Fr. Andrew Armond – The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, July 11, 2021
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today the lectionary includes not one, but two stories of prophets who got in a great deal of trouble for the messages they offered to their communities. While Amos apparently survived his encounter with King Jereboam of Israel, John the Baptist did not survive his encounter with King Herod, losing his head in the process of speaking truth to power.
Both of these passages raise the uncomfortable yet crucial question of what happens when God has a difficult message for us to hear, a message that may cause us to react rather than to reflect, to lash out in anger at challenging truths about ourselves and our communities, rather than listening, repenting, and returning to God’s path of justice and mercy.
In particular, I want you to consider that both Amos and John the Baptist are acting as prophetic mirrors, holding up to their listeners an exact image of themselves for their consideration. The kings they critique, Jereboam and Herod, are not ultimately angry with the prophets, but with themselves, for it is not the messenger who offends them so, but the message. Or, to put it another way, it is not the prophets who offend, but God’s revealing truth that calls each one of us to account, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.
Amos uses a powerful image to communicate his message: a wall, built using a plumb line: a straight line meant to ensure that the wall is straight. The plumb line could also be a measuring tool that demonstrates how off-kilter or out of sync an object is with its surroundings.
It is a fearful thing to be measured by God’s Plumb Line. Amos was a simple country person, a farmer and herdsman whom God called into the midst of the most powerful place in his land—the king’s sanctuary, his inner sanctum that was fortified against any negative critique.
Amos, as the prophet of God, upsets the balance of this inner sanctum for the greater good of God’s glory and especially for the good of the poor and oppressed of Israel.
It is no wonder that Martin Luther King used a passage from Amos to call for justice “to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” It is a convicting message, both for Jereboam and for us today, because it shows us our failure to maintain the straight line of God’s impartial justice.
Then, in the Gospel reading for today, we hear of John the Baptist, who self-consciously had patterned his life after the biblical prophets of old, including Amos. John’s message had been to “repent and be baptized, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
And that message echoed into the halls of power in Galilee, all the way to Herod and his wife. In those halls of power, John’s message was quite unwelcome, forcing the king and his wife to examine their lives and their actions, to consider God’s righteous standard, and for that, John the Baptist paid the ultimate price of his life.
What responsibility do we have, today, as the people of God, to be truth-tellers? And what is that truth that we are meant to proclaim? And how does telling the truth about ourselves and our shortcomings bring us closer to the heart of the Gospel, closer to the heart of God?
Through Amos, God was not calling God’s people to something foreign to themselves, something unfamiliar, something they had never heard before. God was calling them back to the Plumb Line; back to themselves; back to the Covenant; back to the Source of their Identity as the People of God.
For Amos’s people that Source was Torah, the righteousness of the Law. The Torah, or the Law of God, had always had a dual purpose: to be a measuring stick against which the community could see their deficiencies, yes; but also, at the same time, to be a healing influence, a means through which God enabled the community to thrive, to live with one another peaceably, and, ultimately, to love and glorify the God who had promised to be their God for ever and ever.
We are reminded by Amos, and by John the Baptist, and by all those in the prophetic tradition, that God is not angry or displeased with us because of our failure to keep to a narrow set of rules and regulations. Like any parent who sees their child seeking after those things that the parent knows will harm them, God desires our flourishing and our well-being.
And so, the prophets remind us that God’s Plumb Line exists as a revelation of God’s Divine Goodness and Love, from which we inevitably fall, but toward which God continues to invite us consistently.
For Christians, the Plumb Line is the redemption of our sins in Jesus Christ. When Jesus comes on the scene in Mark’s Gospel, he immediately proclaims, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus says: Turn from all the ways in which you have contorted and twisted the Plumb Line, the straight, smooth, and precise measure of God’s boundless Love; return to me.
When God calls us Christians back to the Plumb Line, God calls us back to the promises of our baptism, promises to resist evil, to turn back to the Lord, to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace, none of which we can do on our own, but all of which we can do with God’s Help.
The Prophets preach fearlessly of God’s righteous judgment, it is true, but the Prophets are also full of the most tender and beautiful images of God’s Love for God’s people. Indeed, from the human perspective, it can sometimes seem as though the God of the Prophets is Angry, and the God revealed in Jesus Christ is Calm and Loving. But the Prophets tell nothing more or less than the Truth.
And the Truth, the deep Truth, the Truth about ourselves that lies at the core of our being, the Truth that so often we try to evade, deny, or bury inside, is that God loves us so much that God wants to show us who we are, and who God is, so that we can respond in Love to God’s gracious and merciful presence, the transforming presence of God’s Love in our lives.
I recently read a book by Sister Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun who has led a long and fruitful life of faith. She has written many books on the spiritual life and prayer in particular. But in this book, entitled Love Unknown, she wrote something that truly shocked me at first—but that made more sense the more I thought about it. She says: “I longed and prayed to be wholly faithful yet have never felt that I am.” Well: if Sister Burrows has never felt wholly faithful, who am I?
And yet, that is her whole point: to the extent that we believe that we are perfect, or complete, or whole in our humanity and in our relationship with God, we are self-deluded. It is only in accepting our limitations, our humanity, and our radical dependence on God, that we will find fulfillment and even happiness in our spiritual lives.
THIS is what Jesus means when he proclaims that the Kingdom of God is among us, in our midst, within us. Not that we can bring it about through our own efforts, but exactly the opposite.
And that is Good News, friends, that God binds up the broken pieces of our best efforts, blesses them, and uses them for our own good and the good of the whole Creation.
And so the presence of God in our lives, the presence of Jesus in our lives, is a prophetic presence of truth-telling: God demands and accepts nothing less than complete honesty. And the truth can hurt. Sometimes, often, in fact, we may not like what we see.
And yet God’s Presence in our lives is also the healing presence of Grace, because in telling the truth about ourselves and our limitations to God, we are given more than we asked for, more than we deserve, more than we could possibly imagine.
In Christ, as Psalm 85 says, mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. In Christ, we are faced with the uncomfortable truths about ourselves, the things kept hidden, and yet from Christ, as we pray every Sunday, no secrets are hid.
It is just as Sister Burrows says: “If only we really knew Jesus we would not be so concerned with putting on a good show and of how others see us. Instead of concealing our insecurities, fears, secret failings even from our selves, we would accept the reality [of what] we are, tranquil in the certainty that our Lord looks on us with infinite compassion and love.”
Jesus knows who we are and loves us anyway. Truth AND mercy. It would be no kindness if Jesus did not strip away everything within us that opposes the light and love and goodness of God. But in God’s kindness, that is exactly what he does. Truth AND mercy. In Christ, we are being made into the full likeness of God. In Christ, God is speaking peace to us, we who are trying to be God’s faithful people. In Christ, God tells us the truth about ourselves, and about God, and for that, we should indeed be very thankful.