Monday, July 12, 2010

What's a Plumb Line?

(I preached this sermon yesterday, June 11th at Southside Baptist, Birmingham. I share most of it with those that are interested--if  sermons are not your thing pass by on the other side.)


If I were to give you a test on the book of Amos—would you pass it? Who was this Amos? Where did he come from? What exactly was he trying to say? Chances are most of us would flunk the test. Amos was not in the Top Ten of the Book of the Prophets. He would have never made it into the finals of American Idol. Simon Cowell would have said, “That’s a pretty depressing man and book.” And he would be right.

Amos plowed new ground. He would be the first of a long line of prophets. The judgment of God is coming, he said, because you have failed to live up to God’s standards. The theme is judgment—and what kind of a semi-moderate church wants to hear that?
Because of Amos—Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Zephaniah and the early parts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel will take up the same theme. But Amos was the first.

The country was rich. It was a time of great power for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. And Amos came pointing his shotgun: they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals…they trample the head of the poor, and push the afflicted out of the way…they lie on beds of ivory…eat lambs and calves from the flock…drink wine for bowls and anoint themselves with the finest of oils. He summed it all up by saying that they trampled on the heads of the poor and had no sensitivity to those in need. No wonder Amos couldn’t even get elected to the School board.

The false prophets said all is well. We’re a good people. We’ve worked hard. Why not enjoy the fruits of our labor? Why should I care about the deadbeats, these bleeding this country dry on welfare and food stamps? And we haven’t even mentioned the illegals. If they want health insurance—get a job. Excuse me, but I have to get my nails done and go to the tanning bed and meet some friends for lunch at the country club. Amos has some kind of a problem. Amaziah whispered to the King that he ought to send Amos to Guantanamo.

But Amos kept preaching. In our text today in Amos 7.7 he says: He showed me a wall. And he took a plumb line. Stretched it out against the wall. It’s not level—this wall. Not level at all. Soon it’s going to sag and fall down.

We know what a plumb line is. It’s a level. You have to use a plumb line and build the thing right or you are in trouble. One Saturday evening we decided to wallpaper the bath-room. And I didn’t get the plumb line out. I could see where the lines ran. I had to get through and get some sleep before Sunday. And about the third long strip of paper the vertical lines began to look horizontal. It was way off. And I had to peel it all off and start over. It was Saturday night at 11:00 by that time and I had to preach the next morning. When we ignore the plumb line—the wallpaper is way, way off. It is out of sync. It just does not look right. Looks terrible.


Let’s leave Amos and look at where we are. All we are hearing about lately is the oil spill. And if we get out the plumb line—it’s sagged all over the place. And it’s like a plague that is affecting everything. And so we point fingers. PB, Obama, George Bush, the lack of regulations, dragging our feet when we could have ships from Sweden and Norway sucking this stuff up. Meanwhile back at the ranch the oil just keeps gushing killing everything in sight. Blaming is so easy. We Americans have it down to an art form. Why don’t they do something?

And I agree with the man in Sojourners Magazine that wrote the other day, “I am in no position to ‘throw the first stone.’ My style and standard of living cries for oil wells to be built. This catastrophe raises the question of whether I am glorifying and relating obediently and worshipfully with the One who created everything I see, hear, touch, and smell .Have a stuck my head so far into the sand that I cannot budge from my self-serving practices?” Do you see the connection with Amos—we are talking about the plumb line?

Who wants to turn down the air and up the heat? Especially today. This is Alabama, for goodness’ sakes. We don’t pare down our gasoline use. Most of us would not think of driving one of those expensive hybrid cars. Why they look so weird and who knows if they have the bugs out of them. And when I board a plane as I did weeks ago for Philadelphia—I didn’t think much about how much gasoline I was helping to consume. We could talk about hummers and helicopters and tanks in Afghanistan—which I understand gobble up more of our gas than any other single group. As a nation we have got to get this Drill, Baby, Drill kick because this addiction to oil is finally going to do to us what crack does to the human body. Just takes longer. What does this have to do with Amos? Everything. We are being measured by God’s plumb line we something is way, way out of whack.

But Amos didn’t just address the nation—the Northern Kingdom. He gets personal—he started talking about them and their own situations. We have to take out God’s measuring stick and put it up against our lives. Where’s the sacrifice? In World War II we rationed sugar and gasoline and a whole lot of other things. We had victory gardens. We saved up old scrap metal tin cans and even silver chewing gum wrappers. We had no volunteer army—everybody had to go. There’s a new book out by Sebastian Junger called War. As he was leaving the troops he had been living with them for a year, one soldier said, “Let me ask you something, Do people know we are even out here?”


Not where’s the beef. But where’s the sacrifice? What do we do to help somebody else? That’s the plumb-line question. Jesus dealt with sacrifice—that costs us something—when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. You know the story. A lawyer came to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to love God and love his neighbor. And so lawyer pressed him, And who is my neighbor?

And then Jesus took out his plumb line and told a story. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho where he was attacked and robbed and left in a ditch for dead. A Priest came by and did not stop. And then a Levite—sort of a deacon—charter member of the church—came by—but did not stop. “Help me, help me” the man moaned. And then Jesus said a Samaritan, a half-breed—what we might call an illegal immigrant—came by and stopped and bound up his wounds and saved the man’s life. And Jesus, holding up the plumb line said, “Who is my neighbor.” And the lawyer said through clenched teeth: “The man that showed mercy.”

We can’t get away from the plumb line. If we love God we will love our neighbors which takes in just about everybody. It starts at home. Which may be the hardest place to love. And then we branch out and take mercy with us wherever we go.

Let me tell you a story. Several times the daughter called her mother and said, "Mother, you must come see the daffodils before they are gone.” It was a two-hour drive and lots of traffic. The Mother sighed, “I guess I’ll come next Tuesday…” she said after the third call.

Tuesday was cold and rainy and she didn’t want to go. But she had promised her daughter and the grandchildren were excited. Finally she got there, put her bags down and said, “Forget the daffodils. The road is so foggy and I am exhausted.” “Mother”, the girl said, “we drive in this all the time.” “Well,” the woman said, “You won’t catch me on the road until it clears.” And the daughter said, “I was hoping you’d take me over to the garage to pick up my car.”

The daughter drove and the mother looked up and said, “This is not the way to the garage.” The daughter said, “We’re going to long way and we’ll see the daffodils.” The daughter’s name was Carolyn. “Carolyn, this is ridiculous turn the car around.” And Carolyn would not give up. “Mother, it’s all right. If you miss what I’m going to show you you’ll never forgive yourself.”

Twenty minutes later they turned on this small gravel road and there was a little church. On the far side of the church there was a hand-lettered sign that said: “Daffodil Garden.” They got out of the car, and the Mother held both grandchildren by the hand and they followed Carolyn down the path. When they turned the corner the Mother just gasped. Before them lay a most glorious sight. Daffodils, daffodils everywhere. All kinds. Yellow, of course, but deep orange and white and lemon yellow and salmon pink—all colors. Each variety planted as a cluster and they moved in the breeze. There were five acres of daffodils.

The mother asked Carolyn, “Who did all this?” “Just one woman. She lives on the property. That’s her home over there.” They walked up to the little house and they saw a hand-letter poster: “Answers to the Questions I Know You Are Going to Ask.” The first answer was: “50,000 bulbs.” The second answer read: “One at a time by woman. Two hands, two feet and very little brain. The third answer said: “Began in 1958.” They stood there trying to hold back the tears.

The old woman fifty years before had begun with one bulb at a time. Year after year she planted and changed the world around her. She had created something that was beautiful and indescribable. One step at a time, year after year—she changed her world. The mother said, “Fifty years of work and all this beauty. Makes me sad to think how little I have done for the world.” And the daughter said, “We can always start tomorrow.” One bulb at a time.

Reckon Amos would have liked this story and Jesus too? I think they would take out their plumb line and say it was just right. The world is a better place when you and I follow the plumb line.

1 comment:

  1. i so miss your sermons. we still have notebooks full of them, and they're always fresh when we reread them.... but brand new ones .... what a blessing!!