Loving Neighbour

A sermon by the Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6,13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-13, Matthew 22:34-46

In recent weeks our Gospel readings have been from the latter half of chapter Matthew 22. Today’s reading, the final verses in that chapter, is the third in a series of questions posed to Jesus to ty and trick him into incriminating himself. Not unlike the current presidential debates a number of curly questions are thrown at him, each with a subtext which becomes clear when you know something about the background and context of the questioner. We heard about the Pharisees teaming up with unlikely bedfellows the Herodians to ask about paying taxes; we had the Sadducees asking a blatantly absurd question about a poor woman who married seven brothers – one after the other as each in turn died.

Today it is the legal minds among the Pharisees who put forward the question: Which commandment is the greatest? (Matthew 22:16) As every good Jew who had attended school would know, Jesus too was very familiar with the Torah, the first five books of what we know as the Old Testament, and especially Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Leviticus 19:18. We too are familiar with these verses for we rehearse them regularly at the Eucharist immediately before we make confession of our sins. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

It’s our love of God that brings us together to worship; that inspires our singing of the great hymns of praise, especially the Gloria; that invites us beyond ourselves to consider the whole of God’s creation, in all its beautiful, yet fragile, complexity, as a witness to God’s love. It’s love of neighbour that raises questions of justice, caring, looking beyond ourselves to the needs of others.

Back in August I suggested during a sermon that the act of hand-washing, using sanitiser as we enter the Cathedral, could be seen as a sacrament – a sacrament of our love of neighbour. Australians, and South Australians in particular, have done brilliantly in caring for each other in these Covid-19 times. Yes, there have been times of anxiety and concern, especially in the early days when protocols were still being worked out, and people were struggling to come to terms with the implications of the coronavirus – and I certainly don’t wish to deny the very real struggle Victorians in particular have had. But by and large, Australians have listened to their leaders, taken seriously the advice of health officials, and the results are there in our relatively open way of life – especially compared to many other countries. Maintaining social distancing in the Cathedral, a few weeks of not singing hymns, and foregoing a cup of coffee with friends in the hall after the service are relatively small prices to pay for our health and well-being.

One of the things that has happened across the world is that the obsession with Covid-19, and the shutting down of travel, has also curtailed journalists having access to news stories other than the endless media conferences focusing on daily tallies. We have had pushed from our consciousness many of the other struggles that continue despite Covid. Conflicts in South Sudan or Yemen barely rate a mention. The escalation of tension over the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea continues unabated. Facing its own challenges of caring for its people, continuing to offer programmes such as job-keeper and job-seeker, all much needed and much appreciated, has also meant that Australia has made considerable cuts to its aid to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

So I found myself greatly disturbed when last weekend I received a phone call from someone concerned about the plight of a number of families in Adelaide. Rather than my words let me read to you those of Catherine, who made the call to me. She writes:

For the last few years people with medical needs have been flown to Australia and some have been placed in Community Detention in Adelaide. A large group of families came two years ago when there was a public push to get the Kids Off Nauru. Since then there have been medivac’d individuals from Manus and Nauru.

Community Detention is a form of still being in Detention – the people flown from Manus/ Nauru are placed in a city/suburb/house with no choice. They are not allowed to work or study and they have a curfew – home every night and no visitors to stay. They have had their rent and energy bills paid by immigration and been given $260 per adult per fortnight to pay for food, clothing, mobile, car rego etc.

Suddenly, three weeks ago Immigration began to ring/email people in Community Detention across Australia and announce they were being given a Bridging Visa that day with work rights and Medicare and had three weeks to vacate the Community Detention house. On a Bridging visa there is NO government financial support.

In Adelaide we now have 20 households (74 people) who are in extreme stress at having to find a job and rent accommodation within three weeks – in a Coronavirus era, it is hard to find a job, let alone when the government haven’t let you work for 8 years so you have no résumé – and no income to show a prospective landlord!  Since then, Life Without Barriers have managed to get an extension of three weeks for all the households.

This cohort includes 2 singles, two couples (one has found work) and 13 families (one has just found work), most with children under 5 years of age.

I immediately reached out to a number of people, including AnglicareSA, to have confirmed what Catherine had also said. Most of the organisations and charities, AnglicareSA and the Red Cross among them, have empty coffers – they have been caring for people, including students, who lost their jobs during lockdown. That, coupled with the ever harsher restrictions placed on those on bridging visas, means there is little left when emergency aid is needed very quickly.

Catherine continues in her email to me:

Could you please help towards covering the Bond and first 3-4 weeks of rent for one or two of these families whilst we all help them to find jobs? The bond alone (6 weeks’ rent) will be around $2,100 on a $350 per week rental. If any of your congregation can offer a job, please give them my phone number. We are looking at farm work, cleaning, delivery van, factory/ food processing type work. Although there are registered nurses, a banker etc – their qualifications are not recognised here without doing a course and their visa has specifically denied any study or training.

At last Wednesday night’s Cathedral Council meeting we discussed reaching out to the Cathedral community for help. You will have read the short piece in Friday’s eNews. Yesterday I asked Catherine whether she could give any more information about these people, perhaps one specific family that we could help. Here is her reply:

A family that could really do with some help is a Rohingya family who fled the atrocities in Myanmar. I cannot name them for privacy reasons but there is a mother, father, and five delightful children. The eldest girl aged about 13 and speaks very good English as do the next younger two – a girl and a boy. There is a girl aged 4 and now a new baby of 7 months who has health difficulties and needs oxygen some of each day. The mother speaks relatively good English and the father has a little.

I have known them since they arrived from Nauru two years ago when, with the public campaign ‘Kids Off Nauru’, thirteen families arrived in Adelaide. Having been kept in Community Detention (along with many other families and Medivac’d men and women) for the last two years – not allowed to work or study, had to be home every night and not allowed visitors to stay – they were suddenly given a Bridging visa 3 weeks ago so no more government financial support (no Centrelink, no Job Seeker or Job Keeper) after 11th November! 

Last night I managed to get the father an ABN and he is about to start a casual job as a furniture removalist – but it will be a demand-driven job and therefore not a guaranteed 5-day-a-week income. They must also vacate the Community Detention house by 11th November so financial help with the bond and rental for 3-6 months until the father can establish a more secure income would be wonderful!

St Peter’s Cathedral has a proud and noble history of helping people in need. We have welcomed and embraced people from Burundi and Nigeria, Egypt and Iran. Christine and I have already given several hundred dollars, enough for a week’s rent, for this family. My call to you today is simple: Will you join me in embracing the starfish principal – make a difference to one family who simply want what we take for granted every day – a place in the sun to call home, a job to put food on the table, clothes for the children, get medicine when sick.

You have the details to make direct donations but you might prefer to use your bankcard as you leave today’s service. There will be someone at the Cathedral Shop where you can make a donation using the eftpos machine.

Jesus said, ‘And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’

Footnote: For more on Circle of Friends see https://cofa.org.au/ and to donate visit https://www.givenow.com.au/circle-of-friends