11 July 2010

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost - Ordinary 15C - "Certainty Comes At The End"

There’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes like this: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for certain that just ain't so.” It’s one of those sayings that is so like Mark Twain that if he didn’t say it, he should have.

What does it mean to be certain of a thing? In our readings for today, God shows the prophet Amos the plumb line by which God’s people will be judged, but in the Gospel parable, Jesus uses the same plumb line to insist that what we know for certain is going to get us into trouble. Pay attention, brothers and sisters, and let’s talk about what we know for certain. Let us pray: O Creator of all that has been, all that is and all that will be, have mercy on us. You set a plumb line by which all things are judged, and we always come up out of line. Forgive us when we know for certain things that just aren’t so. Humble us and renew our hearts with your love, the only thing that is certain in all that exists. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Some of you may have worked with plumb lines before, but I’ve got a similar tool here that most of you, if not all of you, will know for certain that does the same thing. This is a level. Last summer I rebuilt the fence in our backyard and used this level to make sure the fence rails were straight up and down. This particular level comes from my Grandpa Johnson’s workshop, so I know that it has a long history of setting things straight in our family. You use this level in the same way a bricklayer uses a plumbline: it’s a tool to make sure that everything is lining up right, so that a wall is constructed to be as strong and sturdy as it needs to be. God is going to judge the state of the people of Judah, Amos will provide the level, and we see immediately how out of true the state of things really can be.

When Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, heard what Amos was telling the people of Israel, this was his response: “...never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Anyone who knows a little bit of Hebrew sees the irony in this sentence right away. The name “Bethel” means “house of the Lord” in Hebrew. Amaziah insists that “God’s house” is the king’s sanctuary, and God’s call for Israel to return to God is no longer welcome there. Out of plumb, for certain: things are not the way they should be for Israel, so God will begin the hard work of tearing down and rebuilding so that things might be what they are meant to be in the future.

Let’s move forward a few hundred years to Jesus and his conversation with the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading. There are many places in the gospels where people are trying to trap Jesus with their questions, especially the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem in the gospel of Luke, but this isn’t necessarily one of those times. This lawyer seems to be genuinely seeking wisdom and eternal life, and Jesus seems to be genuinely interested in giving him the truth. But while the lawyer’s first question and answer session goes exactly how he might have expected, the parable would have seemed completely out of plumb to someone listening in Jesus’ time.

Who were the Samaritans? What do you know about them? Remnants of the Northern Kingdom, the people no one wanted, religious half-breeds who said they worshiped God but didn’t follow the same religious patterns Jewish people followed. Worshiped at Mt Gezirim, not the Temple. People would cross the Jordan when traveling between Galilee and Judea to avoid going through Samaritan territory. When Jesus identifies the merciful Samaritan as the one who is doing and being right to his neighbor, he blows up the certainty every listener would have had about Samaritans.

How would we put this in modern terms? Well, imagine the group of people you would avoid at all costs, and put them in the role of the Samaritan. You get “The Parable of the Good Democrat.” “The Parable of the Good Republican.” “The Parable of the Good Hawkeye Fan.” “The Parable of the Good Baptist.” “The Parable of the Good Muslim.” All of us have those groups of people with whom we would never, ever want to associate: that’s the group Jesus uses to show the lawyer how out of plumb his certainty really is.

One of the problems is how Jesus and the lawyer are asking and answering the question in different ways. When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”, he is asking Jesus to identify who’s in and who’s out. The lawyer thinks, “Certainly, Jesus can’t suggest that my neighbor is anyone who’s actually near me at any given time. There are good guys and bad guys, and I’m only expected to love the good guys, right?” The lawyer isn’t only asking, “For whom must I show care?” He’s also asking, “Who can I ignore?” Jesus answer is plain and shocking: “You can’t ignore ANYONE.”

Professor Marilyn Salmon of United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN says, “Jesus shifts the question from the one the lawyer asks – who is my neighbor?—to ask what a righteous neighbor does.”1 What was once a question of doing becomes, on the lips of Jesus, a question of being. Asking Jesus to identify which group of people are our neighbors is like asking a carpenter which fence rail needs the level - if things are going to be the way they’re supposed to be, the level has to be used on every single fence rail. It’s not a question of which fence rail you can ignore - it’s a question of how the carpenter does all of her work.

My oldest daughter is beginning to understand manners and the like. We’ve worked very hard to impress the need to say “Please” and “Thank you.” The inevitable developmental shift, of course, is this: now that she knows how to ask nicely, she’s come to believe that every time she asks nicely we’ll give her what she wants. “But I asked nicely!” is something we’re hearing a lot these days. She sees manners and politeness like I see the quarters I plug into the vending machine when I want a Diet Coke. In the same way, the lawyer sees care for the neighbor as the coin he must pay to earn eternal life - and if you can find a vending machine that gives you a soda for 50 cents instead of 65, wouldn’t that be all the better?

Parables are not fables. Parables do not have “morals of the story.” Parable are intended to shake up our world, to get in our heads and mess with what we know for certain that just ain’t so. Parables are intended to explode our smugness and certainty and replace them with faith - because, in the end, faith is all we have and faith is all we need. Notice that in some ways, Jesus never gives the lawyer a “certain” answer to his question. There’s no point at which the lawyer can say, “I’ve done enough good deeds for my neighbor - I’ve earned eternal life.” Morals and good deeds are only the after-effects of the gospel: until our certainty is based on Jesus and Jesus alone, we will have traded the good news of God’s love for the conditional requirements of vending-machine spirituality, which cannot save and leaves us empty in the end.

Darrell Guder writes, “The ‘gospel which meets my needs’ must be replaced with the good news that reveals needs I did not know I had while providing healing I never dreamed was possible.”2 This is what Jesus is after for the lawyer and for you. Certainty isn’t part of what we do in this world, at least when it comes to knowing who’s in and who’s out. Mercy is for everyone, love is for the world, and the church of Jesus Christ is called to lives of faith and love, not certainty and division. We should feel unsettled by what Jesus does - because that unsettled feeling is what happens when God rips down those parts of ourselves that are out of plumb and starts building them anew and righteous.

Erica Jong wrote a poem entitled “You Are There” which I think describes the feeling of being trued by God’s righteousness:

You are there.

You have always been


Even when you thought

you were climbing 

you had already arrived.

Even when you were

breathing hard,

you were at rest.

Even then it was clear

you were there.

Not in our nature

to know what

is journey and what


Even if we knew

we would not admit.

Even if we lived

we would think

we were just


To live is to be


Certainty comes

at the end.

Certainty comes at the end. Until then, we walk by faith, trusting God to show us our neighbors in need, or to show our neighbors our own need. In the ditch, on the road, listening to Jesus - may we all be made uncertain, faithful followers of Jesus who love, and are loved by, all our neighbors. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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