St. John’s in the Mountains, Stowe, Vermont
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 15, 2012 (Proper 10, Year B)
I have to admit that after yesterday’s social event of the century, I didn’t think anyone would actually show up this morning. But with a church named after St. John the Baptist, leave it to Father Rick to weasel out of preaching on this gospel passage where John’s head ends up on a platter.
This is a dramatic and vivid scene – you won’t find this story in any Bible coloring books (I looked). But a bit of background is helpful to set the scene. King Herod had imprisoned John because he called him out for divorcing his wife and unlawfully marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife. Well, Herod himself might not have cared too much but Herodias held a massive grudge against John. Anyway, Herod threw himself a big birthday bash and as part of the festivities his daughter Salome danced for the king and his guests. Her dancing pleased Herod so much that in his intoxicated state he promised to give her anything she desired. Now, you would have thought that a pony would have sufficed or maybe a cabbage patch kid but when Salome asked her mother what she should ask for, her mother seized her chance for revenge and told her daughter to request the head of John the Baptist on a platter. While Herod was appalled by this, a promise was a promise so he agreed and had John beheaded. I guess you could say that Herod saved face by losing a head.
It’s true that there’s nothing subtle about John the Baptist. Every Advent he shows up full of bluster to prepare the way of the Lord; he’s got that wild honey and a bunch of locusts matted in his beard; his hair is unruly; he wears camel skin and leather; and he’s loud, always yelling at people to accept a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There’s nothing particularly refined about this wild-eyed prophet. He’s not known as John the Episcopalian after all.
But it’s his moral rigidity that gets him in trouble with Herod. He sees sinfulness and he points it out publicly. The Baptist calls it as he sees it. In this sense he embraces the ways of another wild Old Testament prophet, Amos. This morning we also heard about Amos’ famous plumb line. Now unless you’re a carpenter you may not know what a plumb line actually is.
I’ve never used one since I’m not exactly handy around the house – whenever I’m asked to hang something I generally average two holes drilled for every correct one (pictures cover a multitude of sins). But it’s basically a weight with a string attached to it. When you hold the top of the string, the weight makes a perfectly straight line. If you’re attaching something to a high ceiling and you want to mark the spot on the floor directly beneath it, a plumb line will do the trick. What a level does for the horizontal, a plumb line does for the vertical.
So Amos shares his vision of God standing by a level wall with a plumb line in his hand. God proclaims, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people.” In other words, God has created humanity and is now setting the standard by which we are to be measured. Which is basically what John the Baptist was doing with Herod.
Now at first glance the plumb line is unforgiving. Some see the plumb line as a sword which cuts through those who choose to follow after false gods; those who reject the Law; those who abandon divine relationship. And that’s one way of looking at it; one we discount at our peril. God does hold us to certain standards of behavior – the Ten Commandments come to mind. And we’re held accountable for behavior that does not accord with God’s law.
But I also see the plumb line imagery not just as a sign of God’s judgment but also as an inviting sign of God’s presence. By setting the plumb line in our midst, not just collectively but as individuals as well, God is making clear that we will never be forsaken despite any action taken or not taken on our part. And God offers us a choice. A choice between following the commandments of God or chasing after false idols; between loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind or keeping God’s grace at arm’s length.
Sometimes the plumb line calls us back to simplicity of life. Stripping away many of the external distractions like the constant background noise of the television; too much time online; a lack of time for prayer and silence; gossip. I’m sure you have others in mind that draw you away from the love of God. The metaphor of the plumb line helps us get straight to the core of what matters in our lives; it keeps us on the spiritual “straight and narrow.” Which is a pretty good place to be. Not just out of fear of God’s judgment but because of the ever-present invitation to God’s grace, God’s steadfast love, and God’s merciful forgiveness.
As I was thinking about the story of Herod and Salome and John the Baptist I remembered an anecdote my father used to tell me about his time living in Hawaii. Back in the early ‘70’s he was the assistant conductor of the Honolulu Symphony – I lived there myself when I was 2, 3, and 4; not exactly old enough to appreciate living in paradise. But it seems that the stage hands at the Honolulu Opera were a wild bunch with a slightly perverse sense of humor. They’d have t-shirts made up for each production that came through and one year the Richard Straus’ opera Salome made the rounds. The opera focuses’ on Salome’s role in this dark and gruesome tale. Naturally they had shirts made up that proclaimed “Get Ahead with Salome.” This was the same crew that, when Gounod’s Faust came through, they made shirts saying “To Hell with Faust.” It’s hard to imagine what they were drinking at the company luau.
In the days ahead I encourage you to think about these two prophets, Amos and John. While they lived in different eras, they both wrestled with similar moral issues. As John prepares the way for Jesus to enter our hearts and as Amos announces the plumb line set in the midst of our souls, may we all be inspired to embrace the living Christ in new and life-giving ways.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012