The Plumb Line
by Charles Scott, Church of the Good Shepherd, Indianapolis
Trinity 5 —Proper 10B July 12 2009 The Plumb Line
Old Testament Reading
THIS IS WHAT the Lord God showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the king-dom.” Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
The Epistle for the Day
PAUL, AN APOSTLE of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
The Holy Gospel St. Mark 6: 7
JESUS CALLED THE TWELVE and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.
THE PLUMB LINE
In every construction trade, in every business, there are standards of righteousness. By the term righteousness, in the context of construction, we mean correct. Amos, one of the earliest prophets in Israel, used THE PLUMB LINE AS AN EXAMPLE, a metaphor for righteousness.
My grandfather was a jack-of-all-trades and master of some. On occasion, when viewing the plastering job, or doorway construction of another he would comment, “It looks a little out of plumb,” meaning the carpenter hadn’t measured, cut and mounted his work properly and it leaned a little to left or right or was not straight up and down. Grandfather occasionally would use the metaphor to describe a person’s appearance, if he were suffering a hangover after the previous night’s celebration, or if he was favoring a sore ankle and leaned to get the weight off a foot, Grandfather would say, “You look a might out of plumb today.”
Israel was more than “a might out of plumb” in the days of Amos and Isaiah.
The book of Amos records that two years after Amos received the visions contained therein, an earthquake struck the area (1:1). Josephus, the Jewish historian, believed that the earthquake happened at the same time as Uzziah’s seizure of the role of High Priest and his subsequent bout with leprosy. Amos was a contemporary of Isaiah, Micah and Hosea.
Under Jeroboam II the kingdom of Israel reached the zenith of its prosperity. The gulf between rich and poor widened at this time. Amos was called from his rural home to remind the rich and powerful of God’s requirement for justice (Amos 2:6-16). He claimed that religion that is not accompanied by right action is anathema to God (Amos 5:21ff.), and prophesied that the kingdom of Israel would be destroyed (Amos 5:1-2; 8:2).
Because the rulers were not straight with God and the people, because even the walls of the temple (that is the religious establishment) was out of plumb, there would be a ruinous collapse. Of course the leaders in Israel did not want to hear this message and encouraged Amos to move on to a neighboring country.
Amos’ message was, perhaps understandably, unwelcome in Israel. Not only was he a foreigner from the southern kingdom, but his prophecies of doom were completely at odds with the prevailing political climate of hope and prosperity.
Israel under the leadership of Jeroboam II had extended its territory into modern day Syria, taking advantage of the nation’s weakness after a recent defeat by the Assyrians. Assyria, the major threat to Israel’s power, had withdrawn itself temporarily due to internal strife, allowing Israel to flourish politically and economically. The nation’s resultant affluence, however, was the main focus of Amos’s mission as a prophet, and soon after Jeroboam came to power in 781 BC, Amos was called to speak to the people of the Northern Kingdom. He was continually in conflict with the governing authorities, as demonstrated in the narrative by way of a conversation between Amos and Amaziah, a priest of Bethel. The priest, loyal to Jeroboam, accused Amos of stirring up trouble and conspiring against the king, and commanded him to stop prophesying.
Amos responded with an oracle: “Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will certainly go into exile, away from their native land."(Amos 7:17) The oracle predicted that many of Israel’s neighbors (including Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab),would suffer because they broke "the international moral code overseen by the Lord", and Judah and Israel would suffer the most because they knew God, yet rebelled (2006 Harper Collins Study Bible footnotes, 1218).
Much of the prophecy of Amos is directed at the heartlessness of wealthy merchants who ignore the plight of the poor, the lack of justice for the righteous, and the emptiness of religious ritual apart from true faith. Amos is a classical prophet, concerned with the well-being of the people and the purity of the faith
The central idea of the book of Amos, is that the Lord puts his people on the same level as the nations that surround it -- The Lord expects the same sinlessness of them all. As it is with all nations that rise up against the kingdom of The Lord, even Israel and Judah will not be exempt from the judgment of The Lord because of their idolatry and unjust ways. The nation that represents The Lord must be made pure of anything or anyone that profanes the name of The Lord. The Lord’s name must be exalted.
Other major themes in the book of Amos include: social justice and concern for the disadvantaged; the idea that Israel’s covenant with The Lord did not exempt them from his position on sin; The Lord is God of all nations; The Lord is judge of all nations; The Lord is God of moral righteousness; The Lord made all people; The Lord elected Israel and then redeemed Israel so that he would be known throughout the world; election by The Lord means that those elected are responsible to live according to the purposes clearly outlined to them in the law; The Lord will only destroy the unjust and a remnant will remain; and The Lord is free to judge, redeem and act as savior to Israel.
Amos sets the tone, he gives the words and the music to all the teachers, and prophets in Israel or Judah that followed him, as well as for the Apostles and evangelists, elders, presbyters in the Christian Church.
Amos warns governors, all political leaders, all teachers of morality and righteousness, and all people of all nations: God is judge, put your house in order, judgment is coming.
There are many judgment days in our lives. In a democracy, every election day is a judgment day. For leaders of government, business, education and the church, every day is judgment day. For every parent, every day is judgment day.
As we build our social sturctures and our families and relationships with our neighbors, are the foundations strong, the weight bearning beams, trusses and rafters straight, strong and true? Jesus, in his parables and teaching often uses the themes Amos commented on 7 and ½ centuries earlier. Jesus told of houses erected on sand that could not withstand storms and floods. He of course was counting on lives built on no firm foundation that could not stand the stress of daily life. Once again those who designed the common lectionary did an excellent job: the reading from St. Paul reveals God’s will in society, in the life of nations as well as in our personal lives. The mystery is revealed in the life of Christ, and also, the way to avert judgment when our lives are out of plumb.
REREAD THE EPISTLE. In Ephesians, Paul said that in Jesus Christ, his will for the world is revealed. Not only is Christ a standard of righteousness, the plumb line, he also reveals that God is merciful, doesn’t want any to perish and provides the way to make this life harmonious.
Paul indicates there is a standard of truth – the revealed will of God. John in his Gospel refers to Jesus Christ as the Eternal Word, the Eternal Will and Mind of God. IN the truths revealed in Jesus Christ we find the standards of righteousness; the plumb line for our lives.
The Gospel reading from Mark 6:7 gives us in three terse sentences, the function and responsibility of the Apostles– those sent out by Christ with his message. “And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent.”
The apostles, in today’s lesson, were sent with very little other than their message. Just as every election day is a judgment day, so the Religious Establishments find themselves under judgment, whether they like it or not. The main line denominations in this country, and as I understand it, also in Western Europe, have not kept pace with population growth and have shrunk 30% in recent decades. All are under judgment, because they have not been straight either with their stated values and doctrines or their constituent members.
In Matthew 28:18-20 is recorded another saying of Jesus, very much in tune with the message in today’s Gospel where he send out the 12. His last words to the apostles have not been recalled either by Jesus or the Apostolic College or their Successors. It is still the task of the Church to bring the Good News to the world, beginning right here.