Two construction workers are nailing siding to a house. Neither is exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, if you get my meaning. Every time the first worker reaches into his pouch and pulls out a nail, either he tosses it over his shoulder or nails it into the siding. The second worker asks him, “Why are you throwing away all those good nails?” The first carpenter explains himself: “If I pull a nail out of the pouch and it is pointed toward me, I throw it away because it is defective. If it’s pointed toward the house, then I use it because it is good.” “You idiot,” the other worker replies, “The nails pointing toward you aren’t defective! They’re for use on the other side of the house.”
In the book of Hebrews we find a verse that sums up a theme running throughout Scripture: “Every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything” (3:4). The root of the Greek word translated here as ‘builder’ means one who furnishes, equips, prepares, and/or makes ready. The biblical motif of God as a builder points in two directions. The first is related to God the creator of all things in heaven and earth while the second is more spiritual. God builds up each one of us to be ambassadors for Christ. God builds us to be citizens in the kingdom of God.
In today’s Old Testament reading we learn that God the builder is also something of a building inspector who takes a look at what we are constructing with our lives and in our society in order to determine the quality of our work. God the building inspector says to the prophet Amos, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people.” A plumb line is a cord with a weighted piece of lead or stone at the end. When held up, it will make a perfectly straight line against which a builder can check to make sure the verticality of a structure is true. If it is not true – think of the leaning Tower of Pisa – eventually it will fail. By setting a spiritual plumb line God sets out to assess the rule and reign of King Jeroboam.
It is not a good sign when the Hebrew meaning of the king’s name is “he strives to oppress the people.” Jeroboam first comes on the scene when King Solomon appoints him to head up a public works project. He uses this position to orchestrate a failed conspiracy against Solomon and as a result has to flee to Egypt. He returns to Israel after Solomon’s death and promptly divides the kingdom into ten northern tribes, which he ruled, against two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin. He erects as objects of worship golden cafes in key locations so that his northern tribes will not have to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which is located in the south. During the course of his reign, Jeroboam launches continuous military attacks against Judah, thus keeping God’s people in a constant state of turmoil and civil war.
In today’s psalm reading, we are given beautiful images of what a plumb line will find in a well-constructed ‘house’: “kindness and truth, justice and peace. Truth shall spring up from the waters of the earth, justice shall reign down from the heavens.” The images of springs and rain in such an arid region suggest how precious and vital these qualities are and how necessary they are for people to live together in a godly way. And, as the reading from Amos suggests, they are completely absent in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam.
So poor Amos has to do what prophets of God always have to do. He has to confront the king and pronounce God’s judgment:
The wall that you have built is not plumb. And because it is not upright it must come down. The king will die by the sword and the people will be led into exile. Only then can a new and a true wall be built.
Speaking the truth to power has never been easy and it has never made one popular. It is an occupation for which there cannot possibly be sufficient hazard pay. Amos, to his credit, proclaims what God tells him to speak.
The notion of the prophet speaking God’s plumb line truth connects the Old Testament reading with today’s Gospel lesson. John the Baptist speaks out publically against Herod’s marriage to Herodias. Herod was already married when he fell in love with his brother’s wife, who also happened to be his niece. So he divorces his wife and marries his niece, an act that infuriates his ex father-in-law and his brother. The two join forces to march against Herod. At one point the Emperor Tiberius has to send troops to intervene.
These kinds of actions don’t happen in isolation, as if conducted on a chessboard, but rather disrupt the lives of everyday people who suffer mightily as a result. Herod’s private affairs have public consequences and John holds him accountable. He gives voice for God and for the masses when he speaks up and in so doing becomes the focal point of Herodias’ deep anger.
She allows pure hate to fester in her heart, awaiting the opportunity to strike. It comes at a party, at an event that combines alcohol and sensuality. Add power to this mix and hatred has all the elements it needs to act. How dare the prophet hold a plumb line to their lives of royal privilege! The end of John’s life is as quick as it is brutal and senseless.
Some of us gathered Tuesday night with several hundred other people from around Suffolk for a prayer vigil in response to the June 17th shootings in Charleston. Titled “From Hate to Healing”, it was a powerful event that we hope to build on as a racially diverse community of faithful people. I was incredibly impressed with Alana Simmons, a Newport News resident, whose grandfather, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, was one of the nine people murdered by a young man an hour after they welcomed him into their Wednesday evening bible study.
Alana spoke powerfully about how the victims’ families have been able to forgive the shooter. She said that her grandfather would want his legacy to be one of love, not hate, and for that reason she cannot hate the person who perpetuated this horrific act. Simmons has started a social media movement called the “Hate Won’t Win” Challenge. It encourages people to post stories and photos of folks from different races doing something nice for each other. It may sound like a small thing, but for me, it has served as a tool to be mindful to go the extra mile and then perhaps even another extra mile to show kindness to people different from me and to be grateful for the kindness they show to me.
At the prayer vigil we were reminded of a Gospel truth that emanates from the Cross – unmerited suffering is still redemptive. I have not read enough about Dylann Roof to be able to speak to what he hoped to accomplish. But surely he did not intend for hundreds of communities around our nation to hold vigils uniting people of different races in prayer. Surely he did not intend to energize efforts aimed at racial reconciliation. And surely, as he waved the Confederate Flag as a symbol of his view of white supremacy and racial hatred, he did not intend to accomplish in a matter of weeks what the citizens of South Carolina have not been able to do for generations. What he did not intend was for God to hold a plumb line to his actions in order to redeem unmerited suffering.
But this is what God does because this is who God is. Herod may have enjoyed his power and Jeroboam may have been able to run off Amos, but God is the one who holds the plumb line to measure our actions for kindness and truth, for justice and peace. Nothing will move that line and nothing short of plumb will stand in the world that God is building.
Today, Amos is remembered for his godly witness and John’s Advent call to repent prepares the way for us to receive the kingdom of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Their lives continue to matter. They continue to inform. They continue to inspire. God has been honored by them and continues to work through them. Jeroboam and Herod are little more than passing names in dry history papers or perhaps are referenced in archeological digs to note a period of time connected to unearthed broken artifacts.
Long after we have forgotten Dylann Roof’s name, we will remember the Charleston 9 and we will remember how their families spoke words of forgiveness and healing. We will remember how one cruel act of hatred brought together people of different races to embrace and affirm the value of kindness and truth, of justice and peace. We will remember hatred unleashed does not rule our world and that, through the grace of God, unmerited suffering is still redemptive.