Amos: Captain Obvious!
How do we measure up?
When we first moved into our house, the master bathroom had no shower. But there was a closet on the other side of the wall, and so we knocked a hole (well, not we – we did hire a contractor), sealed off the closet, and turned it into the shower. Great job. The trick came when we went to put in the shower curtain, working to get it even so that the water wouldn’t sneak out over the lip.
I eyeballed it, and squared it off against the new “doorway” into the shower, and it looked good. I then stepped back into our bedroom, and the shower rod seemed to be at about a 30 degree angle. But then again, our house was built in 1955, and has been “settling” ever since. It apparently was settling at the rate of 2 degrees a year. So we got out the level, made sure the bubble was in the middle, and our new shower curtain was, indeed, level.
How do we measure up? It’s one thing to compare ourselves relative to others, whether that be positively so or negatively so. But it’s another thing altogether to have the spiritual equivalent of a level to keep us steady.
This morning we pick up the story of Amos. I love the start of this story because it says, “God put a plumb line, and then said to Amos, ‘What is this?’ Amos said, ‘It’s a plumb line.’” Thank you, Captain Obvious.
Outside of the book of Amos, little is known about him at all. His name means, “Burden” and he seems to inhabit this Debbie Downer persona. He was active at a time of relative prosperity and security, but, as the conscience of the nation, he was deeply distressed by the fact that the poor were being ignored. And this plumb line is as good a metaphor as any for God’s judgment.
The plumb line was, and is, a simple instrument used in construction. It’s a string with a weight tied to the end of it, using gravity to make a straight vertical line. The symbolism of such an image as God dangles the line before Amos is clear, that Israel must measure up to this straight line – it must build its walls of faith to these exacting standards. It must keep the covenants and commandments of the law and the promise. But it has already failed to do so, not many years after the triumphant reign of King David, and must suffer the consequences. It is Amos’ lucky job, as the prophet, to inform the king of God’s decision: that the people of Israel don’t measure up. It’s not a message that King Jeroboam wants to hear, but nor is it a message that Amos seems all that eager to deliver. He is quick to point out that the word is not his, that he’s not the regally-fed and housed prophet that Amaziah, Jeroboam’s mouthpiece, comes to represent. Instead, Amos reminds Jeroboam that the word he speaks comes from the mouth of God – it is God who holds the plumb line between a divine forefinger and thumb, not Amos. And it is Jeroboam who has led the people to build this faithless, leaning wall that appears to be crumbling.
You see, there is a burden that comes with power, particularly that of those who have been trusted with the fates of peoples and nations.
Our own tradition bears witness to this idea – John Calvin, the French Reformer living in his own diaspora in Switzerland, included a preface to the King of France in every edition of his exhaustive Institutes of the Christian Religion. And each time he begged the King to repent of his repressive, faithless, leaning-wall ways. With power, he argued, comes responsibility. And with great power comes even greater responsibility – for a when a king or a queen, a prince or a princess falls, they take an entire people with them.
But we’re not just talking about royal figures or governments or militaries or even corporations here – but we’re not not talking about them, either. We, too, standing before that simple measuring device, before that plumb line of Amos’ vision, will fall just like princes. And our falls will have consequences not just for ourselves, but for others. Our imperfectly-constructed walls will crumble like sand, for no one can stand righteous before God. No one can claim perfection. No one can present themselves as flawless. None of our constructed walls will pass inspection.
For many years, we have used the story of the Good Samaritan to correct our flaws, to use as our measuring stick, our plumb line. We have read this story for years, but it is always surprising to read it again and find how many details we’ve invented. It’s a short story, a mere paragraph, but our imaginations – perhaps from Sunday School re-enactments as a child – add all sorts of things that aren’t really there – the bandits hiding behind rocks, or that man lying in a ditch at the side of the road, the priest and Levite saying something smug and dismissive to the man. None of this information is there, but in our minds, to varying degrees, it is every bit a part of the story.
This is why it bears repeated readings – not only to flesh out the details of the story, to figure out what is Scripture and what fancy, but also to see if we are really reading the story as it was really told and whether we are learning from it what was originally being taught.
This story for us has always been a morality tale, about that poor, innocent man headed down that steep, desert slope from Jerusalem towards Jericho, and the despised Samaritan – the one who might’ve been a neighbor of those lepers in Burqin – who proves more faithful than the religiously-precocious priest and Levite. I remember very vividly those early Sunday School lessons that taught my classmates and me this cautionary tale about judging people by the color of their skin, or the amount of money in their pockets, or any other humanly-instituted dividing wall (like whether they are Samaritan or Jew or Arab). And over the years, for most of us, the Good Samaritan has come to represent our drive to be moral, our faithful living in the kingdom’s shadow. Churches have their Good Samaritan funds, as means to help those in desperate circumstances. Some cities and states in the US have now enacted Good Samaritan laws that oblige people to help those in distress or under physical threat – kind of a compelled compassion, we could call it. The good, saintly, kind Samaritan has become our plumb line, where we take our cue from his honorable actions and from Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise,” to help others. This has been the way we can measure up.
But there’s one crucial detail missing in this version – or rather, this interpretation of the story. The story is told because a young lawyer asks Jesus a question: “Who is my neighbor?” The answer to this question is the story, but at the end of the story it is Jesus who does the asking: “Who,” he asks the neighbor, “proved to be the neighbor?” Jesus does something amazing and subtle in the telling of the story – he flips the question on its head. Notice the use of the word neighbor in the two questions. The lawyer wants to know who is his neighbor. His neighbor turns out to be the one who – in the lawyer’s own words – “showed him mercy.” Here’s the turn: at the end of the story, by the time we have come to respect this Samaritan, this outcast who lends a helping hand, Jesus in essence says to the lawyer, “You came seeking your neighbor. The Samaritan is your neighbor.
Which means that you’re the one in the road. You want to know who your neighbor is? He’s the one who comes to you, salves your wounds with oil, and feeds your hunger with wine. You are not the one in a position to help. You are the one in need of help, whether you know it or not. You’re not the one with the power to change your circumstance – you are the powerless one, relying on the goodness of a stranger and outcast. You were left in the road, all but dead – but I’m telling you that today, you are alive!”
Friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are the lawyer – we are the ones who lie in the road, whether by circumstance, or of our own doing. And it is Jesus Christ, the outcast among outcasts, who comes to us, picks us up, salves us with the waters of baptism and feeds us with the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We cannot measure up, friends – that’s the good news! But even so, Christ has called us by name, has gathered us here, and has bound us together. That plumb line, dropped in our midst, is the very cross of Christ. And so it becomes a way not to strangle us with our failures, but it becomes the way by which we cling to God, by which God holds us in grace. We have been pulled from the road, called from our olive orchards, our sycamore trees, our sheep, and have been bathed and nourished in the grace of Christ. We must see ourselves not as powerful, but as powerless before the perfect holiness of God. And when we do, we will see that we have not been left for dead in the road, ignored by the respectable, but we have been given a whole new life by the one who came for the outcasts – and thereby became an outcast himself. We must, we must go and do likewise, as Jesus tells the lawyer, because it has been done for us already.
It is for this reason that we must stand before the thrones of the powerful and speak the truth of Amos. It is for this reason that we must stop along the road with the Samaritan and help the one who despises us. And when we do, we do it not in an effort to measure up, to build more effective walls, but rather to acknowledge that this plumb line has become our very lifeline.
Do we measure up? Not even close. Our walls begin to crumble before they are even built. But the good news is that God comes to us anyway, calling us, holding us, surrounding us, and shaping us to be instruments of divine grace. May we, and the whole world with us, go and do likewise. Amen.