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As many of you know, I have always enjoyed building things and using my tools! And so, I’ve always enjoyed being involved in church building projects large and small.
The first building project I was involved in was in my first congregation, where we were adding a 3200 square foot addition to the building. I lived in a parsonage which was closer to the church building than the Youth Center is to our main building here at Prince of Peace, and so I was literally always there! And it was fun! I got to walk around and watch as things were done, and sometimes to notice when things weren’t being done correctly.
But we had a great construction superintendent who was a stickler for things being done right. His name was Tom and he always caught everything. And he would sometimes point things out to me that, as the owner representative, I shouldn’t accept as good enough.
One late afternoon, after everyone but Tom had left, I was walking through the construction site when I saw Tom with a big four foot level in his hand and muttering what sounded distinctly like “non-pastor words”! This was concerning, because Tom NEVER uttered non-pastor words, and we both had an understanding that vocalizing the non-pastor words was MY job…!
So I asked him what was wrong. And he looked at me and asked, “Ain’t you seen seen it?! I thought for sure you’d have caught it too!” But I hadn’t, so Tom led me over to the firewall which was under construction. To build the firewall, which would separate the old building from the new, a steel frame for the fire doors needed to be installed, and then the masons would come in and build up the cinderblock wall around it.
The day before, Tom had personally installed the steel frame, and on this day, the masons had come and installed courses of cinderblocks about 2/3 of the way up the door opening. Tom took his level and placed it against the frame and said, “look at this.” I checked the level, and said, “it looks perfect to me.” Then Tom took the level and put it on the frame in the perpendicular direction, and asked me the same thing. I said, “that looks perfect, too.” And Tom said, “It is. I was hoping it was my fault. But look at the blocks and how they line up with the frame.”
And as I looked at the courses of cinderblocks as they went up the frame, in the course of about 4 feet, they clearly bowed out by a good inch. The whole wall was bowing out. And Tom said to me, “the never used a plumb line.”
They never used a plumb line. If they had, it would have been obvious that the wall was getting more and more messed up. And so I asked, “what has to happen?” And Tom said, “they’re gonna have to tear almost all of it out tomorrow and start again – and this time use a plumb line!”
The thing is, these masons were actually decent masons. They weren’t trying to do anything wrong. But they got either careless or over-confident, and things got messed up.
And that’s the point Amos is trying to make to people in today’s first reading, when he has this vision of God standing with a plumb line in his hand next to a wall. The idea here is that God has called his people to live in a covenant with him and with each other. They’re supposed to be building their lives in such a way that they act justly and lovingly and live as God’s people in the world. But then God comes along with a plumb line and points out that stuff is messed up.
Like the masons at church, it probably wasn’t that these people were bad people, or that they didn’t know what to do. But maybe they got careless. Maybe they got overconfident in their own abilities to just “do the right thing.” Maybe they just figured they didn’t need a “plumb line” to check themselves now and again.
The real problem they have, thought, is that when Amos points this out, the people don’t want to hear about it. They don’t want to examine themselves, or wonder if maybe Amos has a point. Plenty of prophets pointed out problems and prophesied doom and gloom. But if people repented, things got better. Relationships were rebuilt. God was praised. And justice and mercy again prevailed.
But these folks didn’t want to use a plumb line. They told Amos to go and prophesy down in Jerusalem, and not to bother them anymore.
Finding and using some kind of plumb line might have actually helped, though!
So today, as we baptize Amy, we’re celebrating the first in-person baptism we’ve done here at Prince of Peace in over a year and a half! As we have with everything else during this whole time of Covid, we found ways to adapt baptisms by baptizing children with just their families present, and sometimes with people watching online. But we haven’t been able to be together as a whole congregation when we’ve celebrated a baptism.
It is a great feeling to be able to do this again! And it’s always better to celebrate baptisms with the whole Christian community, because baptism isn’t just a private thing between a person and God – it’s about becoming part of the community.
But there’s another reason as well. Every time we gather for a baptism we ask questions of the parents and sponsors – questions about their commitment to help a child build their relationship with God and with the Christian community. They’re questions that center on important basic things like being part of the community of God’s people; regularly hearing God’s Word and sharing in the sacraments; nurturing a life of prayer; learning to praise God; and working for justice and peace in the world.
Those aren’t just promises that we’re here to witness and watch. Those are also the “plumb lines” if you will, that help us all to consider how each one of us is living more fully each day into the covenant of our own baptisms. And each time we gather for a baptism, and as we hear those questions, it’s an opportunity for each one of us to use them as a plumb line in our own lives and ask ourselves if what we’re doing or not doing is drawing us closer to God and to each other? Are we growing in faith and love through prayer and worship and receiving the sacraments? Are we doing the things that help us to share God’s love and mercy and justice?
And are we using those “plumb lines” not to feel good about ourselves, or to go on a guilt trip, but to honestly examine ourselves? Are we opening ourselves up to hear again that God’s love and forgiveness gives us new chances even if things haven’t gone the way they should? And are we willing to tear down a few courses of the walls we’ve built in our lives if things aren’t right? God’s plumb lines are there to cause us to think, to ask those kinds of questions and to prompt us to act.
Oh, so I should tell you the rest of the wall story from my first congregation. The masons came back. Tom told them to tear down the wall and start over. And they did! And this time, they used a plumb line. The wall got built exactly as it should have. And things were good from there on out!
And that’s the reason for God’s plumb lines in our lives, too. They’re there to help us see the kind of life God has in mind for us. They’re there to guide us in living more fully into life-giving relationships with God and with each other. And they’re there to remind us that even when we’ve messed things up, God is always guiding us into the ways of new life.