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July 11, 2021 ~ Proper 10 ~ Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Eighth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29.
The Plumb Line
“This is what the Sovereign, Yahweh, showed me: God was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in hand. / “what do you see, Amos,?” Yahweh, God asked. / And I said, “A plumb line.” — Amos 7:7-8a
If you were here last week or heard it online you know I told a story about being drafted into the army in 1968 and going to Vietnam. Today I want to start with a life story from even a little before that. If you accuse me of telling stories I will plead guilty.
In January of 1961, January 6th to be precise, to be exact, my family moved into what was for us a new house. I was 13.
I can name the date with accuracy for two reasons. January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, the feast which celebrates the arrival of the Magi, often called “Three Kings Day.” My mother called it “Little Christmas.”
I think she called it “Little Christmas” because of her very Catholic upbringing. But what really made this particular “Little Christmas” special for my mother is on that day she was now in a new house and she repeated over and over numerous times because of a new house it was not just “Little Christmas” for her. This was Christmas.
I can also identify that date in January because just days later, January 20th, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated. And I know I watched the inauguration in that new house. My very Catholic parents, being very Eisenhower Republicans, still felt pride that Kennedy, the first Catholic President, had been elected.
January 20th, 1961 was on a Friday. I was in the seventh grade. So, why was I not in school but watching the inaugural?
There had been a major East Coast snow storm and all the schools were closed for the day. I am quite sure a certain 13 year old altar boy felt getting this day, a day on which the inauguration of JFK happened and being home from school because of a snowstorm, was a gift from God.
Back to this new house. The bathroom sink was simply attached to the wall, no legs, no cabinet, no storage space underneath. You could see the drain pipe.
That Summer my Mother asked me to build a rolling cabinet which could be pulled in and out and fit under the sink. I have no idea where she found plans to make a rolling cabinet— this was 1961— no Internet, no place to search for plans, but she found some.
These instructions were quite specific as to what was needed— lumber, wheels, paint. What the plans did not have was measurements since all sinks are different. They told you how to measure but measuring was left up to the builder— in this case me. In measuring I, effectively, set the standards by which the cabinet was built.
And, having measured, I got to work. Measuring was important since the cabinet did have to fit under the sink and roll in and out. Too tall, it would not fit under; too short or wide, there would be too much space around the edge.
I became very familiar with a tape measure and a carpenter’s level, a bubble level. The level was especially needed because the thing had to roll evenly.
If there is any lesson I learned in putting this together it’s the importance of measuring. Measuring sets up standards, especially when measuring is up to you. I am proud to say not only did I successfully complete the cabinet but it was in the bathroom until it got re-built some 20 years later. (Slight pause.)
These words are in the work known as Amos: “This is what the Sovereign, Yahweh, showed me: God was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in hand. / “what do you see, Amos,?” Yahweh, God asked. / And I said, “A plumb line.” (Slight pause.)
In the original texts the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are sometimes referred to as “seers.” Why? They were believed to be able to see things others could not.
Clearly Amos sees things others do not. In this case Amos sees God at a wall with a plumb line. A plumb line— a very ancient device used to keep things straight, level. It’s is a string with a weight, an instrument used to provide measurement, a reference line.
I therefore think one question for us becomes what is being measured? Is it the people of Israel? Is it us? I think neither.
I say neither even though the text makes it clear the Israelites failed when being measured. That failure, their failure, is not the point. They fail because a comparison is being made. So the real question is ‘a comparison to what?’ (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest the plumb line, a tool of measurement and a wall, the finished product, represent standards. What is the standard to which God invites us? Love. And in theory at least, justice— the justice of God— needs to flow from love.
I think we miss, do not understand, this very simple idea way too often: justice must flow from love. We miss this because we see justice as being one sided. We speak in terms of ‘my justice’ or ‘our justice.’ This sets up sides. But the place to which God invites us is love of all and therefore the place to which God invites us is justice for all.
Further, I would argue justice is not singular. My justice, alone, can never be a fullness of justice because justice for all cannot be possessed by one individual. Hence, I would also argue justice can happen only in community and through community.
That brings me back to my building a cabinet and standards. Measuring, as I did, as I had to do, in building the cabinet, is important. Standards need to be both attained and maintained. For me, the wall and the plumb line, these images Amos saw, have to do with identifying a standard. (Slight pause.)
And to reiterate, the standard of God is love. And both justice for all and all justice flow from love. Therefore, our problem can be twofold: first, sometimes we fail to correctly, accurately, identify that standard. Second, we sometimes fail to maintain that standard. (Slight pause.)
Earlier I said the cabinet I built lasted twenty years. Let me say two things about that. First, the plans told me how to do it but did not tell me what the measurements were.
God tells us how to it, how to do justice: love God, love neighbor. Then God places the measuring of justice— a measurment determined by love— in our hands. God relies on us. If the fact that God relies on us does not give us pause nothing will.
Second, wear and tear, time, use, does deteriorate cabinets. Wear and tear has the same effect on us on our standards, our understanding of justice.
So guess what? We have exactly the same problem as the Israelites— determining the standards and maintaining the standards.
But I think there is clearly one thing we can learn from the visions of Amos. I maintain that for Amos love and justice are one. But seeing love and justice as intertwined, seeing that as a standard is something with which we have a hard time.
A basic reason for that is rather than letting God’s love be our standard we let the culture take over. Here’s an example of that, perhaps an odd one but it’s one I like. I am sure we’ve all heard of Theory of Relatively. I am not suggesting we understand it, I’m not sure I do, just that we’ve heard of it.
Most of us hear the term Theory of Relativity and we twist the meaning. We say, O.K.— that means everything is relative, mobile, moves. No— the theory of relatively— E=MC2— says energy and matter change. These are mobile.
But the letter C represents the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, the ultimate standard. The speed of light never changes. The Theory of Relativity says everything is measured from that standard, that plumb line. What is measured changes. The plumb line does not change.
The plumb line of God is love. Love God; love neighbor. That is what needs to define how we measure our life, ourselves, our life with one another, how we measure justice. You see, everything is relative only in the sense that everything needs to relate to loving God and neighbor.
Is that simple to do? No. If it was simple we would be much better at it. But that does not mean we should give up. We need to continue to engage in building the cabinet. We need to continue to use the plumb line called love. Amen.
North Yarmouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I am sure most of us have seen a classic New Yorker type cartoon with a scraggy looking bearded man in a robe carrying a sign with a prediction of the apocalypse: ‘The end of the world is coming.’ I once stumbled across a good version of that cartoon. Someone with a scraggy looking beard was wearing in a robe and carrying a sign. The sign said, ‘The world is not coming to an end. Therefore, you must learn to cope.’ And that is part of the issue, is it not? Things are not perfect. But we are called to do what we can to help things be better and to do so through love.”
BENEDICTION: Let us, above all, surround ourselves with the perfect love of God, a love which binds everything together in harmony. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.