A Plumb Line

In today’s passage from Amos, the prophet announces to peaceful, comfortable Samaria that he has had another vision from God, and that things will surely not be peaceful and comfortable for much longer. In the vision, Amos saw God holding up a plumb line. I have to tell you that I really enjoyed saying the words “plumb line” all week. This is the only place in scripture that this word appears, but scholars are fairly confident in the translation. Amos saw God holding up a long metal rod or string with a heavy bob dangling on the end.

If you are unfamiliar with plumb lines, imagine a pendulum with sharp, pointed end. Technically, plumb lines are used to determine the vertical of an upright surface. Colloquially, the word plumb is used to indicate exactness, as in, “that squirrel was plumb in the middle of the road,” or to indicate a vertical nature, as in, “that acorn fell plumb down from the tree onto my head.” Plumb lines, and their metaphors, are used to judge straightness. Amos is warning the people that God is judging them, to determine their uprightness, and it is a test they will not pass.

Whether we realize it or not, we use the concept of a plumb line all time. By taking stock of things like income, home decor, preferred news outlet, voting history, church attendance, children’s behavior, charitable donations, etc., we measure the uprightness of our neighbors and ourselves, always seeking a specific exactitude that is nearly impossible to meet. This is a dangerous game to play because it leaves us with only two options: vertical or atilt, right or wrong, good or bad. It is certainly within God’s purview to judge creation, but when we take on the task ourselves, the black and white nature of our plumb lines paralyzes our spiritual and theological imaginations, leaving us confused and misguided. Before we know it, we are the lawyer in today’s Gospel passage begging Jesus to just tell us what to do to achieve perfect uprightness and get into heaven.

As I prepared this sermon over the last week, I finished watching a fabulous show on Amazon called Fleabag. The main character and narrator is a single woman in her early thirties coping with a fledgling career, a family she struggles to relate to, the loss of her mother, and other various sins and vices that afflict single women in their early thirties. (I couldn’t relate at all….) She is rough around the edges, but she faces life’s trials with humor, determination, and hope, and I found her self-awareness and unapologetic authenticity inspiring. In a moment of gut-wrenching vulnerability, she confesses her regrets and her fears to a priest and begs him to just tell her what to do. I identified with her so strongly in that moment, and for the first time I felt overwhelming sympathy for the lawyer in today’s Gospel.

I get downhearted when I read a headline about children on the border, or when I don’t have any change for the person with a sign at the stop light, or when I say something mean to someone I love because I’m exhausted. We are all constantly measuring our own worth against imaginary plumb lines and coming up short. And often, our prayers for guidance turn into pleas for clear and simple instruction. Although we value that our particular Christian tradition lets us ask questions and disagree and share communion in the midst of our differences, wouldn’t it be nice if once in a while, someone just said, “here’s the plumb truth, you don’t have to mull anything over or pray about it for years, just believe this, do this, and you’ll be right.”

Today’s Gospel story always reminds me of WWJD bracelets, which were so popular when I was a kid. They stood for “what would Jesus do?” and frankly, they offered more confusion and judgement than clarity and direction. When the lawyer asks Jesus for a plumb line to heaven, Jesus throws his own WWJD bracelet back at him in the form of a parable. It is perhaps the most familiar parable and we know it inside and out. A person is in dire need, and the people we assumed mostly likely to help him do not, while the person we least expect to help, does. The takeaway is typically twofold: everyone is our neighbor, even the people we least expect, and we are called to stop and help the least of these.

But I think this story is much more nuanced than we give it credit for. I suspect that the people who stepped over the injured man weren’t cruel or uncaring, but instead did what you and I do all the time. They weighed the pros and cons of stopping to help, they avoided eye contact, they rustled around to see if they had any spare change, and they wondered if they’d done enough good deeds earlier in the week to merit passing on this good deed opportunity. Before they knew it, the man in need was behind them - out of sight, out of mind. You see, when we spend our lives measuring our worth against a plumb line of perfect faith, then every choice, every action, every encounter becomes simply an opportunity to increase our own uprightness, and surely there will be many more opportunities if we happen to miss out on this one.

But when we move through the world this way, what we miss are opportunities to encounter Christ on the road. What we miss are creative and unexpected ways for the Kingdom to break into our midst. What Jesus wants the lawyer to understand is that it’s not just this one choice that matters, it’s a whole way of life. Our scripture is not just a list of instructions, and Christ is calling us to put away our WWJD bracelets, our plumb lines, our desire to be told what to do at every turn, and enter into relationship with the people right in front of us, like the Samaritan did. Of course we can’t stop and help every single person on the roadside, but when we let go of the unrealistic, made-up measurements of righteousness, our world will break open and we’ll see that trying to “live right” is not nearly as life-giving as seeking out Christ in other people, because it is only in relationship with Christ that righteousness can exist anyway.

I am genuinely sorry that I cannot stand in this pulpit and just tell you what to do to live into your Christian calling this week. And I am genuinely sorry that it will be three years until the lectionary comes back around and we get to say “plumb line” again. But for anyone out there who, like me, really struggles to answer the ever-present question, what would Jesus do right here, right now, in this moment, know that there’s a different way to live. We are not bound to Amos’ vision of the plumb line, and we are not doomed to be the lawyer in the Gospel story. We can let go of these notions and commit instead to engaging with the people around us and seeking Christ at work in them. Then and only then will we be made plumb righteous. Amen.

Hannah Hooker