A plumb line, a platter, and a promise. (repeat) What do those three things have in common? Well, they are images from each of our three readings this morning and they are also are clues as to how those readings tie together. Sometimes it is difficult to find a thread which runs through all three readings, but I think these three words may provide clues to the theme which ties them all together. A plumb line, a platter, and promise.
The plumb line is an image from our first lesson in which God tells the prophet Amos that he is putting him in the mist of the nation of Israel as a plumb line. What do plumb lines do? They are measuring tools by which stone masons make sure the walls they are building are straight up and down. Amos will prophesy in such a way that the entire nation can be measured to see if it is in line with the word of God.
The platter is an extremely gruesome image from today’s gospel. The platter had a severed head on it. The bloody head was that of John the Baptist, a relative of Jesus’ but, moreover, a friend, a mentor, and the one who baptized him. The tale of how a bloody head got on a platter is one of sex, grudges, and one very dysfunctional family, that of King Herod I won’t go into the details. You just heard the story. But suffice it to say that Amos’ plumb line would show that the ruling authority was about as far “out of line” with God’s word as one could possibly get.
So, we have the plumb line and the platter. The promise comes loudly and boldly to us through today’s Epistle – Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – as beautiful a piece of poetry as you will find any where in the Bible. Paul reminds us that God was pleased to choose us as his beloved and, through his good pleasure, brings hope and salvation to all as part of his plan to bring all things into his kingdom in the fullness of time. If you ever want to remind yourself just what God did for us in Jesus and if you ever want to be reassured about your place in God’s kingdom and if you ever need a word of hope in your life, just bookmark Ephesians 1:3-14 and read it again and again. It says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, destined us for adoption as his children, and made known the mystery of his wall that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, a plan to “gather up all things in him.” It says that, in Christ, we have obtained an inheritance and have been destined to be part of the fulfillment of is purpose. It says that we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. It says that we are redeemed people. There is our gospel of hope that I am delighted to proclaim this beautiful Sunday morning!
One commentator has said that this passage from Ephesians assures us that God is in the business of “long range planning.” It assures us that all will turn out all right in the end, that God will finally gather it all together in his redemptive embrace.
But here’s the rub: As reassuring as it is to know that things will turn out alright “in the fullness of time,” we still have to deal with things that are not alright in the here an now. We still have to deal with rulers and principalities who would, figuratively, bring the head of John the Baptist out on the platter and set it down in the middle of the white table-cloth dining table. For instance, even if we had known ahead of time that all twelve Thai soccer youth and their coach would be successfully saved from the cave, we would still need to tend to their hunger, cold, and fright while they wait.
We can rest assured of a heavenly kingdom in the sweet by-and-by, but we are called upon to deal with rulers and principalities who seem to have lost all concept of kindness, gentleness, justice, mercy, and decency. The prophet Micah said, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Justice, kindness, and humility. Is it any wonder that, in the mist of a steady stream of bullying, brashness, and braggadocio, that the nation has turned its lonely eyes to Mister Rogers and the documentary on his life and influence which is about to be released. Something about his soft demeanor and humility seems to be speaking to our nation right now. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, wrote recently: “The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce.” (The power is in his) “drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first.”
In a time in which our own nation seems hell-bent on being the first, the best, the strongest, and the richest we need to be reminded that, in God’s kingdom, the last shall be first. In her short story, “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor writes of a Southern lady by the name of Mrs. Turpin. Mrs. Turpin would occupy “herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people (I’m using her language here.) Then next to them (not above, just next) were the white-trash. Then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, (the class to which she belonged). Above here were people with more money, more land, and bigger houses.” Etc, etc. The story continues as she mentally sizes up and judges the various people seated with her in the doctor’s waiting room.
The story ends with a vision Mrs. Turpin had as she gazed into the pig parlor where all the hogs had gathered around the one sow. Here’s her vision in Flannery O’Connor’s words: “At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the (pig)pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black (folk) in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and (her husband) Claude, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. … What she had (seen and) heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
She could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. We confess to believe that Christ came to take away our sins. Flannery O’Connor has helped me to see that he first came to take away our virtues. All those things which we use to rank ourselves above other people are the sins Christ came to burn away. The good deeds. The wealth. The power. The prestige. Gathered together and burned. Thrown into the outer darkness. Gone. Jesus must get rid of our sins by getting rid of our virtues.
Yes, we’ll be part of that procession because, as Paul says, it is God’s good pleasure to give us an inheritance and make us part of his plan to redeem all things in the fullness of time. We may be at the end of the procession keeping things orderly and lawful, as we are wont to do, but we are in the procession.
A plumb line, a platter, and a promise. The promise gives us the strength to hold a plumb line out to the world in which heads roll daily. We have the promise, and with it we have the power.