Proper 10b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
All of us here, I’m sure, were brought up with the lesson always to tell the truth. Although I’m sure it has fallen out of fashion by now, I can recall being brought up with the stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — both famous truth-tellers. Washington, as a six-year-old child, simply “could not tell a lie” — even when it meant that he had to incriminate himself about having used his little hatchet to debark his father’s favorite cherry tree. This was before the U.S. Constitution and its fifth amendment barring self-incrimination. It is a little hard to picture six-year-old George Washington calmly saying, “I decline to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me,” instead of, “I cannot tell a lie.”
And of course “Honest Abe” was renowned for his straight-from-the-shoulder directness, both in his early days working in a general store and later as an attorney, and later still as President. It is said that once when he realized he’d short-changed a customer in the general store when he was a young man, he traveled all the way out to their farm to bring them the proper change, which amounted to a few pennies. Of course, in the case of Lincoln it is about greater truths, and truth-telling, than that for which he is most remembered. Truths such as, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. This government cannot endure... half slave and half free.” That was a powerful truth, and Lincoln a powerful truth-teller in his willingness to tell such a truth when others counseled a go-along get-along, easy-peasy sort of accommodation of a diversity of opinions on the question of slavery.
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The problem is that telling the truth or being a truthful person can be dangerous — when what you say is a challenge to the Powers That Be; when some truth you reveal is an embarrassment to those in high positions; when the uncomfortable truth does not incriminate you, but possibly charges others with serious crimes; when a truth you proclaim undermines the power-base of some entrenched authority — all of these are situations in which the truth will not set you free, but may end you up in prison or on the scaffold.
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Lincoln spoke about a house divided against itself, quoting the Scripture; and Amos the prophet describes a similarly troubled construction, a house whose walls are no longer upright, but tilting dangerously. God himself stands in judgment against the house of Israel, holding up the plumb-line of his truth against its tottering walls. It is a kingdom whose king Jereboam has introduced a golden calf into the sanctuary at Bethel, and for good measure — or perhaps I should say, bad measure — another golden calf at a temple in Dan. God holds up the measure of his plumb-line against this tilting, tottering wall, and calls on Amos to warn that the house is doomed to collapse — for if a house divided against itself cannot stand, what hope is there for a house divided against God! Jereboam has done the unthinkable — he has forgotten what happened when Aaron made a golden calf for Israel while Moses was on Sinai meeting with God to obtain the law written with God’s own hand on tablets of stone. And yet Jereboam has not only installed one golden calf, but set up two of them: one at Bethel near the southern border with Judah, and the other at Dan in the far north, two golden calves in temples at opposite ends of his kingdom. And Jereboam has committed the ultimate blasphemy, telling the people, “These are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.”
Amos tells the uncomfortable truth about this blasphemous idolatry, in words that the people, the priests, and the rulers cannot bear to hear. But, all things considered, he gets off with a warning, as the priest Amaziah urges him to flee from the king’s temple, to head down south to Judah, to flee the country and earn his bread down there, far away from the king of Israel. Truly the people and their rulers in the north have turned from God and no longer even want to hear the truth, let alone act upon it; but Amos is given the chance to flee for his life.
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Our gospel passage, on the other hand, shows us what befalls a truth-teller who persists in proclaiming a truth, in spite of warnings. It is hundreds of years later, and the issues are different, but it is still a king and a prophet who are at odds. John the Baptist castigates Herod the king for having married his sister-in-law. In doing so, John has made many enemies: not so much Herod himself, who is intrigued by this prophet and even interested in what he has to say. But Herod’s illegitimate wife has a serious grudge, as the Scripture says, and she finds a way to force Herod into silencing the prophet once and for all, tricking the ruler into doing what he would do on his own by simple persuasion. It isn’t enough that the prophet has been slapped in prison — no, he must be silenced, and in the most brutal way possible, by having his head cut off. Only his death will satisfy the anger of Herodias.
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Yes, telling the truth can get you into trouble. You see the warning given to Amos, and the fate of John the Baptist. I don’t think I need to remind you about what happened to Abraham Lincoln. And how many other tellers of truth down through the centuries have suffered at the hands of those who would rather believe a comfortable lie? If human beings were cruel enough to lay their hands upon the one who was Truth Himself — the Son of God come to deliver us from the lies that Satan wove around us — if the Word of God himself suffered and died, nailed to a cross in spite of having done nothing wrong — it is evident that truth comes with a price, a high price.
Yet this is the price we know that God demands. Though human beings may be bought off with a lie, God cannot be so cheated. God stands with his plumb-line poised against every person and community, against every corporation and country, against every individual and institution, poised with that plumb-line to test how upright it is. For that is what a plumb-line does: it shows how true and on the square and level stands the house, whether our own personal house or household, or the household of our state or of our church.
Honesty, truth, and clarity are what God demands of us — no deception or delusion, as if God could be fooled, but a willing engagement with the truth of his Word and his promise. As the Apostle Paul assures us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.” So let us, then, when we fail, not try to conceal our failures under a cloak of comfortable lies from the one who sees through all our pretense anyway. Let’s take the example of young George Washington, and incriminate ourselves willingly — for it is only in admitting our guilt and confessing our sins that we will find mercy and forgiveness through the amazing grace of God. God stands with his plumb-line against our hearts; let us, my friends, be honest with him who is so ready to forgive.+