"The Plumb Line of Righteousness"

Proper 10.B.18
Amos 7:7-15
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

“Amos is tough. Amos is blunt. Amos says things that no one wished to hear 2,800 years ago; and things no one much wishes to hear today.” (John Holbart) To be frank about it, Amos is a chief ruffler of feathers.

The Bible tells us that Amos was called to the task of prophesy sometime in the middle of the eighth century before the Common Era. And his task was to speak of the matter of justice.

In truth, by all appearances it was an odd time for a prophet to be unleashed upon the land. The rule of Jeroboam II was, by and large, a time of prosperity and peace. Things seemed to be going well for the people of Israel. The rich were getting richer—the poor—well, they were poor—but that’s to be expected….right? At any rate, it wasn’t a bad time as far as times go. And right about then God finds a sheep herder and fig tree tender named Amos and tells him that he has words for him to say, and not just any words, but hard words—the kind of words most folks don’t want to hear—particularly people who are comfortable, and living in a time of relative prosperity and peace.

In Chapter Seven, where our lesson begins, Amos says: “This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. (Now, for those who are unfamiliar with the term “plumb line” a plumb line is string with a weight attached to one end—it is used for determining the vertical on an upright surface. In other words, it is a tool used to ensure that something is straight. And 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; 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.”

If this isn’t clear, here’s another translation, this one taken from the movie adaptation of Chaucer’s A Knight’s Tale: “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.” That, in essence, is God’s message to King Jeraboam and the people of Israel.

Next, we witness the epic confrontation between Amaziah, the priest of Bethel and the prophet Amos. Amaziah is the high priest of the sacred place of Bethel (“Bethel”, by the way, is a word, which means “house of God”). Amaziah has heard the preaching of Amos and has warned his king, in a letter, of the dangers that this renegade prophet with the grating message represents to the crown—essentially accusing Amos of a conspiracy to overthrow the King. Because Amaziah perceives Amos to be a threat he confronts him by saying, “O seer” (what he’s doing here is calling Amos a fortune teller, or a cheap-trick magician—to call a prophet a “seer” is not a compliment) go back to Judah, earn your bread there. Never again prophesy at Bethel because it is the king’s sanctuary, it is a temple of the kingdom. Now, notice, if you will, what Amaziah has done. Bethel—the “house of God” no longer belongs to God—it is the sanctuary of the King. So, you have a clear indication of where the loyalties of the high priest lie. It could not be made more clear. The church, here, has been compromised by the state, and has become merely a rubber stamp for what the state or King desires.

Amos replies: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” What he means here is that he doesn’t come from a priestly house.

It seems such a tame ending, doesn’t it. And, I suppose that by concluding at verse 15, if we are given this impression, we can’t be blamed. I’ll have you know, it’s false. Amos isn’t cowed by Amaziah. This is one prophet who refuses to be bullied. This sheepherder and fig tree tender is no coward. In fact, he goes on to tell Amaziah that the Lord God has cursed the high priest, thereby giving a word of his own for every priest who has prostituted religion for empire: “Your wife will become a prostitute, your kids will be violently murdered, enemies will carve up the country, you will die far from home, and pagan Assyria will devour the political and economic empire you have tried to sanction in God’s name.” There, take that you sorry excuse for a priest of the Lord.

But what does this story have to say to us, some 2800 years after the showdown in the sanctuary of Bethel between Amaziah and Amos? For myself, I am captivated by that image of a plumb line—the measuring rod of the Lord. The straight line of righteousness by which we rise or fall.

One of the places that many of us visited as we walked the Camino de Santiago this past June was the Castille de Pambre; a castle built in 1375 of the Common Era. It was a remarkable fortress, built hundreds of years ago out of stone, chiseled with such fine craftsmanship that it was laid without mortar. Much of the interior of the castle is in now in ruins, but the outer walls stand straight, proud and true as they did 643 years ago. Whoever it was who oversaw the building of that edifice, their skill in constructing a straight wall is a testimony to the strength of following the rule of the plumb line.

From the perspective of faith, that plumb line is akin to righteousness. If whoever built that castle had been a few degrees off kilter, over the years the force of gravity would have taken a toll and the weight of the stone would bear too great a burden causing the wall to shift and buckle.

Amos reminds us that when we make exceptions for following the rule of our faith—be they for a king, cleric or country, no matter how loved or esteemed, we too are in danger of moving the straight line of righteousness out of kilter—shifting the stones, so to speak, so that we too are in danger of collapse. Like Amaziah, we might find our feather’s ruffled when confronted by prophetic words, particularly when uttered by a prophet such as Amos. However, if we put aside our pride and listen, and if our hearts are indeed convicted of the truth of what that prophet is saying, we might also discover our souls have been saved. And if that is the case, well… then the discomfort has been well worth the pain. Think of the work of a prophet much like the work of a master mason, who upon finding a wall that has gone off kilter, takes the time to shift the stones, reinforce the weak areas, scrape out the bad mortar and strengthen the edifice so that it might continue to stand, straight, proud and true for ages of time and to the glory of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.