Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Plumb Lines, Measuring Sticks, and Idolaty

Amos 7:7-17 (Luke 10:25-37)
Plumb Lines, Measuring Sticks, and Idolatry
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 10, 2016

I recently stumbled upon the website of an innovative, urban, Presbyterian Church in another city. Its homepage said simply, “Recess. Closed for Sunday Worship: July 3 & 10,” with a link where you could “Learn More.” There it spoke of  “an active pause… essentially, a sabbath for the system.”[1] There were online liturgies available, but no church.
I was intrigued, and so I showed it to a group of colleagues at a pastor lunch a few weeks ago. One pastor, who shall remain nameless, immediately said, “O how wonderful to be closed on July 3rd and not to have to worry about worshipping the flag.”
The connection to July Fourth had escaped me, perhaps because I’ve never been part of a church where people in uniform march the flag around during worship. I’m thankful to live in this country and happy to share my thanks in worship, but hopefully we never forget that we gather to worship God, that our ultimate allegiance is to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
I hope that, but letting other things get between us and God seems to be a chronic human problem. We don’t usually construct altars or golden calves, but we have all manner of things we honor, serve, or give loyalty to other than God. It is not unusual for them to be well ahead of God on our priority lists. And by definition, whatever sits at the top of the list is our god.
These gods may be security, wealth, power, nation, family, our political views, or simply self-indulgence. Regardless of the god, people will try to enlist their religion for support. People who worship money may say, “God wants you to be rich.” Racists, homophobes, and Islamophobes imagine a god who hates those they hate. More subtly, those of us who worship at the altar of consumerism may think of faith or spirituality as one more item for our shopping carts. Jesus is not our Lord, our God, but an element of our actual faith, one which promises us happiness and fulfillment if we have enough of all the right things.
The theological term for all this is idolatry, and Presbyterian tradition has long spoken of it as a fundamental human problem. The Presbyterian Book of Order includes this line in its list of the key themes of our theology: “The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.”[2] People sometimes imagine that faith is a private, personal thing, but our tradition never has.
Jesus didn’t either. After all, Jesus said he came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and there’s nothing private or “spiritual” about that. The ways of this kingdom were a stark contrast to the kingdom of Caesar, and so it’s no surprise that Jesus eventually drew the ire of Roman authorities.
In our scripture today, the prophet Amos draws the ire of Israel’s authorities. He says nasty things about Israel’s rulers right there in the national cathedral. It’s not like the National Cathedral in DC. It’s more like Westminster Abbey in England, a place where kings were crowned, a place built by a king. The high priest is clearly on the payroll, and he orders Amos out, telling him, “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
The priest’s faux pas, his idolatry, is too obvious. The king’s sanctuary? The kingdom’s temple? Really? Isn’t it God’s?

Of course when we pastors get together for lunch, we sometimes ask one another, “How are things going in your congregation?” Church members sometimes praise their congregation for doing things they like and criticize them for doing things they don’t like. Very often, neither criticism nor praise are measured by the sort plumb line the prophet uses. It’s not about whether God would approve or disapprove. It is about whether or not they liked it, because, after all, it is their church.
And so we have liberal churches and conservative churches, Republican churches and Democratic churches, black churches, white churches, and Latino churches, churches that celebrate same-sex marriage and churches that condemn gays to hell. They’re our churches, after all; they should fit us, make us feel good and not make us too uncomfortable.
But the prophet Amos insists otherwise. Even though it is a time of peace and the kingdom of Israel is doing well financially, with lots of people getting rich, Amos insists it is all about to end. The leaders, the wealthy, those who run the country, have not shared God’s concern for those on the edges, on the margins. They’ve looked to their own interests, and they’ve expected their religion, their God, to bless them. Israel’s high priest may be happy to oblige, but God speaks through a prophet, Amos, an outsider from the southern kingdom of Judah, and a non-ordained prophet at that. Things are out of plumb, out of whack, shouts Amos, but no one wants to listen.
Things are clearly out of whack in our world, and it shouldn’t take a week like this past one to tell us that, to tell us that too often, black lives don’t matter as much, that our society is awash in guns, and it is brimming with hate.
African Americans have good reason to be frightened when they are stopped for a traffic offense or arrested for a petty crime. Very often their skin color does mean they are treated differently and are in danger.
Police officers have good reason to be worried as they do difficult work in the midst of a divided and angry society that demonizes the other, not to mention a society where killers have easy access to military grade weapons.
And right now, that “human tendency to idolatry and tyranny “ mentioned in the Book of Order is being stoked by politicians who use hatred as a campaign rallying cry. Old hatreds that had seemed gone, or at least out of public view, are being spoken aloud again. Things were more out of plumb, more out of whack than we realized. Though if we had really looked, if we had really held up a plumb line, a measuring stick…
God’s law is the plumb line that shows Amos how out of whack Israel is despite the apparent prosperity and wealth of that time. God’s law has a special concern for the weak, the poor, and the alien, although the wealthy in ancient Israel, and an amazing number of Christians, seem unaware of this.
Thankfully Jesus gives us something of a Cliffs Notes version. Sometimes referred to as the “summary of the Law,” it quotes two passages from the Old Testament. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and You shall love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even adds, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus expands a bit on loving your neighbor. Asked who counts as a neighbor, Jesus tells the well-known parable about a Samaritan who comes to the aid of a man robbed and left for dead. Samaritans were a widely despised other in Jesus day, a group politicians would ban from the country or blame for crime sprees. But Jesus makes him the hero of the story, and then he turns the question of, “Who is my neighbor?” back on the questioner, asking him who was a neighbor to the man who was robbed. The answer is obvious.
“Go and do likewise,” commands Jesus. To the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers, “Be a neighbor.”
I don’t have any good and pat answers to the events of this past week. I take some solace in the certainty that God is most often found in the midst of weakness, vulnerability, and suffering, that Jesus is a light in the darkness, that God can bring hope and life out of death itself. And I draw some hope from God’s promise to someday set things right. Jesus has showed us what a world set right looks like, something he called the kingdom. And it starts with loving God above all, and loving neighbor as self. It starts with turning from that tendency to idolatry and tyranny and being neighbors to all in need, which means working to transform society by seeking justice. It means being a neighbor to all who could use one.
Things are out of plumb in our world. And both Amos and Jesus have some pretty clear thoughts on why, and on what it takes to get straight again.

[2] Book of Order 2015-2017: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), F-2.05

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