The Plumb Line of God: Moving Beyond Politics & Scandal to Holiness

I don’t know if I’ve ever shared the story of how I came to be an alternate deputy to 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. The Deputation is elected very three years—a panel of four ordained people and four lay people to act as deputies and another eight (four each ordained and lay) to be alternates. All of the people at the annual meeting of the Diocese of California vote. It’s very official and it’s all part and parcel of bigger political running of the Episcopal Church.

Twice in the past, I turned down invitations to run for a spot on the deputation. The third time I was asked, though, I stopped looking at it as a completely ridiculous idea and started wondering if might be God calling me to something new and unfamiliar. I agreed to at least consider it…and then I consulted with a bunch of smart people (Like Melanie and Alan) to find out what they thought of the idea. Then I prayed about it…and finally I agreed to put my name on the ballot.

That phrase, “Name on the ballot” was key for me. I decided I would run but I wouldn’t’ campaign. I submitted a written statement about what I’ve done in the Episcopal Church and what I believe… and then I waited to see what would happen.

On the day of the election, I found myself feeling very mixed…because I love the Episcopal Church and I’m excited about anything that brings us closer to the Kingdom of God. At the same time, I cannot stand politics. I couldn’t decide whether the best outcome would be winning the election or losing it. After I was elected an alternate, I continued to be a bit cautious… I didn’t know whether, when I finally got to Salt Lake City, I would find the City of God or get mired in earthly concerns.

I felt the same way about this morning’s Gospel reading… When the lectionary invited me into the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, I entered expecting to encounter the Kingdom of God—and in the opening verses, as Jesus commissions the disciples and sends them into the world two by two, I got exactly what I was looking for. Then, suddenly and without warning, I was confronted with a story about politics, sex, jealousy, and murder.

Last week, we were left with these words: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” That’s the Gospel that I know: promises that we will be invited to move in new directions, that, with God, we can be healed and transformed.

Suddenly, we are with King Herod, who, it becomes clear, has murdered John the Baptist and is concerned that Jesus is the reincarnation of John, or perhaps one of the prophets. It’s got all of the hallmarks of a political scandal found in the pages of the newspaper: Herod marries is brother Philip’s wife and John says quite publicly that it is shameful. Herodius, the wife, resents the judgment and looks for a way to exact revenge. Then, at Herod’s birthday, Herod’s daughter danced for him—and, he was so pleased that he offered to grant whatever she asked—and she asked for John’s head on a platter. Suddenly, the king is caught between breaking a solemn promise to his daughter and killing a man who he knows, in the deepest part of himself is a good and holy man, in cold blood.

We don’t get to hear it today, but in the very next paragraph, Mark tells about the most well known miracle told in the Bible—the feeding of the 5000.

Why is this terrible scene sandwiched in between the empowerment of Jesus’ followers and the most profound demonstration of God’s great abundance and God’s willingness to be engaged with us? In some small way, the telling of the death of John the Baptist foreshadows what Jesus will find at the end of his life and ministry: death at the hands of King Herod, who can see holiness and the working of God, but who will not have the strength or courage to stand up and speak out in the name of justice and mercy.

More than that, though, is that it encapsulates the choice that we are given in our lives: Do we want to be witness to and instruments of God’s great love and mercy working itself out in the world? Or do we want to become enmeshed in the politics and human frailty that can make things go awry in the world? Which of these two identities will we choose for ourselves?

It’s easy to get drawn into making decisions based on worldly values—and to feel forced into those choices by worldly realities. I’m sure you can read the headlines or look around and point to examples of choices, happenings and decisions that are not an alignment with God’s will—often things done in the name of power and even religion. Think of what we’ve seen in Charlston—the mass murders of innocent people and the burning of eight predominantly black churches, all set ablaze in the wake of the massacre.

A plumb line–to keep what we build straight and strong

Where is God in all this? The answer comes from the book of Amos—our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures. God says that he has set himself as a plumb line in the midst of his people—comparing God’s self to the builders tool that ensures that walls and buildings will be built straight, tall and strong—ready to do whatever they are intended to do. Knowing this about God, Amos was able to heed God’s call and be a prophet to the people. Knowing this about God, we are able to move beyond the human structures and build the Kingdom of God.

Those holy moments break out at astonishing times. At some point, I’ll get a chance to share more about what happened at the General Convention—and invite you to come and ask me about whatever interests you the most. I will say that the Kingdom of God abounded—and, although politics was present, God remained the plumb line that guided our community in building structures and canons and policies that will uphold and invite the Kingdom of God. Let me share one such moment.

On the third day of the convention, I took an afternoon to visit the House of Bishops. As a church, we use a bicameral system where everything we do is decided by the House of Deputies (made up of those who are elected from every Episcopal Diocese) and the House of Bishops (made up of the Bishops that lead our dioceses as well as suffragan bishops, assisting bishops, and retired bishops). Everything we decide must be agreed upon by both groups. I timed my visit to the House of Bishops to hear the debate around changing the canons about marriage to say that marriage is between two people (rather than a man and a woman) and the discussion around adopting officially the rites for same sex marriage that we’ve been testing for many years.

As I listened, I heard many bishops speak against the proposed changes. Some spoke with great feeling about their understanding of what the Bible says. Others delved into theology of marriage and the history of marriage in our church. Some shared their concerns about the division that these changes might create with the greater Anglican Communion. One Bishop said “Do we love our gay brothers and sisters enough to tell them that they should refrain from intimate interactions with their partners?”

As for me, at moments, I could barely stay in my seat. I felt deeply concerned that I had misunderstood the direction that our Church is taking. At moments, I could barely breath from the heartbreak I felt hearing these dissenting voices. Then, one of the Bishop called for a vote by roll call—and as each Bishop’s name was called, I heard a voice saying “Yes” or “No”. As the chorus continued, I heard many, many yes votes between each dissenting vote—in the end, the changes were carried by a 90% margin. Later, I asked someone who knew a lot about the workings of convention about that meeting and he told me that there was unspoken agreement amongst the bishops to give room for the voices of opposition, as much room was needed to allow them to feel heard and to make sure that they felt welcome at the table.

Love conquered politics. Mercy took center stage. For me, that time was transformed from a painful demonstration of the ways that people were creating division, to a portrait of the ways that love and care help us to build a strong foundation of faith in our church with God as our plumb line. It was a reminder that we know that God loves each and every person—and that we are called to find ways to build up the Kingdom of God together.

And, I’m glad to say, the Episcopal Church hasn’t cornered the market on this type of justice and mercy. If you dig below the headlines about Charlston, the Kingdom of God is at work even amidst the human frailty and racism that seems to be taken over. In a small and easily-missed news story, I read about a group of Muslim people who have decided to help the burned churches rebuild as a Ramadan project. They are calling their efforts #RespondWithLove and put a plea on a Muslim crowd-sourcing platform. In two and a half days, the group raised $20,000. I checked in last night, and the figure had grown to over $70,000 and over 1,500 supporters.

Here’s what Faatimah Knight, one of the organizers said: “We wanted to show that as a Muslim community, their pain did not go unnoticed by us—that we did, if fact, feel deeply for their loss. The Muslim community and the Black community are connected in integral ways, one cannot tell the story of one in America without telling the story of the other. We hope that these churches might stand tall again as a testament to the power of human goodness over human vileness and one day be a place where God’s name is oft-remembered.”

Every day, people all over the world are aligning themselves with God’s vision for the world—and building up the Kingdom of God in ways that respect the dignity of every human being. Every day, the Kingdom of God is breaking out and is stronger than politics or scandal. And every day, we get to decide how to be part of the politics and part of the transformation.

Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas on Sunday, July 12, 2015 at the Church of the Epiphany, Episcopal, San Carlos, CA.

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