There is a shelf in my office where I keep some of my old children’s sermon props. My daughters like to come in and play with them from time to time. I have a small bottle of mustard seeds there, some large sea shells, a head lamp, and a wooden cross that fits easily in your hand. Far and away the object that produces the most curiosity is an old plumb bob attached to a long string. It’s a plumb line. It’s probably the most plain, simplistic item there, but for some reason the most irresistible to hold and play with. I bought the plumb bob years ago when I was in a small hardware store looking for something else. With all the conveniences that modern technology provides, I figured the plumb line was probably obsolete by now, given all the advances in technology, but there it was on one of the aisles. It ran me about $4, if I remember correctly.
The best part about this plumb line, though, was the message contained on its package, which had been written in three different languages. It read:
“SATISFACTION GUARANTEED. If for any reason you are not completely satisfied with the performance or results of this MasterMechanic product, it will be repaired or replaced free of charge. Simply provide proof of purchase and return the product and/or unused portion to your nearby place of purchase.”
For a plumb line?? I realize that this is probably just a pre-printed quality control message slapped on all of the MasterMechanic products, but it sounds really silly on a plumb line. It has no moving parts that can break. It doesn’t run on electricity. It runs, after all, on gravity…that’s it! As long as you’re using it on earth, it always works! In fact, if you use the plumb line and you’re not satisfied with the results, guess who’s malfunctioning?
That was the cold, hard truth that Israel was confronted with in the 8th century when the prophet Amos was speaking. They were having to come to terms with how their building process—that is, the building of a righteous and compassionate kingdom—was malfunctioning. God was going to set a plumb line in the midst of their society, in the midst of their temple religion, in the midst of their communities in order to show them just how crooked and out of whack they’d become. Amos’ words were that plumb line, words that revealed the truth of God’s righteousness and justice. And when they are held up to the whole structure of the kingdom of Israel’s being, their lack of integrity will be unmistakable.
And the chief priest Amaziah and King Jeroboam probably know that. They are the ones in power, and as is so often the case in human affairs, the ones who are in power usually benefit from its misuse. They have a lot to lose from listening to Amos’ message. The corruption of government and the empty, showy nothingness of the religion they lead will be clearly revealed if Amos is allowed to speak too much. His words will reveal how Israel had forgotten to take care of the poor, how they had turned their worship of God into a worship of material success. Their minds are filled with the dreams of what they want to be and become, instead of the compassionate people God had created and redeemed them to be.
|"Amos the Prophet" (James Tissot)|
And so what do Amaziah and Jeroboam do? They blame the plumb line! They actually try to take up the Master Mechanic product guarantee on its word and send it back, get a refund. So they send Amos away. They do with this prophet what we are so often tempted to do with people who tell a truth we don’t like to hear. They tell Amos to take his message down to the southern kingdom of Judah and set it instead in the midst of them. See how your plumb line fares down there, ol’ Amos! They’re bad off!
Of course, crooked walls fall pretty quickly. Within just a few decades, Jeroboam’s kingdom of Israel would be so weakened by its corruption and injustice that it would quickly fall victim to the marauding armies of Assyria and they are wiped off the map for good.
The image of Amos’ plumb line only appears once more in Scripture, I believe, but it has always been an effective tool for people who try to speak out against corruption, especially of the religious and political kind. The point that Amos drives home, perhaps more than any other prophet, is that when God applies God’s standards of justice with compassion to God’s people eventually God’s people should end up with a society that embodies that justice with compassion. Yet instead, because of greed and selfishness, God’s people so often end up with some warped, misshapen version of that justice and compassion, and it eventually effects everyone, from the poor on up. Amos, as it turns out, has it good. He just gets ignored and sent away. Look at what happens to John the Baptist when he tries to hold a plumb line up to Herod and his corruption!
While the people of God never see this precise vision of God’s plumb line again, God does eventually set in their midst a living plumb line, a living standard by which they may judge themselves. Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Holy Trinity, becomes flesh among us as a human plumb line, faithfully telling the truth about who God is and who we are and what we are to be. As the writer of Ephesians so eloquently describes it in our second lesson today, “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ.”
In Jesus God reveals for us the final and full measure of not only the mystery of God’s essence but also of God’s goal. And just as a plumb line works on gravity, Jesus works on grace. Just as a plumb line determines a building’s integrity, so does the cross of Christ reveal the integrity both our own and God’s own. On the one hand, it is judgment, exposing that things like racism and human trafficking and disregard for the poor live among us. But the cross of Christ is also grace because it reveals that God refuses to let his creatures live this way. God refuses to give us over to that completely. Because of the cross of Jesus, we know God stands among us with forgiveness, never-ending love, and bold humility so that we may be built right again.
I imagine that members of our youth group, in their journey to Detroit this week, will experience God standing in the midst of what many believe to be a city crumbling as a result of its own faulty construction. I remember in 2009 when the ELCA Youth Gathering was first held in New Orleans, four short years after it had been leveled by Hurricane Katrina, people wondered why in the world we were sending youth into such a tumble-down city. The result exceeded everyone’s imagination. We saw God’s standard of judgment and grace refashioning and rebuilding a city as it was happening, refashioning our own hearts in the process. That year our youth group was responsible for organizing and running a field day for an inner city children’s organization. Every single one of the 400 kids we played games with for five hours in the heat was from a different racial and economic group than our white, middle class suburban congregation. All kinds of stereotypes started colliding with each other to give way to a very peaceful and fun-filled day. Going into that neighborhood and hearing their stories planted a seed in our youth for the ways in which their own city and high schools right here might suffer from racial and economic inequalities.
At one former Youth Gathering I remember hearing from a speaker named Emanuel Yeboah from the African country of Ghana. Due to a birth defect, Emanuel had been born with only one leg. In Ghana, as in so many countries, including our own, people with any handicap or physical limitation are viewed much like the poor were in Amos’ day: inferior, cast aside and left to fend for themselves. Emanuel, knowing that was wrong, seeing that the walls of society looked very crooked in that regard, decided to learn to ride a bike. He practiced and got in shape and proceeded to bicycle across the entire nation of Ghana with his one leg. He explained that as he came through the villages, people flocked to him, bringing their sick and disabled people to see what a person like them could do. Most importantly, though, he showed the people who had two legs that people like Emanuel had value. God loves people like Emanuel no less than God loves anyone else. You could say that Emanuel became a plumb line in the manner of Christ, telling the truth, the unmistakable truth. Emanuel’s journey was a gift, laying waste to all the misconceptions about people who are different, lifting up the weak as instruments in this world.
It is wonderful to have the opportunity to travel to Detroit or New Orleans to have these experiences, but let us not forget that God applies his gracious standard to us here weekly, in this place. Let Dylan’s own story be an example of that. He came to our congregation through the invitation of some friends in our Lutheran Campus Ministry program at the University of Richmond. He had grown up relatively unchurched, but after a lot of wrestling with matters of faith during those college years, slowly began to open up to the way Christ was being revealed to him, that God was incorporating him into Jesus’ kingdom, especially in this place. And today that journey enters the waters of baptism, and Dylan is built anew.
Each time we gather at this table, or see someone come through these waters, each time someone reads from that lectern, we are given the opportunity to see the grace of that cross in our lives, and the opportunity to be build anew. Each time we worship God refashions us according to the standard God has set for us. And then we can turn around and build our relationships with others, in our communities, in our world…
And when it comes to our worth in God’s eyes and our sense of integrity as this kingdom is constructed in and around us, we never have to worry about the result. With Jesus on the cross, we know God’s satisfaction is…guaranteed.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.