If this week's first lesson leaves you scratching your head, let me begin by clarifying that a "plumb line" is a line with a weight attached (from the Latin for lead, plumbum) used to measure the depth of a body of water or check that vertical structures are true. So now Amos 7:7-15 makes perfect sense, right?
Continuing on the various iterations of the theme of measurement, of taking account of the beloved community, that the lectionary has offered us over the last few weeks, these verses challenge us to re-examine how God upends our expectations. Last week, the Rev. Daynes spoke beautifully to the dichotomy between hometown (temporal, geographical) and home (emotional, relational) when it comes to reading Mark 6:1-13. In the same way, Amos' prophesying draws a distinction between how we name ourselves and our surroundings and how the Divine enters into our lives and names us. Pushed aside are all of the ways that we try to fit God into our own contexts, because--let's be honest--the majority of us have more than a little Amaziah in us. We hear the Word of the Lord and we paraphrase it, we echo back a version that conforms more to our own perceptions and preconceptions. When Amos speaks, all that Amaziah can focus on is the last handful of words from the prophet's lips. All he can hear is how destruction will come to Israel, how the king who has given him so much power will face "the sword" (Amos 7:9-10). In his dismay, "the priest of Bethel" cannot bear to actually take in very much at all of what Amos says (Amos 7:10), and so he accuses him before the king of plotting against sovereign and state. (He even inserts the whole idea of exile into the prophet's mouth.) Notice how he then turns and counsels Amos to flee from the land and never again "prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom" (Amos 7:12). Perhaps the most telling part of his response are how he identifies Bethel and its affiliations--not as the Lord's sanctuary, as a temple of the God of their holy and righteous ancestors, but as the king's sanctuary, as a temple of the kingdom. In his fear, he cuts off himself, his temple, and his people from anything but the present and its immediate bounty.
Who among us hasn't done something similar? Who among us hasn't clung to what we know--even, sometimes, when it is painful--rather than face the anxiety of what lurks beyond our expectations? It is an utterly human response to such situations. But the Divine words that Amos shares with us are not all calamity, now matter how our most primitive instincts might begin to distort them in our ears. Yes, there is talk of "desolation," "waste," and "the sword" (Amos 7:9), but such grimness is outlined by relationship. These are the difficult words that God commands Amos to declare to "[God's] people Israel" (Amos 7:15), so that the crux of even the most tumultuous upheaval is how the covenantal relationship between Israel and her Lord continues to unfold. A plumb line isn't a tool of obliteration, it's a tool of exploration and building up. Thus, the lesson we'll hear is bounded by the nature of salvation history, and it's message is clear: we cannot allow ourselves to be cut off from the past or the future, we cannot make the present into a false sanctuary. It is only by continuing to name all that we have been and all of the (often unexpected and even a little scary) ways that our Savior is calling us into deeper relationship that we truly claim our nature as believers and a believing community. It is only in the fullness of both of those relationships that we can properly be named as beloved. After all, God can take the most unexpected elements and fashion something glorious and new out of them. In God's hands, even "a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees" (Amos 7:14) can transform a people. Who knows what our Lord and Savior might call forth from us?