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Sermon: "Be Plumb with God. Get in Line!"

A Sermon preached at Church of St. Andrew’s in Arlington, VA on July 15, 2018
8 Pentecost, Year B (RCL): Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

I speak to you in the Name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

         Amos was not the kind of prophet attached to temples or royal courts.  Rather, he was ‘a layman, a shepherd and dresser of fig trees’ from Judah (the southern kingdom) called by God to speak to Israel (the northern kingdom).  God’s word of judgment through Amos conflicted with the king’s high priest Amaziah, whom Amos encountered in Bethel.  When Amos told what he saw when God held up the plumb line of justice next to Israel – that the poor were being trampled – he became an instant threat to the power of both priest and king. 
         The plumb line was in use in Egypt as a builder’s tool, mostly by masons, as early as the first half of the third millennium B.C.  Two ledges of wood were joined, one above the other, at right angles to a plank.  The line was attached to the top of the plank and passed through a hole in the upper ledge.  If the line touched the edge of the lower ledge when stretched taut by the weight of the stone plumb, the stone or mud-brick wall was properly built “in plumb” or perpendicular to the ground.  The only refinement to this tool later, following the Iron Age, was the weights were made of metal.
         In the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon Press, Nashville;
 Vol. 4, 2009), the plumb line, a tool used to measure straightness, “served also as a metaphor for the moral assessment of Israel’s kings, of the nation’s adherence to the covenant, and of the justice and righteousness expected of the people.”  God is judging the sins of King Jeroboam and Israel, and Amos, the “not-prophet,” speaks for the Lord.
         Amos’s vision was of the Lord standing on a wall that had been built with a plumb line.  The Lord’s words were decisive: “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.”  Why?  Because Israel was out of plumb.  It was not perpendicular to the horizon, or level with, the Lord’s covenant and commandment.  The wall of Israel was not straight according to righteousness and justice.  The symbolism was pointed.  Israel was leaning so far out of the plumb of God’s will that the “wall” was dangerous.  It must be destroyed for safety.
         One of the commentaries (Mastering the Old Testament, Vol. 20: Hosea-Jonah; Word Publishing, Dallas, 1990) I consulted spoke of ‘crooked saints,’ as in “purposely creating a double entendre to get at the deeper meaning of this vision of Israel … and of some churches and Christians today.”  A saint, a person chosen and called by God, is ‘holy, belonging to God.’  But saints can be crooked also, out of plumb, dangerously leaning away from the upright, perpendicular in relationship to God.  They can also be downright crooked in the usual meaning of being dishonest, and still be saints.  But not without being measured against the Lord’s plumb line.
         Sometimes in the closing credits of movies, there is usually a disclaimer
stating, “Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.”  However, I suggest the comparison between a plumb line and ‘crooked saints’ says that “any resemblance to persons in 8th-century B.C. Israel or to Christians today” is clearly intended!  Crooked really means ‘not straight; leaning; out of plumb; or not straight-forward in conduct; tricky; dishonest.’  Therefore, a ‘crooked saint’ is someone who belongs to God, but whose life is inconsistent with their beliefs.  You see how that might be expansive and inclusive enough to count all of us.
         Each day, in all moments, in every situation and relationship, God stands by the wall with a plumb line, ready to note any divergence from the straight.  Is the lean becoming more pronounced?  When is the wall of our life dangerously teetering toward or away from others?   
         If the first note of the kingdom of God is righteousness, how do our walls stand by that plumb line?  Are we ‘in line’ or are we off the straight?  We need to see who we are, what we could be, and realize that we need not remain the way we are.
         The plumb line of God exposes the leaning of dichotomy between being blessed and being a blessing, between outward worship of God and true knowledge of God, between our faith and our deeds, and between being holy and holy living.
         God set a living, ever-present plumb line in history through the Incarnation.  Jesus Christ is our plumb line.  And the ‘walls’ of our lives are constantly being measured by him.  Jesus is both the Chief Cornerstone and the One who measures us by his plumb line of unconditional love, ready forgiveness, devoted service, godly purity, and earnest honesty.  The Good News for all of us is that Jesus, the Son of God, is the Master Builder of our character, not only showing us what is out of plumb, but also helping to straighten our wall(s).  We do not have to remain ‘crooked saints.’  But there are times when we refuse to admit our wall is crooked.
         I wonder if the reason God decided not to pass by Israel again was because what God found most out of plumb was Israel’s lack of response to earlier visions.  They just would not repent when God offered to relent.  The worst thing ever to be out of plumb for a saint is the unwillingness to accept forgiveness.  That pride, coupled with the refusal to return to righteousness and justice, brought forth the announcement by Amos that the wall of Israel would be destroyed.
         When Amos told Israel about the vision of the plumb line and the implications for the destruction of the sanctuaries and the sword against King Jeroboam, the prophet’s opposition was determined to get rid of him.  Amaziah, the high priest, had been waiting for his moment, and Amos had gone too far this time.  Not only had Amos threatened Amaziah’s position as high priest at Bethel, the king’s sanctuary, but he appeared to make a treasonous threat against the king.  Never mind that Amos claimed to be speaking the word of God.  Of all the people in Israel who should have been alarmed by a direct word from Yahweh, their God, it should have been the head of the religious establishment.  But then, down through history, religious leaders from popes to pastors have sometimes been the least responsive to revival or reform when such action threatened their own vested interests.
         Amaziah was quick to get word to Jeroboam about the fiery prophet from Judah and his pronouncement of judgment against the king.  Pay attention to how the high priest twists Amos’s announcement of the Lord’s words that God would rise with the sword against the house of Jeroboam.  It was a seemingly broad statement.  That could mean Jeroboam’s court or his posterity in years to come.  But Amaziah’s carefully reworded message to the king was, “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.”  It is amazing how we can misconstrue things when we want a desired response.  #FakeNews is not a new phenomenon.
         We don’t know whether Amaziah’s inflammatory message earned him an audience with the king.  What we do know is that the high priest of Israel’s polluted religion confronted Amos with authority as if he spoke for the crown.  ‘Go back to where you belong, you foreigner!  Let the people of Judah support you as one of their professional prophets, but don’t ever appear at Bethel again with your prophecies.  Be careful.  Bethel is the king’s sanctuary, and he’s liable to be there to deal with you himself.’  These are strong words from a power-hungry priest who did not know Yahweh.
         But Amaziah met his match in Amos, for the simple farmer-prophet was not only a good communicator but was also an excellent debater.  He immediately took the wind out of puffed-up Amaziah, as one by one, Amos deflated the priest’s accusations.  Amos never claimed to be a professional prophet.  Rather, the Lord “took” Amos, grasped him, and conscripted him to prophesy in Israel.  He was there by Yahweh’s authority, not his own.  Then, there, face-to-face with Amaziah, Amos began to prophesy, speaking Truth to power.
         Amaziah tried to silence Amos with ridicule and fear, for the high priest’s name meant “The Lord is strong.”  And yet the priest had done everything he could to weaken the Lord’s cause in Israel.  Deluded with syncretism, the merging of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought, and polytheism, the belief in or worship of more than one god, Amaziah had polluted Israel’s faith.  He did not want God’s truth and demands for righteousness proclaimed in Israel.  What he had not counted on was a word from Yahweh, and what a scathing word it was!
         In the verses that immediately follow today’s reading, Amos says that after the forthcoming defeat of Israel and the destruction of Bethel, Amaziah would be sent into exile.  His wife, left with resources to continue the glamorous lifestyle he had provided, would fall into prostitution.  The priest’s sons and daughters would be killed during the invasion, his land would be seized, and Amaziah would languish in the captor’s land. It’s not a pretty picture, but it does fit with an earlier prophecy from Amos that Israel’s leaders would be the first in the defeat march of exiles out of their own land.
         I think we all know people with an Amaziah complex.  Too much of this account sounds all too familiar to us in this country, and even now around the globe.  The complex is a combination of control, defensiveness, and pride.  They are master manipulators and power brokers who will use people, one against another, to get their own way.  Many who suffer from this spiritual malady are religious, but do not know God or have a deep communion with the Almighty.  They profess belief in God, but they resist God’s claims on their lives, their transgressions against their God, or the need for confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  And when the demands of righteousness are proclaimed, they can cheer if it does not invade their own plans or priorities.  There are always a few Amaziahs in most churches, and other positions of leadership.
         But before we begin to single them out, we need to get in touch with the ways that Amaziah complex may have invaded our own psyches.  A good test is to question how we might have responded to Amos’s visions, especially the plumb line.  The only sure antidote to the Amaziah complex is to let the plumb line fall on our lives every day through open, honest prayer.  Then our cry will be, “Lord, forgive me, a sinner!”  That is one thing Amaziah would not do; and the one thing we will never outgrow.  We are called to be saints ‘in plumb’ with a new commitment to pray for opportunities to practice our gift of righteousness.  It is up to us that our walls stay strong and upright and perpendicular to the horizon of the Lord’s covenant and commandments. 
Or, as my father, a Navy aviator used to say, “Straighten up, folks, and fly right!”