This morning we heard the Prophet Amos describe a vision of God holding a plumb line against a wall to see if it ran straight. His words prompt many thoughts. Among them: what would Amos think of our keystone? The slightly-off, long-cracked arch?
I’m not sure when it went askew. Notes in our archives suggest the Stewards started talking about it back in the forties.
We know when things seem off kilter, out of balance, crooked. Am I the only one who says, “Honey, I think you need to rehang that?”
Which is why I’m so drawn to the vision of Amos we heard this morning: “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.” Of course a plumb line - a simple device of a weight at the end of a string - can tell if a wall rises up straight or if it leans to one side or the other.
Amos saw God taking the measure of his people. God found them wanting; measured against the true plumb line, God could see the way the people leaned this way and that. God decided to tear down the crooked wall. As God explained to Amos, “
‘See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
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.’
This vision of Amos represented something new. Never before in the Bible had a prophet said God would destroy the chosen people because they weren’t true to their covenantal purpose. Twenty-seven hundred years ago, this was a new idea. Amos thought: things are so bad, God will start over.
Amos’ dismal vision came from his awareness of all that was broken in the society around him. On the surface, things looked great: King Jeroboam had expanded the territory of Israel to its greatest extent in generations. But Amos saw how the rich preyed on the poor, saw the moral hypocrisy of the leaders, saw the everyday injustices steadily undermining community. He knew the nation stood like a crooked wall, leaning precariously before the fall.
This can be as hard a message for us to hear as it was in Amos’ day. And that’s probably why Amos, as a Book of the Bible, was not read much for most of Christian history. Too often we want to hear, “God takes our shoddy workmanship and turns it into beauty.” Amos offers us none of that assurance. Instead his message is, “God sees the shoddy work; and knocks it down.”
But I don’t want us to dismiss Amos’ vision as if it were just another case of “being judgy.” Because I think Amos is right: sometimes transformation begins with tearing down broken structures. To stick with Amos’ construction metaphor: the new kitchen can only come when the old one gets torn out.
What happens when someone holds a plumb line to our lives? I serve on the Board of Eden Seminary, one of the graduate schools of our Christian movement. A Board of Directors must always ask: is this true to our mission? The dean of the seminary - Deb Krause, who preached here last year - once taught us about our work by reminding us of a plumb line moment for the seminary.
German settlers to Missouri founded Eden back in 1850. The student body remained all white for decades. In 1932 an African-American named Joseph Gomez applied for admission. The school wouldn’t let him in. He appealed to the NAACP and clergy in St. Louis. Together, they ran ads in the paper quoting Eden’s mission “to educate students from all Christian denominations." These protests held a plumb line up against Eden Seminary; the Board realized it had diverged from its calling. Gomes matriculated the next year, the first African-American to attend a school of higher education in Missouri, beginning a wave of change at the seminary, and signaling the profound changes to come across our country.
What can happen to institutions like a graduate school can also happen in our own lives. I know some of you know this story, but years ago when I was in graduate school, I met with my advisor Sarah Coakley, a professor very dear to me, with whom I prayed for an hour each week. She knew me very well and talked with me as I decided between seeking ordination and applying for a PhD program. “Andrew,” she said, “you shouldn’t do a PhD until you find a problem you can’t solve in the congregation.” Her discouragement to apply could have felt like a horrible judgement - why did she think I couldn’t make it? - but it came as an act of grace - I would have been an unhappy grad student. I have yet to find a problem here that I can only solve by spending ten years learning Akkadian.
There are times when grace can come in the form of judgement; when someone loves us enough to tell us the truth we don’t want to see; when the plumb line reveals a life out of kilter.
How does this happen? It began for Amos when God caused him to see something about his life and community. All of the visions in the Book of Amos begin with the phrase, “This is what he showed me.” It’s an okay translation, but it misses some of the force of what Amos meant in Hebrew. A better way to translate it would be: “this is what God made me see.”
God made Amos see the dangerous lean in his society. And so I wonder this morning, “what is God making us see?”
Of course to answer that we need to be clear about the plumb line. In the Gospel of Luke a person came to Jesus looking for a plumb line to use in his life. Jesus asked him what he read in the Bible and the man answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” It’s our plumb line; so important that we call it the Greatest Commandment and use it as the basis of our church covenant.
What happens when we hold ourselves accountable to this plumb line? Earlier this week I talked with another clergy person. We used to get together regularly but our clergy group had long since fallen apart and most of us now don’t see each other. He asked me about it in a couple of ways; and then he just blurted out, in a way that I think even surprised him, “I guess I’m lonely; that’s why I ask.” It felt like a plumb line moment: when he realized his life was off-center and I realized I had not been the kind of friend I want to be. What does God make you see about yourself, our community, our society?
This week, with news story after news story bringing graphic videos of new violence, I saw this plumb line held against our country. Alton Sterling. Philando Castille. Then Dallas. These tragic moments measure the precarious lean in our nation.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke for me when she said:
“Now, after the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, of uncertainty and of fear. These feelings are understandable and they are justified. But the answer must not be violence… We must reflect on the kind of country that we want to build and the kind of society that we are choosing to pass on to our children.”
I find much truth in what she said; “we must reflect on the kind of country that we want to build.”
Holding up the plumb line of Jesus’ commandment, we can see the injustice of police shooting a man in custody, shooting a man in front of his 4-year old daughter; and that these kinds of moments lead to a profound loss of trust. The events this week shocked many into seeing in a new way what’s been going on for too long.
Even the police. Just think of the photos taken before the sniper attack: police standing with Black Lives Matter protesters; solidarity as they said together, “no justice, no peace.” The Dallas Police Department long led the nation in adopting community policing practices and transparency in internal investigations.
And then the shooting started; and we saw the yawning distance between right and wrong, the tremendous violence anger and fear can inspire, as a lone gunman attacked Dallas police.
This violence against the police brought me back to a comment made after another killing of officers. In 2014, in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death, a man killed two officers in New York City. Founders of the Black Lives Matter movement condemned those murders, as they do those in Dallas, and said, “an eye for an eye is not our vision of justice.”
How do we respond to those plumb line moments? Even before this violent week, many of us struggled with what feels like an America out-of-line, a precarious nation. One person spoke to me after last Sunday’s service. We had sung “America the Beautiful.” The person said, “It’s a hard song for me to sing when things don’t feel beautiful.”
We might react with that sadness - I’ve certainly felt it this week - or we might react like Amaziah did to Amos. Amaziah tried everything he could do to deny what Amos made him see.
Amaziah served the king as the chief priest of the national shrine. He was the Cardinal Richelieu to the King. And in that role he had no place for an upstart like Amos. First he warned the king, “Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.” And then he went after Amos directly. “Go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there.” In other words: don’t bother us here; stir up trouble somewhere else; don’t bother my comfort.
After Dallas, one could hear some people trying to use one set of deaths to end conversation about others. And so the Drudge Report headlined its coverage: Black Lives Kill. That’s the Amaziah response: to blame those calling attention to what is precarious so that one can remain comfortably complacent.
But sometimes awful tragedies make us see what’s broken in clear and transforming ways. On Friday, after all this violence, Newt Gingrich - not someone I typically quote - reflected on the news, saying in part, “It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years, to get a sense of this. If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” He went on to praise the Black Lives Matter movement as an important “corrective.”
In a similar way, the editor of RedState, turned introspective after this violent week: confessing, “that it was time to acknowledge not only the ‘lingering mistrust between police and minority communities,’ but the fact that this mistrust is based on something real.”
This horrible week exposed the brokenness, the distrust, the fear, the violent anger in our country. How will we respond? Like Amaziah, trying desperately to patch over the problems so we can have a comfortable complacency? Or can we use the plumb line of Jesus to see clearly what’s out of kilter in our society? Can this be our vision moment when we see the deep problems of race in our country? The moment when we say, “enough is enough.” Will this bloody measurement finally make us demand gun control? And to stand in solidarity, as the cops in Dallas did, with those who seek to build a more just America? Alleluia and Amen.