Plumb Line

You’ve heard his words.  His speech is embedded into our national culture.  On August 28, 1963, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to a quarter million people, gathered on the national mall in Washington DC and said:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low.  The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.” 

This speech, helped to transition the campaign for civil rights, from a protest…an event, into a movement.

Interestingly, these words, “I have a dream,” don’t appear in the original text for Dr. King’s speech.  He was about halfway through his speech, when one of the people sitting on the stage with him, Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, shouted out to him: “Tell them about your dream, Martin!  Tell them about your dream!”

Martin Luther King Jr. paused, and then slid his written speech to the left of the podium, and just started talking from his heart.  “I have a dream…”

These words inspired and motivated. But more than that, Dr. King’s words, spoken from in front of the Lincoln Memorial, set a new standard for what the civil rights movement would become.  From that moment forward, every action…every protest…every aspect of the movement would be measured against Dr. King’s dream.

Dr. King’s speech that day, became a plumb line for the civil rights movement.

A plumb line.

You may or may not be familiar with a plumb line.  A plumb line is a tool, used in construction.  It is an incredibly simple.  Here, I’ve got one to show you:  It’s simply a weight, on the end of a string.  The weight is hung next to something that you want to make straight, so you can look, and compare, and make sure that what you’re building is right, and straight, and true.  These days, carpenters will likely use a long level, or a laser line to check plumb.  But plumb lines like this one have been used for thousands and thousands of years.

Plumb line (1)The reason they work, is simple:  gravity is a constant. Gravity will always pull the weight to the lowest point, and will always create a straight, vertical line in the string.  It doesn’t matter how crooked the object it hangs from.  It doesn’t matter what direction it faces.  Plumb lines work. I’ve learned from experience that it’s always wise to re-check your plumb line as you build, to use it as a guide, lest the wall you build begin to waver from true plumb. (For amateurs like me, this can be a very humbling experience. But that’s why you measure twice and cut once, right?)   A plumb line is your friend, because gravity is a constant, and a plumb line does not lie.

In our Old Testament text for today, the prophet Amos talks about plumb lines.  Now to be clear, Amos doesn’t see himself as a prophet.  He thinks of himself just as a normal guy; a farmer.  But he keeps having these visions…visions and dreams that are so powerful that he can’t help telling people about them.

In this vision, God uses plumb lines as an image for what is faithful, righteous and true; and for why Israel needs to change its path.  The Lord says ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.’” Why do you suppose God uses the image of a plumb line to show Amos what he needed to say?  Well, over time, the people of Israel’s ways had become crooked.  There was deceit, corruption, and the people had stopped caring about the poor, and those in need.  God was declaring an end to their attempts to justify these crooked ways. The Lord was setting a new standard, because the nation of Israel had fallen out of plumb.

So now Amos preaches, in public, that King Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will be defeated, and will go into exile. Neither King Jeroboam nor his high priest, Amaziah, were pleased.  They “unfriend” him pretty quickly.

Amaziah, the high priest, is the religious authority who speaks on behalf of the temple, and on behalf of the King.  He replies to Amos’ prophecy: “O prophet, go, flee away!”

But Amos does not back down.  “No, there is a plumb line…a standard…and you are crooked…you are breaking away from God’s will.”

Amos is not afraid to speak truth, to power.  Even dangerous power.

My friends, we too have a plumb line, just like the one that Amos described.    Jesus defines it for us in the Great Commandment.  He says: love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength…and love your <what?> love your neighbor, as yourself.

This is our plumb line.  Against these words of Jesus, we can measure our words and actions.

In 1963, from prison, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote about this in his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” He compared Amos’ plumb line, to the one that Jesus sets in this Great Commandment.  King wrote “Jesus was an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ And Amos was an extremist for justice.  In Amos, chapter 5, he writes: ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’”

Dr. King reminds us of the radical nature of the plumb line that Jesus sets.  It is not just love, but extreme love.  Love of those that are hard to love.  And it’s not just justice, but extreme justice.  Justice like a mighty water that washes away injustice, anger and despair.

This commandment from Jesus is the plumb line for our lives.  And it is the plumb line for our church.  We love our God through our worship and prayers and songs. We love our God by being generous with our time, our talents, and our money. And we love God loving our neighbor as ourselves; by caring that the hungry are fed and by advocating for those who are treated unjustly.

I recently read a blog post by Josh Jasper, who leads a small non-profit community service agency in Dubuque, Iowa.   He wrote about the courage it takes to stand up for what is right. He also spoke about two types of people in the world.  He said that people can be either passive bystanders, or active bystanders:

  • Passive bystanders are people who watch, and see something wrong around them, and assume that someone else will step in and take care of it.
  • And then he compares these people to active bystanders. These are people who watch, see a need or a problem, and assume that they must be the ones to step in and take care of it.

In the Great Commandment, Jesus calls us to be active bystanders.  We look at the world, and we see places where it is out of plumb, with Jesus’ commandment to love God, and to love our neighbor, and then we act; we act to draw God’s world back into alignment with God’s commandment to love.  This is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus.

We do that individually, when we see something wrong, and we act.  And we do that together, as a congregation.  We are all interconnected…we hold each other accountable…we lean on each other…we lift each other up…and we worship together.

Measuring our lives against God’s plumb line is a daunting task, to be sure.  It is the reason why we are so much in need of grace.  It is the reason why the gift of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ is so important to us.  Because there will be times that we will fail to act.  There are times we will take the passive, not the active role.

But all of us, you and I, have that gift of grace and forgiveness.  And Jesus continues to point us toward the plumb line.  And Jesus continues to call us to be the active ones; the ones to draw the world in which we live, back into plumb with God’s will; knowing that Jesus is with us, and that when we fail, well…there’s grace for that.

Hear again the words of Dr. King, as he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “…The rough places…they will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.”

This is our hope.  Thanks be to God!

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