The Plumbline of Christ
Have you ever had an encounter with a person or a group in the church which made you think, “that was terrible, I don’t want to be here anymore?” Maybe it was a one time event. Maybe it occurred frequently. Or maybe it’s an ongoing issue for you. The number of horror stories I have heard, and experienced myself, encountering actions, ideas, words or teachings, in the church could fill up, well, the bible. The poverty of faithful words and actions from Christians, and Israelites alike has sent more than one person stumbling out of the church, sometimes for life.
In our OT reading, God speaks through Amos (whom we call a prophet) to chastise Northern Israel’s complacency in faithful worship. They’ve made idols of their own ideas, of their possessions, of their work, of themselves. They are so self focused that they step on each other, crush one another, pray, speak and act unfaithfully, and in so doing, fail to provide for those most in need of God’s grace. In this way they fail to provide sanctuary for the poor amongst them: those who struggle with doubt, those who are sick, injured, aged, those who struggle and stumble to find God for whatever reason.
I am reminded here of my discussion with colleagues and friends about how many folks have been turned off the Church, and finding God in the Church, by the actions of other Christians: harsh words of judgement, hypocrisy, manipulation, abuse, arrogance and pompousness spewed out of Christian mouths in the most minor and egregious actions. God is pretty direct in his condemnation: “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.” It’s important to understand here that prostitution isn’t literally that of an Israelite’s wife, rather it is the loss of holy relationship with God. It refers specifically to God turning Israel over to secular nations where they are left to realize their lack of sanctuary and so hope without him.
And this stands not just as a condemnation of Israel, but as a clear warning to the Church. Both Israel and the Church find God and so find their peace solely through faith and following the ways of God; they tear down and tear one another apart when wedded to the ways of the world, and they find themselves shrinking in numbers, fractious, or actually utterly absorbed into the surrounding culture.
The contrast between faith and unfaithfulness is taken up in the Gospel lesson. This famous story of the ‘good samaritan,’ is generally read as, ‘us helping the poor.’ Yet there is much more to the story than that. Who really is the person beaten and left for dead? It is Jesus. The man walking on the road to go about his business, arrested, tortured, and left for dead. Abandoned, he is left by whom? By the priest and the Levite. Who is the priest and the Levite in this story? They are all of us - the accused Israelites in our reading from Amos AND you and I, all members of the church, when we are not willing to stay with, to take the risk of faith that is bearing with a church in peril, with individuals in peril. Jesus and in him, that church or those individuals left for dead, encompasses all of us as we sinfully, selfishly, knowingly, and ignorantly engage one another.
Yet Jesus is also the good Samaritan. Samaritans are gentiles. Israel has been turned over to the Gentiles for a time in order to draw them back to God. Their unfaithful witness of harm toward God and one another serves as a warning to the Church. In Jesus, gentiles like the Samaritan, are grafted into God’s people by faith. So Jesus is this redeemed Samaritan who, in the parable, stands as a contrast to the unfaithfulness of Israel, and so a call to them, and as a warning to the Church not to act in this way with their own members, or they too will be turned over to the secular nation. Members of the Church are warned not to abandon, not to act in ways that harm other Christians so the latter struggle to stick with God.
In Christ, even the gentiles are redeemed and they are called to fulfill their grafting in by being faithful witnesses; that is: by providing Christ like refuge so that others can see Jesus at the Inn, the Church, the body of people in & with whom, over time, those who are hungry and thirsty for life, truth and peace, grow in faith; where Christ heals them of their worldly wounds.
This passage is not simply about us, out of our prosperity, helping the poor. No, the passage is foremost about the fact that all of us are bound in Jesus Christ to one another. We are the remnant of followers who are to hold firmly to the divine plumb line - a line that does not move but directs things to their ultimate purpose - Jesus Christ. To join ourselves to this plumbline of perfect justice, of perfect love, is to take on the role of the struck down, hanged, outcast Christ who in that willing sacrifice grafts in the good Samaritan - the fulfillment of God’s gathering all people into his Inn of sanctuary and healing, in his body, the Church.
Here we see this one who does not succumb to his frustrations and fears as do the Levites and priests who walk away from one who might challenge us or require our sacrifice; he does not avenge or curse or betray; rather he lifts up, gives refuge and sanctuary in which one can heal over time. This one does not abandon or walk away even when he himself is betrayed and hurt and disappointed, nay enraged at his fellow human beings. Rather he remains with us broken people - all of us - until he vindicates us so we might find life, and so the possibility of forgiveness, hope, peace, and ultimately, as the parable indicates, healing.
To bear in and with one another - rather than saying, while they aren’t really Christians, or turning ourselves over to the flakey ways of the world where we leave if we get frustrated or scared - is not only to be the good Samaritan, it is also how we find ourselves as the broken and beaten individual, provided the healing balm of Christ in other Christians. To bear with, to remain with, rather than seeking only our own welfare and prosperity, is to find Jesus, the plumbline of hope, peace, love and healing.
To whom else can we turn to find the grounds to call out poor behaviour; to press for confession and repentance, and the hard road of enduring the consequences of our sins and learning the fruit of reconciliation and forgiveness? The world doesn't provide the cities of sanctuary (institutions or our internal, emotional worlds) that we often think it will. It's often a place of temporary reprieve, but it provides no guarantee of sanctuary and therefore of healing. That alone, we find in the one who makes all things and draws all people to himself along a plumbline of faith. AMEN.