Back in the days when I still studied music formally, with a teacher, most of my time at the instrument would be spent by myself. Sure, in the very early days, when I was in kindergarten, my mom would sit with me at the piano during my practice sessions to make sure I was doing things right. After a few months, though, instead of sitting with me, she was in the other room, working in the kitchen or helping my sisters. She was listening with half an ear, to be sure, and ready to come in and correct things, or more often, to remind me of what I was supposed to be working on instead of reading ahead or playing the piece I really liked over and over again. As the years passed, my time at the piano gradually got longer, from 20 minutes to half an hour to an hour or more. A lot could go wrong in all that time I spent at the piano unsupervised. And that’s why once a week I’d go off for a lesson with my teacher. I was blessed with great teachers, teachers who knew how to coax me along and get me to do my best. They would praise me for the few things I got right, for the things that had gotten better during the past week. Then, they’d gently point out all the things that hadn’t gotten better, or that somehow had gotten worse. The wrong note that snuck in while first learning the piece had become so ingrained in my ear and muscle memory that it sounded and felt right to me. The dynamic markings, printed in the score, then marked with a little reminder asterisk one week by my teacher, then circled the next week, then circled more insistently in red pencil the next week, finally with an exclamation point for good measure, still blissfully ignored by me. That spot on the top of page three where, despite repeated admonishments to practice with the metronome, I gleefully rushed, playing as fast as I could. Overtime, with great patience, my teachers would convince me to fix most of these problems. But at the year-end recital, my performances usually featured the ‘little flaws,’ as I thought of them, the wrong notes, the little memory slips, the inconsistent tempos. For the most part, frankly, I didn’t really care. I wanted to make music, and music, I thought, was more about connecting with people, touching their hearts and souls. Any robot, I figured, could be taught to play the right notes at the right time; it took a real musician to play music. My playing, I believed, was good enough; it was, to borrow the image from the prophet Amos, plumb enough. And my teachers nurtured that belief in me, while doing their best to encourage me to clean up my act.
When I finally got serious about being an organist as a student at Eastman, I was again blessed with a fantastic teacher. He worked tirelessly to convince me to pay closer attention to all those pesky little details, the right notes and the proper touch and articulation. He forced me to spend the pain-staking hours of slow practice and study that leads to more consistent performances, filled with the sort of fine details that begin to make the difference between ‘good’ music and ‘great’ music. I worked hard in the practice room, and part of me dreaded lessons with my teacher, because I knew I wasn’t going to measure up to his standards, my playing wasn’t going to be plumb enough by his measure. And my playing never was plumb enough, which kept me driven to practice more, to concentrate harder, to bring the best that I had to the task.
In the years after school, years when I worked as a professional musician, plump enough was harder to define. What is plumb enough for a choir of volunteers? I remember rehearsals in my early years as a choir director when singers cried because I made them repeat a phrase over and over and over again, demanding too high a standard that they simply couldn’t meet, especially late in the evening after a long day at work. I weighed my own time, trying to figure out if it was really worth the effort to chase down those last few wrong notes in the postlude, that, let’s face it, most people wouldn’t hear. And now, as I play for myself at home, I wonder what my plumb line should be, what amounts to a level of playing that is plumb enough.
Here at St. George’s, as we’ve worked on projects around the building and grounds, we’ve had to answer that same question. I think most of you know that the floor in the sacristy is sinking towards the outside wall; I’ve come to understand that this started shortly after the building was completed over twenty years ago. We’ve had long, thoughtful discussions about the problem. What’s causing it? Is it still sinking? Is there anything to be done about it? And maybe the most important immediate question, asked in the reality of our limited resources, can we live with it as it is? Is the floor plumb enough? For the time being, we think it is. The counter, on the other hand, was sloping so much that pens would sometimes roll off: not plumb enough. Thank you to Mark Spath and Paul Puckett and George Lake and all those who worked through these questions and spent all those hours making sure our sacristy is plumb enough. You may have noticed that the sign on Wilder, our newly refurbished sign, our sign installed less than a year ago, looks a little off-kilter. I wasn’t sure it actually was off-kilter, to be honest. The ground underneath it slopes, the road curves, the utility poles definitely look like they’re leaning. But, sure enough, we took a level out there, that modern version of the plumb line, and it is definitely leaning to the south. It’s also not quite square to the road. We’re still thoughtfully talking through all of this, and we’ll figure out what to do about it, how to make our sign plumb enough, and thanks again to Mark and Rich Maier and everyone who has been putting their minds to this.
Ancient Israel thought it was plumb enough. Israel believed it was a nation set apart, chosen by God to be a light to world. Its capital city, Jerusalem, was glorious, set high on a hill, surrounded by a wall that had kept it safe from its enemies for centuries. In the center of the city rose the great temple, with white stone columns and white walls that gleamed in the sunlight and could be seen for miles around. The inside of the temple was magnificent, rooms laid with polished cedar floors and walls covered in gold and intricate decoration. The Holy of Holies was separated by gold doors and chains and a veil hung from ceiling to floor made of red and blue and purple silk. The courts of the temple were filled, night and day, with priests in fine robes, all carrying out the rituals and ceremonies that Israel believed maintained its relationship with God. Most Israelites came to the temple only maybe once a year for a festival, to offer their sacrifice, but they fell asleep each night secure in the knowledge that God was watching over Israel, that God was protecting them from the enemies that surrounded their country on every side, that God was their God and they were God’s people.
And then Amos comes along. Amos isn’t a prophet, not officially anyway. The official prophets worked for the temple; they belonged to guilds and were organized; they were paid by the temple authorities. Amos is not a prophet like these. Amos is a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees, a simple country man, a man God calls to proclaim a sort of warning to Israel. Amos speaks the word of God to the people, and the word could hardly have been more bracing or less welcome: “Thus says the Lord your God: You think you’ve got everything right just because of your beautiful temple and your rituals and your offerings and your sacrifices? Think again! Look at how you treat the weak, the widows and orphans, those who have no voice and no one to look out for them, no one to protect their interests! Look at how you trample on the poor! Look at all the people begging for food in the streets while you have so much to eat you throw food away! I, the Lord God, I hate your festivals, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. I will not accept your offerings; I won’t even look at them. I don’t want to hear the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. You know what I do want from you? I want you to seek good and not evil, that you may live. I want you to hate evil and love good, and establish justice in your society. I created you to be a holy people; I used a plumb line when I created you; you were plumb in the beginning. You’re not plumb any longer; your foundation has shifted, your walls are leaning, everything is about to come tumbling down. Here’s a plumb line: use it and bring yourself back into alignment. Seek good and not evil, that you may live. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice, and do it today. Because one way or another, justice is going to come rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. You can either do your part to bring it about, or you can be swept away in the flood. Get yourself plumb: Seek good and not evil, that you may live.”
I suspect if you look at your life, in big ways and small, you will find you’re not quite plumb enough. I have my own list of ways I’m not plumb enough; maybe some of these will ring true for you as well. Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. That’s not too hard when it’s a sunny day, with a clear blue sky, when my sermon is written, when I’m feeling well, and my friends and family are safe. But let those blessings, big and small, slip away and pretty soon I’m like Job, sitting in a pile of my own misery cursing the day I was born. Not plumb enough.
I know I am called to love my neighbor as myself, but it’s just hard sometimes. Neighbors let their dogs run all over your gardens, or they park too close to your driveway, or they make too much noise at inconvenient times. It’s easy for me to remember all the ways my neighbors have been inconsiderate, and even easier for me to forget all the times I’ve been just as inconsiderate or worse. And God is annoyingly expansive about just who our neighbors are. I’m afraid that when I read the bible carefully, it turns out that my neighbor is just about anyone I meet, and boy, I don’t like that. There are all sorts of people, not just in my community, but across our country and around the world, people whose political beliefs and religious views I strongly disagree with, people who I don’t care to spend time with, people who I plain don’t like, much less want to try to ‘love.’ And just what does ‘love,’ mean, anyway? I love my family and friends, at least most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes say and do things to them that are downright awful. Or sometimes what they need from me I just don’t want to give: too much energy, too much time, too much forgiveness, too much of what I’m holding onto too tightly. Not plumb enough.
I know I’m supposed to look out for those less fortunate than me, and I’m happy to do my part, as long as I still have my fairly comfortable life. But there are so many people in need, and they approach at such awkward and inconvenient moments. And working for justice is a never ending job; just when you think we’ve made progress on racism, South Carolina happens, and for all the work we do to help the homeless, it seems there are always more of them. It makes me tired just thinking about it, makes me wish I could bury my head in the sand and pretend the problems don’t exist. Not plumb enough.
Well, friends, there’s the task, there’s the good news, if you will, for this absolutely spectacular summer day. God has set a plumb line in our midst. God’s word spoken through Amos rings true today: Seek good and not evil, that you may live. Scripture testifies, over and over again, to our call to love God, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to care for those in need, to speak for those who have no voice. The person and teachings and ministry of Jesus call us into alignment with God, into alignment with our own best selves, into alignment with who God created us to be. May we stand a little straighter in faith, a little truer in service, a bit more plumb in our life in God.