A Measure to Live By
A sermon on Amos 7:10-15; Luke 10:25-37 & Colossians 1:13-14 by Nathan Nettleton, 15 July 2007
Christ calls us to continue to grow in the measure our our love, prayer and good works.
In recent months, as most of you know, I’ve been enjoying entering my dogs in some obedience competitions. Dog competitions are an interesting place to watch people, because there are some strange behaviours on display. The main point, of course, is the measure of how well a dog and handler are doing in their training, but people react to that measure in various ways. One of the least attractive variations — and one that I know by personality I am at risk of becoming if I don’t keep a watch on myself — is the person who sees perfect scores and winning as almost a matter of life and death. They don’t seem to even enjoy their dogs any more, and I’ve seen some become abusive and even violent to their dogs for any mistakes. Fortunately there are lots of other people who enjoy their dogs, know that mistakes happen and its no big deal, and know that at the end of the day they still get to go home with a dog that loves them and that doesn’t care a bit about its own score. Now the question for me then, is why compete? Why not just enjoy my dogs and not put the pressure on myself? I’m sure my motivations are multi-layered, and some of you will perhaps rightly think it is tangled up with compulsive overachievement and delusions of grandeur, but my preferred excuse is rather simpler. By using the measure provided by competition, I keep myself motivated to keep working with my dogs, and with working breed dogs, that’s good for them and good for my relationship with them. Without the challenge, I easily get slack and neglect them.
In a few minutes, we will be holding our annual covenanting rite, where many of us will be voluntarily committing ourselves to seeking to measure up to the resolutions expressed in our church covenant. And the same sort of questions can be asked. Why are we doing this? Why don’t we just enjoy being part of the church and forget about trying to set standards and push ourselves to grow towards them? Why set up these expectations with their risk of seeing people measuring themselves against one another and thus becoming divisive? Isn’t it enough to have faith, and join the church? What do we need this covenant stuff for?
In seeking to address those questions, let’s have a look at tonight’s readings. The prophet Amos is in all sorts of hot water in the first reading we heard. Ian made the comment during the week that if Amos had done now what he is reported to have done then, he would probably be in jail alongside Dr Mohammed Haneef, and the case against Amos would probably be stronger than what they have so far managed to muster against Dr Haneef. Be that as it may, in the midst of his struggle with the powers of the day, Amos has a vision in which he sees the Lord standing with a plumb line in hand, measuring up the people. “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people,” says the Lord. For those of you with no connections in the building industry, a plumb line is a weight suspended on a length of string, and it is used by builders to determine whether an upright wall is straight. So the Lord is saying, “I am measuring how true, how straight up and down my people are.”
One way of understanding our covenant is as a plumb line. It serves to identify a standard. And by holding up that standard to ourselves, we can take a measure of how we are doing. The covenant is not defining some standard above and beyond what is expected of church members. It is simply seeking to name the standard that is expected of all church members. It is saying, “this is what it means to be a committed member of this congregation. This is the basic standard; the plumb line that shows where we are all called to stand.” It is not that our standards or expectations are that much higher than those of other congregations; it is just that we are naming them up front and calling it a covenant. And part of the purpose of doing that is so that we have a measure that can show us who we are and whether we are straight up and down, fair dinkum, and challenge us to set our sights on being so.
In our reading from the letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul spoke of how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son”. The language is intensely political: power and kingdoms and transfer of allegiance. It is saying that our citizenship has been transferred. Whatever claims tribe or nation might once have had on us, our citizenship has now been transferred to the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and it is the values and expectations of that kingdom that now give shape to our lives. So the covenant is a local expression of those citizenship expectations. It is saying that the thing that defines this congregation as an identifiable group, as a community, is that we hold these practices in common; that we seek to live out these practices together. What is the South Yarra Community Baptist Church? It is a congregation of people who together seek to live out this set of practices.
The Apostle speaks of his prayer “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work.” Our covenant has a new shape this year. It is less prescriptive in some areas because it is seeking to encourage us to “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will”. It is asking us to learn to seek God’s will in various areas of our lives. But it is also making it clear that it does matter. As the Apostle says, we are called to “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,” and to “bear fruit in every good work.” This transfer of allegiance, of citizenship, is not just a bureaucratic formality. It has real content. It asks us to lead particular kinds of lives and to undertake identified good works. And what our covenant seeks to do is to name those things which are common to all of us as citizens of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and to point us to those areas where we would do well to prayerfully ask God’s guidance for the leading of lives worthy of the Lord.
Our gospel reading contained the famous parable of the good Samaritan. The focus of the parable is on what it means to love our neighbour, which is an aspect of what our covenant is about. But I want to draw your attention to the context in which Jesus tells the parable. A religious lawyer asks Jesus what one must do to receive life in God, and Jesus answers by asking the lawyer what answer the law gives. The lawyer replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”  And Jesus commends him for answering correctly and says, “Do this, and you will live.” But the lawyer is not satisfied and asks, “Who is my neighbour?” and Jesus responds with the parable. And it is a parable that shocks its hearers. The Samaritans were despised and feared enemies of the Jews, and so this parable is akin to Jesus talking of the good Al-Qaeda terrorist. It shocks and bewilders. It pushes the demand to love across boundaries that no one could imagine crossing. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus, once again holding up a plumb line and asking us to measure ourselves against it.
But the point I want to make here is about the question: “Who is my neighbour?” Because it seems to me that that question is a good example of the reason we need plumb lines like the covenant. It is a question that unmasks a certain complacency. It is testing the hypothesis that this expectation that you love your neighbour is not all that demanding. It probably just means being a good bloke to those around me like I’m already doing, doesn’t it? “Wrong!” says Jesus.
And I know that for me, and for many of us here, the reason for having a covenant instead of just assuming that we all know what it means to be followers of Jesus and members of his church, is a lot like that. We know that when we don’t hold up a plumb line to ourselves, we easily lapse into thinking that whatever we’ve been doing is fine and all is well. It’s like me slacking off and neglecting my dogs when I don’t have the spur of that competition measure, that 170 qualifying score, to drive me on. Unless I hold up a plumb line and examine my patterns of prayer with it, I easily lapse into thinking that what I’m doing is enough. Unless I hold up a plumb line and examine the ways I engage in our common life, and the ways I treat people here when I do, then I can easily lapse into thinking that nothing is really expected beyond being a kind of generically good person. “Who is my neighbour?” equals “What is expected of me? What are the standards? What is God looking for in those who make up the body of Christ in this place?”
So when we get up in a minute and pledge ourselves to living by this covenant, we are simply seeking to give an answer to those questions. “What, in practical terms, does it mean to live as a member of this church?” It is our attempt to describe the line we see the plumb line to be marking. And our endeavours to live by it is our quest to hear the call of Christ to measure up to the line he holds and to live lives worthy of the Lord and bear fruit in every good work.
So let’s stand, and firstly use another plumb line — a confession of faith — to name and examine the content of our faith, and then we’ll re-form our church for the one hundred and fifty fourth year of its gathered life by covenanting to live as the community Christ calls us to be in this place for the year to come.