I spent my middler year of seminary at the theological college in Oxford. While there I got to travel around quite a bit and as a young, gung ho seminarian I often visited churches and cathedrals. The UK has its fair share of old and beautiful buildings but it is a cathedral built in the 1960’s out of the rubble of the medieval edifice that was fire bombed during WWII that I keep coming back to.
Coventry Cathedral is dedicated to the ministry of reconciliation, symbolized by its cross of nails. The cross is made from the distinctive hand crafted nails from its original construction in the 1500’s. If you have never seen one, they can be found as subtle Stations of the Cross on the walls of our historic chapel next door. The chapel will be open after church for Seafood Festival if you want to take a look.
The entire cathedral and its art reflect a powerful sense of the Christian message of resurrection, forgiveness, mercy and service. It honors the work of ordinary people and the impulse to rebuild after a terrible tragedy and the horror of world war.
Tucked away in one of the alcoves in one of my favorite pieces of sculpture. It stands as a powerful reminder of what is at stake as a city rebuilds itself from the ashes. There is a cityscape spread out in metal silhouette. It depicts houses, factories and tall buildings making up the skyline. Dangling from the ceiling above is a long rope with a teardrop shaped lead weight attached. The weight hangs directly in the center of the sculpture.
If you were paying attention to our first OT reading from the book of Amos you know that this is a plumb line. It is a method used by builders through many centuries to insure that the walls of any construction are truly upright. It is an unchanging standard based on gravity. In order to work accurately, the plumb line must be still, with no interference or outside force upon it. Every structure is measured against it. Those that fail to be upright and true will certainly begin to collapse.
When Amos, the unqualified and outsider prophet is given the vision of a wall and plumb line with regard to Israel, it was part of a word of judgement against the King and the political and religious leadership of the nation. God called them rotten, summer fruit, looking fresh and sweet on the outside, but brown and damaged inside. God has called out their failure to care for the poor, their love of finery and soft couches, their worship of idols and their empty religious rituals.
They are out of true. They do not meet God’s standard. They are in danger of collapse. The vision of the plumb line is a clear and simple message and it works whether the country is Israel, England or the U.S.
The plumb line doesn’t work when it’s swinging from left to right, oscillating from one side to another. It can’t come to rest if it’s spinning crazily around. The plumb line of God’s true measure isn’t dependent on political parties or leaders. It cuts through all the rhetoric, the spin and the fake news of the day. It cannot be bought off or corrupted because it is based in the unchanging precepts of the Holy One.
Here are some of those standards. “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
And, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:2-6)
And again, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)
These are standards, codes of conduct now broken by our own country, not only at our borders, but closer to home. Our own bishops, including all the bishops from Texas are calling out in a prophetic way to remind us of the plumb line, the standard in our treatment of those seeking asylum. I have also been surprised by some of the other voices crying out in alarm and in the language they have chosen to use.
My husband and I just returned from a 2,000 mile driving trip around the west. Bryon has recently discovered the joys of podcasts and had downloaded many of them for us to listen to when radio reception was missing and we were tired of talking to each other! Of course, all his podcasts were political commentaries. These are secular programs with primarily secular commentators. And yet the tone and their choice of words were surprisingly religious. They talked about moral outrage, about common values and even about sin. In their own ways, they pointed to the plumb line and how we as a country are falling out of true. As the plumb line swings from side to side pulled by political tides, or oscillates on the crazy crises of an unstable and unreliable cycle we are disoriented, spinning and unable or unwilling to reassert the standard.
Into our toxic mix of blame, self-interest, division and corruption Jesus speaks. In the story of the Good Samaritan, he speaks to a lawyer, but he’s speaking to you and me as well. Here is a man who is testing the standard. He wants to be seen to be doing right. He wants to justify himself, his interests, his reputation. He may even think fairly highly of himself and his ability to match words and arguments with this itinerant rabbi. He’s fairly certain he’s doing just fine, has the right answers, knows the drill. But Jesus turns his world upside down.
You probably know the story Jesus tells in response to the question, “And who is my neighbor?” A lone traveler is beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. First a religious leader sees him, crosses to the other side and passes by. Next a designated staff of the religious establishment sees him, crosses to the other side and passes by.
Anyone who knows a good story, knows that the third time is the charm. Who will come upon the victim last? What will that person do? What will the lesson be?
The third person is completely unexpected. It is the enemy of the priest, the Levite and the lawyer. It is someone from a religious and ethnic class despised and kept separate from them. And this man alone, not only sees the victim, but comes near, is moved with compassion, tends his wounds, gets him some help, pays for it and promises to check back with him. And it’s a Samaritan.
The lawyer can’t help but answer correctly when Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Of course, it’s the Samaritan. Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
You can look at this famous parable in so many different ways. Like any dream interpretation, you can probably find yourself in every one of the characters and you may even have faces and names you’d like to apply to the priest and the Levite, but here’s what I’m thinking about this now.
It seems to me there are a lot of folk in the ditch. They are the wounded, the marginalized, those running for their lives, those caught up in systems that are oppressive. They are the suffering. And it seems to me that they are the icon of the Holy One for our collective conscious. The victim is the only one who is not identified by race, nationality, profession or religious affiliation. I wonder if it is the man in the ditch that Jesus most identifies with as he walks his own dangerous journey to Jerusalem. By his very presence, the damaged one reads each one of us, holds up to us the mirror of recognition. Calls us to a standard that we may have ignored, forgotten or failed to live up to.
The wounded Christ doesn’t judge anyone. He offers himself in vulnerability, in powerlessness, in humility. He calls to us from the ditch, from his own ruined body to respond in love for God our neighbor. He knows what it means to be ignored, passed by, devalued, and left for dead. He identifies with every one of us who has felt demeaned, defeated, and damaged. In his divinity, he is our God. In his humanity, he is our neighbor. In his suffering, he is one with us. And when we love him in his surprising appearance as the suffering and dying one, we love our neighbors and ourselves. Amen.