What do Jesus and a Plumbline have in common?
A sermon on Amos 7:7-17 & Luke 10:25-37 by Nathan Nettleton, 11 July 1998
Our perception of things can be distorted by the context in which we see them. Jesus constantly challenges our misperceptions by challenging us to look at things through a different frame. It is only by constant reference to Jesus and to the ways that he looked at things that we learn to see ourselves and our surrounds more realistically.
(An optical illusion puzzle is projected on the screen, showing two parallel horizontal lines of identical length which, because they are shown in between two diverging vertical lines, appear to be of different lengths. The illusion is discussed before the sermon commences.)
The prophet Amos, who lived about eight centuries before Christ, had a vision which we heard described in the reading earlier. In the vision he saw God as a builder standing at the top of a wall with a plumb line in his hand. Some high tech builders now use laser beams instead, but most still use plumb lines, and certainly as Ive observed the building work in this neighbourhood over the last couple of years, all the brickies seem to be still using plumb lines. Who knows how a plumb line is used? Any of you children?
This is a plumb line here. Thats all it is - a weight on the end of a string. But what it does, when I hold it up against the wall here, is tell us whether the wall is straight. When the brickies use them they hang it from a post where they want to build the wall and then just make sure that each new row of bricks is the same distance from the string as the last one and that way they get a perfectly vertical wall. This is a spirit level. It does much the same thing in a different way. It is level when the little bubble in this viewing hole is between the lines. The spirit level has the advantage of being able to check a horizontal level as well, which until someone invents horizontal gravity, a plumb line cant do.
Now you might think that this is all a bit silly - surely they can see easily enough whether something is going up straight or not, but if you look again at the lines on the screen you will realise that your eyes can play tricks on you. And what is it that tricks you into seeing it wrong?? Thats right. Its the things around it. If theyre not straight, they distort your perception.
If you stand next to a wall on level ground with nothing crooked around it, your naked eye will give you a reasonably good reading of the angle of the wall. But if you walk into a room where the floor has a bit of a slope, one wall is leaning this way a bit, one wall is leaning that way a bit and the window is diamond shaped, youve got Buckleys hope of working out with the naked eye which one is closest to straight. You may end up picking the most out of line as the only straight one. You need a plumb line or a spirit level and then once youve worked out which one is straight then you can make a much better judgment of the rest by reference to it.
So when Amos sees God holding a plumb line to a wall he hears God say, I am using it to show that my people are like a wall that is out of line. Gods people are found to be off at an angle from where they are supposed to be. They dont measure up. But we may not even be aware that we have gotten out of alignment until God holds up the plumb line and we can see where we are in relation to where we are supposed to be.
Many of the stories we have about Jesus show us Jesus doing a similar thing - holding up the plumb line to the people around him. And in todays gospel we have an example. Its one of the best known stories of Jesus, a story so well known that most of us are fairly effectively inoculated against actually hearing it.
It starts with a question put to Jesus; an intellectual question about the qualifications for eternal life. What must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus answer is so thoroughly orthodox as to almost be boring. Do what the law says, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. Certainly it was so orthodox an answer that the asker felt he was being made to look stupid for asking it and he had to follow up with a question for clarification: So who is my neighbour?
And Jesus gets the plumb line out. You all know the story he tells. Youve heard it a thousand times. But the sting in the tail is often a bit lost on us because were not so aware of the naked hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Suffice it to say that if Jesus was telling the story to us it wouldnt be about a Samaritan. I dont know who it would be. But if you ask yourself which group of people seem to you to most embody all that is evil, godless and corrupt in the world, thats probably who hed choose. The good neo-nazi skinhead. Or the good drug cartel Mr Big. Or the good French nuclear bomb scientist. Or the good pornographer. Or the good One Nation Politician. Or the good rainforest bulldozing industrialist.
It doesnt matter. The question at the end is Are you prepared to see in this person something of the answer to your question what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Are you prepared to see the image of God in the most despicable and godless person you can imagine and acknowledge that when he shows love, peace, kindness, that he is evidencing the fruits of Gods Spirit and modelling for anyone who will see the pathway to life in all its fullness?
If its me lying there on the side of the road all battered and bloodied, and the person who stops is a neo-nazi skinhead wearing a Pauline Hanson t-shirt whos on his way home after desecrating the Chinese section of the cemetery with a sledge hammer, am I willing to accept his help and see in his help the example that Jesus calls me to follow: Go and do likewise.
Now I dont know about you, but to me that feels like being hit in the back of the head with the spirit level! I suddenly realise that most of the time Im not judging the trees by their fruits at all - Im judging them by their labels. And whenever Im doing that and God holds the spirit level to me, Im going to be found to be off at a very skewed angle. But until the plumb line was held up, I didnt even notice it. I thought I was doing fine. I thought I was being thoroughly Christian. I thought my naming of racists, and terrorists, and international weapons dealers and homophobic fundamentalists as evil and corrupt was good and healthy and prophetic. But then God holds up the plumb line and I discover that Im as bigoted and blinkered and judgmental as they are. Its just different groups of people that Im reluctant to concede the presence of any goodness in. But the plumb line of God reveals me for what I really am.
Why do we have so much trouble seeing it before the plumb line comes out? For the same reason that we made a mistake about the lines on the screen before - the things around skew our perception. When we look at our attitudes and behaviours in relation to what is all around us, they may line up quite well. But if you havent first checked the angle of what you were lining them up against, thats no way to check them.
And just like when you stand in that room with all the crooked angles, the only straight wall can look like the most crooked, when you stand in the middle of the culture we live in and look at Jesus, the example of Jesus can look quite crooked. The righteousness and justice of Jesus Christ can look like some kind of cuckoo land fanaticism when viewed in the surrounds of the decadence, greed and hardness of heart in our work-shop-consume-die culture. But when you realise that youve encountered a love and grace that will hand itself over to torture and death rather than compromise your pathway to life in all its fullness, then you realise that youve encountered the only love worth measuring the standing of your life against.
The words and stories of Jesus time and time again hold a spirit level to our lives and to the culture we see around us. But as any builder can tell you, its not much use having a spirit level that just sits in your tool box. I wouldnt trust a builder who only got his plumb line or his spirit level out once a week, and I dont see why anybody should trust my perceptions of reality if Im only making reference to the stories of Jesus once a week. It is only by constant reference to Jesus and to the way he looked at things that we can learn to see ourselves and our surrounds without being deluded into complacency by the distortions all around us. Gods plumb line has become flesh and lived among us and invites us to walk with him and learn to view life from his vantage point. If you want to be able to hold your head upright in the presence of God, its an invitation not to miss!