Sir Godfrey Gregg GCO
The Mystical Court
God’s Plumb Lines and God’s Justice: Plumb, Square and Level
Lessons for the Day
- Psalm 85
- Amos 7:7-15
- Ephesians 1:1-14
- Mark 6:7-13
I greet you in the name of God our Creator, Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit who sustains and sanctifies us, empowering us to love and to serve both God and Christ.
The Prophet Amos quotes God as saying, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel . . . “
I had a cousin named Emerson who was a general contractor — his children learned the construction business from their father, who was also a builder. His son began working in the business as a very young man — a boy, really — and by the time he was in his late teen or so, his father felt comfortable enough with his work to give him projects of his own.
Emerson has trust and confidence in his children who would follow his instructions as he gave it.
“I want you to frame-in this porch, and I want you to frame it in plumb, square and level.”
I thought of Emerson and his son as I read this week’s lesson from Amos — a lesson where the Lord stands beside a wall, holding a plumb line.
Think for a moment what a plumb line (and a level for that matter) does it keeps the thing you are building in right relationship with the world around it. A plumb line ensures that any upright in a building is absolutely vertical. A level makes sure that any horizontal component is completely level. Both of these tools give us a way to measure our work to see if the way we are building measures up to the master’s standards.
The prophet Amos a source of our Old Testament Lesson for today was active in the eighth century before Christ. Though born in Judah, his message from God was for the northern kingdom the kingdom of Israel.
Like cousin Emerson, the prophet Amos was calling on the Northern Kingdom of Israel to remember God’s plumb lines. He was calling Israel to live up to God’s standards. And it was a call the people did not want to hear.
The children of God in Israel like the children of God in Brooklyn, NY or in St. Vincent and the Grenadines or somewhere in Trinidad, tended to see any exhortation to live by God’s standards as something that hemmed them in, that bound them, that kept them from being their best selves. And they, like me resisted. We see ‘rules’ (even God’s rules; especially God’s rules) is something that impinges on our freedom. Perhaps we should rethink this understanding.
And yet the freedom of the form comes only when the musicians understand each other and the rules and conventions that govern music. They are free to be their own best selves — individually and as a group — only when those rules (like God’s plumb line and my cousin Emerson’s level) keep them in right relationship with each other and the world around them.
Amos prophesied in time, not unlike our own. The people he addressed in Israel had lived through a long period of relative peace, with few threats from the major powers of the region. Prosperity was the order of the day at least for some of the people. As one source says: “. . . peace seems to have been accompanied by prosperity at least for a few at the expense of many . . . “
The prophet Amos is perhaps best known for a single verse that appears a couple of chapters before today’s lesson. In the fifth chapter of Amos, verse twenty-four, Amos closes a long rebuke of Israel with this verse: “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos 5:24
This verse was picked up by the many in the civil rights struggle and was used often by Martin Luther King. It is carved in granite in the sweeping monument across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
The entire book of Amos resonates with a call to justice and a condemnation of the injustices rampant in Israel. Amos warns that because of Israel’s injustice and its oppression of the poor God will punish Israel with a crushing military defeat. And if you look closely to what is going on in America I believe the hands of God is on America.
Hard words. Hard words indeed.
There is always a price, however, when we ignore the plumb lines when we don’t live our lives plumb and square and level. The price is just this: when we ignore the plumb lines, we cannot remain in right relationship with God or each other or the world around us. And we cannot be our own best selves.
Once — long ago — a shepherd and dresser of sycamores spoke God’s words of rebuke and judgment to the people of Israel. The people didn’t listen and some forty years after Amos prophesied the Northern Kingdom fell to the forces of the Assyrian King.
What can we make of this now?
Well, perhaps a couple of things.
First, we have the notion of God’s plumb line. Amos’ repeated calls to justice ⚖ and his condemnation of oppression give us some idea of Amos’ understanding of the plumb line: the plumb line is justice (as the founders of our country said) “for all.”
As Christians those who live in the time after the birth of the promised Messiah we might name the plumb line as Jesus’ exhortation in the Gospel of Mark:
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandments greater than these.” Mark 12: 30-31
However we name it, it is important to remember that God has standards. We have — as the Gospel lesson reminds us — been adopted into God’s family. And — as members of God’s family — we are called to live up to God’s standards.
And we are also called to continuously examine all of society’s standards in light of God’s ongoing revelation, else we get (as in the case of segregation) ossified and stuck in societal norms that have nothing to do with the will of God. Matters of taste and preference are not matters of truth.
A second learning is this — the plumb lines free us to become our own best selves. The plumb lines keep us in right relationship to each other, to the world around us, and especially to God. God’s plumb line is not there to impinge on our behaviour but to allow us to become who God intended us to be at the moment God spoke us into being.
Third key learning from Amos could be just this: God calls regular people (that’s you, that’s me, that’s all of us) to speak the truth of the plumb line to a world that can easily forget.
Amos tells Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, “Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit: 15 And the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.” Amos 7: 14-15
Amos is regular folk — a shepherd and part-time tree-cutter. But he pays attention to what is going on around him. And he raises his hand to speak when what he sees is not what he knows to be God’s deep desire.
As we sit here, now, in Brooklyn, NY or in St. Vincent and the Grenadines or somewhere in Trinidad, God is calling us to speak out about the things we see that are out-of-plumb, off-square, un-level. I don’t know what you will see — and I may not even agree with you — but each of us is called to name the things that (in our judgment) are contrary to God’s plumb line. And God calls us — beyond naming — to act on those injustices.
Perhaps God is calling you to rectify injustices in educational opportunities working with the Education Revolution project.
Perhaps God wants you to serve the most vulnerable of our city by working with disadvantage kids or to volunteer with the homeless.
Maybe God is calling you — as God has evidently called John Shields — to become a hairdresser to the stars (and the prisoners) by donating shampoo to the Forsyth County Jail.
Could God even be calling you to lobby for — of all things — a tax decrease . . . a tax decrease that would allow workers to see little more money in their pockets.
Maybe God is calling you to support the efforts of the government to hold off of some projects to see their way clear to funding healthcare for the poorest of our citizens during this pandemic?
I do not know. I simply know this: the God we serve — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Rebekah and Sarah and Leah — is a God of justice and love. And God calls us to live by plumb lines that keep us in right relationship with God and each other and the world around us. And — in doing this — we become our own best selves.
As you participate in your church celebrations, remember that you take into yourself the body of Christ — Christ who — in love and obedience — died for you.
In your own love and obedience, go forth from here to proclaim God’s plumb lines of justice and love to a dark and hurting world.