Sermon Seeds: A Plumb Line
Sunday, July 10, 2022
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Amos 7:7–17 and Psalm 82
Deuteronomy 30:9–14 and Psalm 25:1–10
A Plumb Line
In and With: A Plumb Line (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
Sometimes, we need tools. They help us to accomplish a task more efficiently or accurately. Some tools enable us to leverage our strength or replace our own efforts. Other tools assist us in evaluation and measurement. They aren’t used to do the work, but supply information needed to correct or reorient our work. Tools have value primarily in how they relate to the user and their function. A plumb line is a tool used in construction.
The plumb line consisted of a cord of some sort that was weighted down on one end. When held up, the weight would serve to align the cord in a vertical, straight line. That line was used to measure the placement of beams and other items in building. Similar to today’s level, the plumb line was not employed in making the connection between two separate and distinct items. Rather, it was used to assess the connection, determine deviation, and point toward correct positioning.
A builders’ device consisting of a string with a weight, or plummet, on one end. The weight forces the cord to hang vertically so that builders and renovators are able to check the alignment of walls they are constructing and make sure that they are perpendicular to the center of gravity of the earth. The plumb line is also used to recognize walls that are tilted and need to be torn down. Used metaphorically in the Bible, the plumb line is a tool to enable the people of Israel to delineate righteousness and truth from apostasy (Amos 7:7-9). It also occurs as a testing tool: justice is the line and righteousness the plummet that tests rebuilt Jerusalem (Isa. 28:17). The measuring line and plummet used to condemn Ahab’s Samaria also condemn Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 21:13), while chaos and confusion are brought to Edom by God’s line and plummet (Isa. 34:11). Zerubbabel’s holding a plummet in his hands at the time of the temple’s reconstruction (Zech. 4:10) may be a literal reference to its normal usage, but this passage may also be interpreted metaphorically.Katharine A. Mackay
The focus scripture contains numerous forms within a relatively brief passage. It begins with a vision report with the Holy One asking the prophet a question, “What do you see?” A judgment speech declaring impending doom transitions to judgment prose that reveals the antipathy between prophet (Amos) and priest (Amaziah). The vision permeates the remainder of the passage with the image of God standing beside a wall that was already built with an instrument to test the condition of the structure.
It is significant that the vision notes the wall was built with a plumb line. Presumably, the structure was declared initially sound with that tool. Maybe it was. After all, buildings can shift. The foundation may have cracked; environmental factors may have caused the wall to move. Even a slight change could have an impact on the structure. At the same time, it’s possible that the initial tool was faulty. The wall may be off-kilter because the plumb line was not correctly formed. In other words, the standard for measurement and the tool for positioning was not calibrated properly.
What happens when you’ve been assessing something only to realize that you’ve used the wrong measurement? What happens when you seek a solution to a problem only to find out that the problem you’re centered on is a symptom and not the disease? What happens when the problem isn’t voter turnout but voter suppression? What happens when the church has struggled through conflict over worship styles only to discover the underlying issue is the distancing and isolating of the faith community from the world in which she resides? What happens when we finally figure out the main thing?
Sometimes, you need a new plumb line to test the effectiveness, veracity, and precision of the existing plumb line.
The Holy One sets up a plumb line in the midst of the people. Presumably, the people had the words of the Law as a guide. There were priests and prophets among them. Yet, they lost their way. The Builder calls them back to reorient themselves with a tool of God’s own crafting:
In Amos’ view of God’s actions, sovereign judgment and majestic compassion are both found, though not always in equal amounts. But the grandeur of his grasp of Yahweh’s greatness frames the backdrop for biblical discipleship in every era, not least our own. Our covenant privileges must be enjoyed with humility, since Yahweh cares for and commands the destinies of all peoples, even our enemies. Our sense of security must ever be anchored in our God alone, since our days of prosperity are his blessing and our times of austerity may be his discipline. Our worship must motivate and inform our acts of righteousness and justice towards all humanity, especially the poor, afflicted and oppressed. Our piety must have as one essential aim (and one vital test of validity) the emulation of the concerns of the One whom we adore, the One who has shown himself to be ultimate righteousness and justice, final truth and grace, in Jesus Christ.David Allan Hubbard
The plumb line reminds us that the judgment of God is corrective in nature. The object is not punishment for its own sake. Consequences and accountability lead to transformation when corrective judgment is employed. The plumb line allows the people to observe for themselves where they deviated from God’s design, will, and path.
What is our plumb line? Who placed it among us? Do we notice its presence?
I am reminded of the Quaker worship tradition of gathering for a meeting and waiting for the Spirit to speak through someone in the meeting. The idea is that as they assemble, the Spirit will bring a fresh revelation during that gathering. The only preparation needed is internal. No prophet or priest is necessary…only a listening heart and a willing messenger. That’s a plumb line amidst the people.
For some faith communities, the plumb line is scripture, but even that can vary widely in interpretation and understanding. For others, it may be tradition. The challenge there is that tradition can often distill to only praxis and fail to examine the plumb lines used by spiritual predecessors in discerning the soundness of those practices for their time…and our time. In many congregations, nationalism has been the plumb line. A faith that preferences one people over others, that celebrates symbols of that nation in the same way as those of the faith, and that justifies the continued oppression and subjugation of any human being and of creation has lost its way.
The plumb line that the Holy One places against a way built with a plumb line also cautions us that even walls, structures, and faith communities built well with care can shift. Even slight shifts can have damaging and lasting consequences.
As an example, some wonder, what is the harm in singing patriotic hymns around those holidays? It is a choice that idolizes country over Creator. Others may question the significance of using expansive language in naming God. It is a choice, consistent with the witness of scripture, that encourages a more expansive understanding of God over a limited view.
The plumb line calls us to question what we take for granted and to make necessary corrections. In the days of Amos, God’s judgment was that the wall was so faulty it needed to be demolished and rebuilt. Previous warnings had been ignored. Anyone who has ever had care and responsibility over a building knows that ongoing maintenance is preferable to major repair. A small crack unattended becomes a rift that threatens the foundation. One broken window is easier to replace than all the openings in the house.
Sometimes, major overhaul cannot be avoided. A natural disaster occurs and decimates a community. Lightning strikes and burns down a home. Those things happen without warning and are largely beyond human control. Although, we have seen how human manipulation and neglect has escalated the impact of nature’s destructive power.
But, much of the biblical reckoning occurs after extensive warnings of pending accountability. Judgment isn’t the consequence; it’s the corrective vision of the distance between where we are and where God would have us to be. That’s the assessment provided by the plumb line–that distance. The more we fail to recognize it matters, the further the distance becomes. Eventually, small steps to change aren’t sufficient; a complete turn is needed. Transformation can come in the small steps or in the complete turn; the timing and magnitude of our corrective measures is our choice to make.
In the midst of a world in chaos, we need a plumb line. We need to be anchored and rooted in measures that reorient us toward the kindom on earth as it is in heaven, in restoration of creation, and liberty and God’s justice.
In the vision, God asks Amos, “What do you see?” Amos could have said, “I see a wall.” He could have said, “I see you, O God.” Amos said, “I see a plumb line.” Of course, we know that he saw it all, but in that moment, his focus was on the instrument of God and the purpose of God. There is so much to observe in the world. We have access to set our attention on whatever we would like and curate it in a way that suits us. But, in this vision, Amos acknowledges what God has brought to the forefront…the main thing…a plumb line.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
We are, if we choose, forever becoming more human and will act more responsibly. God created us to be human and humane. So as we learn and practice reading Scripture with transparency, with vulnerability toward God, our own insecurities as individuals, groups, and communities, we discover truths and Truth. Again, God is not synonymous with the biblical text. As human beings created in the image of God, we are sacred texts that God pronounced as very good and set apart for good and redeemed for good. I think most religious people, Christians and otherwise, would acknowledge that it is not by reading our sacred texts alone that we came to believe in God but by personal experiences or encounters with the divine. The biblical text was not the first to tell me that God calls women, calls me to ministry; it was God speaking to me, beyond the text. Some people do not like the word “transformation,” but I have not heard a better suggestion (this does not mean none exists). Our language is limited, but God’s action is not; God is not limited by our words—those that we speak or that we read printed in text, even sacred texts. God in various ways engenders transformation or change toward freedom in our lives and in the world. I think the more we allow God to transform us the more vulnerable we become in the direction of freedom, justice, love, and peace. This does not mean we become more certain about our interpretations and constructions of God, but we become more humble about them and therefore more open to freedom, not just for myself but for others different from me. God took a chance when God created humans with free will and this earth; we are the product of God’s vulnerability and humility. This same vulnerability and humility should be brought to our reading of sacred texts in order to engender freedom and transformation.
Mitzi J. Smith, Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction
For further reflection
“Destruction is essential to construction. If we want to build the new, we must be willing to let the old burn. […] The building of the true and beautiful means the destruction of the good enough.” ― Glennon Doyle
“There is not enough air in the room but you are breathing.
There is nobody here but you are held.
You have broken and the world is breaking and we will always rebuild.
Do you hear me, love?
We will always rebuild.” ― Jeanette LeBlanc
“Truth is never a straight line; it is a circle that will take you back to what you know, in order to challenge your belief in what is fair, what is real, what is forgivable, what is not and what type of person will you become today now that you know.” ― Shannon L. Alder
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Create symbolic plumb lines using cord with a rock tied to the end. Distribute these to those gathered in person or give instructions (in advance of the service) for those joining through streaming/online services. Alternatively, a graphic image of a plumb line may be distributed. Invite the congregation to reflect on what needs re-orienting or reconstruction in their lives or community and use the plumb line as a visual reminder to do the work of rebuilding.
Hubbard, David Allan. Joel and Amos: 25 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989.
Mackay, Katharine A. “Plumb Line, Plummet.” Freeman, David Noel, Ed. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Amos 7:7–17 and Psalm 82
Deuteronomy 30:9–14 and Psalm 25:1–10
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. 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;
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.”
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. 11 For thus Amos has said,
‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’ ”
12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
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, 15 and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
16 “Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.
You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’
17 Therefore thus says the LORD:
‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’ ”
A Psalm of Asaph.
1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!
9 And the LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, 10 when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
8 Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9 He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
2 To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
3 In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. 7 This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8 and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”