The Plumb Line

West Side Moravian Church
Green Bay, Wisconsin
July 15, 2001

Lesson: Amos 7: 7-17

Serving God With Our Wits

"Amos, what do you see?"

"A plumb line."

If you are a builder like me, you don't like plumb lines. They are too judgmental, too rigid – too accurate. I prefer to build with an artistic bent. I like what I make to have proportions pleasing to the eye, whether or not that fits any external standard (such as verticality).

That's all very well and good, but you know as well as I do that it is also an excuse for not spending enough time to do the job right. It is easier to cut the parts by eye than to get out the square, or to set them up by guess instead of testing with the level. Sometimes, for lack of skill in using the tools, the result is just as good, or just as bad, when done by eye by eye as when done by measurement. But the project would be better, stronger, and more durable if my construction was both visually pleasing and properly joined.

If you are a Christian like me, you never really liked the Judgment. It seems too final, too divisive, too judgmental. I prefer to talk about God's mercy, about building up the body of Christ. I like to talk about bearing one another's burdens and about having Jesus as our friend.

That's all good and right, but there is more than that in the Gospel. There is also honesty, discernment, measurement. And that is judgment.

When God holds the plumb line to measure Israel's uprightness, God is demonstrating the kind of judgment which the people of Israel had been called but failed to exercise. Judgment is not only a thing which is done to us, but a responsibility which is placed on us, the responsibility to use our wits to judge between right and wrong. This responsibility grows from the very roots of our humanness, from who we are as human beings.

In the words of the story of the Garden of Eden, We have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge and we are now "like gods, knowing good and evil" [Genesis 3: 5]. Knowing, and therefore burdened to use judgment. This is not an easy obligation. Good judgment is difficult and confusing. But good judgment is how we humans serve God. In the words of Sir Thomas More,

God made the angels to show him splendor – as he made the animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!

Thomas More, as presented by Robert Bolt. A Man For All Seasons. © 1960, 1962, 1988, 1990. Vintage Books. Page 126.

We are called to serve God with intellectual honesty, with discernment, with measurement. We are called to use our good judgment, to serve God in the tangle of our minds. Like gods, we need to judge our deeds, and like human beings we need to stand up and amend what is flawed.


Our minds are a tangled world of impressions and imagination as well as of observation and real experience. Measurement the the process which allows us to separate what really is from what seems to be. It is an essential part of our responsibility to use judgment in our lives.

I don't do a lot of baking, but I do have a kitchen illustration. Have you ever started to make a 2-crust pie only to end up half a crust short? Now, there are many ways to measure the ingredients for the crust. You can use a measuring cup, or you could weigh the flour. Even comparing the ball of dough with the size of my hand – which is my usual technique – is a way of measuring. I do measure the dough, but sometimes I forget to measure the size of the pan. And sometimes I end up half a crust short.

I can always tell when I've failed in pie making. The standard for the size of the crust is the size of the pie pan which sits right in front of me. There is really no excuse for making the wrong size crust. But if I fail to measure the ingredients as I work, I still measure the results when I try to place the crust on the pie. If I don't use good judgment in making the crust, my work will fail the judgment of making the pie.

Measurement is common to more of our lives than piemaking. How do we know when our schools are successful? We measure the results. There are tests at the end of the chapter, final exams, interscholastic competitions, follow-up interviews with graduates in the workplace. There is plenty of debate over what measurement is best to use, but I would be surprised to find anyone advocating no measurement at all.

I know a young office secretary whose friends, by her telling, are somewhat prone to being sent to jail. She told me about one friend who was in the county jail – but only one time. Now he stays out of trouble, she says, and the reason is that he imagines her telling him how foolish he was. That story is hardly the measure of her whole life, but it does give a measure of one bit of the good she does.

One Sunday afternoon I was at a church camp (not Mt. Morris). Two other counselors and I decided to head through the woods to the camp parking lot where we would meet our campers. Two of us got into a wonderful, intellectual conversation that (I'm embarrassed to admit) left our third companion somewhat behind. After some time of this talking and walking through the woods, our quiet partner spoke up. "Didn't we pass this post once already?" she asked. Not only had the 2 of us not been measuring our progress, we had to walk and talk in a circle one more time before we believed her. We were having a wonderful conversation, but we were failing to get any closer to our campers. We had just assumed that we were making progress without bothering to check.

In all of life, it is important to check our progress. Have we done well? Have we done what we set out to do? Have we done what God has asked us to do? We must make some kind of measurement to know whether we are doing what we promised God that we would do.

Discerning true standards

Not only must we measure, but we should apply the right measure. This aspect of using our judgment falls into the category of discernment. On that walk in the woods, it would not have helped for us to measure the pleasure of our conversation. We needed to measure how close we were to the parking lot and to the arriving campers.

Parabolic ceiling of sanctuary

Or consider constructing a building. Must every wall be vertical and every ceiling flat? If so, then this room is a sin. Clearly the plumb bob is the right tool to measure some walls and not others. If we are laying a brick wall, then we may indeed want to use a plumb line. If we are setting up a teepee, we want the poles to meet above the center of the floor. How can we discern the true standard which we ought to use?

During the Renaissance, a beautiful bell tower was being added to a church in Italy. The builders knew well enough how to use a plumb bob but they never measured the strength of the earth under the tower. The builders did not have the knowledge that would let them recognize the need for another measurement. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is the result of their lack of discernment.

On the one hand, the Leaning Tower is a monument to failure. On the other hand, those builders, and all builders since, have learned to measure the soil under the foundation. Their famous failure became the basis for discerning more about the right measurements for building a bell tower. The plumb bob showed the need for growth in discernment, and the measure of that growth is seen in all the tall, straight buildings of today. So the Leaning Tower of Pisa is best seen as a success.

If we are growing apple trees, the situation is entirely different from building a tower. The verticality of the tree trunk is not of much importance and you don't use a plumb bob to measure an apple orchard. Instead, we measure the size and number of the apples.

I like the image of growing fruit more than I like the pictures of God's judgment. But counting and grading apples is a picture of God's judgment. How does God judge our faith and loyalty? By the fruits which grow from our lives. How can we discern whether our lives measure up to God's expectations? By whether peace and unity and faith are growing where we walk.

What is the right measure when we are travelling the highway? Some few of us may be called to patrol the highways looking for trouble, but most of us use the roads as a way to get somewhere. We are more like the businessman from Samaria in Jesus' story. He was intending to travel from his home town to a business engagement in another city. This Samaritan was not searching for people who happened to be left for dead at the side of the road, but he found one anyway. And he delayed the work he intended to do so that he might provide help to the injured man.

Jesus applauds this man not for his intentions but for his judgment. Jesus told this parable to help us to discern God's will, so that we will measure what is important. Having come upon a human being in need, the Samaritan in the story judges that this injured man has more value than the business meeting to which he is headed. The Samaritan discerns that the true measure of a person who is travelling the highway is how much like a neighbor he acts toward those he meets.


Finally, we need to use our judgment honestly.

The first kind of honesty is the use of a true measure. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets inveigh against dishonest weights. Selling 5 pounds of flour at 15 ounces per pound is dishonest. In the same way, measuring our lives against expectations set too low is dishonest. We know what God expects of us, and we must measure honestly. We know what is right, and we tend to fudge a bit. We say, with Amaziah of Bethel, "This is the king's temple" and therefore it is not to be questioned. We say, "No one is hurt by this" (or none that we know about) and so it isn't really wrong. We say, "Everyone else is doing this" so it can't be that bad. Can it? We know good and evil, and we need to apply honest judgment.

But in measuring our lives, there is both false pride and false humility. Am I really so good as I imagine, or so bad as I fear? It is dishonest to pour a little flour into a 6-ounce teacup and say that is enough, if we know a full cup is needed. It is also dishonest to put our pint of strawberries in a bushel basket and say it is nothing. If it is dishonest to weigh our good deeds against a grain of sand, in order to claim that our lives are already good enough, it is also dishonest to weigh them against the whole world and then to despair of doing any good at all. Honesty requires us to see both the bad and the good.

The second aspect of honesty is to be careful that we do make measurements. Using fair weights and accurate measuring cups means nothing if we fail to measure at all. We have no right to prejudge either ourselves or others, or to assume, without checking, that we know how we measure up.

A third form of honesty is saying, "We don't know". When we do not have enough information, when we have inadequate skill to make a measurement, then we do not know and in honesty must say so.

In life, there is a lot that we do not know. How many seeds did Johnny Appleseed plant without knowing whether they grew to bear more apples? How many friends have we touched for only a short time, and then lost sight of? How many times is a teacher left to wonder, did I help that child or not? How many kind words, and unkind words, do we speak without knowing whether they leave a mark? God alone knows the full measure of our lives. That is why we must leave the full and final judgment to God.

We are called to measure our lives honestly, so far as we have knowledge, and to use our wits to discern God's will.

God's standard

"Look," says God, "I am setting a plumb line in the heart of my people." God's standard for judgment is clear and simple. "Love God" and "love your neighbor". Here is the plumb line that God sets in our midst. By the grace of God, we have the power to discern the standard for an upright life and to measure ourselves honestly.

God has set a plumb line in our midst and called us to judgement. Take this gift with you, trusting in the mercy of God and in the friendship of Jesus.