Of Plumb Lines and Preaching

It was one of those mornings right after the move to our seminary apartment that I thought I would sleep in, when I was awakened quite early by the beep-beep beep-beep warning sound that heavy machinery was backing up.

Several new houses are under construction next door and I was not sure if it was the sound of the cement mixer, or a new delivery of lumber.

I decided to be ‘small-town nosey’ and peeked out the window to meet the sight of a large tractor with a long boom positioning a line with a larger-than-bowling-ball-sized iron ball in clear sight of the men who were framing the walls that day. A plumb line! At the end of the day, the walls were quite straight. A few days later the plumb-line returned when the Amish men came to frame the roof. 

Again, lines remarkably straight.

It was a short leap from the building site next door to Amos’ plumb line. The context of the passage mirrors our present moral disorientation and spiritual decline. God’s solution in Amos’ day was to place a plumb line in their sight — something like the plumb line I had seen all week at the building site next door. Something to remind the people which way is up. 

What would a plumb line look if God placed one among us today? Before I could begin to construct a thesis in my mind that preaching is a plumb line of sorts, I was jolted by the reminder that we preach in an environment where parishioners have become allergic to morality sermons. Still, for me, the preaching plumb line lies at some undetermined point between two biblical mountains: Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Mount Sinai (for some) could be said to represent the Law, the Ten Commandments and the weighty moral code of the Old Testament. On the other end of this spectrum, the Mount of Beatitudes contains the Cliff’s Notes version of most of the teachings of Jesus and was the place where Jesus stressed that motivations for god-pleasing relationships with each other and with God are found in the heart. “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”

Faith is presented to us as a matter of the heart, not merely a matter of conduct and we learn that pleasing God lies in yielding less to our me-centered human nature and more in considering others around us.

Like so many others, I was reared somewhere near the base of Mount Sinai, keenly aware of the Ten Commandments and a host of other thou shalt not’s. The emphasis of Mount Sinai preaching was upon what we could no longer enjoy (presuming we ever enjoyed it in the first place) and what we had better not even think of doing!

The Mount Sinai preaching of the 50’s was almost an inoculation against faith because it emphasized legalism over love in ways that inspired an entire generation to rebel against what we perceived to be the restrictive nature of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, Mount Sinai preaching has preached many a person both into and out of the Church and has shooed many a preacher away from the Good News of the Gospel.

I wonder if we have been so concerned with not being hell-fire and brimstone preachers that we have become disoriented and lost sight of the charge we have to keep. How shall they hear without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? All the while the current generations continue to demonstrate their need — even desire for a plumb line — a moral standard that we can keep without consulting a list, and new instincts for living peaceably with God and each other in a world bent on doing harm. 

We have both a plumb line and Good News for this weary generation; located somewhere between Mount Sinai and the Mount of Beatitudes, waiting to be revealed in the preaching of the gospel of God’s love and a theology of salvation that emphasizes both peace with God and renewed human potential for transformation of self and world.

Preach the good news that God condescended to sojourn with humanity in the Incarnation. Celebrate the good news that Jesus has unpacked the weighty moral codes of the Old Testament by giving us a simple, yet profound way to understand what God wants from us: love God with all that lies within your being and love your neighbor as deeply as you love yourself.

Remind us all that the complicated tangle of human pride and sinfulness culminating in the Crucifixion did not turn God away from us. And, beyond whatever the theology of the Cross means for you, preach the good news of the Resurrection — not even death is able to separate us from the love of God! If we should die before Christ’s return, God has prepared a place for us — on a road of transition from life to everlasting life, not unfamiliar to God.

There is another house being framed down the street and the workmen will soon be back with their plumb line, reminding me to preach the plumb line.