July 10th, 2022 homily on Amos 7:7-9 by Pastor Galen
One of my friends recently posted on Facebook, “There are two ways to hang a piece of art. You can measure the piece, measure where its hang point is, the space it will hang, measure again, reinforce the spot and then hang. Or, you look at the wall with the art in your hand, you go yeah, put it down, grab the first nail you see and put it where it feels like the right spot and hang.”
Guess which is my preferred way of hanging pictures on the wall? I’m definitely the type of person to go with my gut, and just sort of eyeball things. If it looks about right, then that’s good enough for me. After all, no one has ever come over to my house with a measuring tape and measured all of the pictures on our wall to make sure they were not an inch or two off-center!
Maybe I’m just reading myself into the story too much, but I kind of feel like Amos was the same way. The Israelite prophet Amos, we find out in Amos chapter 7, had been a herdsman, and a “dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14). In other words, he was a cattle rancher and a farmer before he became a prophet. In fact, it seems like he didn’t ever really consider himself a prophet, since he didn’t come from a family of prophets and had never been to school to become a prophet. But he had these visions that seemed to be from God, and he felt compelled to share them, and so he just kind of went with his gut, and put his prophecies out there, speaking the truth that God told him to speak.
The Plumb Line
Now in one of these visions, Amos had a vision of the Lord standing next to a wall, holding a plumbline. A plumbline is sort of a precursor to a level, the sort of tool used by people who like to hang pictures the proper way. When the little air bubble is exactly in the middle, that’s when you know that the picture is hung completely straight.
A plumbline had a similar function, but for vertical lines. It’s a simple tool, really, just a lead weight hung on the end of the string. But it does the job. You see, if you were just to go with your gut and just try to stack bricks on top of other bricks using your instincts, they wouldn’t be perfectly lined up, no matter how straight it looked. And as you add more and more rows, the bricks will lean more and more, making the wall unstable.
And so to make sure that the wall was completely straight, the builders would hold a plumbline next to the wall, using the force of gravity to help ensure they were building a completely straight and vertical wall. Without the use of a plumb line the wall might look fine, just like the pictures in my house might look fine. But when the plumbline is held up to the wall, it shows just how crooked – and therefore unstable the wall actually is.
Amos’s prophetic vision of the Lord standing next to a wall holding a plumbline suggested that while the nation of Israel may have looked fine from outward appearances, they were not in actuality following God’s will. Outwardly they seemed to be righteous people, going through all the motions of worship. But the plumbline revealed just how far off things were. Maybe they had made small compromises here and there, maybe they did what they thought seemed right, maybe they had looked for some loopholes here and there, they had been lax in other areas. But all of this had amounted to a wall that was anything but straight, a society that was unjust and unstable, and Amos’s prophecy revealed that if they kept building on this shaky foundation, then surely the whole thing would come crashing down all around them.
This was the prophetic call of Amos – to speak out about the things that he saw – to reveal the truth that others wanted to keep hidden. To warn the king and the whole nation of the destruction was to come if they continued down the path they were headed, and failed to repent of their wrongdoing and correct their course.
Rescue the weak and needy. Love Your Neighbor
It’s been said that “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest members.” And indeed, throughout Scripture, we see time and time again God’s care and concern for the most vulnerable in any society. In Psalm 82, God is depicted as the Supreme Judge, asking the kings and judges of the earth “how long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?…Give justice to the weak and to the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:2-4).
Similarly, when a lawyer tests Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to love his neighbor, and when pressed for an example, Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan – an outcast and a foreigner – who helped someone who had been beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road.
The Psalmist and Jesus would agree that the greatness of a society is seen in how it treats its weakest members. And surely this sentiment provides the background for Amos’s scathing prophetic rebuke of his own king and nation. Repeatedly throughout the book of Amos, the prophet calls out those who trample on the poor (Amos 2:7, 5:11) and oppress the needy (5:12). He calls out grave injustices, many of which were being done in secret, behind closed doors, while they were at the same time openly offering to God burnt offerings, and making a show of celebrating religious ceremonies and solemn assemblies (Amos 5:21-22).
God goes so far as to say “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
This is the type of justice God metes out in Psalm 82. This is the justice God is looking for when he stands next to Israel with the plumbline. Because the true greatness of any nation is not in its outward show of worship. But in how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.
How Are People Homeless in America?
I have to wonder what God would think if God were to hold a plumbline next to our society today. If God were to take a level, or a measuring tape, and show just how far we as a people have strayed away from God’s design.
We in the U.S. like to think that we are a Christian nation. Our money says “In God We Trust,” and we pledge allegiance to “One Nation Under God.” Our politicians take their oaths of office while placing their hands on a Bible. And yet, how do we treat our most vulnerable citizens? How do we treat our neighbors, including those from our neighboring nations? And how do we treat those who are downtrodden and oppressed on the side of the road?
Last year I had the opportunity to coordinate a walking tour of Capitol Hill in D.C. for a group of graduate students, many of whom were international students, who had just arrived a few weeks prior. For some of them, this was their first time walking through an American city, let alone the capital city of our great nation.
As we walked, I pointed out the grand architecture, the wonderful museums and monuments we were passing by. It was a beautiful fall day, the leaves were just starting to change colors. From my perspective, it was a beautiful place to be.
But several of the international students had confused looks on their faces while walked. I wasn’t sure what it was that they were thinking, until one of them finally asked about the tents that we saw scattered all around – on all of the green spaces we were passing. Tents that were providing temporary shelter for the homeless, many who were living on the streets just blocks away from the White House and Capital of one of the wealthiest counties in the world.
One of the international students, who came from a country that would have been much further down the list of wealthiest nations in the world, asked, “Why doesn’t the government provide houses for them? You would never see this even in my country!”
What strikes me as I look back on that day is not just the fact that I didn’t have a great answer to give her, but it struck me how I often take homelessness for granted in our society. That day that international student held up a plumbline for me with her innocent question, reminding me that all is not well, that in a nation as wealthy as ours should be able to figure out a way to care for our most vulnerable citizens.
I realize that it’s complicated, that there are so many individual and societal factors that lead to someone being forced to live on the streets. I know from personal experience how difficult and complicated it is to walk alongside someone who is trying to find a more stable living situation.
But despite the many wonderful organizations and institutions working to alleviate poverty in our country, it seems that things have actually been getting worse for people on the lowest end of the economic spectrum, as the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. “In the United States, the income gap between the rich and everyone else has been growing markedly, by every major statistical measure, for more than 30 years” and the COVID pandemic only “worsened the massive financial gap between rich and poor around the world.”
Go and Do Likewise
So what are we to do? How are we as followers of Christ called to respond to the needs of the poor and marginalized here in our city, and country, let alone around the world?
Well, as in Jesus’s parable, we are called to be good neighbors to all. We are called to stand with and stand up for the poor and marginalized, and we are called to act with love and compassion, giving generously to those who are in need. None of us by ourselves can help each and every individual who is in need, even just in our community, let alone our city or around the world. But that’s why we are part of the Church – not just our local congregation, but the global Body of Christ.
Did you know, for example, several years ago I heard the statistic that if every Christian in America would simply tithe our income (which is the biblical practice of giving the first ten percent of our income to God), there would be an additional $143 billion available to empower the poor and spread the Gospel around the world? That is almost twice the amount of money that the U.N. has suggested would be required to “provide access to essential services like basic health care and education for all the poor of the earth.” Individually we may not be able to help everyone, but if we each do our part, if we each love our neighbor, and if we each give as God leads, then together we surely can make an impact.
As followers of Christ, I believe we have another call as well, and that is to hold up a plumbline to those who have power and influence around us. To point out that all is not right, that we should not take poverty and injustice for granted. That we should not be satisfied with things being off-kilter.
The prophet Amos reminds us that anyone can speak up about the things they see. We don’t need special training to simply draw attention to what everyone may already see and know but take for granted. Sometimes we can even do this through asking good question.
Ultimately, God is the judge, so it is not our place to condemn, but we can and should draw attention to the disparity between the way things are, and the way things ought to be, as we have opportunity. We can and should call those around us to put their faith and trust in God, “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. To rescue the weak and the needy” (Psalm 82:3-4), to show mercy to all who are in need.