July 12, 2009
When I was skimming through the lectionary and spotted a passage from the book of Amos, I’m not going to lie, I stopped and thought for a bit and realized that I have no recollection of reading anything from Amos before. I actually had no idea there was a book in the Bible called Amos. Now, I consider myself a bit of teenage church geek, so to have a book just materialize right out of the Old Testament made me feel a tad bit inadequate in my God-given geekdom.
Hoping to make up for this oversight, I grabbed my Bible and read Amos straight through, start to finish. This, my friends, is when I became aware of the reasons behind my ignorance of this prophet’s writings. For eight-and-a-half pages, this prophet packs a lot of punch. His prophecies foretell the brimstone and hellfire-esque, angry, God-induced judgment that we often shy away from preaching, discussing, or even acknowledging in our church. However, the interpretation of biblical violence can lead to a peaceful resolution and further personal understanding of God’s message. To us, as members of the twenty-first century, the images Amos describes to us in vivid detail seem excessively and perhaps arbitrarily violent because we live in a privileged civilization where such images are anything but commonplace. The Israelites, on the other hand, were all too familiar with the brutality of Amos’ prophecies, and, because of this, his words struck a chord with them on a topical level that doesn’t perhaps quite reach us. So, Amos was, in fact, a prophet catering specifically to his audience, altering his message so that his people could truly understand. While this still doesn’t take away from the initial shock, even disgust, at Amos’ words, it does offer us an alternative context through which to interpret them.
Within Amos, however, we can find hidden gems of benevolent counsel among the other, somewhat harder-to-read passages. In today’s reading, this image of the “plumb line” is repeatedly emphasized. While it can be interpreted as a harshly drawn line to which the Israelites fail to measure up because of how they have wandered away from the values of God, who therefore declares he will no longer watch over them, I, however, choose an alternative analysis. The “plumb line” Amos sees in his prophetic vision appears to me as a firm, but compassionate, reminder to those of us who have perhaps been led further astray from Christian principles than we would have liked. I would even go as far to say that the plumb line symbolizes a greater line, a virtuous path, a guideline of compassion, love, mercy and justice to which we can each adhere in our own way as we live our lives.
This plumb line, this virtuous path, is a beautiful image, but it lacks the specificity we, result-oriented, modern people, tend to thrive on. As much as God loves to speak in wonderfully vague metaphors, we sometimes crave a more direct set of instructions. And again, I’m not going to lie, the term “plumb line” was another one of those things for which my inadequate geekdom required further research. Determined to never again be ousted by this passage, I read on in hopes of discovering some further meaning.
The story continues to tell of how Amos was told to leave Israel, to prophecy elsewhere, for his message was not welcome. And while Amos’ surprisingly humble refusal is a lesson in how Christianity is neither a religion of convenience nor one of self-sacrificing, pious martyrdom, we can draw life instruction from his words. “I am no prophet,” he says. “Nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” This, for me, summarizes the example all Christian people can relate to and follow. Amos was a self-proclaimed ordinary person, called to prophecy to be a tool of God, not to increase his own power or importance.
Another significant facet of Amos’ statement to the priest who asked him to leave was the sheer peaceable nature of it. He didn’t scream at the top of his lungs or proclaim the imminent death of all who had sinned, as is the stereotyped behavior of other prophets. He simply declared his ordinariness and repeated his message gently. This is where I believe the true message lies. If only we, as Christians, could utilize the same concepts as this humble, somewhat less severe, side of Amos.
You know what? We can. And while the experience I’m going to share with you is just one example that may not relate to all of you, there are countless ways to employ this principle in every facet of Christian life.
Reading this passage of Amos, I realized that I draw inspiration from him in my daily life in regards to my political activism. I am very emotionally and intellectually attached to the LGBT movement and support it whole-heartedly. It is, in fact, the first aspect of church life with which I connected in my teen years. The UCC’s mission of acceptance and love made me feel, as my youth pastor in Appleton, WI put it, “That I would rather be received in Heaven as one who accepted and loved all, than as one who judged all.” However, one would rarely find me leading a rally or forming a petition to pass legislature. Those of you who know me are probably aware of my non-confrontational tendencies, so it’s understandable that I would steer clear of any event that could possibly lead to even healthy debate. I become very irrational in arguments about subjects I feel passionately about, not to mention the fact that I cannot speak extemporaneously for the life of me. But just because I feel unable to fill these very public leadership positions in the movement, it doesn’t mean I feel less strongly or that I’m not working for it daily.
Let me introduce you to the Amos-inspired “livable activism.” It deeply offends and saddens me when I hear people use the word “gay” in a derogatory fashion, as a synonym for “stupid” or “lame.” To think that, to this day, our society can be so obtuse regarding sexual orientation is disappointing and frustrating. And while there is definitely something to be said for reciprocating these ignorant comments with a good lecture on equality, by the end of my middle school years, I grew tired of lecturing my friends and acquaintances. Now, when a friend lets the “g” word slip, I simply remind them with a simple five-word phrase, “I don’t like that word.” It’s not much, and I know each and every one of them probably still uses the word thoughtlessly when not in my presence, but at least I know that, every time I remind them, it’s one more external factor encouraging them to think about what they are saying. I know for a fact that there are many people out there like me who are constantly offended by the language of those around them, but are too embarrassed of “making a scene” to speak up. Amos didn’t make a scene, but he still made a difference in preaching the Christian message.
While there is a place in all societies for the John the Baptist of a movement, crying out in much-justified anger to the wrong in defense of the wronged, it’s not practical to assume every Christian must follow in his foot-steps. Follow your own plumb line and whatever it means for you. To quote The Prophet and the Reformer, “A prophetic ministry is not limited to a few saints; in various ways, large and small, it is required of us all.”