My grandpa used to warn us with the phrase “straighten up and fly right.” I have never heard that phrase except from him and for grandpa it meant take stock of messing up and get it together.
I love the book of Amos because he was giving Israel the same message as God’s prophet on the scene. The book is a favorite to me because it offers some very significant quotes and images that really grab me. For example, in ch 5:24, Amos speaks the often quoted, “But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” I love that image of waters of justice flooding out the injustice that plagues us.
Now, in chapter 7, Amos brings an image that is so vivid, that one cannot help but be moved by it. Amos describes a plumb line as God’s tool for our gauge for discernment. We will return to this thought shortly.
Amos was not excited to be a prophet. He is a great example of what is sometimes referred to as the “spirit” of prophecy falling upon someone. It works like this – God has a message to convey and selects some unlikely, yet suitable vessel for that message, inspires them to deliver the prophecy and then releases the prophet when the message has been conveyed. It was kind of like the summer job you took to get by when you were in college. Made enough money to get by, then you quit and go back to your studies.
The Children of Israel also had those who held an office of prophet, such as Elijah and Moses – people who were the enduring voice of God to their generation and circumstance. These were the prophets who had a full-time job of delivering God’s messages or admonishments. Amos was not one of these.
Amos was one of a class of so called “reluctant prophets.” As said, these were prophets who were told by God to go deliver a message, usually to the leaders in charge, and then that was it. In our reading, Amos just wants to say what God is nudging him to say so he can get back to tending his sheep and sycamore trees. The chief priest, Amaziah, raises an objection to Amos and spreads bad news about him. He wants Amos to stop being the voice of woe and gloom, and to quit threatening the nations of Judah and Israel. Verses 14 & 15 tell us, “But Amos stood up to Amaziah: "I never set out to be a preacher, never had plans to be a prophet. I raised cattle and I pruned trees. Then God took me off the farm and said, 'Go preach to my people Israel.'
You can see, Amos was there out of obedience to God. He delivered the messages and headed back to the farm.
He was a man of lowly means who used metaphoric illustration to make his point. In our scripture for today, we find Amos referring to a tool of measurement, used by masons at the time, called a plumb line. We often call this a plumb bob. This is what one looks like.
I remember the first time I heard this verse. I was in the Jesus People and two of our leaders were learning carpentry. They had just recently been introduced to a plumb line and bob, and took great pleasure in showing me what it was and how it worked.
God says, "Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.” Another translation says that God is setting the plumb line “in the midst of the congregation,” and it is this reading of the verse that I want to discuss.
It is easy to look at the biblical stories and shake our heads and say woe unto you stubborn Jew. God had to set a standard and shake you up with severe messages of discipline and punishment. It is easy to overlook the wisdom and warning these verses have for us in our time and life situations.
To Israel, Amos was delivering messages of condemnation for the injustices tolerated by the leaders in both the synagogue and the palace of the king. Luxurious living is judged and condemned. Selfishness is revealed and cursed. Sin is recognized and exposed for what it is. And to measure this, a plumb line is set up so that the people can no longer say they have not been fairly told what is good and bad, right and wrong, God’s way or the evil way.
So if I may take a translation liberty, God says, “Amos, let the people know that I have set up a standard to follow. A plumb line in the middle of the church. A truthful and perfect measure against which each person may know what I require and desire.”
The standard is not in front of the congregation, implying leadership from the clergy platform, nor behind us as a surprise hidden away, nor off to the side so that some are closer and others away. No, the standard is in our midst, among us in the center of the hub around which we gather as believers. A plumb line works within God established rules of physics, using gravity to make the line perfectly straight and centered. And the centering is what it calls each of us to do. To be focused on God’s innumerable examples of presence. It is a true measure, cutting through all the excuses and latitudes we try to set up to make our behaviors acceptable. God says with the plumb line, “This is it!”
It’s further illustrated in our Gospel lesson of the Good Samaritan. For the first two passersby, both of whom have religious significance in the story, the problem is met by passing on the other side of the road. Perhaps they worried that the robbers were still around. Maybe they thought the guy deserved the beating. Nonetheless, the ignored the problem.
A Samaritan come along and helps. This is the classic story to supposedly unfit, unqualified, unloved reaching out to the proper, the dignified, the supposedly worthy.
The first two did not measure up to the standard that God had placed within the midst of the congregation. The third one, the Samaritan, was one who was actually outside of the congregation, yet he somehow does the right thing. Jesus says we are all neighbors, one to the other. Even if we don’t recognize each other, within the human family, we are neighbors.
Our work campers, 36 of us who went to Chicago a week ago, were charged to “see the face of God in the city.” Often the kids see the person operating the soup kitchen, tirelessly feed the multitudes each day with no end in sight. Or they rightly see the nuns who work with the elderly, or the woman who started a shelter for abused women. There the face of God radiates and changes lives.
But sometimes they see God’s face in unlikely places. On lad went bowling with a busload of elderly people. He was the last one on the bus and a bit shocked by the faces staring at him as he quickly searched for a seat. An old arm shoots up, uncovered in the Chicago heat and clearly wrinkled. The teen follows the arm to the face of God, as seen in an elderly woman who scoots over and pats the seat next to her and welcomes the teen to the bowling trip. He shares with us that she and he talked the whole way there and back. He found God in his seat mate.
One of my assignments in Chicago was to work at a Vacation Bible School. Oh joy. Yippie. It’s not like I didn’t conclude working at our VBS two days before leaving for Chicago. But I became intrigued by the story of this church and the juxtaposition of their place in the neighborhood.
A few years ago a young man was murdered on the corner where this church was now located. Because the Christians wanted to bring change, they prayed for a long time on that very corner where the boy was shot. It was a tough neighborhood, and it had no witness for Jesus. So the group bought an old store/warehouse that shut down and remodeled it, building a worship space and, more importantly, a community place. Because there was a small Cambodian population in the neighbor, who was worshipping in a house church, the Living Waters Community Church invited them to share the space. And the face of God began popping up right and left. From praying on the corner for a slain teen, to opening a worship center in that abandoned neighborhood, to opening their door to other believers, these Christians brought God to the streets.
On the day I was sharing in the work, I walked by the front of the church and noticed three teens leaning on the translucent window just outside of the community room in which the VBS was going strong. They boys were strong looking, handsome and, like teens everywhere, suffering from too much time on their hands. As I walked by, they were in the process of speaking lewdly to a young woman who was a few steps ahead of me. She confidently dealt with their jeers with impressive distain and walked on. I reflected on how the more time passes how sometimes very little changes. I’ve heard the same talk from boys for all of my 31 years in youth ministry.
One minute later I have passed through the security protections of the church, and am immersed among some 75 children who are thoroughly enjoying their second week of VBS. These are the children of the same neighborhood as the three young men whose outlines I could see on the translucent windows. But this wasn’t the juxtaposition. The contrast was that leaning against the same window, but on the inside, within the room, were about 12 teens of the same age who were volunteering their time and faith stories to lead the 75 mixed aged, mixed race and mixed socio-economic status. The face of God was all over the leadership as they led the kids. And God’s face was reflected back in the discoveries of the children.
And most importantly for me, God’s face covered the faces of the volunteers from Federated Church. Young Christians from this church, so outside of their comfort zones that they were spiritually sore from rubbing against a harsh, hostile reality completely unlike anything they have ever seen, stood tall and loved those kids. Jesus was glorified and the 75 children basked in the love of our youth.
But sometimes the face of God is less understandable and hard to reconcile. Sometimes we fail to see it because it doesn’t follow our rules.
A dear teacher friend of mine from Ravenna, Terri, told me once that it perplexed her that the most godly, Christ-like woman she knew was a fellow teacher who was not a religious person at all. In fact, she was not a fan of faith for various reasons. Yet, she behaved more like the Jesus that she denied than any Christian Terri knew.
And so, in my experience, I have know atheists who joined forces with church people to assist folks devastated by hurricanes or earthquakes because the Christians were reaching out to help when no one else in the are was. I have known Muslims who joined Christians in public prayer after 9/11 because the Christians had opened their churches. I have known unbelievers to accomplish great works of justice and relief in impoverished South Africa because they could not bear the fact that 27% of all men, women and children in their nation were infected with the HIV virus.
The plumb line, it seems, may not be confined to just the so called “familiar” People of God. It seems as if God’s standards of care and concern spread out on their own, beyond the control of church or synagogue. It’s quite a wonderful thing. The Spirit of Jesus is uncontainable, uncontrollable and infectious. Praise God.
So we have this line in our lives, to guide us and create in us a will to do great things for God, great things for others. Sometimes it seems hard to launch, but God’s timing will always prevail. I had a seminary professor who would tell us that, “We serve an on time God – never late, never early, but always on time.” I’ve learned since that the difficulty is in me and my expectations. But as my wife wrote on our home message board when we were facing some issues, “Everything is going to be alright.” That is because Jesus is the measure in our midst.
Five years ago this past week, while I was on a work camp in Atlanta with our Federated youth and advisors, my sister-in-law, Michele, unexpectedly died of a heart problem. Literally here one instant and gone the next.
I was devastated, but Ron, my brother, insisted that I remain on work camp and not come to him in San Francisco. As the week unfolded, it became apparent that I was going to be the officiating clergy at Michele’s funeral, and that the funeral would occur just a few hours after our group returned from Atlanta. Throughout the week I had many tearful conversations with Ron other family members. My wife, Kathy, was a miracle of support and listened intently as I told her I was uncertain if I could do this. But Ron insisted and Kathy assured.
As soon as we pulled into the FLC from Atlanta, I jumped from the van, waved a quick goodbye to the work camp crew, and Kathy drove me to the funeral home in Cuyahoga Falls, where I got ready for the service.
And just before the funeral service began, a small caravan of cars drove up to the parking lot of that funeral home, and a number of those advisors and teen work campers got out – still in their work camp clothes, tired and dirty, but to Kathy and me they were angel sent from God. For my family and me they demonstrated what it means to follow the plumb line in the midst of the congregation. For us we vividly experienced the idea that the Face of God is all around us. And for me, personally, it was a lesson in true Christ-like discipleship. Rarely have I been so deeply touched.
To now share some convenient, all wrapped up ending and challenge would be silly. You are here today because you choose to believe and affiliate with the presence of God. You have already decided to follow Jesus. And yes, you struggle with the plumb line as you sometimes don’t measure up. But you are here, and so I say bless you, thank you, I love you and keep up the great work you are doing. You are truly remarkable people – each one of you.
End of sermon! Amen.