I am at the Cornwall United Methodist Church (Cornwall, NY – location). The Scriptures for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (10 July 2010) are Amos 7: 7 – 17, Colossians 1: 1 – 14, Luke 10: 25 – 37. The service starts at 9:30 and you are invited to worship with us.
I do not know about you but I have only encountered the Verrazano Narrows Bridge twice. Each time, though, was in a peripheral way while I was teaching in Brooklyn.
The first time a student called to tell me that she would be late for lecture because of an accident on the bridge. She wasn’t sure if she could make the lecture but was certain that she would get across and make it to the lab. The second time occurred when I was somewhere in Brooklyn close to the Atlantic Ocean, when I actually saw the bridge.
Now, because of where I was, my unfamiliarity with New York City at that time and because it didn’t look like any of the bridges I saw on my daily commute, I wasn’t really certain which bridge I was looking at. But, as I looked at this amazingly long bridge and a brief examination of the map that I was using, I realized what I was seeing. That one could delineate features from so far away spoke of the true size of the bridge and made it a very awesome sight.
I was reminded of that because of a show on cable television the other day that talked about the building of the bridge. If you measure the distance between the towers, you will find that the tops of the towers are 5-1/8” further apart then the bases. That is because the bridge is so long that the curvature of the earth comes into play.
The towers themselves are perfectly straight and to our eyes, they appear to be parallel. But if you could hold a plumb line next to each of the towers, you would see that they are not parallel. The towers are in line with lines perpendicular to the surface of the earth that go through the center of the earth and, if you could see those lines, you would see that they are not parallel.
Now, the architects who designed the Verrazano Narrows Bridge understood that the curvature of the earth would have an impact on the bridge because of its length and they took that into consideration in its design. But it is a difference that we cannot immediately see and it has no essential impact on our daily lives.
But I do think that it does illustrate the opening verses of today’s Old Testament reading. It is the only time that the Hebrew word that translates as “plumb line” is used. In the opening of the passage, Israel is being compared to a wall that was built true to the plumb line, to the standards set by God. But the people of Israel no longer held to those standards and were now “out of plumb.” Because of their focus on earthly matters, they could not see that they have strayed from that line.
It seems to me that our country and our society have done that as well. Our treatment of the environment and the world on which we live, both in terms of the resources we have in place and our thought for the future speak of a people who have heard the word of God to be good stewards of the planet but who believe that we can do anything we please and that we do not need to fear the consequences. Our lack of concern for the future of the planet extends to how we treat people, both in this country and around the globe. We see war as the answer to conflict; we ignore poverty and sickness; we see greed as viable and acceptable. Each day we receive more news that says that we are further and further away from the line set by God.
Now, there are those who will hear these words or read these words on my blog and dismiss them as meaningless because they do not have God in their lives. They have abandoned God because they see no evidence that God exists; they wonder how a God could allow the evil and lack of caring that exists in the world today. They see no evidence to suggest that there is a God. But to borrow a quote from Carl Sagan, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. To find the presence of God, especially in a world that has perhaps rejected Him, is a daunting task but not an impossible task.
Now, there are those in this world who claim that we need to be forcibly returned to the goals and standards that God as set. They see the only solution as the creation of a government based on “God’s laws”. But such a government, besides being a mirror image of the government of Israel in Amos’ time, would be one where it is their interpretation of the law.
It would be a very legalistic and unbending world, with very little room for thought and creativity. It would be a world in which “that’s the way things are and one cannot question such things.” It would be a world where the godly person does not bother with the person on the street because such interactions would defile them. It would be a world in which the church is inside the walls of a building and access is limited to those who meet their approval. Those outside the walls of the church are cast off and forgotten. This world would be a world of the Old Testament, not a world of the New Testament.
There are those who acknowledge the existence of God but it is an accommodating acknowledge. Sunday is the day for God and it is best if God were kept on Sunday because there is no room for him during the rest of the week. For these individuals, Christianity is a part-time thing and a hobby, something to do in one’s spare time.
They remember the way church was when they were growing up and that’s the church they want today. We want the Bible to be “long ago and far away”, not “here and now.” They don’t mind being told about the Cross but they want a shiny and golden cross, not a wooden one soaked in blood.
All of this has allowed us to create a world in which we feel “one size fits all”. It is a world entirely devoid of creativity. It is a world where people speak of seeking their own individuality yet everyone appears the same. It is a world where we want people to draw only straight lines and not color outside those lines.
In preparing for today’s sermon, I first focused on the last part of the reading in which Amos points out to Amaziah that he never intended to be a prophet or a preacher and that he wasn’t trained to be one either. In that society, sons followed their fathers in their careers and Amos’ father was a shepherd so Amos was a shepherd. Now I am an engineer’s son but it became quickly evident that I would not become an engineer. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I cannot draw a straight line with a ruler. But it also was related to the fact that I was given an opportunity to take a different path; one that would allow me to become first a chemist and then a chemical educator.
Now, I supposed that, if I had walked along this typical straight and narrow path, this straight line that I was able, with some difficulty, to draw, I would never be standing here today.
But something about seeking information about the world around me, the task of a scientist, also allowed me to begin hearing God calling me to do something with my talents on Sunday morning. It is interesting in this society that there are those who feel that I can be a chemist or I can be a lay speaker but I cannot be both. It is an attitude that pervades our world today, that says that you can only do certain things and that because of who you are, where you live or how old you might be, certain things are off-limits to you.
But that is the message of society, not the message of Christ. Christ came to this world to show us what was possible, not what was limited. It is a world where drawing outside the lines was allowed, where creativity is an expression of God in you.
We live in a world where to discuss salvation is to focus on a single point or moment of decision in one’s life that determines one’s eternal fate. But the biblical notion of salvation has more do with what happens here on earth and is only secondarily concerned with otherworldly matters. Salvation should be more a question of “am I walking the right path” than “am I doing what others think is the appropriate thing” or “will I escape the fires of Sheol?”
To early Christians, being “saved” meant that you had converted from living for yourself to living for God. This put you on a new path or way of life. We need to recall that the early Christian movement was called “The Way”. It was on this path that you found your true identity and purpose, one that had been a part of you from the beginning but never really grew or blossomed until God
Somewhere in all of this, we have strayed from the line, the path that leads us to God. We offer reasons for not getting involved. What was the priest thinking when he walked by the injured man? What was the Levite thinking when he walked by? What was the Samaritan thinking?
Some years ago, I was introduced to a different version of the New Testament called The Cotton Patch Gospels. It was written by Clarence Jordan, a Southern Baptist preacher and scholar. Because he was a Greek scholar, he would often write his own translation of the scripture that he wanted to use. Ultimately, this lead to a version of the New Testament planted in the cotton fields of the south. As he wrote in his introduction to The Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles,
We ask our brethren of long ago to cross the time-space barrier and talk to us not only in modern English but about modern problems, feelings, frustrations, hopes and assurances; to work beside us in our cotton patch or on our assembly line, so that the word becomes modern flesh. Then perhaps, we too will be able to joyfully tell of "that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes and have felt with our hands, about the word of life" (I John 1:1) (from http://www.rockhay.org/cottonpatch/intro-pauline.htm#01)
In his version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest became a white preacher, the Levite became a white Gospel Song leader, and the Samaritan became a black man. In the footnotes, Jordan wrote the probable thoughts of each man.
The preacher’s homiletical mind probably made the following outline:
- I do not know the man.
- I do not wish to get involved in any court proceedings.
- I don’t want to get blood on my new upholstering.
- The man’s lack of proper clothing would embarrass me upon my arrival in town.
- And finally, brethren, a minister must never be late for worship services.
As for the Gospel song leader, Jordan noted that we would probably never know what his thoughts were but that he probably whistled “Brighten the corner, where you are” as we whizzed past. But the black man who stopped surely was thinking something like "Somebody’s robbed you; yeah, I know about that, I been robbed, too. And they done beat you up bad; I know, I been beat up, too. And everybody just go right on by and leave you laying here hurting. Yeah, I know. They pass me by, too."
Now, it does not matter whether you hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan in words that come out of the Deep South or words that came out of Israel or 17th century England, the message is still the same. There are those who walk a straight line but it is a line that they have defined themselves while there are those who walk a straight line that leads them to God. Others will look at that path and wonder where that person is headed because it doesn’t look straight. But, the journey to God, to salvation, is a journey of discovery, of finding who you are and what you are meant to do. No matter where we have been or where we are now, no matter what others see, the line that has been drawn for us is a straight line to God through Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul speaks of how as one learns more and more about how God works it becomes possible to see what it is that one is supposed to do. We are reminded that we have been created in God’s image so we cannot, neither should we trust someone else’s conception of what we should be doing to know if that is the right thing to do. God will never call you to do something that you cannot do nor what will bring you alive.
Individually we are called to find that path that leads to God. But we are also called as a group to develop ways that will enable others to find that path. This is the most daunting task that I can imagine because it requires that we consider who we are and where we are.
We are not called to draw the line that will lead to God; it has been drawn for us. And if we look, we will see that it is a line pointed to a cross on a hill far away. But it is a line that goes beyond the cross and it is a line that says our journey continues far beyond that hill. No, we are not called to draw the line. We are called to find that line that has been drawn for us and to help others find their own line. We have been called and we must answer. How shall you do that?
I utilized information from The Phoenix Affirmation in preparing my thoughts about salvation, and the path that we walk.