The Divine Plumb Line

Pentecost 7

Amos 7:7-15; Ps 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14—5:1, Mark 3:20-35

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

Summer is gently unfolding, and the sun seems to be returning to this part of Canada. And after an unexpected year of continuing uncertainty and change, improvements in the overall Covid situation mean that we are starting to breath sighs of relief as we test new found freedoms and relearn how to socialise and be together in ways that we had had to unlearn for a while.

It continues to be hard to plan with any predictability but, at least for those who are vaccinated by now, the future looks freer and safer.

World affairs however never seem to brighten up much even in the holiday period. In the midst of the ongoing traumas of the discoveries of children bodies buried in the grounds of former residential schools, there were some glimmer of positive developments this week when Inuk leader Mary Simon was named Canada’s Governor-General, the first Indigenous person to hold role, a symbolic appointment at a time of renewed soul searching. And RoseAnne Archibald was elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the first female, and the first LGBTQ2S person to be elected to that position.

But we have been shocked by the high temperatures in the west of Canada and the number of fires affecting whole communities, one of the ever growing consequences of global warming.

And we also read with dismay of the murder of the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, heightening political uncertainty and anxiety for the people of Haiti at this time, on an island already battered by many crises, violence and poverty.

The world may occasionally feel to us as if it is spinning out of control, and there is no doubt that the impact of humanity on our planet is a double edged sword.

In a culture which is often sceptical if not antagonistic to people of any faith, modern day prophets are usually quickly swept aside by the prevailing powers, may they be those of corporate profit or personal ambition, or simply of the social media baying crowds.

But this is not new. There are not many who like their plans thwarted by an appeal to self-restraint, justice or the common good. The human ego is so constructed as to promote our perceived needs first. It does take a lot of self-knowing and humility, as well as belief in a greater divine force, to transcend our desires.

Amos, an unlikely prophet from the 8th century before our common era, lived in a time of relative prosperity and peace, but also a time when God’s law was significantly neglected.

Not a professional prophet – many of whom were discredited – he was originally a herdsman and a tender of sycamore tree from the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet God called him to prophesy in the northern kingdom of Israel.

Amos spoke principally against an increased disparity between the very wealthy and the very poor, themes which 2800 years later are still sadly very much current, if even more so. Social corruption and the oppression of the poor and helpless were prevalent. Others, in an increasing cosmopolitan society due to increase trade and exchange of ideas, mixed their worship of God with the worship of pagan deities.

Called to prophesy in Bethel, his attempts were thwarted by the priest Amaziah, and he was unable to deliver his message about the imminent fall of the reigning dynasty directly to the King.

Instead, he returned home and was the first to turn to the social media of his age in writing his prophesies so they could be at least distributed.

Now the visual image of the plumb line in the prophecy of Amos we read today could not be more striking. A wall is unlikely to be built straight without reference to this vertical line. And Amos does not pull his punches. The line of reference is clear – care and justice for the poor and the oppressed, peace for all – this is the line by which God will judge Israel and its rules – and indeed judge us all.

The God of Amos is not interested in meaningless and empty rituals followed by excesses and lack of restraint. Instead, God is concerned about righteousness, and that the right thing should be done. Alas, the message falls on deaf ear this time.

In our Gospel, we heard the story of one whose prophecy did not fall on deaf ears, indeed one who drew the crowds by his teaching and his austere way of life, one who was paving the way for another even more powerful than him, one who was calling people back to the plumb line.

Because of his forthright preaching, John the Baptist fell foul of Herodia, the wife of the local ruler, as he was arguing against her marriage to her brother in law. She manages to persuade Herod to emprison him, even though Herod has recognised the Baptist as someone righteous and holy.

The story could have ended there, except for the manipulative vindictiveness of Herodia, and the opportunity of a lascivious dance by her daughter. Herod is so moved by it that he is prepared to give her anything. It must have been a very special and persuasive dance for Herod to go as far as to offer half his kingdom.

Instead, mother and daughter demand the head of John the Baptist.

Herod, who has promised to give whatever Herodias wanted not only in front of his guests, but also in an oath to God, is now in a double bind – either to break the promise to his daughter or more seriously to break an oath to God. In the end, he has little choice but to agree and have the Baptist beheaded. Probably not the first or last man to have found himself outwitted because of lust and unguarded words.

These two stories could be eminently depressing as we consider them hundreds of years later, and as we make parallels with world events near and far.

After all, how many modern day prophets – ecological activists, first nations leaders, members of minority ethnic groups, sexual and gender minorities, campaigners for justice, peacemakers – have been killed even in our time for seeking Amos divine justice for the poor and the oppressed?

And yet, God continues to raise more people to take part in this divine quest to rebuild God’s Kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace, justice and prosperity for all, not simply a self selected few.

Paul, in his letter to the people of Ephesus, reminds us of the mystery that is the will of God to eventually bring together earthly and heavenly things.

We are given grace and forgiveness of our shortcomings through the sacrifice of Christ, so that we may be renewed in our lives, given energy and insight to play our part in bringing about divine righteousness in the world, that out of the crooked timber of humanity a world might emerge that is true to that divine plumb line of Amos’ prophesy.

No individual can do this on their own of course, it is an ongoing communal quest which Christians around the planet contribute to through their local and global communities.

Bishops of the Anglican communion are starting their preparation towards their meeting at the Lambeth Conference next year, and are engaged in regular interchange during which they can discuss our similarities but also our differences.

Listening to one another in an atmosphere of prayer and respect is key to understanding how God speaks in each situation, in each of our lives. Opening ourselves to be moved by the Holy Spirit in our response to the needs we can see is one key to let the flow of divine love reach the four corners of our communities, the four corners of the world.

Here in downtown Montreal, we are also called to engage in conversations and to pray deeply about what God is calling us to be, what God is calling us to do in response to the needs we see.

Many of you responded to our survey a few weeks ago as we are seeking to discern the direction for our Cathedral post-pandemic. We have collated responses and will be organising follow up small group discussions in the coming weeks. It is already clear that a strong sense of community is what binds us together in our mission to our locality – whether that be in prayer and worship, outreach, inclusivity, or social justice, or simply in enjoying each others company and having fun.

So let us give thanks for the many ways in which the love of God shines in the lives of our Cathedral, and pray for wisdom and courage and the help of Christ our master builder to go on seeking those places where we are not true to the divine plumb line.



  1. Reply
    K B M says:

    Merci Rev. Bertrand- prayer partner,
    Remember? are you still praying pour moi or have you forgot? I remember and you remain
    on the topl of my list since that day the Bishop made us prayer partners. Glad to see you are doing well.
    B!essings, stay safe,
    K’M (DrPH)

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