July 12, 2015

Angles and Attitudes


Text: Amos 7:8b:  “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.”

First, a word about the prophet Amos. Prophets generally have tough jobs. Most often they are speaking up when their communities and their people are in real trouble—being defeated, in exile, enduring famine, in the middle of leadership struggles at the top or worse. And what they have to say is often unpopular, because it’s tough medicine: If we’re going to get out of this, we have to go back to being faithful to God. We’re in trouble because we’ve gone too far away from how God wants us to be. We have to repent, and we have to change our ways.

That’s a hard thing to say to folks who are already struggling and suffering. But if anything, Amos has it even harder. Because Amos is speaking to people who are fat and happy. Amos is speaking to a society where everything seems to be just dandy.

Amos lived a little before a better known prophet in the same neighborhood, Isaiah. And what he saw was a society that was militarily strong and economically comfortable, but spiritually lost. He saw a people who were looking for God in all the wrong places.

Of course, he didn’t get all that far. Amos was very popular, but only after everything came apart and the kingdom was falling into ruin, only after invaders conquered and dispersed the people of Israel. Then, they remembered what he had said. But when he was saying it, he became so unpopular that he got banned from the king’s precincts.

No one believed him exactly because everything seemed to be going pretty well. Business was good. The army was strong. Most folks had enough money. Here was this complainer saying that everything was going wrong, that what we were doing was somehow taking us farther and farther away from God. But it sure seemed God must be pretty happy with us. After all, look at how well things are going!

That was how Amos’s audience saw it. From where they looked, everything seemed perfectly in order. Everything seemed just as it was supposed to be. 

Of course the problem was that those folks were keeping their sights within the frame of their own little world. As long as their perspective was limited to what they could see right in front of them, what they saw seemed perfectly ordered.

But when Amos looked at the same thing, he saw something very different. His view of things pulled the camera back, so to speak, to see things with respect to a larger view, a view framed by God’s absolutes instead of the limits of our understanding. And when he did that, he saw that what looked straight to everyone else was skewed.

It’s hard to tell people who can’t see outside the confines of their own perspective, or their own prejudices, that there is a larger picture, and a fuller view, and a problem with the plumb line.

It’s hard, because it can sound harsh, or intolerant, or condescending, or arrogant. And if that’s how we sound when we speak as prophets, then we may be speaking the truth, but we probably won’t help much.

But we have to keep trying. We have to keep speaking. And most of all we have to make sure that we keep trying to see things from the broader perspective of God’s hope than in the limited perspective of our darkest fears or dearest longings.

Fifteen years ago, when most people looked at the flagpole that had just been built on the lawn of the state house in Columbia, South Carolina, it must have looked very straight and true to them. It was there that they raised the Confederate flag after taking it down from the dome of the capital, where it had flown since 1961.

But somehow in the space of the past three weeks suddenly more and more people saw things from a different perspective, from a broader and truer view, and suddenly that pole seemed to lean way over toward the past.

Not so long ago when we thought about who should enjoy the privileges and protections of marriage we thought that only some people should qualify for the club. We were sure that was what the bible taught us. Heck, we even called them “straight.”

But somehow in these past years we have seen things from a different perspective, one that has included in our vision our broader hopes and the higher claims and stronger teachings of our faith. And we have seen that it isn’t the exclusive claim of the straight to be aligned with God’s will.

It makes you wonder what more we will see. It makes you wonder how much that appears to us to be orderly and correct now will look rather different as our perspective broadens.

By next year, Oxfam projects that the collective wealth of the richest one percent of the world’s people will own more together than the other ninety-nine percent put together. But right now, that seems, somehow, to be the correct if perhaps curious result of an ordered, properly aligned economic system.

Half the worlds’ population today is at risk of contracting malaria, and while you have been listening to me preach eight children have died from it. More than half a million will die of it this year. Malaria is preventable and curable. Yet somehow this seems, at least now, somehow aligned with the way things just naturally must be.

Something like twelve and half million people live in this country without the legal status to do so. It is estimated that about eight percent of all children born in the United States this year will be born to parents who are here without any legal status. Ten years ago, when the number of these folks was far smaller, it was estimated that they paid something like seven billion dollars out of their wages into Social Security. And yet somehow it seems orderly and proper, at least to a great many people and couple candidates for the presidency, that these people should simply and summarily be forcibly returned to the places they came from—in may cases, escaped from.

The plumb line, the line that divides God’s hope from God’s sorrow, the line that aligns our plans with God’s will, may look slightly off when we first see it. But with time, with prayer, with patience, and most of all with the discipline of a broader perspective, we begin to see that it isn’t the plumb line that’s a little off; it’s everything we’ve built, all the expecations we take for granted, all the arrangements and institutions and hierarchies that seem to self-evidently correct. And once we see that, if we are faithful, we become agents for change, putting our shoulders to the task of re-righting the world. Amen.