A couple of years ago, I headed to the nursing home for a visit. When I got there a local church group was setting up equipment in the common room. Their mission was to bring some company and comfort to the residents with prayers and songs. They had a pretty elaborate set up, microphones, speakers and boom box. A gospel karaoke was about to take place. Volunteers had gathered the residents who waited attentively in their wheelchairs. The pastor was full of energy and spirit and I was charmed. Until he started to sing. Actually, he couldn’t sing to save his life. And he sang with abandon! It was awful. There’s nothing like an old-time gospel hymn sung as loud as can be, completely off key. In my mind the residents seemed more hostages than participants, indeed the person I came to see asked me to close her door. Ouch!
Now, I think I have a pretty good singing voice and I am mostly, usually, on key. Still, I’m not sure you would ever find me leading a sing-along like that. I’m too self-conscious. You see, I’m the only one in my family who didn’t learn how to read music or play an instrument, so in the back of my mind, I don’t think I measure up somehow. I’m always self-conscious about my singing, especially in public.
I wonder if my high standards sometimes get in the way.
In our reading from the Old Testament today the prophet Amos has a revelation from God. In it, God is holding a plumbline. A plumbline is a device used since antiquity by builders, carpenters, painters, to make sure their work is straight, standard, true. Otherwise, lines are crooked, foundations are not laid properly, walls lean, buildings fall.
When God holds a plumbline, he is telling his people the same thing: there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, and you are bending the wrong way, allowing evil to flourish; you are compromising divine law and your ‘crooked’ ways will not end well. Amos prophesied the doom of the people of Israel, saying: “Are you following God’s commands or your own?”
The reaction from those who hear his message is to try to get rid of him, “go away, earn your keep elsewhere!” they say. Still, Amos keeps on telling the truth; truth the people don’t want to hear.
The plumbline is God’s righteous rule. But people have conveniently forgotten that. Instead, the people have measured themselves and judged others by different standards: wealth, military might, political power, whatever. Amos keeps trying to remind them that the only plumbline, the only measurement that matters, the only relationship that counts, is the one with God. That is the truth. But the truth is problematic for all of us, especially when it reflects how far we have deviated from it.
Fast forward a couple of centuries from Amos, another prophet, this time John the Baptist, is saying pretty much the same thing to the people of God. He, too, preaches a message about righteousness and a straight path that leads to God. God, whose Messiah is imminent.
His message of repentance is welcomed by many, even Herod himself we read, recognizes John’s integrity and righteousness. And though he may have been engaged by John’s charisma and message, at some point, hearing the truth about himself, his misdeeds, his corruption, his vanity and disregard for God’s law, the message strikes a sour note.
It’s just too much for him to bear, so Herod tunes John out, he shuts the door, he refuses to the truth that will save him.
In doing so, becomes one of the real villains in salvation history: it’s a horrific story we read today. Something that stretches the imagination because it is so vile. A girl does a dance to entertain her stepfather and guests; charmed, he wants to give her a treat. To show off, Herod promises her ‘anything –even half my kingdom!’ It’s absurd.
Astutely, her mother sees and seizes the opportunity to rid them all of the thorn that John had become with his discordant haranguing. The flimsiest of excuses will do to silence the truth teller. Herod would rather save face than save his life.
The hardest truths we have to hear are the ones about ourselves.
Conversely, the smoothest lies are the ones we tell ourselves when we’d rather not hear the truth.
“I’m not too buzzed to drive.” “No one will miss the money; I can replace it next week.” “I can be late a few times.” “No one cares if I take more than my share.” “I didn’t mean to hit you, but you provoked me; it’s really your fault.” “I can handle another drink, another pill…” “It was just laying there; I thought no one wanted it.” “I didn’t mean to offend you, it’s just a joke.” How many ways, how many times do we stretch and bend the truth to make it sound plausible.
Truth be told, none of us are very good at keeping God at the center of our lives. We are not good at relying on God as our plumbline. We choose all sorts of other ways to measure ourselves: success, political influence, social standing, education, nationality, physical attributes, almost anything other than God.
I think that is why Jesus came.
God, who never ceases to reach out to us, went beyond prophecy, metaphor, vision. God became incarnate, so we could see what truth looks like in the flesh, walking on two feet, living day in and day out, wrestling with the temptation to be judged by any other measure, and still making the right choices, hitting all the right notes, living in relationship with God.
Because we couldn’t measure up to God’s plumbline, we needed to see what other things we should measure. We needed to see the truth: that we value other things, not what God values. God’s way of measuring includes things like charity, faith, healing, wisdom, and even self-control; all gifts or fruits of the Spirit.
Episcopal Priest and author Suzanne Guthrie writes, “Do I make choices like… Herod, appeasing others, acquiescing to my culture, societal expectations, and to maintain my standard of living? Do I accept the way things are with such studied ignorance and self-interest? Is my love for God, for justice, for the kingdom, as powerful as my devotion to distractions, glittering things and self-preservation?”
Feeling a little self conscious, like you don’t measure up? The good news is that, with God’s grace, anyone can walk the way of righteousness, anyone can ask for forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor; It doesn’t matter if we have education or not; it doesn’t matter if we have social standing or not; it doesn’t matter if we have political influence or not; it doesn’t matter if we can sing or not.
The pastor in the nursing home taught me this truth: there is such a thing as simply making “a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
He couldn’t sing to save his life, but it wasn’t his life he was trying to save. He was just trying to do God’s will. He understood something I didn’t: his singing is a lifesaver to those who have little else. So who am I to judge?