by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“This is what the Sovereign, Yahweh, showed me: God was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in hand. / “what do you see, Amos,?” Yahweh, God asked. / And I said, “A plumb line.” — Amos 7:7-8a
In January of 1961, January 6th to be exact, my family moved into what was for us a new house. I was 13 years old.
I can name the date with great accuracy for two reasons. January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany is sometimes referred to as “Little Christmas.” It’s more often and commonly referred to as the feast which celebrates the arrival of the Magi, in popular culture called “Three Kings Day.” My mother called it “Little Christmas.”
I think she called it “Little Christmas” because of her religious, very Catholic upbringing. The Magi brought gifts and hence, for her at least, it was “Little Christmas.” But what really made this “Little Christmas” on that day for my mother is she was now in a new house and she repeated over and over numerous times this was a Christmas for her.
As an aside, perhaps what is more important about the story of the Magi is it relates the birth of the Messiah as now and newly being proclaimed to the gentiles— gentiles that would be us largely. So it’s neither the Magi nor the gifts which are significant. That’s my point: it’s the proclamation to the gentiles.
There is a second reason I can identify that date in January with some accuracy. I know we were in that new house exactly two weeks later on the day John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated, January 20th, 1961. And I know I was in that new house because that’s where I watched the inauguration. I need to add my very Catholic parents, despite being Eisenhower Republicans, felt a real sense of pride that Kennedy, the first and so far the only Catholic President, had been elected.
However, January 20th, 1961 was on a Friday that year and I was in the seventh grade. So, why was I not in school? Why was I watching the inaugural?
You may remember this: here had been a major East Coast snow storm and all the schools in New York City were closed for the day. And, since Kennedy was a Catholic, I am quite sure this 13 year old altar boy I felt getting that day off because of a snowstorm was a gift from God. So that year there was also a “Little Christmas” for me.
Back to this new house. The bathroom had a sink which was simply attached to the wall— no legs. And there was no cabinet underneath so there was no storage space under it. You could see the drain pipe.
The following Summer my mother came up with a project for me. She asked me to build a rolling cabinet which could be pulled in and out and would fit under that sink, a place where she could store cleaning supplies.
I have no idea where she found the plans for how to make a rolling cabinet— in case you did not know, there was no Internet in 1961 where you could search for how to make a cabinet— but she found plans for a rolling cabinet which would go under a sink. The plans were quite specific as to what materials were needed— lumber, wheels— it even the recommended a kind of paint for the outside of the cabinet.
What the plans did not have was any measurements since all sinks are different. They told you how to measure but the exact measuring, itself, was left up to the builder which in this case was me. In measuring I, effectively, set the standards by which the cabinet was built.
And, having made the measurements, I got to work. Measuring was, of course, important since the cabinet did have to fit under the sink. Too tall, it would not fit under; too short, there would be too much space around the edge and things might randomly fall in to it; too wide and it may not have had the same issues but neither it would have looked right.
I became very familiar with a tape measure and a carpenter’s level, a bubble level. I needed the level because I had make sure the thing did not just fit but that it rolled evenly.
If there is any lesson I learned in the several days it took me to put this together it was the importance of measuring. Measuring sets up standards, especially when the plans leave the measuring up to you.
I am proud to say not only did I successfully complete that project but the cabinet was there until the bathroom got re-built some 20 years later. (Slight pause.) Well, two weeks ago in my comments I told you a story that I once taught class of second graders. This week I let you know I built a rolling cabinet. Who knows what I might say next? (Slight pause.)
And these words are in the work known as Amos: “This is what the Sovereign, Yahweh, showed me: God was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in hand. / “what do you see, Amos,?” Yahweh, God asked. / And I said, “A plumb line.” (Slight pause.)
In the original texts the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are sometimes referred to as “seers.” Why? They were believed to be able to see things, perceive things, others could not.
Indeed, some prophets in ancient Israel appear to have been identified as such because they had paranormal experiences in the context visions. Both then and now this is someone who sees what is transcendent, beyond the obvious.
Clearly Amos sees things others do not. In this case Amos sees God at a wall built with a plumb line holding a plumb line— a plumb line— a string with a weight, an instrument used to provide an even reference line. It’s an ancient measuring device used to keep things straight and level.
I therefore think one question for us becomes what is being measured? Is it the people of Israel? Is it us? I think neither.
I say neither even though the text makes it clear the Israelites failed when being measured. That failure is not the point. They fail because a comparison is being made. So the real question is ‘a comparison to what?’ (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest the plumb line and the wall represent a standard. What is the standard to which God invites us? The standard is love. And in theory at least, justice needs to and should flow from love.
Indeed, I think we miss this too often: justice must flow from love. We miss this because we see justice as being one sided. We speak in terms of ‘my justice’ or ‘our justice,’ as if we’re setting up sides. But the place to which God invites us is love of all and therefore justice for all.
Further, I would argue justice is not singular. My justice, alone, can never be a fullness of justice because justice cannot be possessed. I would argue justice can happen only in community and through community. So what do I mean, justice can happen only in community? (Slight pause.)
I think this is obvious: society, even the church, cannot guarantee equal outcomes. On the other hand, I think equal outcomes do not necessarily constitute true justice. That’s one reason I use the word equity. I think we are called to do what we can to ensure equity.
Further and unfortunately, too often people view their own opportunity as dependent on domination over others. Domination over others ignores equity and the standard called love.
All that brings me back to my building a cabinet. Measuring, as I did with the cabinet, is important. Standards need to be both attained and maintained. For me, in the wall and in the plumb line, what Amos saw has to do with identifying a standard.
The standard of God is love. And I say both all justice and justice for all flows from love— all justice and justice for all flows from love. Therefore, our problem can be twofold: we sometimes fail to identify that standard. We sometimes fail to maintain that standard. (Slight pause.)
Earlier I said the cabinet and the cabinet I built lasted twenty years. Let me address two things about that. First, the plans I had placed in my hands for measuring tole me how to do it but did not tell me what the measurements were. God places the measuring— a measuring which is determined by love— in our hands. If that doesn’t frighten you nothing will.
Second, wear and tear does deteriorate cabinets. Wear and tear has the same effect on standards, ethics.
So guess what? We have exactly the same problem as the Israelites— determining the standards and, maintaining the standards— maintaining the standards— our ethical behavior. And here’s a reality: sometimes we do O.K.; other times we fail miserably. Why?
Well, I think we can learn something from the ecstatic visions of Amos. I maintain that for Amos love and justice are one. But seeing love and justice as intertwined is, I think, something with which we moderns have a hard time.
Indeed and to be a little secular about it, in a reference to the type of government our nation has, theologian Reinhold Neighbor, all the way back in the mid-twentieth Century said the capacity for justice makes democracy possible. The inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
In that same vein, let me turn to the writer of the Deceleration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress. I’ve referenced this from the pulpit before.
We all remember the opening lines of the Deceleration which say there are self-evident truths. We are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we are enamored with those words.
But I’ve always maintained the most important words of the Declaration are not the opening words. The closing words are the most important.
(Quote:) “…for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
And I define that— the pledging of lives, fortunes and sacred honor— as communal covenant. You’ve heard me say that word ‘covenant’ thousand of times probably. So, by the way— covenant— that flows from love also. And love?— that’s the standard. But don’t fool yourself; it is neither an easy standard nor is it a simple standard. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I am sure most of us have seen a classic New Yorker type cartoon with a scraggy looking bearded man in a robe carrying a sign predicting the apocalypse. ‘The end of the world is coming.’ I stumbled across a good one this week with a scraggy looking bearded man in a robe carrying a sign. The sign said, ‘The world is not coming to an end. Therefore, you must suffer along and learn to cope.’ And that is part of the issue, is it not? Things are not perfect. But we are called to do what we can to help things be more perfect.”
BENEDICTION: Let us, above all, surround ourselves with the perfect love of God, a love which binds everything together in harmony. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.