This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “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.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “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.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Pent7 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 7-12-15
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our rock and our redeemer. Amen. Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus; let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.
Let’s have a little English Grammar lesson, shall we? You remember the basic parts of a sentence. What does a sentence need to be considered a sentence? Yes, 1) a subject and 2) a predicate or a verb… and in some cases 3) an object. Oh, there are many other parts to a sentence we could go into (adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions) but for today, all we need are these 3 basic parts: subject, verb and object.Imagine, for a moment, that God is the subject of all the sentences in our lives that truly matter. “In the beginning, God created.” Now, imagine God’s action as the verb, calling our faith into being, holding us accountable for our actions, forgiving us and saving us from sin. And finally, imagine that we are the object of God’s compassion, God’s judgment, and ultimately, of God’s saving grace. Remember the children’s hymn: “Jesus (S) loves (V) me (O)… this I know.” Another simple phrase is one of the most ancient creeds of the church (before the Apostles’ Creed, noted in Ambrose’s writings from the year 390AD). It was three simple words: Jesus Is Lord.
This is what prophets and preachers, sages and teachers were trying to do in biblical times: to keep our grammar strait: God is the subject, we are the object, and God’s actions bring us together. Nothing else. Oh, we might eventually come around to being the subject at some point – as in: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…” but that sentence structure comes later – our declaration of faith comes after our first receiving the faith as ‘objects’ to our one, true ‘subject’ – the Living God.
What a source of comfort! To know our place and to trust that God provides all we need from day to day – and that we are sent, in freedom, to share that liberating Word! Sounds like good news. Well… tell that to a powerful king and you may have another thing coming. What happens when we put ourselves (or anything besides ‘God’) in the subject line of our sentences?
In our OT lesson for today, Amos was pretty much minding his own business as a shepherd and tender of sycamore trees… when the Lord called him to speak out against King Jeroboam’s Israel… and Amaziah, his court prophet, is tired of being made uncomfortable. So he goes and tattles to the King: “Amos is speaking out against you from the center of the city – and we cannot bear the weight of his words. Send him away!” This is the same Amos, who called the women of Israel “fat cows of Bashan” lounging on luxurious couches while the poor were sent away hungry. This is the Amos, who so famously called upon his king to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream!” And, today, he’s using a plumb line – a builders’ level – to show the people how crooked they have become. And, of course, they tried to get rid of him, “Why don’t you go earn your living somewhere else! We don’t appreciate your sentence structure!”
03 Nov 2014 — Herodias, 1896. This unusual depiction of the murder of Saint John the Baptist shows Salome’s mother Herodias (c15BC- after 39AD), rather than the more usual depiction of her daughter Salome. Colour lithograph by Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933). From The Studio, Volume Eight [London Offices of the Studio V, London, 1898] — Image by © The Print Collector/Corbis
In our gospel reading for today, John the Baptist had spoken out against King Herod, who had taken his brother’s wife in marriage – this was a “no-no.” And that little grammar lesson landed John in jail! …until the night of the king’s banquet. Why did they have to get the children involved? We are told that the king’s little girl danced for him and he was so pleased, that he promised her anything she wanted, even half his kingdom! And it doesn’t say it was a sexual, dance-of-the-seven-veils. Heck, it good have been Shirley Temple’s On The Good Ship Lollipop
for all we know! So the girl decides to ask her mother (the queen) who is already angry with John and Herodias is the one who makes the gristly request: “Give me the head of John the Baptist.” Really? It’s a sad commentary that this is the only recorded conversation between a mother and her daughter in the Bible. But as it stands, the King (rather than lose face among his guests) went through with the request; and abusive power, in all its crookedness, was on full display that night.
Now, we’ve all heard all the ghost stories about the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow and the crazed Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, shouting, “Off with their heads!” But that’s the stuff of fairy tales. When a grim decapitation happens in real life (as was the case this last year, at the hands of the so-called Islamic State), it’s almost too much for us to stomach. We’d rather change the channel or put down the paper than to dwell on such unspeakable horror.
John was beheaded for challenging the king’s grammar. Whenever we put ourselves in the subject line of the sentence, we are in danger of crossing a line reserved for God alone. And to challenge this grammar is to put oneself in danger. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”
Whenever we stand for the truth, we come off as looking a bit odd to those around us. To use the plumb line image from Amos – it’s as if we’re walking around at a different angle to the crooked walls in our surrounding culture. This is why Jesus called his followers to a ‘narrow way’ of discipleship. “Enter through the narrow gate;” he said in Matthew 7:13, “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
When an alcoholic decides she’s had enough and stops drinking, suddenly she is seen as a bit odd by those around her. And her attempts at getting healthy may very well be under cut by the ones she loves the most.
When a man resolves every morning to get up and say his prayers – to attend worship – to live a life of service – to tithe a percentage of his income to his church… he can’t not come across as a bit odd to those around him. “Why would you do such a thing?” “Just what are you trying to prove?” But for those who knew Jesus – who walked with him – who learned at his feet – who were recipients of his love, healing and forgiveness – they didn’t need an answer. Real ministry isn’t borne out of obligation and guilt trips – but out of love for Jesus and all he’s done for you. To those who believed in his name – he gave power to become the children of God and bestowed on them the Holy Spirit.
Fifty years ago this spring, as Blacks and Whites marched across the bridge in Selma, Alabama – to demand the right to vote – they did so, out of a conviction that God was marching with them. And as they stood tall amid those crooked walls of separation, they stuck their necks out in a long line of prophets dating all the way back to John the Baptist – who dared to question the unjust practices of the king. One of the people who was moved to make a change was Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit (mother of 5) who left her family to answer the call to march with Dr. King in Selma, in March of 1965. She would never return home. Just days after the march, Viola was gunned down by the Klan. In an effort to discredit her, and to cover up that an FBI informant was among the shooters, J. Edgar Hoover released false claims to the media about Ms. Liuzzo, saying she was a drug addict and her husband was involved in organized crime. No, it’s not a safe thing to speak the truth to power… And even our own governing authorities must be held accountable to a higher authority.
In the 1970’s, Archbishop Oscar Romero was well-known for speaking out against the army for their human rights abuses in El Salvador. He was once quoted as saying, “When I served the poor some food they called me ‘a saint.’ But when I asked why they were poor, they called me ‘a communist.’” Archbishop Romero was shot and killed in 1980 during mass, while serving communion. Just the day before, he had spoken out against soldiers who refused to obey God’s higher order, in response to their violation of basic human rights. You might say he was a bit odd.
As the people of God, we can take comfort in the knowledge that God alone is our ‘plumb line’ the one, true ‘level’ against which we measure everything about our lives – not the news, not the weather, not Science, not tradition, not the Bible, not even our own conscience – but God, in Christ Jesus, sets the standard by which we will be measured. To be sure, we must use all of those other measures in our calculations: scripture, our conscience, reason, science – but the subject line of our lives is reserved for Jesus Christ, the Living God.
When that grammar is in place – all things are possible! When the plumb line of the Lord of Life is what we measure our own lives by – we have nothing to fear. I didn’t say we’d have no dangers to face. Jesus, himself, warned his followers: “Do not fear those who kill the body,” (Luke 12:4-5) “and after that can do nothing more. But… fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.”
So, where’s the good news in all this? And, what does this mean for daily living? We may not lose our life (and hopefully not our head!) because of our faith. But we will be, at times, odd to those around us. We will seem off kilter in a crooked world that urges us to fall in line. All because there is nothing so high that it trumps our ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ: no flag, no creed, no country, no one person.
This is not the kind of life one chooses casually – it is a life that calls for a radical transformation of all that we hold dear – and putting it toward the service of Christ. Yes, be patriotic. By all means, practice good citizenship. Vote and exercise your rights and responsibilities as an American. But we must never forget we answer to yet a higher authority. You are a child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit (in baptism) and marked with the cross of Christ forever. And because of that lineage, we can fly freely, unafraid of the burdens of the day. Let us pray.
O God, we give you thanks for being the subject of our sentence – may all that we do, acknowledge you as our Lord and Savior – that we might live free, without fear – by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, this day. In Jesus’ name we pray: Amen.