Sermon preached on 15 July 2012

A few months ago, I decided to have my kitchen decorated. As many of you know, I don’t live in a church property – I live in my own flat. So it was the first time that I got to make all the decisions and all the mistakes for myself without having to negotiate with a church committee about it.

Quite often it is difficult to get church property committees to agree to anything terribly exciting as there is always the thought in mind that one day someone else will come along and the consequent presumption that it would be better to have a colour that can be foisted on someone else rather than have a room redecorated for them.

I remember a priest friend I knew who retired and said his hobby was going to be painting his retirement home in garish colours. After all, he said, he’d lived with every shade of beige in B and Q for years, it was time for a change.

I felt rather the same with my kitchen. Not content with slapping magnolia over everything, I decided I wanted wallpaper – and not any old wallpaper either. Something with a strong pattern it had to be. When my decorator saw it, he didn’t say much but I had a feeling that there was a certain sucking in of the teeth as he realised how difficult it was going to be to put up.

He did well. In the end, all the patterns matched and on walls which were frankly far from straight.

And after all this was done, I was left with some rubbish to throw away. Amongst the pile of decorating detritus, I found this.

It took me a while to realise what it was, but when I did, I threw it is my own seldom used toolbox.

It is a weight of lead tied precariously onto a piece of string.

And if you were listening carefully to the first reading this morning, you’ll know what it is.

The Lord said to Amos – “What do you see?”

And Amos said to the Lord – “A plumb line, Lord”

There is something kind of moving about finding that you hold in your hand one of God’s own sermon illustrations.

Behold the plumb line.

I’ve used such an illustration in school assemblies. Even the youngest children can understand it.

The plumb line hangs steady and true. It gives us something to measure things against to ensure that they are all lined up and perpendicular.

They are a reminder that the prophet Amos – who claimed to be a simple herder of sheep – managed to bring about a great religious change.

Broadly speaking, the prophets who came before him prophesied against the people of God most fiercely when they were perceived to be engaged in idolatry.

For much of the time, the Hebrew scriptures care most of all about people being trapped or tricked into anything other than the worship of the one true God. If you care about that kind of thing, you very quickly develop holiness codes.

Amos stands out as someone preaching a different message. Behold the plumb line he says. Behold there is something new to test yourself against.

For Amos managed to proclaim something new – that God was upset not merely because God was not being worshipped correctly. No – God’s displeasure lay against those who were ill-treating the poor.

If you want some homework this week read Hosea and then read Amos – they are not long books in the Bible but you will find a huge contrast between them.

Amos cries out against injustice. Amos shouts out about the poor being cheated and the vulnerable being disregarded.

It is an astonishing new religious vision. It isn’t all about idolatry any more. It is about looking out for people, treating people fairly, measuring what you do against a plumb line.

Religion all of a sudden is about working for justice, not simply about getting all the right. It isn’t just about avoiding idols, it is about walking towards a better world where everyone is treated fairly.

You can see why the lectionary compilers put that reading from Amos with the gospel reading about John the Baptist’s demise at the hands of Herod and the whim of the dancing girl.

John in his age was shouting the same message in his society. Test yourselves against what is good. Test yourself against what hangs true. Test yourself against God’s goodness for the Lord cares what you do to the poor.

In the modern age, the reformed churches got themselves all tied in knots about whether or not to worry about good works.

Could good works save you or was it an encounter with the living God?

If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in that kind of controversy then get out your bible and read the prophets and realise that they don’t all say the same thing. Hosea calls people to encounter the living God. Amos called people to behave as though God’s plumb line ran through their hearts and measure themselves against God’s goodness.

Religion is not a question of whether it is grace or good works that save you.

Grace and goodness are not opposites. Remember that in the psalms we are told that mercy and loving-kindness meet with a kiss.

God’s love to us in salvation and our love for the world are not supposed to be separate. They come from the same creation force that sets every atom a-spin with potential and makes every soul alive to the possibility of becoming divine.

So, consider the plumb line.

God is in our midst with a message of love for every human being and a job for those beloved human souls to do. Putting the world to rights. Setting things properly in order. Defending the weak. Standing up for the vulnerable. Loving the lost and lonely.

And bringing God’s kingdom in. Amen.


  1. william says:

    I was encouraged to read specifically ‘Grace and goodness are not opposites’ in the flow of yesterday’s sermon as it explored the mindsets of Amos and Hosea.
    Undoubtedly many of the Reformers and their successors have wrestled with the paradox of grace v works, but it is of great significance I think that Calvin did not engage in that battle. He argued, like yourself in your sermon, for the ‘duplex gratia’ of the christian gospel, that the two doctrines of justification and sanctification are inseparable though distinct. Interestingly in his Book 3 of the Institutes he explores the latter first!
    I don’t know whether this constitutes something new to qualify for acceptance (!) but it was sufficiently of interest to me to prompt a positive word of appreciation.

  2. Agatha says:

    What is brilliant about the plumb line is that for 000s of years since Bible times its still a thing on the end of a bit of string. Nothing fancy, it just works.

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