Amos 7:7-17: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=141522434
Colossians 1:1-14: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=147075197
Isn’t this the quintessential Old Testament passage? Could we have two more different passages lined up together on a Sunday? For our first reading we have the Colossians passage praising the community for being so wonderful, and the Amos passage condemning the entire Israelite Nation for not measuring up. This Amos passage is the kind of passage that is one of those proof-texts that folks - like Marcion - bring out to say that the Old Testament talks only about the wrathful God, and the New Testament talks about the loving God - as if there are two different Gods depicted in the Scriptures, and thus, we can dismiss the entire Old Testament. It is “old” after all! This is the kind of passage that we think of when we think of fundamentalism, or judgmentalism, or those giant overhead bins where we’ve put all of our painful religious baggage. I mean, where is the grace in all this condemnation? In this passage, like a parent who has told her preschooler for the fifty-seventh time to “Get in bed!,” God has had it. God’s patience is shot. Israel has pillaged the land, oppressed the less-fortunate, ignored the widow and the orphan, and built temples and shrines to worship their accomplishments. God. Is. Done.
And we hate that. As any kid who is being disciplined probably should. We hate to be told that what we’re doing is wrong. And as much as we want to wriggle out of this, we really can’t. Oh, we try. We only eat organic chicken, we donate money to the homeless shelter, we even go to church in the summertime. Maybe we’ve even splurged to buy that hybrid vehicle, or we’re thinking about putting solar panels on our roof, and maybe even next year we’ll be so bold as to go to that prayer march in Homewood. We are constantly trying to measure up to that plumb line that God has set up for us. But the reality is, even when we shop at farmer’s markets and put “Free Tibet” bumper stickers on our cars, we’re still buying oil from companies who pillage our oceans and dig up our neighbors’ back yards. Even when I buy fair trade coffee and make sure I put out the recycling every other week and teach my son to say “please” and “thank you,” and to tell the neighbors “I’m sorry for peeing on your tree,” I am still typing this on a machine that was made by people across the world from me for questionable pay in questionable working conditions.
Sure, I hang out with homeless people on my neatly isolated Tuesday and Thursdays, but I’m still quick to assume that the guy with the cardboard sign on the Birmingham Bridge is just going to use my money for alcohol or pot or crack. And don’t ask me to hug one of them, or give them a ride downtown - that’s just not safe! Plus, they probably have lice.
No matter how hard we try, none of us measure up. We’re all walking a little crooked. We’ve all built houses that are not quite plumb.
It’s strange that such an archaic tool is actually still used quite commonly today. Bricks are still laid by hand, and this simple tool of a string with a weight on the bottom is used to make sure that the wall is straight, correctly upright, or “plumb.” And if it’s not, you have to tear the whole darn thing down, and rebuild the wall from scratch.
We don’t want to hear that God uses a plumb line. I mean, after all, God was the one who created us - messy, messed-up, consuming, fleshy, human failures that we are. God could have made us perfect. So if God expects perfection, then why didn’t God make us that way? Like a preschooler who blames you for leaving the lid off of his sandbox and letting the rain get in, it’s easy for us to blame God for our imperfections.
But what if God isn’t measuring for perfection, but measuring for humanity? What if God’s demand for us is not “perfection” as we think of it, the kind of perfection that sends many of us in a depressive tailspin, or diving into our second pint of Ben and Jerry’s, but a kind of humanity that tears down crooked walls that divide and discriminate? Walls that we’ve built out of our own insecurities. Walls that keep me sitting alone at the coffee shop with ear phones in my ears, staring down at my phone, looking for human connection from a Facebook page, not thinking twice about my five dollar latte, while the homeless guy is busking with classical fugues on his violin half a block away.
Walls that tell us that the only way to “measure” up in our world is to get a degree and be responsible. Walls that keep people out because they do not believe the “right” things or profess the “right” faith. Walls that say that if you smell, or you’re homeless, or overweight, or your kids have been taken away from you, or you’re bankrupt or you’ve flunked out of school that you’re a failure through and through?
If we read this passage carefully, without rushing to put up our own walls of insecurity and pain from failed religious institutions and TV evangelists, we will see that it’s the institutions that God is condemning, as well as our complicity in supporting those institutions. Amaziah himself has emphasized what Amos is prophesying against - “the king’s sanctuary,” “the temple of the kingdom.” The Israelites have lost perspective. They’ve lost their purpose. As God’s chosen people, they aren’t supposed to be protecting the king’s sanctuary, or the kingdom’s temple, but God’s sanctuary, and God’s kingdom.
We don’t measure up, we’re walking limp and crooked, not because we aren’t good enough, but because we’ve put our hope and our trust in things that are not from God. We’ve put our hope and our trust in our own perfection, our own institutions and their yard sticks and measuring tape, and we have forgotten our created, earthly, human, humanity.
There’s a bakery on the Southside that I pass by often on my way to a favorite coffee shop. When you look inside, the display windows are always decorated with streamers, pictures, and the plastic kitsch of the most recent or upcoming holiday. In February, there were bright red cupids flying over heart doilies and red tablecloths. In March, green leprechauns and four leaf clovers and pots of gold. July 4th was celebrated with red white and blue streamers and American Flags. The window decorations are changed, religiously, every month. But the thing is - try to open the door, and it’s locked. The bakery is closed, and has been, for at least two years. If you go there looking for fresh bread, or your Sunday doughnut, or a birthday cake with those giant red roses made of buttercream frosting, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is a bakery that decorates for Columbus Day and Halloween and April Fool’s, but doesn’t make fresh bread.
Maybe this is the plumb line. God doesn’t want decorative kitsch, a false, empty perfection of our own design. God wants fresh bread. That’s why we celebrate communion. If God wanted human perfection, we’d parade our diplomas or our bank statements or drive our cars around the sanctuary every month. But instead, we break bread. (And maybe we should do it more often). We say, “This is Christ’s body, broken for us.” We say that this simple cup of juice is “Christ’s blood, shed for us.” Because it’s not our deeds, our work, our achievements, our kingdoms that make us plumb. No matter how hard we try, we’re never going to measure up.
And yet, we never stop trying, do we? Like Israel, we still put our hope and our faith in structures that we have built ourselves. And, like a good parent, God lets us try. God says, “Ok, if you insist on measuring yourselves by these expectations and demands, try it, and see what happens. But be ready for the consequences.” And like a parent whose child is so exhausted from the effort that he is irrational, screaming, hyperventilating, kicking and wailing on the floor, God will put us in a Time Out. We’ll feel like we’re in exile.
We’ll feel disoriented and lost because the place that we’ve been calling “home” is not God’s home - our real home. The place where we think we ought to be is not the place God wants us. We want to make our home in the sanctuaries and temples of our own perfection, in court systems and libraries and cathedrals of learning, but God wants us to be at home in our humanity. We want to decorate ourselves with designer clothes, community service awards, high credit and GRE scores, dollar store cupids and leprechauns and plastic tablecloths. But God wants to feed us with fresh bread.
Bread is where the Grace is. The Body and Blood of Christ is where the nourishment is. That’s why we have the Colossians passage here. If you listen to the language to people of Colossae, you don’t hear the language of measurement, perfection, discipline, accomplishment, or success. You hear about growth. You hear about bearing fruit. You hear the messy language of love and prayer, thankfulness and patience and light.
You hear earthly, organic language. This is God’s plumb line. The plumb line of Jesus Christ, who embodied in his flesh and his blood the very Godly-ness of God. Set a human plumb line up to a tree or a tangle of vines or the waves of the ocean or a ray of sunshine or a loaf of bread, and they will never pass the test. Set it up against the cross of Christ, and it will seem like utter foolishness.
But set the plumb line of the messy, vulnerable life of Christ against our pride, our accomplishments, our demands for each other, and we, too, will never pass the test. God’ll put us in time out. Not to punish us for the sake of appeasing God’s bloodthirsty wrath, but to reorient us back to what really matters. God will set the reset button. God will demand that we repent - to, literally, turn back to what is real, what is true, to what matters, to what is human.
Eventually, God’s gonna tear down all those things that don’t measure up. This sounds terrifying, because we think we’ve made our home in these things. But let’s try to remember what that plumb line is - it’s the earthy, human, loving, messy, vulnerable life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The one in whom we put our hope and trust - because we know, deep down, that Christ is the only hope for those of us who get so distracted by the sanctuaries and temples that we have built for ourselves that we feel lost, hopeless, and even in exile. Can we be reoriented back to God’s plumb line - the measurement that is revealed through Christ? The one who hung out with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and wandered through grain fields and made himself into the bread of life? The one who condemned the temples and sanctuaries of the kings, the powerful elite, those who thought they had it all together?
A farmer doesn’t plow his fields because he hates barren stalks of grain. A farmer harrows the ground because he is preparing to plant something new. And God doesn’t tear down buildings or send people into exile because it is somehow God’s nature to tear and destroy and exile. God reaps so that something new can be sown. God plants new wheat so we can bake and eat and share fresh bread.
We don’t have it all together. But thank God that’s not what God is setting the plumb line against. God wants to mold us to be more human, to be the way we were created to be. God wants to nourish us with fresh bread, and calls us to nourish each other with the same. May this be so.
Thanks be to God.