Hespeler, 11 July 2021 © Scott McAndless
Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29 (Click to read)
I am sure that you all heard the story of the terrible tragedy that took place in Surfside Florida at the end of last month. A condominium tower in that city just collapsed in the middle of the night. So far it has been confirmed that 32 people died and the remaining missing, 124 in all, are now presumed dead. The whole event is just horrible and frightening to consider and, of course, we feel for all those who grieve and mourn.
But what was horrible was made somewhat worse when the news came out days later of an engineering report that was made on the condo tower and brought before the management board in November of 2018. This report noted that there had been major structural damage in the building that had been caused by a leaky pool over top of a parking garage. Nevertheless, a building inspector came in and told the board meeting that he had reviewed the engineering report and assured everyone that the building was in good shape.
Now, I realize that all of those events that I just referred to are contested and are being litigated. I’m hardly in a position to say for sure who is actually to blame. But it does seem to me that, if any of that is true, it points to serious problems, and I’m not just talking about the problems with one particular building. There seem to be some significant problems with how these kinds of things work in general.
Amos and the Plumb Line
My mind turned to those recent events when I first read our passage from the Book of Amos as I prepared for this week’s service. Amos starts out talking about an odd vision that he had. “The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’”
This is actually how a lot of Amos’ prophetic oracles go. He starts out by saying that God showed him a pretty ordinary and everyday thing – a small swarm of locusts, a basket of fruit – and then tells us that God had a message to bring through that ordinary thing. I suspect that this may be Amos’ way of telling us that he would often just meditate on ordinary objects until he was struck by some connection to some of the issues of the day. That was how he discovered that God had a message for him, something that he needed to say to the people.
Why a Plumb Line?
But I find it interesting that this oracle begins with Amos seeing a plumb line. A plumb line is, of course, one of the most ancient of all engineering tools. It is the simplest thing in the world. It is just a weight tied to the end of a string. But since it has this wonderful ability to always create a perfectly straight line that is perpendicular to the surface of the earth, it has so many uses in building.
Before the invention of laser levels or even of bubble levels, plumb lines were an absolutely essential tool for building walls and houses that would actually remain standing. And, of course, if they were useful for building, then they were also useful for checking on any ongoing stability and security of a structure. If you held a plumb line up against the wall that was built to be plumb and you discovered that the string and the wall no longer followed the same line, well, that was a pretty good indication that that structure might not remain standing too much longer.
What the Vision Meant
And that is what Amos saw in his vision. He saw God holding a plumb line up against a wall that was no longer plumb. To put it in modern terms, you might say that Amos saw the 2018 engineering report on Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside Florida and he saw God’s name signed at the bottom.
And Amos understood what that vision meant. He was smart enough to see that the structure in question was not a particular wall or house, it was the structure of the entire Kingdom of Israel. And that put him in a very difficult position.
Imagine that you are that engineer who made that report on the building in Florida. You know what you have discovered in your study, and you know the very real danger for the people who live in that building. Clearly you have a moral and ethical duty to tell people what you have seen.
What if People won’t Listen?
But what do you do when you have very powerful and connected people who, as seems to be the case in that story, have a vested interest in making your report go away? Who don’t want, for example, to spend millions of dollars to make the necessary repairs. What if they are people who can cause problems for you or your family, who can disrupt your career or who can just make your report disappear on a whim? What do you do then?
You might reply, and rightly so, that that does not change your ethical duty, but there is no denying that it certainly makes your next steps a whole lot more difficult and complicated.
The Cost of Speaking Up
Well, when Amos saw the structural problems that were there in the Kingdom of Israel, problems that were leading it towards a terrible disaster, he quickly decided that he knew what his duty was. He spoke up loudly and often. He went to the City of Bethel, one of the key worship centres for the entire kingdom. There Amos spent his days preaching at all of the people who came to sacrifice at the sanctuary and warning them that the condominium was about to collapse. And, yes, Amos only did this at enormous cost. In particular, Amaziah, one of the most powerful officials in the entire kingdom threatened him saying, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
And there is something kind of typical in Amaziah’s threat. Did you notice the assumptions that he makes about Amos? He assumes that he is a seer and says that he is just hanging around the sanctuary at Bethel in order to earn his bread. He is accusing him of being little more than a fortune teller who is making money selling prophecies about people’s futures to those who come to worship there.
This is very telling. Those people who use whatever power or influence they have in order to exploit people and enrich themselves often just assume that that is what everyone else is doing as well. The only reason Amaziah can imagine for why Amos is doing what he’s doing and causing such disruption is because he must have some angle, some way in which Amos is enriching himself. It would never occur to somebody like Amaziah that Amos might be doing what he is doing because he feels dutybound to try and save the whole nation from itself.
And that is what makes Amos’ reply so important. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” he says. He is saying that he is not a professional, not someone who does this for a living. “But I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
Wow, what a statement. He is saying that he does not need all of this aggravation. He is certainly not interested in making any money by it. He could be living very comfortably, thank you very much, looking after his herds and dressing the odd sycamore tree. But something happened. He saw the plumb line. He saw that the structure was in bad shape and a danger to the people. He spoke up because he knew that the people needed to know. That is what he means when he says, “the Lord took me.”
And I believe that what Amos says there has many applications to the challenges of living in the world today. Back then, it was the expectation that only certain people, prophets and the sons of prophets, were allowed to speak up on national issues – and it is very clear from what Amaziah says that they were expected to tow the party line and support whatever the king wanted. But Amos says something very different. He says that those who have seen the plumb line, who see how the structures are out of alignment, simply have the duty, given by God, to speak up. That is a challenge for all of us.
Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce
It makes me think of a story that I heard recently. In 1904, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce was named as the chief medical officer for what was called then the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs. Bryce was not an indigenous person; he was just a doctor with a great deal of experience and many honours in the area of public health.
One of the first jobs that he was given was to investigate an issue that had that had arisen in the country’s Indian residential schools. Apparently, it seemed that a lot of the children who were being placed in these schools were dying. We are talking of a death rate among students that averaged at that time about 50%. Yes, you heard that right. About half of the children being sent to those schools were not surviving. In some schools, the death rate was as high as 69%.
So, Bryce went to work to try and get to the bottom of this mystery. He came back a few years later with a well researched report in which he laid the blame for the unconscionable death toll of the residential schools primarily on the federal government for its failure to enforce even a minimal level of health standards in the schools. Bryce had held a plumb line up against the entire system and revealed that the wall was completely off-kilter. And he apparently thought that he had finished his work. He had identified the problem and fully documented it. Now that the government knew what the problem was, surely they would just fix it.
Duncan Campbell Scott
But any guesses what happened when Bryce submitted his report? He was confronted by his own Amaziah in the form of Duncan Campbell Scott, the head of Indian Affairs, a man who declared that it was his job to “get rid of the Indian problem,” and was apparently quite comfortable with doing that by killing about half of the indigenous children who came into the government’s care. When Scott saw the report and conclusions that Bryce had come to, he quickly sprang into action. He dismissed the report and immediately cut all of Bryce’s funding. From there, Scott and the government set about destroying Dr. Bryce’s career, preventing him from speaking at conferences and eventually pushing him out of the public service altogether.
But what was Bryce to do? This had become a political hot potato and he was no politician nor a politician’s son. He was just a doctor and a man of faith (a Presbyterian, in fact) and he had seen the plumb line. He knew that he could not remain silent. When all political action was closed off to him, he chose to speak in a different way. He wrote a book, “The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada.” He got it published and began distributing it himself, particularly handing out many copies of the book throughout Ottawa. He knew what he had seen, and he was committed to get the word out about what he had seen no matter what the cost to himself.
That – that kind of courage and commitment to speaking the truth – is, I believe, what our passage in the Book of Amos this morning is about. I think Amos makes it clear that prophets – true prophets of the – are not special people with unique gifts or insights. They are ordinary people – herders, sycomore tree dressers, doctors and engineers. They are any one of us, whatever we may do, but they are people who have seen the plumb line and know the danger that the system is in. They are, above all, people who have the courage to speak up and say what they have seen. That, my friends, can and should be any one of us.