Crossing a Line

by | Jul 10, 2022


Meg Peery McLaughlin
“Crossing a Line”
(with thanks to Plumber Mike Edmiston)
July 10, 2022
Amos 7: 1-9

This is what the Lord God showed me: he was forming locusts at the time the latter growth began to sprout (it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings). 2 When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said,
“O Lord God, forgive, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”
3 The Lord relented concerning this;
“It shall not be,” said the Lord.

4 This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord God was calling for judgment by fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land. 5 Then I said,
“O Lord God, cease, I beg you!
How can Jacob stand?
He is so small!”
6 The Lord relented concerning this;
“This also shall not be,” said the Lord God.

7 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
“See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will spare them no longer;
9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Last week Jarrett encouraged us to strive for holy friendships,
especially across the aisle,
so when I found that Amos was the lectionary text for this week,
I reacted poorly.

Oh, great, I thought. A prophet screaming loudly for social justice
amid intense national division.
A bleeding heart radical telling us sky is falling
when we are already despairing about the state of the world.
Amos and his plumb line, really?!
Just what we need for harmony in the church of Jesus Christ.

I tried to ignore it. But this Holy Word would not let me go,
which is the way it goes with scripture, I’m afraid, so I started studying.

Considering last week’s conversation, I was surprised to read scholarship from Terence Frethiem, that argues that prophets are fundamentally conversative.
Yes, their prophetic words of social justice are often associated with liberal causes, but the biblical prophets were not, for the most part, reformers.

Their message was not a new morality—they simply remind God’s people of what God has always said about the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the lost, the least. Prophets sought to conserve the way of God’s justice and love.
But they sure did that in an intense way.

This text is hard to take. It’s a declaration of a dead end for God’s people.
It intrigued me to not that Amos doesn’t say
this is what God wants (God’s already said that)
Amos doesn’t say
Come on now, y’all (God’s already said that too).
Amos is simply telling us
How it is with God and what God’s gonna do.

First, Amos sees locusts devouring the land.
And Amos says please relent! And God does.

Second, Amos sees fire consuming everything.
Amos pleads, and God says, Okay, it shall not be.

Then, a third picture. This time a plumb line.
And at this last picture, God says times up. You crossed the line.

What is it about the plumb line, I wondered.

I don’t know a lot about tools.
So I asked my friend Mike Edmiston to help me out here. Come on up, Mike.

I asked him if people still use plumb lines.
And he said, you mean a plumb bob?
So Mike, show and tell. How does it work?
Mike shows. And tells.
Is it ever wrong?
Mike responds.

Amos sees a vision of a plumb line. A vertical line from the heavens to the earth.
And it’s clear: God’s people are not plumb, they are far from upright.
And God says: I can’t abide. No matter how you try to measure, it’s off.

Amos declares that there is a limit to God’s patience
in the face of our warped ways and off kilter values.
Amos says God will eventually get fed up.

And maybe it seems like this is bad news,
when the church is supposed to be about good news.

But consider, if you can, for a moment,
for whom this might be good news?

In the next chapter of Amos, God does not relent,
the next vision God shows Amos is a basket of summer fruit.
And I suppose it’s rotten,
just like the summer compost that I dropped off in the parking lot,
because again God says,
“the end has come upon my people, I will spare them no longer.”

But in that chapter here God tells us why:
You trample on the needy, God says,
You bring ruin to the poor of the land.
All you care about is profit, to the point that you create systems
where the poor are made into commodities to be used,
instead of humans to be loved.

It’s a damning word for those who trample the needy,
But it is a word of grace to the one under foot, is it not?
God finally says enough is enough.

Here at UPC, the Tuesday afternoon office volunteers, Madeline Mitchell or Ann Henschel take calls from folks who live on the margins here in Chapel Hill.
Above and beyond our church’s traditional outreach giving,
the Pastor’s Discretionary fund enables this congregation to help pay utilities for folks who are behind.

Imani is a grandmother who worked in a senior living center all her working life and finally retired this summer. But then Imani’s daughter could not adequately care for her own two children, so now in what ought to be the years of her retirement, she is scrambling to stretch her fixed income to try to take care of two little ones.

Or consider Clarence who had a good job in tree removal. He had a fall, breaking both legs and, without adequate insurance, the medical bills mounted up to crippling debt. Clarence receives disability but it barely keeps him in his apartment, much less pays for his water and power.

Amos speaks very good news for the Imanis and the Clarences of this world:
the good news of who God is:
One who will not tolerate injustice,
one who refuses to abide anything that isn’t upright for the least of those among us.

Perhaps this is not the God we want,
But it is the God the poor needs.

There is decorated psychologist named Thomas Phelan.
In 1995 he published a book called 1-2-3 Magic.

And you don’t have to have read the book to know what it teaches.
To know, you just have to have been a child at some point in your life,
a child who was doing something that wasn’t right:
maybe you were punching your brother,
maybe you were running into traffic,
maybe you were backtalking your grandmother.


Your parent counted.
Counted to three.
That’s one, your mom would say.
And if you kept it up, “that’s two.”
And if you just couldn’t get yourself plumb,
That’s three. Time out.

Dr. Phelan and every last one of our parents
stole that strategy from the prophet Amos.
One—a vision of locust.
Two—a vision of fire.
Three—a vision of a plumb line, and a consequence.

Dr. Phelan asserts that this only works when the parents keep their limits.

He says “the key element of 1-2-3 Magic is the “no talking, no emotion” rule.
When you are using counting as a discipline, you do not rationalize with your child, and you do not get angry. You just calmly hold the line. This rule is essential.
90% of the time when this strategy doesn’t work
it is because the parent forgot this rule.

Well, friends, God doesn’t forget. God holds the line,
out of a deep love of those who exist on the margins.

As it turns out, Assyria attacked the Northern Kingdom of Israel,
decimated them really, scattered the inhabitants throughout the empire.

Interpret that history as you will,
but it seems that book of Amos was kept in the biblical canon as a reminder of this consequence, as a declaration of who God continues to be:
one who will say enough is enough,
who will stand for the Imanis and Clarences of this world
even to the detriment of those of us who would profit from them.

I told you I wanted to ignore this text when I first read it.

But if this story of Amos and God’s limits and that dang plumb line
does to you as it did to me. It won’t let you go.


It will keep after you,
nudging you to stand a bit more upright,
forcing you to look toward the poor, not just on Tuesday afternoons,
but in all our voting choices,
and in all our work dealings,
and in all our educational offerings,
and in all our sabbath keeping,
and in all our financial planning,
and in all our everything
every day of the week.

Could we act like that?