“See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel…” Amos 7:8
Here’s a plumb line…. It’s a length of a string with a weight on one end which is called the bob. Directed by gravity to the center of the earth, the plumb line becomes a true vertical line. This one is made out of brass which my husband says is the best kind because it won’t be subjected to interference by any magnetic fields that are floating around. A plumb line is necessary in building a wall because if it is not true it’s in danger of falling down. We don’t see them much on construction sites anymore because they have been replaced by lasers which are faster and more accurate. But they’re also pretty expensive, far more than the $3.95 this one cost.
God gives the prophet Amos a vision of a plumb line set in the midst of the people of Israel. It reveals that the nation not only fails to measures true but is completely out of whack. God will no longer overlook excuse their sin. They’d been given a second, third, or even fourth chance, but now they will be overthrown. Times up, the fundamental structures of the nation are falling down and God’s has no patience left. Yet for the leaders and elites of Israel, life has never been better. The nation is at the summit of its material power, the stock market is at an all-time high and if you are one of the chosen ones, things are about as good as they can get. Under the long and brilliant reign of Jeroboam the Second, there’s splendor in the land, elegance in the cities and might in the palaces. The rich have summer and winter homes adorned with costly ivory, gorgeous couches with damask pillows on which they recline at sumptuous feasts. Their vineyards produce fine wines. Their women anoint themselves with precious oils. Not only that, they’re religious too. The shrine at Bethel flourishes with abundant offerings of grain and plentiful sacrifices. Holding up the plumb line, from their point of view, all’s well. So well in fact, that God has to go all the way to Judah to a little village southeast of Bethlehem called Tekoa, to find a prophet with the courage to disagree.
Amos is an uneducated working man, a herder and tender of sycamore trees – not like the glorious sycamores trees that grace our town – but small trees whose thin stalks need to be pinched to help ripen their fig-like fruit which then had to be carefully tended to prevent insects from destroying it. Amos is blunt. He calls rich men robbers and women cows. He mocks their religious assemblies and condemns their offerings as failed attempts at divine bribery. Amos declares God will have none of this and down-right rejects it. For God desires justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God wants the hungry to have food, the poor shelter, the elderly care, the sick comfort and healing. Instead the leaders and the elite, the well-connected and powerful, ignore Torah, the way of life God gives them in the commandments. As Amos so bluntly puts it, they sell the righteous for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals, and trample the poor into the dust of the earth.
Set against God’s plumb line, Israel’s found warped beyond correction. God built the walls straight and true, but now they’re completely skewered. Those at the center of power are responsible and so the royal shrine will be destroyed and the dynasty over-thrown. When the priest Amaziah hears this he confronts Amos, telling him to go back to Judah and says, “Don’t show you face here again. This is the king’s chapel, a royal shrine.” In other words, there’s no place left for God and certainly no place for a migrant farmer/prophet sticking his nose into another country’s business. “Go home where you belong,” Amaziah declares. Amos responds “This was not my idea. God called me and took me off the farm. God told me to go preach to his people Israel.” Amos refuses to budge. He won’t water down his message to make it more palatable. God made him the defender of the downtrodden poor and accuser of the powerful rich. The plumb line holds true, while the religious and political leaders all fall down.
What about us? The plumb line is in the midst of us, too. Amos is in the room whether or not we want him to be. And that can get our backs up and activate our defenses. “It’s complicated,” we might say to the prophet. “I work hard and deserve everything I have,” we proudly respond. “I pay taxes, contribute to charities and put money in the offering plate,” we honestly reply. We may even think, “You might be a God’s prophet, but don’t go meddling in my business.” Because, you see, whenever a plumb line is set before us and we know what is true and what is not will be revealed, so often the first thing we feel is fear. Then we do all we can to justify ourselves and close our hearts and minds to the truth. We turn inward and wrap ourselves up in fear, fear of being found out, fear of not being enough, fear of what could happen, fear of the other, the one who is different, whose suffering might be contagious, who may need more than we are ready to share. It’s in our DNA. Ever watch a toddler when a new baby brother or sister is born? Some are so tenderhearted they embrace their sibling with unconditional love. But many are not so sure they want to share mommy and daddy. They worry that there’s not enough love to go around. When our second was born someone gave us a cartoon. It was a house with a big picture window and on it was the sign, “Baby for Sale, Cheap!” and underneath a young boy who looked a lot like our first-born.
The problem with living in fear is that we fail to make good decisions. We begin on empty and lack energy to consider the range of possibilities. We overlook opportunities and stay stuck in the problem. Our brains react defensively instead of using our imaginations. I don’t know about you but all the really bad mistakes I have made in my life and in ministry have been ones made out of fear.
But what if the plumb line is held before God’s people not to condemn but to correct? What if it’s there so when we start to veer off-course, we know how to find what is true? What if the role of Amos and all of God’s people is to speak truth in a world saturated with fake news? And what if we can dare to do that because when God looks at us, God sees us in love, loving us enough to correct us and loving us even more to restore us? Confession, our weekly returning to baptism, becomes our plumb line, in which we are measured against what is true and can dare to be honest about what is false. Then in absolution, we are forgiven and we are freed, freed of fear and free to love. This is holy truth, even though there will be other sins, other times when measured against the plumb line we will fall dreadfully short. Once Martin Luther’s best friend, Philip Melanchthon, who was brilliant scholar, got caught in a cycle of uncertainty. Around and around he went, not sure what to do, not sure what not to do. Finally, Martin wrote to him and declared, “Sin boldly, but believe more boldly still…for sin will not drag us away from Christ.” Jesus’ cross becomes the plumb line freeing us from fear that death has the last word and restoring us by faith. Sin will not drag us away from Christ, for he is the one who dies for us, dies with us and carries us and the world into the day of resurrection. God always has the last word and it is one of hope and salvation.
Our Appalachian Service Project team left at 5:30 am this morning and will arrive in Ashland, Kentucky sometime this afternoon. I don’t know if they remembered to include a plumb line in all the tools they packed. Although I suspect Rick Kramer threw one in his tool box, just in case. I do know that it will be a week full of challenges. There will be fear, but also by God’s persistence grace, lots of faith. Some of them are bound to come back as prophets and I pray we will have the good sense to listen to them. Amen.
“See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel…” Amos 7:8