"Out of the Ordinary: Plumb Line or Life Line?"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
August 18, 2019
Luke 10:23-37; Amos 7:1-17
Much has happened in our world that distresses us. If we are attentive enough, we should also notice much that has happened delights us as well. That’s a challenge, isn’t it? To stay tuned to the One who set all this in motion, whose Breath troubled the waters and whose Word wove together chaos and order into this tapestry we call life, who poured themselves out into the tangible manifestation of fully trusting and unconditional love that we know as creation, who first became known in person to our ancestors as an invitation into new and unexpected places, who stayed with them and liberated them, who invested in them, saying “You shall be Holy because I am Holy!” and gave them the means to become Holy, to live into the image and likeness of the divine. It’s a big task to affirm the overarching goodness of God and creation, including us, when the world we have created and sustained seems to deny it at every turn. How do we stay connected amid the distractions? At the core of the faith of the followers of Jesus is the assertion and experience that we cannot maintain divine connection without God’s active participation. And at the core of our Methodist stream of Christian faith is the assertion and experience that God empowers us to work with or against that connection.
Theology – which is the effort to understand and express our experience of the divine – is always a matter of speculation. It can only be inferred from what we have received or experienced – often summed up as the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Anthropology – the effort to understand our experience of humanity – is a different matter. It’s about us. Sometimes – maybe often – we are quite hard to understand even to ourselves. Paul of Tarsus put it this way, late in his career, “I don’t understand what I do – for I don’t do the things I want to do, but rather the things I hate.” Between theology – or speculation about God – and anthropology – our knowledge of ourselves – lie many questions and pursuits. One of these is theodicy.
The question of theodicy is this: “Given our speculations, assertions, and expectations about God, how do we explain our experience of suffering, injustice, and evil?” For an increasing portion of humanity, especially in the post Holocaust era, this is an impossible or nonsensical endeavor. And yet, even atheists seem to expect that the universe should behave in a manner that is conducive to life – and that there should be some moral consequences to our actions and systems. They may say that our existence can be attributed to nothing other than luck or happenstance, but the very fact that the balance seems to tip ever so lightly toward flourishing rather than suffering suggests that there is something benevolent – that is willfully good – woven into the very fabric of existence.
This tension, between flourishing and suffering, bears on our consideration of what we are to do with the gift of our days and our lives. But flourishing and suffering are not mutually exclusive. We may agree that flourishing is good and to be sought. Still, we know that there is no guarantee of it unless we understand the overarching and undergirding message of our spiritual forebears and their writings to mean that the very benevolence woven into existence is in fact a promise: the promise of a home for us; the promise of companionship; the promise of a future; the promises we attribute to God and rely on. From beginning to end, God’s prophets and witnesses have conveyed the message, “Choose life that you may live!” These same prophets and witnesses attest to the unavoidable presence of suffering. It is from suffering which God delivers the slaves in Egypt. It is to those who suffer that the prophets declare, “upon those who dwell in a land of deep shadows light is shining!” It is to a people suffering under the cruel weight of empire, whose peace is enforced by sword and cross, that God promises healing, and a tabernacle “that is among humankind! God will live with them; they will be Gods’ people, and God will be fully present among them. The Most High will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And death, mourning, crying, and pain [the very heart of suffering] will be no more, for the old order has fallen.”
Flourishing and suffering coexist, overlapping and intersecting. We profess that flourishing ultimately will overcome suffering, and we also acknowledge that the human condition consists of both. We can agree that flourishing should be sought and suffering abolished, or at least avoided. We might then ask, “For whom does this hold true? To whom does this applies?” Our very salvation – what the expert on the Law who queried Jesus termed “everlasting life” – depends on how we answer this question. Who is our neighbor? In other words, who also enjoys the promise of flourishing and relief from suffering? Because in this world, those promises do not rest on us individually, but in community – in conjunction with our neighbor. We have all heard many messages on the parable of the neighbor – there are plenty of interpretations – probably even some that are used to justify xenophobia and oppose immigration. I won’t go into that now. Just conjure up your best memories of how the parable depicts Jesus’ Way of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice, and remember that the Samaritan was a despised immigrant.
Today, as we return to the journey through the prophet Amos, there is an interesting connection between the texts. Remember that Amos was from the southern kingdom – at the heart of which is located the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Amos may even have been a distant ancestor of the traveler who was beaten and left by the side of the road – the suffering one in this story. Amos was sent by God to the northern kingdom. Unbeknownst to Amos or the northerners – though they should have and might have known had they been attentive to God’s promises and expectations – the northern kingdom, in its vulnerable apostacy, was soon to be overrun by Assyria from its north. The defeated and occupied tribes who were not decimated or deported remained as slaves in the land, keeping their holy places at Bethel and Dan, eventually intermarrying with the invaders. These were to become the Samaritans, reviled by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the southern kingdom as infidels and traitors. Old animosities die hard, and the demonization of the Samaritans lasted over seven-hundred years, well into Jesus’ lifetime. The Samaritan in this parable seems to have been flourishing, able to travel safely and live according to the behavioral plumb line that was established by Amos.
Commentator J. A. Motyer sums up the first two thirds of Amos, up to this point. “In Part One of his book, Amos wrestled to recover this great truth [… that God’s inexplicable patience and commitment to those who were created and chosen – who were not loved by God because they were worthy, but who were worthy because they were loved by God, … and to rescue them] from current abuses [of God’s self-outpouring law], and in particular from the … assumption that [an ancient deliverance – the exodus –] made an eternal difference between one people and all the others on earth … so that, irrespective of their manners or ways of life, they would be secure in God. He exposed to the people the hollowness of the claim to be the [sole] people of God, and the inheritors of the security promised to [God’s] chosen ones. In Part Two of his book, [Amos] took his consideration of this theme further. He laid bare the sins which exposed the hollowness of current claims to belong to the elect of God, and, by contrast, those clear evidences on the basis of which a true claim could be laid out.”[i]
To those who God delivered from bondage, God also gave a self-outpouring of instruction – the Torah. If we consider the commandments given in the desert to the wandering people as a self-revelation of God’s nature – for instance that God will not acknowledge false gods, God will not kill, God will not covet or commit infidelity – then the covenant is one in which both parties are held to this high standard – one which is life-giving – which promotes flourishing and overcomes suffering. In this sense the Law is not merely a gift to the people of the covenant, but it is the flame in the lamp that is the light to the nations. We remember that Amos constructed an irrefutable argument about God’s expectations of how the Law should be lived out by deconstructing the atrocities of the nations surrounding the northern kingdom. Amos says, to retain God’s favor:
- people are not to be treated as things;
- human welfare supersedes commercial profit;
- no pledged word is negotiable for the sake of self-interest or self-advantage;
- hatred of “the other” is inadmissible in the human heart;
- personal ambition must be limited by the rights of the helpless; and
- vengeance must be renounced.
Suffering cannot always be avoided. Indeed, sometimes suffering is willingly engaged for the sake of flourishing. Rules, when they become lifeless and static, are as little good to us as the god of the atheist. Theologian Marcus Borg told about his approach to atheist students in which he would ask, “Who is this god in whom you do not believe?” The students invariably described a stern, authoritarian judgement-figure, unchanging and unmoved. Borg would reply that he did not believe in that God either. And then a conversation could begin, transformation could occur, new life could spring up. This is the point of the prophets and witnesses – to nourish and nurture that conversation, transformation, and flourishing. We can read the God of Amos in an ominous and threatening voice, or we can hear the longing and concern that God has for the beloved creation when transmitting through Amos the warning that the atrocities cannot continue and expect that flourishing will outweigh suffering.
In the opening verses of this final third of the book of Amos, Y H W H – the God who is Being itself Becoming – twice proclaims the annihilation of the northern nation and people – a plague of locusts that will destroy the economy, and then a consuming fire that will swallow up their spirit. In both cases, in response to Amos’ prayer, God relents! Y H W H declares, “This will not happen!” And yet the responsibility for the atrocities is clear, and it bears not only on the leaders, but upon the nation that allowed the leaders to become so detached from the ethic of life that God has set before them. What is God to do? God’s silence would be complicity in the suffering, injustice, and evil. So God said, “Look, I am going to measure my people who wrestle with me by plumb line. I will no longer excuse their atrocities.”
There is a dynamic relationship between God and creation. Imagine the plumb line for a moment: a long string or chord is attached at one end to a strong place. The other end holds a weight, heavy enough to pull the string into a taut-yet-flexible line. A world can then be constructed, raised up, aligned with the gravity of the world and promise of life. As the world is built, it is important to trust the strong end. But it is only a momentary balance. Creation is not static and immutable. Gravity shifts and changes from place to place and time to time. And the living God of the exodus is on the move, not static and immutable. The plumb line is not rigid set of laws, but a clear line that connects earth and heaven – even when heaven cannot be immediately experienced. For Christians, that living connection is met in the person of Jesus, who is fully responsive both to the divine desire and intention as well as to the flourishing and suffering of creation. The plumb line is in fact a lifeline. It is the lifeline that connects the weight of the world to the unknowable knower, the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. Thanks be to God, whose response to our atrocities is to set among us a living lifeline – One who hangs out with us – in our very midst.
[i] J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1974), 151.