Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Our Sermon for July 11th, 2021: Prophets, Shepherds, and Plumblines, based on Amos 7:7-15
7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9 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.’
10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Prophets, Shepherds, and Plumblines: Amos 7:7-15
I have spent part of my week learning what a plumb bob is. Plumb line… plumb bob… these are both phrases for an ancient building technology that helps people build straight walls and posts and roofs, really anything where it’s important that one part of the build be aligned with another part vertically. I watched videos where one guy used it to place a rafter, one of the pieces of a building that holds up a roof. I watched another one where someone used it to add a support beam in a temporary wall. The 2x4 at the base had to line up with the 2x4 that had already been attached to the ceiling. I watched another video where one poor guy had already framed a corner of a building, guided by a level, and it looked pretty straight. But, he just wanted to make sure everything was as level and plumb and straight as it was supposed to be. He said “the plumb bob never lies” and used it to double check his work. Sure enough. He was 3/8th of an inch off. Three-eighths might not seem like a lot. But, if you are off a little in one part, that can throw off the whole house. Best to measure twice, early on, to make sure that what you’re building will stand. I hope it didn’t take him too long to rework that corner.
I had to learn how to use a plumbline because the Prophet Amos once had a vision where God was standing next to a wall that God built. God was holding a plumb line. God had measured the people and found out that they were not properly aligned. And, God was not happy about it. God says to Amos, “I will never again pass them by; 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.” Yikes. None of that sounds good. Not even one bit.
What, you may ask, is God so mad about? A thing God is usually mad about: Injustice. Let me set the scene. I feel a little like Sophia Petrillo of The Golden Girls: Picture it- Israel, 752 BCE (or, at least, sometime between 760 and 750 BCE). A couple hundred years after the death of Solomon, Israel has split into the Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom for a while. The Northern Kingdom is still called Israel and also Samaria. The Southern Kingdom is known as Judah. The ancient holy site of Bethel -- where Abram built an altar to God, where Jacob dreamt of a ladder to heaven, where Deborah issued rulings, and where Rebecca was buried -- was in the Northern Kingdom. Amos is arguing with the priest at Bethel, Amaziah, later in this reading. Amos is a shepherd, turned prophet, who is from the Southern Kingdom. Jerusalem, David’s royal city and the home of the Temple, is in the Southern Kingdom.
According to scholars I read this week, the book of Amos, along with the books of Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, are dealing with prophetic interpretations of two significant culture issues of this era: 1) the increasing wealth of the elite of the both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms that was being built on systems of mistreatment of poor people and 2) the looming threat of Assyria, the powerful neighboring nation with imperial aspirations. Amos, like Isaiah, understands that faith in God not just to be about an individual person’s religious commitment, but about an entire community’s ethical behavior. Gregory Mobley, in his introduction to Amos in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, puts it this way: Israel’s covenant with God did not provide it with a special privilege. The nation, as a whole, is required to live up to an ethical standard of justice and righteousness. In her commentary on this passage, Elaine James says, “God’s love demands righteousness, and breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.” Amos, along with other prophets, believed that Israel had so thoroughly ignored their ethical commitments that God would soon punish them by letting Assyria defeat them in war and take over their nation.
I’m not exactly sure what systems the elite and wealthy people of the Northern Kingdom put in place to cheat poorer people. Dr. Mobley indicated that it had something to do with how wealthier people would manipulate the smallest amount of debt held by poorer people, forcing them out of farms held in their families for generations and forcing some people into slavery. In his commentary on the text, Walter Brueggemann cited scholars who outlined the impacts of these unjust systems. They might seem familiar to you. While some lose land, homes, and family, others managed two own two homes and to have homes decorated in fine ivory and ornate masonry (all of that is described in Amos 3:15, 5:11, and 6:4). While some could not find enough to eat, the elite would throw lavish banquets (4:1b). This is not how people living according to the covenant with God should be behaving in the world. Amos’ vision of God The Builder with a plumbline is a visualization of this frustration. God’s builds justice and righteousness. The nation’s behavior should be plumb, that is, in alignment, with God’s priorities. And, it is not.
Amos, who God plucked out of the fields and sent to the Northern Kingdom to warn them to change their ways, tells the people that individual rituals of piety aren’t enough to make the nation plumb. In chapter 5, verses 21-24, Amos shares that God says:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Dr. James notes that you might remember those words from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King had been criticized by white clergy in Birmingham who had grown too comfortable with their good life to stand up for racial equality with the speed and intensity required to do right by their Black neighbors. Dr. King reminded them of the ethical commands found in Amos and the plumbline with which God could measure a nation. To paraphrase Dr. King, and maybe Amos, the right time to live according to the demands of love and justice is right now.
This is not exactly a fluffy and sweet vision of God. It is a hard word delivered by a simple man to a religious professional who is not prepared to hear it. Amaziah, the priest, who assumes that he is living right, or at least living right enough, has no interest in the harsh critique of Amos. “Go back to Judah and prophesy there,” he says. Amos said “No, God sent me here to tell you when you trample on the needy, your nation will not survive.” Sometimes you have to be willing to hear the hard word, really hear it, if you are going to change the path you are going on and make yourself plumb with God. At least Amos reminds us that God is invested in humanity and has expectations of us. And, the greatest of these is that we will care for each other as a reflection of our love of God.
I called Hariph (the moderator of our church whom I always call with questions about tools and wood-working) on Friday morning and asked him if he used a plumb bob. He said “not anymore!” But he used to. You see, we have lasers now. A lot of builders have switched over to them. They are accurate and fast, and can do a few things that the plumb bob can’t do as easily. But, the lasers and plumblines all do that same work: they help you build something that is plumb... that is strong and in alignment with the rest of the structure around it. The tools we use to follow God might be different now, but the good ones still help us discern if our structures -- our churches, our local and national policies -- are in alignment with God’s priorities. Amos shows us that a community that is so out of alignment with God’s priorities that a small group of people own most of everything while many people struggle to survive is not sustainable. We can be like Amaziah and try to run out Amoses off. Or, we can hear their words for the plumbline that they are. May we be willing to be measured and make the shifts necessary to align ourselves with God.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.