18 January, 2014

From the Sermon Barrell: Beach Plums, Plum Lines, and Bounty

A sermon preached on July 17, 2013 at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Pembroke, Mass.
Amos 7:7-17
Colossians 1:1-14

Along the edge of Cable Road leading to Rock Harbor in Eastham on Cape Cod, there are sand dunes covered with beach plumbs.  On days when my father would be working on the boat or out fishing and digging for clams over low tide, my mother would allow us to play in the dunes, climb on the giant barnacle covered rock, and collect sand dollars and other treasures along the shore of the bay.  The standing rule was, however, that we could go no further inland than the beach plum bushes.  

There was an ongoing, unspoken competition among some of the residents of Eastham centered upon who would pick the beach plums at the height of ripeness.  These tiny, astringent fruit make the best jelly that can be had.  Picked too early, however, and the astringency overpowers the scant sugar in them.  Picked too late, the end result doesn’t set up properly and is a runny mess more like syrup than jelly.  

Beach plum jelly is a coastal specialty.  It’s unheard of in the regions where I’ve lived inland, probably because beach plums are reluctant to be domesticated.  They don’t do well outside of their salty, sandy environment.  They produce richly one year and may barely produce at all the next.  They thrive after a winter of high tides and being buried in the sand.  They thrive in the constant shift of the sands around them.  The normalcy of a cultivated patch does not lend itself to these fruit.  These bushes want constant change.  

It was an area of beach plum bushes that was the boundary of my bay side playground. 
As I listen to and read this morning’s scriptures, my mind is drawn to beach plums, to the line drawn in the sand beyond which we children were not permitted to go, to the fussiness and inconsistency of beach plums harvest, and to their resistance to cultivation.

In Amos’ time, the Jewish people had been divided into two kingdoms for nearly 200 years:   the ten tribes of the northern kingdom (Israel) and the two tribes of the southern kingdom (Judah). It was the time before the fall of the northern kingdom (c. 721 B.C.) to the Assyrians.  Jeroboam 1 feared that if his people were to continue going to Jerusalem to worship, they would be loyal to the southern kingdom, Judah, and would overthrow Jeroboam in favor of Rehoboam, the king of Judah.  1Kings 12:28-30 says, that Jeroboam made two calves of gold; and he told the people that “it’s too much to expect you to go to Jerusalem.  Use these calves as your gods.  It is these that have brought you out of Egypt.”  He put one in the city of Bethel, just a few miles north of Jerusalem,  and the other in the town of Dan, in the far northern reaches of the northern kingdom. The people did as they were told.  They worshiped in those places as well as in the high places – the altars of pagan gods.  

This morning’s passage tells us of the third of five visions of Amos.  The first vision  was of locusts (7:1-3); the second, fire (7:4 – 6).  After each of the first two visions, Amos begged for mercy (7:2, 5), and in each of those instances Yahweh relented (7:3, 6).  However, in this third vision, Amos makes no attempt to ask for mercy and Yahweh shows no signs of relenting. Maybe Amos has decided that Yahweh's judgment is righteous and he no longer has it in his heart to protest the coming punishment.  

It is not a line of beach plum bushes but a plumb line that Amos sees.  A simple weight at the end of a string, this device shows a true vertical – 90 degrees from the horizon – against which a builder measures a wall.  A wall that is not plumb is not structurally sound and is not strong enough to support the weight of the upper structure and the roof; it has to be dismantled and rebuilt.  

When we had an offer from a potential buyer of my parents’ home, an inspector found that the east wall of the basement was not plumb; the block wall was 2 inches off plumb.  In that condition, the house could not be sold.

It’s not easy to straighten a wall that is not straight.  We had no idea that it had shifted.  It was plumb when my father played those blocks 28 years earlier.  There had been no earthquake.  There had been no flood.  But over time and with no one noticing, that wall moved, drifted from its strength and into a compromised state.  We had to hire a contractor to place jacks under the floor joists, take down the cement block wall and replace it.

Yahweh is comparing the Northern Israeli tribes to an untrue wall; they have strayed from the truth with their worship of false gods. The actions of the people do not match the plumb line of God’s grace.  Their leader has led them astray; they have drifted from strength to something less.  God needed to unassemble the people – to unsettle them and dismantle their security – in order to reassemble them into a true and strong community of faith. 

What is the plumb line against which we measure our life as followers of Yahweh, as Christians in an increasingly unChristian and secular society? Where have we moved away from the grace of God; settled into less than strong standing wall?  What ministry, what attitudes, what mission and purpose measures true to the Plumb, and what needs to be unassembled and rebuilt? What are we doing that future generations in the Church will be able to say that we did our job well in the midst of the change – the shifting sand – around us?  How do we measure, how do we review and assess our lives as Christians to be sure we are true to God’s plan for us? 

The letter to the Colossians gives us some guidance. Paul has never met the members of the Christian community in Colossae.  He has heard about them from his colleague Epaphus.
Paul first acknowledges what the community is doing right and well.  Paul builds up the community by first recognizing that they have gotten something absolutely right. In verses 4-5, Paul mentions three virtues––faith, love, and hope.    He has heard from his good friend Epaphus that this community has demonstrated strong faith, unfaltering love, and a hope for the future.  

Faith:  Paul has heard good things about their "faith (pistis) in Christ Jesus."  In the New Testament, faith has to do with the person's response to the kerygma––the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The Colossians have taken the Good News and acted upon it.  They have internalized it and made it their life story, their purpose and he center of their being.  
Love:  "the love (agape) which you have toward all the saints" (v. 4b).  The word that Paul uses for love, agape, has to do with a concern for the well-being of the other person while philos has to do with brotherly love––friendship love––companion love––the kind of love where a person receives as well as gives.  In other words, friendship love –philos – has to do both with giving and getting, while agape has to do only with giving––with an undiluted concern for the welfare and well being of the other person. 

Agape love is more a "doing" than a "feeling" word.  It doesn't require that we approve of the actions of the person whom we love––or even that we enjoy their company.  It does require us to act in behalf of that person––to demonstrate our love in some practical fashion.  An agape person will do what is possible to feed the hungry––and to give drink to the thirsty––and to welcome the stranger––and to clothe the naked––and to visit the sick and the person in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).  The agape person has little or nothing to gain by helping these hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, imprisoned people.  The thrust of his/her agape love is giving, not getting. Love is the first of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)––and is the greatest of Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Paul calls the Christian community to be future looking.   In verse 4, Paul mentioned the faith of these Colossian Christians––and in  verse 5  he speaks of their hope:  "....because of the hope which is laid up for you in the heavens" (v. 5a).  Both faith and hope look to the future––to future rewards––to the future fulfillment of present promises.  The author of Hebrews says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). 

Hope is vital in the full sense of that word.  Hope is life-giving.  Life without hope is drab and meaninglessness.  Prisoners serving sentences with no clear end-date tend to cope much less well than prisoners who can calculate the number of days until they will be released.  They cope less well, because their future is unclear––because they have nothing definite for which to hope––no end-date by which to measure their progress.

We tend to place our hope in all sorts of things:  Personal strength or appearance, academic degrees, 401k's or pension plans, political figures, etc..  But Paul tells the Colossian Christians that their hope grows out of their "faith in Christ Jesus" and "the love which (they) have toward all" (v. 4).  It is a hope that gives them a vision of a strong future, and that gives them strength for today.

Faith, hope and love:  These are the things the Colossians are doing well.  Paul builds up the confidence of the community by recognizing what they have done well – where they are plumb with the life of Grace God intends for them. 

Then Paul moves to those things with which the Colossians are struggling.  He tells them he is praying for those areas:
  • To be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding," (1:9) 
  • To be leading a life pleasing to God --bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God 
  • To "be strengthened with all power… for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to God
To be filled with Knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  When we are faced with conflicts in our lives, how does God want us to respond? How can we seek to be filled with the knowledge of his will in "all spiritual wisdom?"

One way is to look at Jesus Christ. But to know what Jesus would do you have to know Jesus’ ministry, what he did, and what God did in history. To know that, we have to actually read the Bible. That is why studying it is so important. That is also why Bible Studies and Sunday School are important. Yes, you can read the Bible by yourself but studying it with others helps us all gain from the varying perspectives of other Christians. Whether we’re nine or 99, we cannot stop learning about God, listening to the experiences of others with God – both in the Bible and through the voices of our sisters and brothers. 

Paul says he is praying for is that they "lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to God, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God."(1:10) It is one thing to know the will of God, but it is another to do it. You can intend and plan to do the right thing all you want but it is no good until you actually do it. This is where the rubber meets the road. You can ask "What would Jesus do?" but then you have to do it or the asking was pointless.

Paul speaks of the Colossians "bearing fruit in every good work." Elsewhere Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit being "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23) A fruit is something that grows on a tree because of the kind f tree it is. Beach Plum bushes produce beach plums; Apple trees produce apples. Peach Trees grow peaches. And we Christians are supposed to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit because we are people of the Holy Spirit of God.  When we show the world lives lived with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we are displaying that we are plumb with God’s way.  It is showing others God’s grace without even using words.

But Paul doesn't stop there. He goes on, "and increasing in the knowledge of God." Doing God's will leads to a deeper knowledge of God. You can't just sit in your ivory tower contemplating God and know God. You have to act on what you have learned to learn more. You have to practice being like Christ to become more like him.

The last thing he says he is praying for is that they may "be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light."(1:11-12) We don't make ourselves strong.  Yes, we have to study the Bible and to practice what we learn. But ultimately it is not our actions that make us stand Plumb. It is power of God that dwells in us. Our actions simply open or close the door to that power.

As I listen to and read this morning’s scriptures, my mind is drawn to beach plums, to the line drawn in the sand beyond which we children of God are to measure our work and play—our lives in God’s way.  Like the beach plums, we too are fussy and inconsistent of our harvest, and we too are resistant to cultivation even when the sands of change drift around us.  Yet God calls us to look at the plumb line of fruitfulness and evaluate where we need to straighten and strengthen ourselves.

May we grow in the strength and knowledge of God, so that we may bear the fruit of God’s spirit and live faithfully and with agape love in God’s way.