The Dreaded Plumb Line

Preached at Jacob’s Well, Chandler, AZ on July 15, 2012
Based on Amos 7:7-17

A few years ago, an ethics professor at Clarke College wanted to know what college students were debating in and out of class.  She observed that they spent most of their time discussing social morality – the ethics of the society as a whole – sexuality, abortion, the economy, all the political hot topics.  Almost nothing was said about private decency in classrooms, dorms or apartments, nothing about honesty, personal responsibility or honor.  At the same time that students were getting fired up about the pros and cons of abortion, campus-wide cheating on tests, plagiarism, and excessive drinking and “sleepovers” were on the rise.

This doesn’t surprise me. I can expand the data pool to include the people who seek my advice as a minister. I find it’s fairly common for people to come to me and want to know what the Bible says about some controversial issue – abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, stem cell research, cremation, homosexuality, transplant surgery, divorce…or fill in the blank with your own personal hot topic.  Surprisingly, it is not so common for people to ask me what the Bible says about how much money they should give away.  To date, no one has ever asked me whether the Bible says anything about whether or not they need to move their family into a poor neighborhood or a struggling school to share resources and hope.  As I recall, nobody has ever come to ask me what Jesus would have said about the way they invest their retirement savings.  Hypocrisy, self-deception, cruelty, selfishness, these are rarely the concern of the day.

Why is that?

Why are we more concerned about what the Bible says about homosexuality than what it says about how we use our financial income?  Why do we worry so about abortion, but not about the children who are spiritually murdered in the poverty in our own communities?  Why is it that we want justice in the form of the death penalty, but we’re willing to try to get away with as much as possible as long as it benefits us or the ones we love?  It seems that if we keep the big issues – the “hot topics” out front – we won’t have to look at our own “stuff”.  If we can turn everyone’s attention to the BIG ISSUES, our daily ethical choices won’t be noticed so much.

Well, somebody’s noticing. The people whose lives are impacted by our decisions notice even if we don’t notice them. And as a matter of fact, if we take the Bible even halfway seriously, God notices.  And according to Amos, God doesn’t just notice.  God is taking notes.

Read the Amos 7:7-17

In my tradition, after the reading of Scripture, we say: This is the word of the Lord.  And the people respond:  Thanks be to God.  I confess this is one of the hardest passages for me to utter that response and mean it.  It’s hard for me to hear the words of Amos.  It’s hard because Amos is telling some pretty hard truths.  He holds up a mirror and makes me look right into it. And I don’t much like what I see.  When God calls for the plumb line – these words fly like an arrow right into my heart:  How do you measure up?

This judging God – the judgment God’s prophets call for seem pretty harsh.  How do we reconcile ourselves with a God who brings harsh judgment and the generous God that Jesus describes when he says: ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.  We Christians, and church people in general have spent a lot of energy focusing our faith on a forgiving God, a loving God, a God who sent his own son so that all who believe in him might find salvation.  This God that Amos describes, this angry, punishing God is not so appealing.

But listen to why God is so upset with Israel.

  • They rejected God’s revelation, refused to keep God’s commands.
  • They swallowed the same old lies that got their ancestors into trouble.
  • They continue to buy and sell good people.  People have become a commodity – a way to make money.
  • They sell the poor for shoes – they even sell out their own families to make a buck.
  • They grind the penniless into the dirt, shove the luckless into a ditch on their way to the top.
  • The stuff they’ve extorted from their victims is what they bring to the temple as an offering of praise. Then they sit there giving thanks and toasting each other with fine wine at their success.

Well thank God none of us here is as bad as all that!  And thank God for Jesus!  We don’t have to worry about God’s judgment any more.  Jesus paid the price.  Right?  Right?

So why do we struggle so?  If we believe that God’s forgiveness trumps God’s judgment, why is it we still wonder if we have measured up?  Why is it that there’s still some niggling doubt, some itchy guilt that makes us wonder whether we’ve been good enough, whether we’ve done enough?

I wonder if we struggle because we keep avoiding the fundamental point.  It’s not about memorizing rules and reciting them back, it’s not about having the user manual at the ready to prove that we’re doing everything the right way.  We don’t get points because we’ve done a good job analyzing and critiquing the situation.  God simply wants us to do the right thing – the righteous thing.  And that plumb line of justice and mercy is what we have to measure ourselves with.

Jesus talked about the Good Samaritan.  It was a story that everybody could connect with. It had an obvious answer to the question: who is my neighbor.  But that’s the problem.  It’s not enough that everybody knows, that everybody understands the right answer.  Knowing and understanding are nothing if nobody wants to do what it takes to live the answer.  Where do our energy and commitment go?  Are we focused on the well-being of victims of oppression and violence in the community, to neighbors who are rejected?  Or have we simply noticed it, lamented it, maybe thrown a little money at it and moved on.  From what I read in Amos and pretty much the entire Bible, it’s pretty clear that this actually living a life oriented toward justice and mercy comes with a pretty significant personal cost.

Try living this way for a day – for an hour!  What would our world be like if we consistently and continually focused on the needs of the victims in this world and then tried to mobilize all our resources to do something about it?  Too big?  Bring it to the micro: think about someone in your neighborhood.  Still too much?  What about someone in your immediate circle of acquaintances?  How would your life change, the lives of your family members change if you made that neighbor the center of your concern?  As much as we might rather get lost in the questions about how to define the commandments, as much as we would try to turn our focus to the minutiae of the law, as often as we allow ourselves to get bogged down in figuring out just how to meet the MINIMUM standards, God is paying attention, plumb line in hand, waiting to see what we actually DO.

Like God’s chosen people in that long ago kingdom, we are out of plumb and the integrity of this entire world-changing project is at risk.  Israel was not living as a light for the nations – the one job God for which God created them.  And neither are we if we continue living as if care of creation, care of neighbor is secondary to our own self-improvement.  So the builder will continue to take full responsibility to dismantle the wall, to tear it down.  As harsh as that sounds, the destruction of the out-of-plumb wall is the only way to begin again.  And that’s the good news:  God does have a plumb line.  And if the walls of our faith don’t meet code, God won’t be walking away.  We can be sure that we will be remade again and again and again.  This is the word of the Lord!  Thanks be to God!

2 thoughts on “The Dreaded Plumb Line

  1. Deb,
    I’m reading this in Guatemala while you’re in AZ preparing to preach this to Jacob’s Well : )
    These are inspired words for our church and I’m so thankful that God brought you to share them.
    We actually used an old-school plumb-line this past week while constructing a kitchen for a poor family here in the Highlands. At times we had to take concrete blocks out of the wall and start again when it was out of plumb. With practice, patience and perseverence, the wall became a more solid structure. And one day, if it gets “out of whack”, we’ll have to accept the fact that it will need to be torn down and built again.
    Thanks for your reminder to live in line with God’s pursuit of justice!
    Jay Cooper

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