The prophet Amos offers us an image of God holding a plumb line, standing by a wall and securing a perfectly straight, vertical line heavenward (Amos 7:7-8). God asks Amos to clarify what God is holding. “A plumb line,” Amos says (Sounds like the beginning of the majority of my children’s sermons, “What do I have in my hand, kids?”). The Lord then proceeds to tell Amos how badly the people need a plumb line -- something to set them straight again. The Lord of the universe intends to be that plumb line!
I am not a builder nor the daughter of a builder. I know little about plumb lines. Even researching what they are baffled me. No wonder I am nearly star struck when I see a new high-rise going up. How on earth do they do that?
Back from a recent trip to South America, I found myself reflecting on plumb lines. Actually, back from a recent trip to South America where I watched an awful lot of World Cup soccer, I found myself reflecting on plumb lines. Getting far too caught up in the historical and political implications of the games, I imagined the places I had been on various trips when teams were paired up to play in the tournament. I remembered the soaring cathedrals of Spain and Italy. Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, England is one that cannot be forgotten.
All of these churches were built with the aid of a plumb line. Something to plot the point of gravity, ensure the straight line, and confirm the center of balance.
I then considered the reminders all around me of the consequences some of these same nations left on an entire continent as crops, mines, natural resources and people were plundered while those cathedrals were being built. Plumb lines were necessary for construction but so were gold and silver. The remnants of colonial rule remain throughout the world in nations with poor infrastructure, economic disparity, weak governments and even weaker educational systems.
When Amos heard the Lord’s words, he was living in the midst of a rich and prosperous time in the ancient world. King Jeroboam II was a popular king who oversaw territorial expansion, aggressive militarism and economic prosperity. The people of Israel certainly benefitted from all of this growth and power. The Lord must have seen evidence of well-used plumb lines in buildings, temples and opulent homes. But when the Lord held that plumb line in front of Amos for Show and Tell, the Lord did not appear impressed. The Lord was downright mad.
A people who had learned to use the plumb line so well to build their buildings had forgotten about building themselves: their character and their community. The people had failed to use a clear instrument, the Lord, to center themselves and ground their efforts heavenward. They had forgotten the most vulnerable among them, a clear sign that they had veered off course.
For centuries, people with well-built, magnificent cathedrals have not always acted in well-built, magnificent ways. The plumb line of our hearts and lives is often forgotten in the course of growth and prosperity. This continues to happen today in ways far and wide. Does our character reflect our true plumb line, that which keeps us straight and centered?
How is it that the perfection with which we construct our buildings is lost on the construction of our lives? Do our congregations provide ample resources for the building up of lives compared to those set aside for the maintenance of a building? In South America today, many of the most vibrant congregations are those with small structures, no windows, concrete floors and bathrooms that are outside and around the corner. They are congregations that reflect an intense desire to center the lives of people who have carried the burden of many years of poverty, pain and injustice. I am not even sure their churches were built with the architectural plumb line test! I am confident, however, that the lives of the people who worship in them are being changed by work of the Lord, who holds (no: is) the true plumb line.
Cynthia Weems is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida.