The keystone in the arch behind me is slightly askew. I’m not sure when it happened, but it was decades ago, perhaps in the first few years of the church building. Periodically I get questions about it. This spring the Board of Stewards found a way to measure precisely the shape and height of the arch and so we can monitor the keystone, ensuring that it isn’t moving.
The Stewards used a very high-tech version of a very old technology, the plumb line. A plumb line - a weight suspended by a rope or string - can help a builder ensure the walls of a building are straight.
It’s the kind of building process the prophet Amos used as a metaphor in our reading. God stood by a wall once built with a plumb line; the wall once stood perfectly vertical. But then Amos saw God measure the crookedness of the wall with a plumb line again. What once stood perfect now leaned crookedly, a precarious disaster about to topple over.
I like this metaphor of Amos for many reasons. Not the least of which is the double meaning of plumb. A carpenter might call a perfectly vertical wall “plumb.” And in this sense a plumb wall is balanced, leaning to neither side, straight and vertical. But plumb lines were also used by sailors to check the depth of water. We use it in that sense when we speak of someone “plumbing the depths.” So I like this image of a plumb line, of God wanting to find both balance and depth in our lives.
This image of taking the measurement of our lives defines the role of a Biblical prophet: a prophet names the ways our life has become warped and crooked. It’s the prophetic voice Martin Luther King Jr. so often used, not just pointing out injustice but calling us back to our true self.
Every year we quote from his “I have a Dream” speech, hearing again the most famous line from it. But earlier in the speech he spoke like Amos when he described why the marches came to Washington.
“In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
King took the measure of our country and found us wanting. One can trace a line of thought from Amos to King, a line of prophets applying a plumb line to our lives. God always needs prophets who will act like Amos and King.
But this prophetic role is not just reserved to the few, we’re all called to be prophetic.
Amos critiqued the king and religious establishment of his day, saying in short that God had judged them and found them wanting, so wanting in fact that God would destroy the kingdom and the temple. We ought to be clear: Amos threatened destruction. He was a threat to national security and the authorities viewed him as such.
The head of the religious establishment spoke up against Amos. Amaziah (am-uh-zi-ah) said, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your 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 kingdom.” A few things stand out in these comments. First, Amaziah assumed Amos was a prophet, a professional class of truth-tellers and seers recognized at court. Basically he did the same as if a magistrate today told a lawyer to go practice law in another state. Second, Amaziah described the temple as the king’s sanctuary, not God’s. He thought faith ought to always support the ruler. And lastly, Amaziah never mentioned God. In this we see how warped Amaziah had become; his own speech showed how out of balance his life had become, a chief priest with no deep connection to God.
But Amaziah also didn’t appreciate who Amos was: not a paid-prophet but an ordinary man. As Amos said in rebuttal, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” We find in Amos a man of balance and depth, rooted in his relationship with God; and it’s that relationship, not a professional credential, that allows him to speak out against the injustice he saw.
Justice depends on ordinary people taking the measurement of our society. In ancient Israel, they needed a gardener like Amos. And in every generation, we need ordinary people too. In the Civil Rights Movement, one of the inspiring examples of leadership to my mind was Fannie Lou Hammer. Hammer was a sharecropper in rural Mississippi when the Civil Right Movement got going in earnest. She began registering voters - a treasonous act in the south then. And so the police arrested her, nearly beat her death. Hammer continued to grow as a leader in the movement; during a televised speech she reflected on the harassment and terrorism faced by Civil Rights workers, asking, “Is this America? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Like King, she held a plumb line to our country; she lacked an education and a degree but instead had a heart deeply committed to God, and so she could take the measure of our nation. She, like many others, made the sin of white supremacy plain for all to see.
We need everyone - not just the church, not just pastors - to speak up about our society. We need men like Amos and women like Fannie Lou Hammer to hold up plumb lines.
Amaziah would have said he was taking the plumb line of his culture. He would have said he confronted people about sin and their moral choices. And so we need to ask: what did Amaziah measure?
Amaziah focused on questions of ritual: Was the right song sung? Was an animal sacrificed in the correct way? Amaziah could be passionate about these questions, debating them ad nauseam.
All of which, Amos said, made God nauseous. Amos saw different sins. For him, it was the treatment of the poor and the excesses of the wealthy. Elsewhere in the book of Amos we hear, “For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins - you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” Amos measured the way the rich robbed the poor, the way they ignored the needs of the hungry, the way, as he says at one point, they sit in luxury saying to one another, “bring me more wine!”
Amos felt God shared his critique of Amaziah and the people. Amos reported God said:
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.
God didn’t want any more properly administered sacrifices from Amaziah while the people suffered. Both Amaziah and Amos asked moral questions; however, they differed in the kind of questions they asked.
Do we take the right moral measurements in our society? Two recent controversies made me especially question the moral stances the wider Church takes. One concerned the recent acquisition by the Milwaukee Art Museum of Niki Johnson’s Eggs Benedict. It’s a portrait of then Pope Benedict. One reviewer delicately described it as a portrait woven in latex. But it’s clearer to say Johnson took thousands of condoms to create a picture of Benedict.
Her inspiration was a quote by Benedict, who said the use of condoms would not stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Johnson made the portrait as a critique of the Pope’s opposition to teaching safer sex practices in a continent devastated by HIV/AIDS.
Now religious leaders are attacking the Milwaukee Art Museum for accepting the gift of the prophylactic pontiff. Numerous letters to the editor in the Journal Sentinel express outrage at this work, claiming it insults Catholicism and the Pope. This is an Amaziah versus Amos fight. Is Christianity more insulted by depicting a Pope in condoms or more injured by a Pope who tells people not wear them in the midst of an epidemic?
Another similar debate emerged as same-sex marriage started becoming legal around the country: do evangelical Christians have a right to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples? Do county clerks have a right to refuse to issue licences because of their freedom of religion?
One famous dust-up concerned a pizzeria in Indiana. The owners were asked in an interview if they would hypothetically cater a gay wedding. “Never,” they said, because doing so would injure the free expression of their religion. It’s a ridiculous case. I’m married to guy from Indiana, but even my Hoosier would never have thought of having our wedding reception in a pizza joint.
Still, we will hear about this more and more as evangelical Christians raise up the plight of bakers and photographers and county clerks who feel serving gay and lesbian couples infringes on their conscience. This week Casey Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, gained notoriety for his refuse to either issue licences or resign. What must God think of these claims of religious liberty?
I liked Jennifer Morales’ Facebook post. She asked if a Christian Science pharmacist could get paid for not issuing medicines. But more deeply, both the Eggs Benedict and marriage issues point to an obsession with sex in Christianity today. It’s an absolutely distorted image of Christianity that reflects the shallowness of our concerns. More Americans know the Catholic Church condemns contraception than know the Church supports labor rights. More Americans know evangelicals condemn homosexuality than know evangelicals believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
Amos would call us to measure our society differently. Last weekend two young teenagers got involved in an argument over Facebook posts about a girl; one shot and killed the other. And already this year we’ve had almost as many homicides as in all of last year. Meanwhile we debate how best to use a condom or if bakers can make a gay cake. Why don’t we ask if it violates the conscience of a Christian to sell so-called cop killer bullets or machine guns? Jesus told us to turn the other cheek; why doesn’t it create an ethical dilemma when Christians arm each other for Armageddon? Why doesn’t the Christian conscience require a week-long or a month-long cooling off period before the purchase of a handgun?
God needs everyday prophets, ordinary people, who will stand up to take the right measurements in our society, people to name the sins they see, the injustices they witness, so that we can return balance and depth to our society. May each of us be such prophets.
Alleluia and Amen.