The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Amos 7.7-15; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29
A narcissistic, capricious, cruel, hard-hearted, power-hungry, frightened, uncaring, intolerant, bully – no I’m not describing any current world leader – though if the baseball cap fits, wear it – I’m describing Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.
We meet the notorious Herod family, holding power by being in bed with the Romans, on a number of occasions in the gospels, and usually not in very favourable ways.
It was the father who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem as he sought to protect his throne from a baby born in a stable. It was the son before whom Jesus would appear as he was passed from Sanhedrin to Pilate on that first Good Friday. And it was this same Herod who ordered that John was arrested and brought to his palace and then made the rash promise, the big man gesture in front of his guests, that resulted in the beheading of John in prison.
John is one of the really great figures of the Bible, a man who straddles the divide between the Old and the New Testaments. He was the child of a miraculous birth just like that of his cousin Jesus but in his case not the child of a young virgin but of an old couple, who with prophetic energy leaps in the womb as he recognises the unborn presence of the Lamb of God. John is the last of the prophets and the first to point the way to Jesus; he’s the one in the wilderness who prepares the way of the Lord, the one embracing a challenging lifestyle that attracted people from out of the cities to see and hear this phenomenon.
Whether it was to kings, or soldiers, or tax collectors, or the religious leaders of his day John was fearless in his criticism, holding nothing back. He challenged how people were living, challenged their priorities, challenged their lack of commitment to justice, challenged who they were. And this is precisely what got him into prison – because there were things going on amongst the royal family that broke the Jewish laws and needed to be named as wrong – and John did that, calling it out, naming it.
Leaders don’t like it when their authority is challenged, they don’t like it when they’re mocked and pilloried, don’t like it when a balloon depicting them flies over Westminster. The Mayor of London was challenged on the radio on Friday about why he’d allowed such an offensive thing to take place on the streets of the capital and he replied
"The idea that we would park our rights and privileges and freedoms because it may cause offence to a US president, I think people in London and the UK would find objectionable as indeed would Americans.”
The prophet Amos has a vision of God. God is standing alongside a well built wall and in God’s hand there’s a plumb-line. And God says to the prophet
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel.’
The plumb-line in the hands of the builder enables them to see whether what they’re building is good and true, whether their construction will stand or whether it leans this way or that. It’s a piece of equipment as old as our ability to build, a simple string with a weight attached, nothing fancy, very simple, even a child could use it. Hold it against something and you see immediately whether what’s there is straight and upright.
God is saying to the prophet, take the plumb-line and hold it against my people, take the plumb-line and use it, take the plumb-line and apply it, and that’s precisely what John does, he takes the measure and applies it to what he sees, applies it to leadership in his own context – and finding it wanting, finding that it’s not straight, that it’s not true, challenges it and in doing so lays his life on the line – be becomes the line he holds.
When Amos is himself spoken against, when he’s sent away, he simply says to his critics
“The Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
And that is what he did. Nothing would deflect him from holding that plumb-line up against the people, up against their leaders, up against the temple, up against the priests and speaking truth to power.
And that, my sisters, my brothers, is the calling of the church, to speak truth to power, to speaks God’s truth to power, to be the prophetic voice, not the arrogant voice, not the ‘I know better than you’ voice but the voice of truth which often cries out from the wilderness but cries out with unflinching confidence because we know as Jesus said that the ‘truth will set us free’.
But John didn’t just challenge the authority figures of his day – as I said, all kinds of people came out from the cities into the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptised in the Jordan with the baptism of repentance and Jesus was amongst them. The challenge of John and the challenge of the prophetic voice is to every person, is to how we live as well, how we live as Christians, how we behave in our own family, how we live in our own relationships, how we behave at work, at leisure. The plumb-line is set alongside our lives as much as against anything or anyone else!
At the beginning of the Letter to the Christians in Ephesus there’s the lovely ‘hymn’ that we heard as our Second Reading. The writer – it may have been Paul - sings of God’s great act of love in creation and redemption and adoption and among those verses are these words, that we should
‘be holy and blameless before him in love.’
That is the plumb-line, love, love is the measure that we use, the measure we apply, love is the moral compass that helps us determine our direction of travel, love is the test we apply to the decisions that we make and the decisions that are made about us, love helps us build well and to build true and live well and to live in freedom-giving truth.
Our task as the community in this place is to hold the plumb-line to ourselves as well as to others, to see how we’re living against the standards that God gives us and against the standards that we’ve set for ourselves. A group of us from this congregation took part in the Pride March last weekend and some of us, putting up with the heat, were wearing t-shirts that’d been made for the occasion. Emblazoned across them in rainbow colours were three words – inclusive, faithful, radical. This is our own plum-line and as in the autumn we begin to move forwards to address the priorities in the Masterplan agreed by the Chapter we can use those words to test what we’re doing.
Whatever we are doing we seek to be that true and faithful community, rooted and grounded in love, fed at the altar, alive in the Spirit, rooted in scripture, emboldened in prayer, generous in spirit and courageously witnessing to Jesus and inspired by his cousin John. It’s a costly calling – it cost John everything, it cost Jesus everything, and it will demand of us, everything – but that is the calling that we have received and that is why we need to eat this meal together, because we need to be resourced for the task and these are the resources that God gives for whatever will be demanded of us.