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann, she concluded he was able to do this because of his disengagement from the reality of his evil acts.  This in turn, linked to his inability to think from the perspective of someone else and the consequences of this, permitted evil to flourish.

So today’s texts also make us think (or should do) of the plumb-line in our own lives. What is?  How do we recognise it?  How far is does it measure up against God’s plumb line of justice, truth and compassion?

It is also important not to confuse our alignment with God’s plumb-line with moral certainty. Our plumb-line is not like a rule book to which we can refer, rather like a cookery book of clear moral instructions, so we can denounce something or someone else as bad or unjust.  The prophet Amos was very clear that aligning our plumb lines with that of God, is rooted in how we try to live out the demands of God’s plumb line – His call to justice, righteousness and compassion, in our own lives.  Goodness is never abstract – it must be lived.

There is a wonderful Jewish story which illustrates this well.  Rabbi Hillel, a famous Jewish religious leader who lived and taught in Jerusalem at the time of the Emperor Augustus and King Herod, and became recognised as the highest religious authority amongst the Pharisees.   One day he was approached by a group of pagans who promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of the Jewish teaching whilst standing on one leg.  Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the Torah.  The rest is commentary.  Now go and learn it”.   

It is, in a way, a very strange remark as there is no reference to God, the Ten Commandments, the Chosen People  -some of the things we might see as key articles of faith. But the rabbi is showing that it is compassion which really matters for if we are able to put ourselves into the position and perspective of other people and think what would cause them pain and distress and what would help and nourish them, we move away from that destructive preoccupation with ourselves and align ourselves, almost unconsciously with God’s plumb-line.

And we really need that plumb line, that moral compass. I remember walking in the Yorkshire Dales a few years ago, an area which we thought we knew well, and all of a sudden, thick fog descended and we were lost. It was only the fact that we had a compass with us which enabled us to find the path again and get to safely.  How much more do we need that compass, that plumb line in our own lives to guide us, in the moral fog and uncertainty we often face, to help us to act with integrity.