July 15, 2018
And the Lord said to Amos, “What do you see?” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A while back my husband Holden spent his free time for a few months finishing part of our basement. With a lot of hard work, he turned it from a dark and dingy place full of pipes and insulation and wires
The problem is that you have to go down a set of stairs to get there. And it turns out that when Holden framed the stairs, something didn’t work out quite as planned, and the 5th stair from the bottom ended up about a 1/2 inch taller than it ought to be.It seems like such a small difference – you can barely even tell by looking at the stairs that that one step is a touch different. But just about every person – child or adult – who goes up our basement stairs trips on that one step. Even when we point it out and prepare people, they still trip on it. Even now, a decade later, it still catches me. Apparently, the correct height of a stair is so ingrained in us that our body’s muscle memory tells our legs the height the stair ought to be. And overcoming that norm is really difficult.
Turns out there’s a reason for all those codes and regulations that builders have to follow. They aren’t just there to get us in trouble and make money for contractors. At least I can vouch for the ones about stairs – they are there to protect us, to save us from injury and frustration, and to keep us from inadvertently teaching curse words to our children. Sometimes it’s important to have a standard to measure things against.
That’s pretty much what the prophet Amos is announcing in our Old Testament reading as he recounts his vision of the Lord standing in the midst of Israel with a plumb line.
Now, in this basement project, Holden actually used a plumb line, so I know what it is (and our walls are pretty straight). The plumb line is a simple tool – just a line with a weight at the end (called the “plumb bob”). You drop the plumb line from a certain spot and gravity will place the bob exactly in line below that spot. So if you build according to that line, you’ll end up with whatever it is you’re building perfectly straight. This is a tool that helps you build something strong and safe and long-lasting.
So there stands God in Amos’ vision, holding this simple tool in the midst of the people.
Interestingly, I find that, depending on my mood, Amos’ vision can sound like either a foreboding judgment or like a hopeful promise.
The judgment part is maybe easier to hear. The Lord makes clear to Amos that measured against the plumb line, Israel is wildly out of whack.
Amos’ story is set in the Northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC. It was a time of power and prosperity and peace under the king, Jeroboam II.
So the prophet Amos had his work cut out for him. His job was to confront the king and the religious leaders and the powerful people with the Lord’s sovereignty and justice. To persuade the rich and powerful to act on behalf of the poor and weak. To insist they remember the stranger, the widow, the orphan among them. To reclaim God at the center of their religion. To show the people how off the mark they had become.
They had been judged, and the judgment was not in their favor. And because of far they had turned from God, Amos prophesies that their high places would be made desolate, their sanctuaries would be laid waste, and their kingdom would fall.
But this idea of a plumb line in their midst was more than a judgment - it was also a promise. Even though they were already completely out of whack, even though there would be repercussions for their failures, in Amos’ vision God still calls them “my people.” Even though they had rejected and forgotten God, God hadn’t and wouldn’t forget or give up on them.
It isn’t entirely clear what the plumb line was meant to represent in this reading. It might be the prophet Amos himself; it might be the 10 commandments; it might be the covenant God made with Israel’s ancestors. Some Christian commentators read into this a promise of Jesus Christ, the ultimate plumbline — our standard of how to live and be as people of God. But whatever the plumb line was meant to represent, the people needed it — desperately.
They needed a sign of the love of a God who ached for relationship with them. They needed to remember that they had had been imprinted with the likeness of God from the beginning and that they could still become the people they were created to be. They needed to be reminded of their high calling to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. They needed God at their center.
And I wonder if our setting almost 3000 years later is all that different from Amos’. We still need a plumb line to be both judgment of how far we have strayed from our calling as God’s people, and a present hope and promise for our world, for this country, and for each of us individually.
God’s question for Amos — “What do you see?” — is an equally good question for us.
What do you see that out of plumb in your life? What is the stair that is tripping you up?
Or maybe, how do you see our community, our nation, and our world out of whack? In what ways are we living like the Northern Kingdom of Israel even now as we receive this vision secondhand from Amos today?
And where is our plumb line? How do we know where our center is, and how do we return to it? How do we become more completely the beloved people of God we are created to be? Where do we catch glimpses of what might be possible, if only…?
What do you see?