Children can illustrate, in a few words, and with their very questions, some salient points that we struggle to convey. Recently, my son, looked me over one day and innocently asked, “Mommy why are you so angry?” Both he and his brother had been into mischief and I had reached my breaking point as incident upon incident happened, with consequence upon consequence accumulating and making such a little difference to their young minds and impulsive souls despite all the good advice and promises of behavior modification that the best-of-the-best of parenting books offer. With apologies to the Shirelles, that ol’ song from the 60’s, “Mama said there would be days like this” and there certainly were.
So our first response when we read the book of Amos in its entirety—and likely some of us are may be reading it for the first time—is that of a young child looking up into his or her parent’s eyes and asking our God with an innocent voice, “Gosh, mom, why are you so angry?” The book of Amos is short but hard to take in. God is angry in the book of Amos because our God is a loving and just God, and the people have tried God’s patience numerous times. Several times throughout the book, God declares, “for three transgressions of ‘X’ and for four…” which is another way of saying, “If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times…don’t exploit your sister; don’t take advantage of anyone! I have counted to three and you’re already at number 4!”
But first some background. Amos is a prophet and he is prophesying against the Northern Kingdom of Israel, around the reign of Jeroboam II, around 760 B.C.E. He is an outsider to the area and not part of the temple establishment. There are similarities between that time and now. The Northern Kingdom and Judah were both enjoying a time of prosperity and relative peace for that time. But the peace was not without its problems. For one thing, there was a wealthy and powerful elite who had, according to Amos, rose to prosperity at the expense of others. To understand this situation, one need only to read a couple of Amos’ lines from his now beyond-frustrated God who is recounting incident after incident. This is how the New Revised Standard Version puts it:
“Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.”
In addition, this wealthy elite “hates the one who reproves in the gate” (the location of the law court)…”pushes aside the needy in the courts,” “abhors the one who speaks truth,” and tramples on the poor. (Amos 5:10-12) So yeah, the God of Justice, in God’s eternal discerning self—the one who grants mercy and pardon and typically exudes patience per excellence is pretty upset at this point. God has counted to three and beyond and, despite changing the Divine mind on two previous occasions, refuses to put up with God’s people dismissing God’s covenants and God’s laws.
So along comes Amos to remind the people of the North of their original covenant with God and there is fall-out. There are four main characters in our text today: God, Jeroboam the King, Amaziah the Priest, and Amos the Prophet. Amaziah preaches at the equivalent of a government-funded National Cathedral—he preaches at Bethel, political and religious center of Israel, the temple of the kingdom. If you remember, Bethel was once named by Jacob as the very place of God (surely God is in this place and I did not know it!) and Bethel was where people came to inquire of God. However, thru time, Bethel has lost sight of its original function and ideals. Amos, the prophet, reminds the people of Bethel of their original call and covenant.
Amos goes right up to that center of power, the “King’s sanctuary,” and tells King Jeroboam, Amaziah, and their supporters that because of their failure to keep covenant and to attend to the gaps between rich and poor, as a consequence, “Jeroboam will die by the sword and Israel will be soon be sent in exile.”
Obviously, it is not a welcome message.
Amaziah works for the king—he was likely appointed and anointed with the King’s stamp of approval at the most important shrine in the country, the royal sanctuary. And so, his message doesn’t fly well when Jeroboam learns of it; indeed, Amos poses a national threat to homeland security and is then accused of conspiracy against the state.
Thus, Amaziah tells Amos to get out of Bethel—to take his prophesies and go back to Judah, and “never again prophesy at Bethel,” because, he declares—“it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (Amos 7:13). In fact, Amaziah disses Amos, calling him a seer, which is a slam against his prophetic ability. Imagine if one of our government officials were to censor the press or the churches in D.C. by declaring that they are supposedly the President’s or any political power of State and you see the problem.
But what exactly was the vision that Amos sees, this ‘seer’ whom the king and his royal priest wants to toss out of the temple? You have to read the whole thing, but here is one part:
Rooted in God’s justice, Amos envisions God standing by a wall. This wall is misshapen and crooked. In God’s hand, there is what has been defined as a plumb line. We really don’t have a good translation of the Hebrew here…but basically, whatever it is, it is a righteous and Divine measure by which the people of Israel are found wanting. The wall – the people—were once upright, with eyes and hearts set on God’s justice. They have become warped and will, as a consequence, fall to ruin. God holds the measure—the plumb line—by which the house of Israel should be built and maintained, and NOT the king, or the king’s priests, supporters, or follower’s.
Amos’ vision is a portent for any religious institution that entwines itself too closely with the powers that be—particularly the political powers of the nation and all the “isms” for which they stand: nationalism, patriotism, sexism, majority-ism, racism—well, you get the picture.
And we, who share this passage today, three days before our national holiday of July 4th and after the celebrations of Juneteenth, we must ask what we are celebrating, as Christians and people of faith, when we look upon our nation with pride and patriotism. As fireworks explode above us and events implode around us, are we celebrating the things for which this country was founded? Are we celebrating a manifestation and embodiment of God’s justice and liberty in this world? Are we lifting up the poor and thereby reducing the terrible, dehumanizing gaps between rich and poor in this land? What is our plumb line, our measure for justice or peace or prosperity? Is that measure true? Is it a measure that isn’t based on the elevation of a few at the expense of the many?
And what of our personal plumb lines? For Christians, we say that our measure is Christ. Are we honest in declaring that? For Jews, I imagine the plumb line is the Torah and the witness of the prophets. For Muslims, I imagine the plumb line is measured by Allah and Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).
But perhaps, for you, God is too abstract. Then, by what standard do you measure abstract ideas such as love, truth, justice, liberty, or peace? What is the measure for their embodiment? Their implementation in your life? And how are they measured against their opposites? In other words, how do you know when and how we have fallen short of such ideals? What plumb line are we using?
Beyond that, these words from Amos ask us to be a church on the margins and to serve the people on the margins and NOT the people who have the most to benefit from their power and influence. We are a church of the margins, for the margins, and to the margins. We are to be wary of any coziness between the Nation and its religious institutions. We are to study what happens (in the Bible and elsewhere) when the church acquiesces all too readily to the State’s demands and the Nation’s desire to silence the prophets and to send those pesky activists and do-gooders to another voting jurisdiction to earn their bread.
The church of the margins, for the margins, and to the margins should not and will not be silenced in a time of suffering. We will not be appeased by any elevation in the eyes of the State or by our diminishment by the same.
This week, when we wave our flags and when we watch the skies explode with a celebration of our Nation’s freedom, it is always with the awareness that the covenant that we made with our God precedes and supercedes that of any Nation, including our own. This is not to say that there is no separation of church and state. It is to say that our covenant with God informs how we measure the decisions of any Nation. It is with an awareness that God is eternal and Nations and governments, democracies and totalitarian regimes, are not. And it is an awareness that God’s love for all the people, all the time, will always require God’s justice—and that should make the leaders: priests, kings, prophets, and people alike– be wary of trying God’s patience one too many times for our own good and well-being.
As H.G. Wells, the author, once reportedly said, “The only true measure of success is the ratio between what we might have done and what we might have been on the one hand, and the thing we have made and the things we have made of ourselves on the other.”
 Amos 2:6-8.