071419 Pentecost 5c
Whenever my son tells a story, I see him looking in the distance as if he were seeing something. I know that he is literally seeing in his mind the scene he is describing. He is a visual learner and storyteller. He learns best by seeing things. Some visual learners see things before they happen. They talk about dreams that feel so real they’re sure they will come about. Amos had that gift. He didn’t consider himself a prophet, but he was disturbed by visions so real that he knew they were going to come about. Mostly he wished he didn’t see what he saw. The visions didn’t exactly make him popular. The book of Amos describes 5 of Amos’ visions. Today’s text focuses on the third vision: God standing with plumb line in hand beside a wall built with a plumb line. What is a plumb line? Unless you’ve done some building, you may not know that it’s a weight with a pointed tip on the bottom suspended from a string and used as a reference line perpendicular to the ground. It’s been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians by bricklayers, carpenters and masons to ensure that their walls are square.
Amos was proclaiming that God was measuring Israel’s unfaithfulness with a plumb line. Israel had been built with the plumb line of justice. But the structure had become crooked – it was no longer plumb. Israel no longer had the structural integrity to support its prosperity. So, it would crumble. Amos proclaimed that Israel had wandered far from the values it held dear at another moment in its history. The healing needed to restore the nation to its core values would be a painful one. God had been patient for a long time. But God spoke through Amos to say, “I will never again pass them by.” In other words, I am done overlooking their offenses. It’s time to root out the poison; to cut off the gangrened limb so that the body can live.”
Last Tuesday I stood on Western Avenue outside a Ralph’s store with hundreds of grocery store workers, as well as workers from other unions expressing solidarity with their fellow union workers. All of us listened to the Rev. Jim Lawson prophesy, both to the corporations that own the grocery stores and to the United States in the 21st century. He rooted the Grocery Worker’s strike in the struggles of workers throughout the history of this nation. He said that the country has never gotten over the “Plantation Economics” that justified slavery for centuries. It doesn’t require literal slaves and literal plantations to engage in plantation economics. Any economic system that treats workers in ways that don’t honor their full humanity is practicing plantation economics.
Many people in this country see the United States as a gleaming city set on a hill that other nations want to emulate. They support a certain kind of social policy. People who have been marginalized for one reason or another see something different. Racial and sexual minorities, immigrants and many women see how the U.S. treats them and other workers. The women’s soccer team has a unique platform right now to draw attention to the inequalities of pay between men and women. The disgusting conditions of asylum seekers at the border is another clear demonstration of considering a group of people as less than human. The threat to all immigrants with the ICE raids happening this very day also show this perspective.
Chapter 7 of the Book of Amos starts out with a vision of locusts, reminding Israel of the plagues against Egypt. That was part of Israel’s core narrative: God liberated us by sending plagues against our oppressors. How disconcerting to hear that the same plagues may now be inflicted on them because they have become oppressors! Many in the U.S. raise the possibility that this nation is in its waning days as the sole superpower. Some compare it to the seeds of destruction evident in the Roman Empire long before the actual end.
What did Amos expect people to do with his harsh message of judgment? How do we respond to the writing on the wall of our personal lives and our nation’s life? Amos understands human nature too well to give a direct answer. In his announcement of judgment, there is an implicit invitation to discernment. Once we’ve discerned we must restore faithfulness to our lives. Even though Amos doesn’t tell us how, he shows us how not to do it. The easy way to escape judgment is to deny the uncomfortable part of the truth and send the messenger away. The King’s personal priest – named Amaziah –basically said to Amos, You go your way and I’ll go mine: “Go back to hillbilly country – the hill country of Judah – where you belong. Go back to your real job, and feel free to prophesy out there in the country where it won’t matter if anyone pays attention. I’ll stay here in Bethel where the big boys play. Here religion and the state are cooperating just fine with each other. Even if what you say were true, it would be too disruptive; the land can’t bear your message.”
The Democratic party – specifically Nancy Pelosi and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez – is having the same debate today. Do we dare advocate what we really believe? Or will we get more by moderating some of our beliefs to get some positive results? The church also debates which side to take. There were many examples of this in the last century.
- The German Christian Church supported Nazi ideology, but the Confessing Church opposed Hitler, nationalism, and anti-Semitism.
- The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa supported apartheid, but in 1985 Pastor Frank Chikane gathered more than 150 clergy from 20 denominations to protest South African apartheid.
- Russian Orthodox priests collaborated with the Soviet KGB. Father Gleb Yakunin insisted that the Russian Orthodox Church publicly repent of its ties to the Soviet regime.
- The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in El Salvador wanted to be quiet in the face of government atrocities. Archbishop Óscar Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter that he could have sent to any number of our commanders in chief: “You say that you are Christian. If you are truly Christian, please stop sending military aid to the military here, because they use it only to kill my people.”
The key difference in each of these cases is the same as between Amaziah and Amos. Is the nation willing to face the painful truth, or prefer to deny or ignore it? A plumb line is a tool for that kind of discernment. We must discern the gap between our values and our behavior. Plumb lines don’t lie because the law of gravity can’t lie. If a plumb line is held against the top of the wall, and the weight at the bottom stands at some distance from the bottom of the wall, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the wall isn’t square. And whether we’re talking about literal walls or behaviors of individuals and nations, no one wants to have to tear down a wall that used to be perfectly fine and start over – especially when the wall hasn’t fallen yet!
Therein lays the challenge. Amos announces that the wall must come down. He also reminds religious folks that we have grown unaccustomed to letting the word of God speak to real life. We live in a nation where the word “God” is glibly announced in entertainment programs and political campaigns; it is invoked to support violence, economic exploitation, sexism and heterosexism. Amos reminds us that familiarity with God language will eventually threaten our experience of God if we fail to connect words with actions that will heal the gap between values and behavior in ourselves and in our society.
The challenge is for all of us – in our personal lives, church lives and life as a society. Even though God is present in every moment as the source of guidance and inspiration, our ability to experience God, and God’s ability to become the center of our lives, is conditioned by our focus and our faithfulness. God’s aim toward wholeness is always concretely present in the events of our lives. If we have confused the God of possibility and beauty with gods of our own making and our own prosperity, God’s whisper may be drowned out by the shouting of the false gods of our own contrivance. So watch and listen; discern and act. God may yet restore us.