The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus
Saint Paul's Episcopal Church
July 16, 2006
God's Plumb Lines and
God's Justice: Plumb, Square and Level
for the Day
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. (Pause)
The Prophet Amos quotes
God as saying,
"See, I am setting
a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel . . . "
I have a friend named
Jack who is a general contractor -- he learned the
construction business from his father, who was also a
builder. Jack began working in the business as a very
young man -- a boy, really -- and by the time he was
fifteen or so, his father felt comfortable enough with
Jack's work to give him projects of his own.
One day Jack's father
dropped him off to frame-in a porch -- the home-owners
were going to turn un-used porch space into another
bedroom for their expanding family. Jack told me that --
as his father left -- he said,
"Jack, I want you
to frame-in this porch, and I want you to frame it in
plumb, square and level."
I thought of Jack and his
Daddy as I read this week's lesson from Amos -- a lesson
where the Lord stands beside a wall, holding a plumb
Think for 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 (as
Jack learned with his Daddy) measures up to the master's
The prophet Amos --
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 Jack's father, 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 Winston-Salem --
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) as something that
impinges on our freedom. Perhaps we should rethink this
I awoke early this
morning to the sounds of jazz coming from my bedside
radio. To the lay listener, jazz seems to be the most
free-form of musical styles, as the soloists head off on
riffs that take them in myriad directions. We love the
form for many reasons -- spontaneity primary among them.
And yet . . . And yet
the freedom of the form comes only when the musicians
understand each other and the rules and conventions that
govern jazz. 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 friend Jack's level) keep
them in right relationship with each other and the world
Amos prophesied in a time
not unlike our own.
The people he address-ed 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
". . .
peace seems to have been accompanied by prosperity --
at least for a few -- at the
expense of many . . . "
Gene M. Tucker, Candler
School of Theology, Emory University
Notes on the Book of Amos, The Harper Collins Study
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:
" . . . let justice
roll down like waters, righteousness like an
Amos 5:24 (NRSV)
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 condem-nation 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
Hard words. Hard words
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
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
Well, perhaps a couple of
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:
"You shall love the
Lord your God with all your heart and with
all your soul and
with all your mind and with all your strength . . .
(and) you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mark 12: 30, 31a
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 segrega-tion) 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 behavior, but to allow us to become who God
intended us to be at the moment God spoke us into being.
A 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
Amos tells Amaziah, the
priest of Bethel,
"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.' "
Amos 7: 14a, 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
As we sit here, now, in
Winston-Salem, 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 Augustine project.
Perhaps God wants you to
serve the most vulnerable of our city by working in
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
increase . . . a tax increase that would allow local
authorities to see their way clear to funding healthcare
for the poorest of our citizens?
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 the
Eucharist, remember that you take into yourself the body
of Christ -- Christ who -- in love and obedience -- died
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.
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