THE DIVINE PLUMBLINE WILL TELL ALL
Sermon delivered on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity the 12th July 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Amos 7: 7-15 Ephesians 1: 3-14 S. Mark 6: 14-29
Amos 7: 8 The Lord said to Amos, "What do you see?" He said, "A plumbline". "Then the Lord said, 'Behold, I am setting a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel.'"
Frequently there are discussions and debates in any society over whether the authorities are right or wrong in what they do, and the Cayman Islands are no exception in this. For years there has been debate over Immigration laws and regulations and whether the practices of the Immigration authorities are fair or justified, or in part very wrong. After several years, debate still takes place on whether or not it is wrong to deny undocumented sea-travellers the help they seek to continue their journey towards landing extra-legally elsewhere. For years too there has been debate over development practices, whether for example the laws through which the planning authorities can regulate development are sufficient for the long term needed protection of the forest lands or the coastal waters, or whether in some instances they are too restrictive. For all these sorts of things the Government is reputedly coming up with laws or regulations that will help to solve the problems. With the advent of a new constitution came some ability to take polls of voters’ wishes by way of referenda. Human nature being the way it is, however, we always suspected that in one form or another such problems and debates would continue, and this has certainly proved to be the case. What actually happens is not necessarily governed by laws or even by what is right or wrong, but often by the pressures of the influential and the power of money.
Many leaders get nervous these days about coming down on one side or another when it comes to matters of rightness or wrongness or good or evil. This seems particularly perilous for church leaders, who are called to be shepherds of the flock. Politicians get their identity and justification from a mixed bag of considerations, and even if they are found doing something wrong, like, say, telling the Planning Department to move aside because they are going to put up their development anyway, that's not always going to destroy their credibility as politicians. For church leaders, if we are shown to be telling lies and propagating heresy or causing scandal the consequences should be more immediate and serious, because the reasons for our existence as priests and pastors will have been seriously compromised. It is an equally serious matter when through lack of courage or integrity we allow falsehoods to flourish owing to a failure to express the truth on anything. However, this burden is carried not only by those ordained or appointed to office in the church, for it is shared by all the baptised, because all who are baptised share a holy priesthood, that is called and privileged and obligated to be a priesthood of the truth. In our second lesson today we heard that God "made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ." If we are so purposefully called to be a people who have that knowledge, the knowledge of the mystery of his will, we are called also to express it, albeit in a wise, winsome and loving way. St. Paul understood that calling first as an apostolic calling, and then as a calling that was shared with all those who first hoped in Christ, the Jerusalem believers, and then by the Gentile believers themselves whom he was addressing. Such knowledge cannot be for us primarily a matter of sufficient or insufficient popular support for any position. For we are called to be the "people of the plumbline".
The plumbline is the most simple of the builder's tools, but it is his essential reference to what is truly vertical. The shape of the building itself may produce an illusion whereby what looks vertical to an observer may not actually be so. And if the builder is like me and uses vari-focus lens spectacles, he may be even less sure of whether some line or edge that looks straight or upright to him really is straight. But he can be sure enough that like the spirit level, the plumbline will not lie. When using it, he can rely on what it tells him about verticality even if his own eyes tell him something different. The prophet Amos' vision taught him the defects of Israel were being noticed and dealt with by the Lord, and as one called to warn Israel, Amos was not to be deflected from his task by those with a vested interest in things the way they were. But Amos was well aware that to be a man of the plumbline was to engage in a costly ministry. He found himself up against the chief religious authority of the country. But his ministry was measured not by influential or popular support, but by the plumbline of the purpose of God.
The Gospel today does not on the face of it seem to convey good news. St. John the Baptist had suffered imprisonment and death by beheading, and why? - because of being a man of the plumbline. He had called on Herod Antipas to set a good example and he let him know very clearly that his marital arrangements were wrong. And this, by the way, tells us that God holds all people accountable, no matter who they may be, to His own moral law. So Herodias the unlawful wife engineered first John's imprisonment and then his death. Being a people of the plumbline does not win immediate favours. Still, it has been John the Baptist that has been held up always, and even by the Lord himself, as an example to subsequent generations, and never Herod Antipas. It seems that Antipas had a bad conscience over John's death, as well he should. When he heard of all the talk about Jesus' healings, he assumed at first that this must be the prophet he beheaded come back to life.
The plumbline of the purpose of God hangs over us all today, just as Amos saw it in his own time hanging over Israel. We as the church are a holy priesthood in the Lord because we are called to what is good and true as declared by God's word and revelation, supporting the reason He has graced us with. We are not called to an unqualified compliance with what is demanded or tolerated by majorities. We are called to declare that as the people of God we live by the grace of God Incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ, and not just by the words of anyone claiming to be or followed as an authority. We are called to a way of life that is set forth for us like a plumbline, and not one constructed from our own astigmatic imaginings. We are called to Christian standards with respect to marriage and money, the nature of man, the governance of the Church and everything else. The plumbline does not set in a curve, at an angle or in a zig-zag. "For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." Certainly we are to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, and we must teach the truth in love. Yet, lest we commit the unpardonable sin as perhaps Herod Antipas did, let us never play games or trifle with the truth to which in Christ and by His grace we are committed, and which in the end, in spite of all that majorities or media may promote, will certainly prevail.