Finding The Line
Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
You may have noticed in the weekly announcements that we have had a submission form open for a summer series called: You Choose The Sermon. We were planning on starting that series in August. But it was hot this week. Which felt like summer. And last week folks got really into the conversation about plumb bobs after the service and someone suggested “more plumb bob sermons!” And then I received another sermon suggestion that was seeking expanded reflections about prophetic messages that Cindy started to explore while preaching last week. And somehow all of that seemed to naturally fit together with the scriptures in the lectionary for this Sunday…so voila! Welcome to the first: You Chose This Sermon sermon!!!
Well, at least some of you chose this sermon…or at least the ideas that started it…where it ends up we’ll all find out together. And that actually reminds me to provide a caveat about this whole summer series – while you might be selecting the sermon topic, unless you also select to preach it yourself (which you are welcome to do!), neither Cindy nor I can guarantee that our sermons will actually address the topic as you were intending…but we will start with what you suggest and see what it opens in terms of explorations and starting conversations.
As I said, it was in the conversation time after the service last Sunday that this sermon started. And it actually started before that – it started while Cindy was preaching and reminding us that prophets bring messages into the world through a diverse multitude of styles and content – with some of that content being more trustworthy than others. It got at least one of the hearers of that sermon asking the question – if there are true prophets and false prophets and mixed messages – how do we learn how to discern the content of the messages we encounter? How do we learn to recognize truths and falsities?
This feels particularly pertinent in this cultural moment where we live steeped in information – in the midst of a tangle of news sources and media platforms that are savvy at content manipulation and have the opportunity to offer us all kinds of messages disguised as truths. Not to mention we are still recovering from the effects of a presidential administration that thrived on content manipulation, often declaring truths to be fake news. I don’t think these are new practices, I think people have long found ways to present content to others in ways that benefit their purposes.
We see the effects of this all throughout biblical stories – the story of Herod comes to mind – a person who told the wise ones to go find the baby they were seeking and then come back and tell him where this new ruler was so he could pay homage as well. His message didn’t match his intentions, but he used intentional messaging to mislead those he was communicating to so that they would willingly participate in the plan. Mixed messaging is not a new phenomenon.
What is different in this moment is the plethora of outlets that exist for message dissemination, and ease of access to those outlets for anyone and everyone to support their own agenda. Now, not everyone is sharing information with malicious intent. Sharing information is part of how we educate and expand understanding and bring about positive change. There are also people who share information without thinking through the impact of the information they are sharing, or without really understanding what it is they are sharing and whether that information is reliable, or trustworthy at all. The sharing of information is a powerful tool. It can be put to work for good and it can cause harm.
This week US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a Surgeon General’s warning that the spread of misinformation – particularly surrounding Covid-19 – is a health threat:
I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.
Yes, this is specifically geared towards information – or misinformation – about covid-19 – but the impact of information of all sorts has the ability to affect our health and wellness. In an NPR interview Murthy said: “In some cases…the simplest way to stop the spread is to not share something questionable you read online: “If you’re not sure, not sharing is often the prudent thing to do.”” Murthy hopes that drawing public attention to the harms of misinformation will lead more Americans to take action in their own lives.
Which circles us back to the original question we are exploring here – how do we discern good information from bad? How do we know what is trustworthy? And the question goes beyond just information – this same question taps into our core beliefs and values as individuals. How do we determine what it is that we hold as truths in our lives?
Those are some good, deep, and challenging questions! And, to my mind, they are some of the rich soil rooting and nurturing us as people of faith, hope, and love. To be curious and actively engaged in asking questions, seeking answers, and testing our findings against our own experiences and understandings, while also learning from the experiences and understandings of others, is at the heart of honest meaningful living.
This kind of meaningful living is a practice. A practice that points us towards life-giving paths. Teaching and reminding us that we are wired to recognize goodness and mercy, just as we also know the shapes of the shadows of suffering and death. The practice then becomes choosing again and again to lean towards that which is life-giving as we live in relationship with the world around us.
We see this practice and innate recognition of goodness and mercy on display in the Mark text today. The disciples have just returned to be with Jesus after having been sent by him into the surrounding towns and villages to practice preaching, teaching, and healing for themselves. They went forth and practiced. And they found themselves successful! They have come back and are excitedly reporting all of the things they have experienced to Jesus.
But it is not just they who have come back, a multitude of people have also come to find them. People who have experienced the life-giving work of healing and restoration that the disciples and Jesus have been practicing and they want to experience it more. There are so many people coming to them that they have no time to rest, not even to eat and when Jesus tries to take them in a boat to a deserted place to have some rest, the people hurry ahead on foot and are waiting for them. The people’s recognition of that which was life-giving is deep and it moves them to draw near to that source of goodness and mercy.
Enter the plumb line imagery again. For those who were not here last Sunday, we talked about plumb lines because of the scripture text from Amos 7:7-8:
This is what God showed me: behold, God was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in hand. And God said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then God said, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them.”
If you aren’t familiar with the term plumb line – or plumb bob – it is both an ancient and a current tool made of a weight on a string that tests perpendicular alignment. It does this by hanging the weighted string next to a line that needs to be tested for level accuracy and, once gravity has brought the plumb line into place, the alignment of the line it is next to can be tested by measuring the distance from the plumb line to the line itself – the distance between the two should be equal at the top and the bottom of the line and if it isn’t, something is out of alignment.
In the case of the Amos imagery the plumb line is being used as a tool for God to test the righteousness of God’s people. If it’s a tool good enough for God, perhaps it’s also helpful imagery for us in terms of the questions we are asking today about how we decipher the quality of the content we are ingesting, discerning honesty and truths in our own thoughts and understandings as we live in relationship with the flood of information that surrounds us each and every day.
Part of our practice might be to test what we are thinking, feeling, learning, and hearing against a life-giving plumb line. Which is to intentionally ask: is what I am experiencing, understanding, and living out life-giving for myself and others? Or is it out of alignment in some way and needing to be reconsidered? This kind of alignment can be tested on very small, seemingly inconsequential, things in our lives as well as more significant questions.
In the conversation time after the service, Nancy and Glen Gehman told us about a friend of theirs, Leon Yost, who has a collection of over 500 plumb bobs. This week they sent me a few photos of the collection. Take a look:
As you can see, plumb bobs come in many shapes and sizes. Just like our need to discern truthful information from misinformation comes in a variety of sizes and significance. That’s why I have used the word practice several times today – because discerning what is good or bad, true or false, helpful or harmful – that is to say discerning what is life-giving – is always an active process. A plumb line only works when it is in relationship with that which it is testing. As people of faith, hope, and love, we are called to intentionally be at work living in active relationship with the world around us and seeking to align ourselves and our actions with that which is life-giving.
It’s not always easy to decipher the life-giving path. We may sometimes question if we have found alignment through our personal discernment. As Anabaptists, another gift we have to help us in our practice is the plumb line of community. We can turn towards each other and say hey – this is what I understand to be truth – how does that sit with you? The diversity of community experience and wisdom is like that wall full of plumb bobs and it can help us test our own understandings to ensure that we are truly aligning ourselves with that which is life-giving.
For the line we are seeking as we live in relationship and decipher truth and meaning in the world is one that aligns with justice, peace, and life. That is the line of love. It is the line of relationship on display in the 23rd Psalm – a line that leads to goodness and mercy, without bypassing the shadows of suffering and grief, and all the while showcasing a reminder of God’s presence at the center of it all. While the practice of finding the line of love may require an on-going investment of intention, energy and effort, the returns are life-giving.