Three years ago, a consultant sounded the siren about major structural damage to the building of Champlain Towers South, in Surfside Florida. There was cracking and crumbling of columns, beams and walls of the parking garage, possible problems with the supporting columns, possible corrosion of reinforcing steel under the building. Engineers have suggested a foundation-related matter led to the deadliest accidental building collapse in American history on June 24. The death toll stands at 86, with 43 still unaccounted for.
It is sobering to think how a possible error, mistake, a problem in the lowest level of the complex would instigate what is described as a “pancake collapse,” where the failure at the bottoms causes the top floors to collapse, on top of the lower floor just below, then the next lower one, until the bottom is reached. Such a building collapse tragically results in fewer survivors, as we are seeing unfolding at the accident site.
When it comes to construction, there is very little room for making a mistake. Minute attention needs to be paid to selecting quality materials, to pouring a solid foundation as well as reinforcing joints. We have to be careful that surfaces are level - walls are straight - or plumb. The tiniest deviation can throw an edifice off – make it unstable, weak, unsightly, prone to collapse with any stress.
The illustration of building straight, true, or plumb, is a powerful image used in the Bible. You can construct a house, and as far as you can tell, the walls appear absolutely straight. Yet, if you take a long string with a lead weight tied to the end of it and hang it beside one of the walls, you may discover that the whole structure is crooked. Before you use the plumb line, it doesn't look lopsided, because, relative to itself, it isn't. All of the walls may be parallel to one another. But when an objective measure is used to determine whether the structure is really straight, reality breaks in. A plumbline is one of the oldest, simplest and most reliable of tools in the building profession.
That's how it is with us. On the outside, our lives appear to us to be straight, on target, perfect. We think we are doing what God wants. Without even realizing it, we may all be crooked, our foundation unstable, erosion is quietly taking place in the eyes of God. We desperately need a plumb line, or an outside standard outside of ourselves, by which we can see whether we really measure up. That’s what our readings tell us today.
The people of Israel were not at all pleased when the prophet Amos came along to tell them how crooked they had become. For one thing, Amos was from the kingdom of Judah – to them an outsider. King Jeroboam, the king of Israel, had surrounded himself with opportunists, with those who were only too happy to give him two thumbs up any time he asked how things were going. But Amos, a part-time shepherd and pruner of fig trees, this outsider, was sent by God to tell Jeroboam and his priest Amaziah that they were way out of whack.
Amos hears from God, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” This analogy of the plumb line is a call of judgment, to spiritual measurement – how true, how close to God and God’s covenant of justice and right relationship we really are. The plumb line in Amos’ vision is intended to measure the depth of commitment to God. And Amos didn’t mince words in telling King Jeroboam and Amaziah, how far they missed the mark.
Amos called the leading ladies of Israel cows, and accused the elite of oppressing the poor and crushing the needy. He spoke harshly to the religious leaders telling them that God despised their festivals and took no delight in their solemn assemblies. He chastised the prominent merchants accusing them of having faulty scales and defrauding their customers. God used Amos to place a plumb line in Israel to show them how far off the mark they were, and to call them to repentance.
Mark also gives us the testimony of how John the Baptizer acted as a plumb line as well. Our chapter begins with people believing Jesus is John, back from the dead. Mark goes on to give us a detailed account of how John loses his head. It is a story drenched with political intrigue, scandal and backstabbing violence, evidence of life out of plumb.
John did what needed to be done: he spoke Truth to Power. John reminds Herod, according to the religious law, it is not lawful for Herod to marry his own brother’s wife. And yet, we are told that this particular Herod, for reasons unexplained, somehow enjoyed listening to John. He liked having him around. On the other hand, Herodias -- his current wife-- formerly his brother’s wife--is tired of listening to John’s pronouncements against her and employs her own daughter to bring John down.
The rest is history. In front of a crowd of dignitaries, Herod is caught up by his stepdaughter’s dancing and promises her anything – to which, at her mother’s urging, she requests the head of John the Baptizer.
Amos and John are plumb lines – showing us where we’ve gone wrong, showing us the way back to plumb standards found in scripture. They are not afraid to speak even when they are persecuted for the truth. Mark tells us John’s purpose, as: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:13) John is a plumb line that directs us to Jesus, who is God’s ultimate plumb line – Jesus is our standard, who, like Amos and John, lived a plumb life through his words and works of power.
God is described as a conscientious builder in Isaiah 28: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation” (Isaiah 28:16). God makes clear for us what constitutes the divine tools for a well-constructed society, a solid life: “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line” (Isaiah 28:17). There will be no crookedness or sin in the kingdom of Christ.
Today, just as in the days of the prophet Amos, God sets a plumb line in our midst. Our plumb line – the life and teachings of Jesus – the witness of scripture -- measures our faithfulness -- our righteousness – our works – against that of the One who is perfect and true to God.
But we struggle to stay or return plumb, don’t we? It’s easy to go out of joint, without realizing it. So, we ask ourselves today: Is our foundation buckling because we mix some lies or deceit in the concrete of truth? Are our windowsills sloped because we refuse to see and care for the hurting and needy around us? Are the columns cracked because we turn our backs to prayer and righteous action? Is our foundation buckling because we ignore the word of God in Christ? Have we weakened the supporting steel columns with worldly values that corrode the spirit? Are we facing imminent collapse without knowing it?
The architects’ report is in. Our lives and society around us are out of plumb. We need to check ourselves, our communities against the plumbline of Jesus and the scriptures to recognize and repair the worsening cracks. Like the managers of the South Champlain Towers, who meant well, it is easy to waste precious time, to delay until it is too late. To become complacent, give into denial, or end up blind to the problems and thus delay taking action. To become overwhelmed by the cost in dollars to repair, only to pay the highest price in the lost of many lives, the irreparable damage done to families and the community of Surfside. As we weep alongside the survivors, let it be a reminder to us to recommit ourselves to Jesus, our plumbline. Today let us advocate like Amos and John did, to uphold righteous standards, plumbline standards, creating a fair and just society built on the God’s love as the standard. To live our lives on the foundation of love, mercy, forgiveness – in doing so healing those cracks in us and around us before it gets too late. Amen