Wild Church: Plumb Lines and Prophets

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Greta Thunberg by Stephane P cc

Proper 10(15) C

Amos 7:7-17

By Matthew Humphrey

“See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people.”

So Amos prophecies in today’s lectionary reading. This shepherd-turned prophet emerges from South of the Border to unleash a fiery word upon Israel and King Jeroboam. Like Hosea before him, he professes, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a shepherd, and a dresser of sycamore-trees.” This location that makes him the choice instrument of God’s word to Israel.

Those familiar with the book of Amos may recall many words of judgment: against Israel’s idolatry and her lack of care for the poor and landless. Earlier in the book, Amos prophesies:

They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.

Israel’s leaders have made a mockery of the divine covenant – kicking dirt in the face of the God who brought them out of Egypt and out of the house of slavery. And they do so while continuing public displays of religion through the sacrificial system. As his contemporary, Hosea, made plain, the God of Exodus “desires mercy, not sacrifice” – words which become central to the ministry of Jesus.

Amos proclaims the word of judgment. Israel is going to reap what it has sown: destruction.  And this is not an abstract ‘spiritual’ insight. It has practical implications in the land itself – as weather patterns and crop health are disrupted by human wickedness.

While we live in the disenchanted world of the 21st Century, the ancients inhabited a world in which human action had cosmic significance – for good and for ill. ‘Sin’ was not a private act that effected your spiritual status, though it was that, rather ‘righteousness’ meant right relatedness to all things – the health of each part affected the whole.

Amos was an attentive observer. In keeping sheep and goats as well as cultivating figs he was apprenticed to careful observation, an attentiveness to changing conditions, to water sources and weather patterns, and to the great web of life that sustained he and the creatures under his care.   Inattention would not just endanger the bottom line or his annual review – it would threaten to destroy his life and livelihood, dependent upon the land. One can see how proximity to land and animals formed his vision of his time and place! (I wonder how our lack of proximity and attention may disinform ours?) As the poor of the land suffered, Amos saw.  And as wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, Amos saw. And seeing, he is called to speak.

Sure, you go off weekly to Church in your fine linen suit and shined shoes, dropping your big cheque into the offering plate… but your money is dirty! You’ve missed the very people God has asked you to care for, driving by with your Tesla while the poor hold their hat in the street!

Thus comes a word of judgment: “You have planted vineyards but shall not live in them.

The vineyards won’t be yours when the neighbor invades! But nor are the foresight and attention required to inhabit a place sustainably (as in a vineyard) valued by a people bent on quick profiteering.  Israel had a choice to make – they could obey the covenant, protect the poor, and live safely in the land. OR – they could disobey, disinherit, and prepare for the land to “vomit you out” in the language of Leviticus 18.  Just as the human body knows when a foreign agent poses a threat, Leviticus suggests, so does mother earth. These are unsettling words for we who live in the Anthropocene!

Amos holds a plumb line and what the people see is destruction – of the high places, the sanctuaries, and even the King’s Palace. “But surely not!” say the trained priests, who rush off to Washington to reassure the King that all is well in the land…

I wonder if we might see a plumb line in our midst?

Do we see it in floods washing out our crops?
In dead whales washing up on our beaches?
In the wildfires darkening our skies?
In racial violence at home?
Or in reports from our borders, and conflict overseas?

Perhaps a better question: who speaks the divine word to us today – we the many kings and priests of this grand experiment of western civilization?

Who are the shepherds and fig-keepers in our midst?
Whose voice rises up, bringing a word from the edges of Empire?

Perhaps Greta Thunberg, who at 15 dropped the divine plumb line before the world stage at COP24, inspiring school walk-outs in 125 countries around the world?

Perhaps Hubert Barton, of the Nisga’a First Nation, who has come from Gingolx, a village of 400 on the northern coast of B.C., to study at the Vancouver School of Theology, who though a survivor of intergenerational trauma, has found hope and healing in the Good News of brother Jesus – a hope that integrates his traditional teachings and weaves a word of both challenge and comfort to his hearers?

It’ll be honest: it is tempting to put myself into the role of prophet and to hold out the crooked line of my own judgment.  (Let me hold that plumb line! I’ll tell the bastards about what judgment they will face! Mine! Now behold my tweets!) But this blinds us to the sacred path.

It is repentance that Amos preaches…  but it will take another prophet – nay, more than a prophet – to proclaim not just God’s judgment and law, but God’s kindness and mercy.

In the end, Amos envisions not just destruction but healing. A day which brings not just the sword of divine judgment but the Spirit of peace. And as St. Paul says, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. We see that kindness most fully in brother Jesus, who, able to hold the plumb bob, is hung from a Roman cross and dies, uttering God’s forgiveness and mercy.

Finding ourselves caught in the grip of this radical divine mercy, may we heed the prophet’s call, hear the word that is spoken, and act.

Listen to Seth Martin sing Bill Jolliff’s song about the farmer prophet Amos.

Matthew W. Humphrey lives, works, plays and prays on Songhees and Esquimalt territories, in the Cecilia Creek watershed, in Victoria, BC.  He is an educator, writer, and community minister, dividing his time between A Rocha Canada, a Christian environmental organization, and the AbbeyChurch, where he is postulant for priesthood within the Anglican Church of Canada.  He recently launched Wild Church Victoria: a watershed discipleship community.   He is married to Roxy and together they shepherd three small children.

Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.


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