God’s Plumb Line

Trinitarian Congregational Church

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Anthony S. Kill

July 22, 2018

Texts: Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29


Mark serves up a really good story in today’s Gospel. It has all the elements for a great soap opera – vivid and dramatic details, a lavish party, an adulterous king, a wicked queen, a dancing girl, a cruel plot twist, a violent death.

The context of the story is also telling: Just before this passage in the sixth chapter of Mark, Jesus warns how prophets will be despised and rejected, then sends out his disciples with instructions to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; not even an extra tunic. So, Mark says, they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed many who were sick and cured them.

And that is what King Herod heard about, and why he thought this Jesus must be John the Baptizer raised from the dead. That had to be where all his powers, and his disciples’ powers, came from. Others thought Jesus must be the reincarnation of Elijah, or the other great prophets of old. But Herod, like Ebenezer Scrooge, haunted by a ghost of birthdays past,  is convinced: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Then Mark launches into the story of what happened to John the Baptizer at Herod’s hands. Herod had had John arrested because the prophet criticized the King’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (who also happened to be his own niece). Apparently this criticism stung Herodias more than it did Herod, who actually liked to listen to John and his message, even though it agitated him some. Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man, and he feared and protected him, even though he kept John imprisoned. But Herodias wanted him dead.

Then the birthday party happened. A huge banquet for all the officials of the court, the advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the region– a lavish feast, with lots of entertainment and (no doubt) free-flowing wine. And the girl’s dance, with or without the seven veils. (The gospel doesn’t give her name, but the contemporary historian Josephus tells us it was Salome.)

Then the plot thickens. Salome’s dance gave so much pleasure to the King and his guests that Herod becomes trapped by his own lust, or wealth, or pride. He impulsively announces publicly to his stepdaughter:  “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”.  And Mama Herodias seizes her chance to act on her grudge against an enemy who had insulted and embarrassed her by condemning her moral corruption. She tells her daughter to ask for the head of John on a platter.

Herod, trapped by his pride and his public oath, feels compelled to comply. He grants her wish, and John is killed, and his head gruesomely served up to the girl and her mother. And John’s disciples, when they heard, came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

That’s the fascinating story Mark tells. But it isn’t just some salacious sideline. Like every verse in Mark, this story serves an important role in his gospel. In fact, several important roles.

One of them is a foreshadowing: The detail with which Mark tells this story of the execution of John will be echoed in his story of the execution of Jesus specifically as the interplay between John and Herod is mirrored in the relationship between Jesus and Pilate. Both rulers are favorably impressed by the holy man they encounter, and would prefer to spare their lives; Both wish to please the crowd by a gesture of magnanimity; Both are manipulated to carry out the deadly wishes of a third, more hostile party; And both, though seemingly in charge, become unwilling actors in a drama beyond their control. So Mark depicts the death of John as a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus.

A second role becomes clear by looking at the context again. The very next verse after this story tells of Jesus’ disciples returning — remember them?  The ones with no bread, no bag, no money in their belts, no change of clothes – the disciples returning from their mission, telling all that they had done and taught. The story of Herod’s court stands in stark contrast to them: Herod throws a lavish party for important people. but Jesus’s disciples are sent out into the villages with no bread, no bag, and no money. Herod has everything.  The disciples have nothing. Herod gathers to his court the world’s privileged and elite, the secular and religious leaders of his time; They are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure; they can get what they want when they want it.

Yet, in a prison cell in that very same court,  locked up at the whim of Herod, is John the Baptist, the desert aesthetic, who spoke the plain truth, and called for the world to return to God

John was “The voice that cried out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,  make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “And when the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do the same.”

And the righteous holy prophet is killed, and the corrupt and spineless King rules on. Something is very badly out of line here. The way certainly is not straight, nor are the rough places smooth.

Which brings us to Amos’s vision of the plumb line. Amos was a prophet whose message was similar to John’s in some ways. He predicted doom and destruction to Israel, because “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.” And obviously, Amos’ message was no more welcome by the leaders in his time than John’s message was to Herod in his time.  Amaziah, the priest of Bethel invites Amos to leave town NOW “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Both John and Amos saw God’s plumb line, I think. They measured their world according to the plumb line, and it just didn’t measure up.

I want to think about that plumb line for a moment. You all know what a plumb line is, right? It’s a mason’s or a carpenter’s tool. It’s a weight at the end of a string; The word actually comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. It’s the vertical version of a level. You hold the string up with the weight at the bottom, and the plumb line will tell you which way is straight down.  It draws a straight line from heaven to earth.  It’s a great image for a prophetic vision.  The plumb line is held from above, and by viewing its angle on the world,  you can tell whether other things are at straight lines or correct angles, or whether they’re skewed or off-kilter.

I know many of us live in, or have lived in, old houses. When I was a pastor in Arlington many years ago We lived in a house that had once been a small bunk house for hired farm hands on an old farm, and over the decades it had been enlarged and expanded with add-ons and extensions, till it became a sizeable house. Well, with all those changes and additions, nothing about that house was square or plumb anymore, if it ever had been doing building and repair projects in that house used to be quite a challenge for Karen and me. I remember once I used a plumb line to put in a pair of metal bars to attach shelf brackets to. I made sure they were perfectly straight up and down, and parallel to each other.

Then I attached the first set of brackets and put in the first shelf, checked to see that the shelf was perfectly level, and stood back to admire my work. Well, the whole apparatus looked completely katywompus. The bars weren’t parallel to any of the walls or perpendicular to the floor. The whole thing seemed completely askew. I checked it all again with the plumb line and the level, and the shelving was all perfect. It was the room that was out of kilter. The whole house was off kilter. Then I had to decide whether to leave the shelf as it was, which only called attention to the crookedness of everything else in the room, or adjust the shelves to be crooked, so they fit in with the angles of the walls and the floor.

Maybe that’s what it was like for Amos and John and Jesus. They could see God’s plumb line. They knew what in the world was truly straight and level with the realm of God, and they just couldn’t help pointing out what was katywompus in the world, what was out of kilter and askew – even though the world was more than willing to blame the messenger, or even kill the messenger rather than try to get straight with God’s design.

And maybe that’s the decision that faces us Christians, too. Whether we agree with it or not, we are part of our society, part of our world’s value systems, part of our nation’s value system. And in our great and wealthy nation, there’s a lot that’s off-kilter and askew.

We have to decide whether to look at the world according to God’s plumb line, or whether we adjust our perspective so the world doesn’t look so out of line.

I think we are sometimes blinded by our own status of wealth and power and privilege in the world. Where do we look to get a sighting on God’s pumbline? To the message of the prophets like Amos, or the prophet Zechariah, who admonished “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against others.” and to the words of Jesus: “Whatever you do to the least of these – the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless and unclothed – whatever you do to the least of these, you have done to me.” Our economy, our life choices, and our nation’s foreign and domestic policies are so often slanted at angles to protect the status quo and our own privilege, and I shudder when I think of how God’s plumb-line measures with our slanted value systems, No wonder the prophets, those who saw God’s plumb line, were so driven, and so resented.

What then are we to do? That kind of sounds like the disciples’ question after Jesus told them it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich person to get into heaven. They asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus replied, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” That doesn’t let us off the hook, mind you, or get us through the eye of that needle. We still need to strive to be prophetic enough to look for God’s plumb line, and see how it’s shadow falls across our lives, and adjust our lives accordingly.  And we need to be bold enough, and humble enough, to call attention to God’s priorities, and God’s plumb line, rather than accepting our culture’s priorities or our country’s priorities as appropriate or inevitable.

God’s plumb line may also be our lifeline, offering us a way to live not bound by this world’s standards and expectations, but to rise above our crooked walls, and see the world with a God’s eye view and find again the true measuring lines of truly abundant life, the life that really is life.