First UMC Shelbyville
July 15, 2012
Amos 7:7-15 (NRSV)
7:7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.
7:8 And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;
7:9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
7:10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.
7:11 For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’”
7:12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there;
7:13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
7:14 Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,
7:15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Le Grand K has a problem.
Le Grand K is a cylinder made of platinum and iridium which is kept in carefully-controlled conditions in a vault outside Paris, France. Every 40 years or so, it is taken out of its vault, carefully washed with alcohol, and then weighed – although maybe it’s not quite accurate to say that Le Grand K is weighed. That’s because weighing something means comparing it to a standard, and Le Grand K is supposed to be the standard by which everything else is weighed – Le Grand K is intended to be the official definition of the kilogram, the unit of weight in the metric system, used by most of the world and by scientists in every country.
The trouble is that, in 1988, the last time it was taken out and examined, it was lighter than its 80 official replicas – by the difference of a grain of sand. Experts aren’t sure what has happened. Perhaps the replicas, which are handled more often, have picked up mass somehow. Or perhaps Le Grand K has lost it somehow.
Other units of measurement are now designed to be compared to physical constants. There used to be a rod, similar to Le Grand K, which was the official length of one meter. But now, one meter is defined as the distance light travels in 1 / 299,792,458th of a second in a vacuum. That’s something that can be measured and duplicated anywhere in the world that you have scientific equipment – provided we’re all in agreement about how long a second is.
But there hasn’t been a similar, reproducible way to define the kilogram yet – and there are other units of measurement based on the kilogram that are important to engineering and design.
As electronic circuitry becomes smaller and smaller, according to Mental Floss magazine, tiny variations in the official weight of a kilogram could be enough to cause problems.
God, however, has no problem setting a standard. God appeared to Amos holding a plumb line. Any builder knows what a plumb line is. It’s just a weight at the end of a string. Because of the pull of gravity, a plumb line always hangs straight up and down, and so you can use it as a reference for building something, or for judging something that’s already been built, to see if it’s absolutely vertical. In the days before bubble levels, a plumb line was especially important.
Amos lived in the day of the divided kingdom. After the time of David and Solomon, the land of Israel had split – there was the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Amos was from the southern kingdom, but God sent him to deliver a special word to the northern kingdom.
It’s perhaps appropriate that Amos would pop up in the lectionary this week, because Amos goes out of his way to identify himself as not being a professional prophet. He tells those who challenge him that he is simply a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.
Some translations use the word “shepherd” instead of “herdsman,” but the Hebrew word in Amos is not the same one translated “shepherd” in some other places in the scriptures, so some scholars think that the reference here is to cattle instead of sheep.
The sycamore fig tree, which grew in the Holy Land, had to be taken special care of. In order for the figs to mature correctly and produce good fruit for harvest, someone had to cut a little slit in each fig while it was still growing on the tree. So that’s what Amos was describing when he called himself a “dresser of sycamore trees.” When he wasn’t herding cattle, he was climbing sycamore trees to make those little slits in each individual fig.
In any case, Amos was a farmer, not a professional prophet, which means, as I like to think of it, that Amos was a lay speaker.
Now, in my travels as a lay speaker – and June and July have turned out to be a busy couple of months for me – I’m not usually too controversial, although I had Ed Perryman tell me a couple of weeks ago at Shiloh United Methodist that he was going to have to go home and soak his feet because I’d stepped on his toes. But Amos was given a message of challenge and condemnation, a harsh message that the people of the northern kingdom didn’t really want to hear, especially coming from one of those southerners.
The plumb line represented a standard – a standard that God had set for his people, but which the northern kingdom of Israel had failed to meet.
When I was at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry a couple of weeks ago, I was working with teenagers as part of the Summer Plus program. We tended to get through with our day earlier than the home repair folks, and so I’d be sitting in the lobby of Friends Cabin as the home repair teams started rolling back into camp.
On Monday, as the members of one team walked in, I asked them what they’d done that day, and they told me that they had to spend most of the morning undoing what another team had done two weeks earlier. Some windows had been installed at their site, and the point person at that site didn’t do it the way he’d been told to do it. The window headers were too small. They were supposed to be wider than the windows, and they weren’t. So the team that was there during my week had to pull those windows out, put in new headers and then put the windows back in.
God had a design for his chosen people, and in the days of Amos the northern kingdom was not living up to that design. They were not on the level; they were out of kilter compared to God’s plumb line.
When something is built that isn’t level and plumb, that isn’t up to code, the authorities have the right to demand that it be torn down. Just as the work crew at Mountain T.O.P. had to pull out those windows and start over again, when God calls something not up to standard God will cause or allow it to be torn down.
So, to what kind of standard was God holding the people of the northern kingdom? A standard of justice, and fair treatment of all. Earlier in the book of Amos, God says, “… [T]hey sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” That reference to “pushing the afflicted out of the way” has to do with more than just courtesy. The NIV translates it as “deny[ing] justice to the oppressed.”
In the cities of Amos’ day, the gate of the city was where you went to publicly air your complaints against your neighbor, or to formalize agreements with your neighbor. In the book of Ruth, the gate of the city is where Boaz went to establish his claim to redeem Ruth and her family’s property. The gate of the city served as a sort of courthouse. It was a place where you were in full public view, and where everything you did could be judged, not only by the authorities, but by your fellow citizens.
If you were pushing the afflicted out of the way at the gate, it meant you were somehow preventing them from getting access to justice. It would be as if you deliberately kept someone away from the courthouse at the time their case was to be heard.
The theme of justice for the poor and oppressed runs throughout the book of Amos.
In the western world, the symbol of justice is a woman, wearing a blindfold and carrying a set of scales – which ties in nicely with our theme of standards and measurement. I remember as a child I think the first place I ever saw the figure of justice was the opening credits of “Perry Mason” reruns. The blindfold means that justice is blind – it doesn’t recognize any special parties, and isn’t supposed to favor those of wealth, privilege or position. The scales are meant to be an objective standard – that type of balance scale either balances or it doesn’t. It’s a scientific measurement, not a matter of preference.
Justice requires that we set aside our personal preferences and interests and connections, and ensure that everyone gets fair treatment.
The Bible is very protective of the poor. There are numerous verses in both testaments calling on God’s people to treat the poor both fairly and compassionately.
In our modern age, though, we’ve learned to defend ourselves from taking responsibility for the poor by making excuses and generalizations. It must be their fault that they’re poor. After all, I heard about someone who was abusing the system and taking advantage of our generosity, so that must mean that everyone is crooked, and that means I don’t have to worry about helping anyone. Pretty convenient, huh?
But that doesn’t meet God’s standard. God’s standard is for justice; each person is to be treated fairly, according to his own merits. And each person is to be treated with love and compassion. God treats us with both justice and compassion – for which we can all be glad; if God treated us only with justice, we would be in a poor position indeed. As Clint Eastwood said in the movie “Unforgiven,” “We’ve all got it coming.”
Treating our fellow man with something less than justice and compassion fails to line up with God’s plumb line.
And that means that we, as Christians, need to be involved, both in individual acts of compassion and in making sure that our society is a place that treats people fairly and justly, regardless of their income.
In “A Christmas Carol,” when the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge compliments his old partner by calling him a good businessman.
“Business?” answers Marley. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
As Christians, charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence are our business as well.
While Amos places a special emphasis on justice, especially as it relates to the poor, he also calls out the leadership of the northern kingdom on its promiscuity and sexual sins.
“Father and son go in to the same girl,” God said to Amos, “so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.”
So the leaders of the northern kingdom are behaving in sexually immoral ways, and they’ve got the gall to do so while lying on garments taken from the common people, and they drink wine purchased with fines they imposed on the common people.
Amos has delivered a sharp rebuke to the people of the northern kingdom and to its king, Jeroboam, whom Amos prophesies will die by the sword.
Amos, by the way, hasn’t actually wandered into the heart of the northern kingdom to make this prophecy, despite the way Amaziah describes it to King Jeroboam. Instead, he’s crossed just over the border into Bethel, one of the southernmost cities in the northern kingdom.
Amaziah, a priest from Bethel and a part of the power structure – therefore, a part of the problems to which Amos has been referring – serves as the go-between, sending reports about Amos’s message to King Jeroboam. And Amaziah, somewhat indignantly, tries to convince Amos to go home to Judaea and cause problems there.
When someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, and they’re not a native, it’s easy to dismiss them as an “outside agitator,” which of course is a distraction that says nothing whatsoever about the truth or falsehood of their message.
Amaziah tells Amos to stay away from Bethel and go prophesy someplace else. But Amos responds with that phrase I mentioned earlier – “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” In other words, Amos isn’t a full-time prophet, and he’s not prophesying just for the sake of prophesying or to fulfill some sort of image of himself. He’s there to deliver a very specific message in response to a specific command from God.
Sometimes, our service to God has to do with everything except God’s actual commands. We see ourselves as, if not prophets, then perhaps pillars of the church. Or we’re attracted to some particular type of service because of some reason that’s irrelevant at best and self-serving at worst. We’re active in the church, not because God has called us to a specific task, but because we want to feel warm and fuzzy, or because it’s a good way to meet customers, or because that’s what dear old grandma wanted us to do.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for tradition, and there’s something to be said for finding a place where you enjoy serving. But our own human concerns need to be secondary. The primary reason for us to serve is because God has called us.
How do we hear that call? There are some tasks to which God calls all of us through the scriptures. Then, there are some tasks to which God calls specific people at specific times, just as God called Amos from the southern kingdom to deliver a strong message to the people of the northern kingdom.
The common thread in both the demand for justice and Amos’s defense of his prophetic message is the call of God. God calls us to measure up to the divine standard – the divine plumb line. And God calls us, like Amos, to speak or act in particular ways in our pursuit of that divine standard. That requires that we be attentive to God’s word, however it comes to us – through the Bible, through others, or to that still, small voice of God.
If we do not listen to God, whatever we build will be out of plumb – not up to standard. And if what we build is not up to standard, sooner or later it will need to be demolished at the hand of the master craftsman.