“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. 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. . .”
For the past two weeks, I have lived in two different worlds. As many of you know, I have been an Alternate Deputy from the Diocese of Washington at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis. For the past ten days, I have been immersed in what one person referred to as “a worshiping community that also does some legislation.” Daily morning Holy Eucharists were rich and diverse. They plunged us deeply into the most ancient and modern of Christian traditions and music among Anglo, Latino, Asian and Native American peoples. Days were packed: very early morning committee meetings, long stretches of legislative sessions, fast-paced lunches, late-night deputation meetings.
The other world in which I lived for the past two weeks is the one of the prophet Amos. Amos lived in the eighth century BCE. He was, by his own words, a herdsman and an agriculturalist—one who tended fig-bearing trees. He did not decide to become a prophet. That was God’s idea. So Amos found himself called by God to proclaim God’s words of judgment against God’s own people.
As I have sat in the House of Deputies—a room about the size of a football field, I have listened to diverse voices within the Episcopal Church. I have also heard Amos’ words in my heart and wondered where these voices intersect. In other words, does Amos, an Old Testament prophet, have a word to speak to the Church today?
A plumb line—both in the ancient world and today—is a simple device used by contractors. It ensures that when they build a wall, that wall will be straight and true. Yet Amos’ use of a plumb line in today’s reading is a little different. In Amos’ vision, the Lord stands beside a wall holding a plumb line. However, the wall has already been built with a plumb line. The wall is not what is misaligned. The people are. God is saying to God’s people that somewhere along the way, religious and political institutions have taken on attitudes and policies that are not what God intended.
Now I must digress a moment to say that contemporary scholars differ about whether the original Hebrew words in this passage mean “plumb line” or “wall of tin.” Why? “The Hebrew word ‘anak appears only here in the Old Testament. It appears to be related to the Akkadian word for ‘tin.’” The plumb line analogy began in the medieval era. If one uses the “tin” symbol—tin being a thin, pliable, weak metal—then a military invasion would easily destroy the weak, pliable, soft people of God.
Regardless of the interpretation, it is clear that God is unhappy with the way God’s people are living. They have become caught up in their institutional power and policy, their “prosperity and prestige.” Over time, too many of God’s people have stopped caring about what happens to the poor, the sick, those who live on the margins of society. Amos preaches truth to power. This truth—as is usually the case—is not received well.
Amaziah is the priest of Bethel. He symbolizes institutional Church power. Institutional power—whether political, economic or ecclesial—likes to hold and wield power. People in high places in the government, corporate offices or the church do not respond well to Twitter-led revolutions, Occupy Movements or people who want to re-imagine how the Church operates in a 21st century world.
The first thing Amaziah does is to discredit the prophet. The symbol of eighth century religious power sends a letter to the symbol of political power. “Dear Mr. President: this man named Amos is a threat to our homeland security. He isn’t well educated or well credentialed. Besides, he speaks out against both the government and the church. He insists that we are all in danger. That some foreign power is going to come rolling through our country and destroy our political, economic and religious structures. He insists we will lose our dearly-loved way of making policy and liturgies. But don’t worry. My people are on this. We will send him and his big mouth back to Judah. Sincerely yours, Amaziah.”
Amaziah calls Amos a “seer” and orders him to take his little doom and gloom message back to Judah. He orders Amos to “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” In other words, we don’t want the status quo to be disturbed by truth spoken to power. We want to continue to do things the way they have always been done—even if we shrivel up and die from the inside out. Even if the people who really matter to God get neglected or pushed aside. Even if those in the world outside church doors see absolutely no connection with our liturgies and their lives.
Amos is not cowed. He knows who he is. It wasn’t his idea to be a prophet. He had another vocation. But God has put God’s words into Amos’ heart and mouth, so Amos will obey and prophesy to God’s people—whether his words are well received or not. Amos will speak truth to power. He knows that God will not give up on God’s people, that they can re-align themselves with God’s dream of humankind. The path may be messy and at times unclear. People may get their feelings hurt. Some may feel left behind by the political, corporate or religious structures they have held so dear. Yet God will be present and faithful to God’s people—in the eighth century and in the twenty-first century CE.
In the past two weeks, it has been clear to me that God is present and faithful, at a time when the Church—especially the Episcopal Church—is poised at the edge of a new vision for God’s people. A vision that re-aligns us with how God has called us to live. A vision that gives us guidance for our lives of faith. In the words of one preacher I heard last week) our question should not be “What would Jesus do?” Rather, we must ask the question “What DID Jesus do?”
The Two Great Commandments, a distillation of the Ten, call us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Today’s prophets call us to re-define just who our neighbor is. In the past two weeks, I have heard and seen the powerful vision of what God’s Church can do—if we will listen to God and re-align ourselves with God’s dream.
What have I heard and seen? The Episcopal Church supports bi-partisan legislation like the Dream Act—which would enable high school students of immigrant families to find a pathway for citizenship, as well as a college education. The Episcopal Church supports youth and young adults—a number of whom were part of the official Youth Presence at Convention, whose prophetic voices were heard clearly, challenging us to include them in real and present ways in the Church.
Both the House of Deputies and House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church support a new Task Force that will restructure how the Church does business. The Episcopal Church supports transgendered persons by saying that those who seek Holy Orders will be welcomed just as any other persons. The Episcopal Church supports mission—giving special emphasis during Convention to financial support for our struggling brothers and sisters in Southern Sudan, Brazil, and Haiti. The Episcopal Church supports gay and lesbian people whose voices have sounded prophetically for years.
What do you suppose the eighth century prophet Amos would say to the Episcopal Church’s contemporary prophets? What do you suppose he would think about our efforts to re-align institutional structures—political, economic and religious—with God’s dream for the world? Somehow I think Amos would say, “Good work, people of God! Yes, only God knows what the future holds. Yes, the way ahead is messy and uncertain. Yes, God is present and faithful to God’s people. Keep listening to God. Keep watching God. With God’s vision, you will become God’s plumb line. You will be changed. The Church will be changed. The nation will be changed. The world will be changed. Then may God’s holy name be praised. Amen.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Pictures accessed at Google images.
 David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol.3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 219-221.
 Ibid, 223.