Everyone needs good neighbours

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Welcome to St Peter’s Cathedral, I truly hope that this time of worship will be a balm to each and every one of you and a source of spiritual nourishment as you begin the 2020 Parliamentary year. May you contribute to a constructive democratic process of seeking community well-being. May you also never cease to seek the spiritual counsel of God’s Holy Spirit as you do this work.

In November 1932, long before she was elected a member of the Federal Parliament, Edith Lyons said:

I am sure that the greatest philosophy ever propounded to the world was that given two thousand years ago in Palestine. The art of living is not the art of getting but the art of love.

These words echo strongly with our reading from Romans this morning. Let me reread some of those verses:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves … Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality … If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Of course, we feel warm about both the words of Edith Lyons and of our reading this morning. ‘Love’, as a word, does that to us doesn’t it – ‘Love is all you need’, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’ and all those other familiar clichés about Love that find their way into Valentine’s cards and other billet-doux of our daily living. But the living evidence is that those clichés fail in the face of daily circumstance. So what should the word ‘love’ mean to all of you here this morning, especially those who carry the burden of parliament upon their shoulders? Let’s hear some of the words from our reading again:

Love must be sincere … honour one another … bless those who persecute you … do not repay anyone evil for evil.

Whilst Standing Orders of Parliament and Erskine & May might find nothing disconsonant with such words, I punt that no MP present here today would accept these phrases at face value knowing what lies ahead in the current parliamentary session.  Yet this morning I want to say to each of the MPs here present that the words from our reading are not only desirable but politically possible.

In saying this, I hasten to add that I am not exhorting all parliamentarians to embark upon some kind of non-partisan love fest over the coming months where you might all Kumbaya yourselves through the legislative agenda. As we meet here today, in a Cathedral consecrated to God, we also do so in the historic reflection of Abrahamic tradition that has been a fundamental contribution to our Westminster system and that tradition understands the human limitations when it comes to absolute truth and the consequent need for enquiry and debate.

At its worst, the polarisation of our parliamentary system seems to echo the seemingly constant grumbling of the people of God in the wilderness after their deliverance by divine intervention from Egypt. Yet, that is the worst spin to be put upon a system that actually thrives from the energy of the creative tension of ideas that the diverse array of groups and individuals bring to it. Abraham was the first human to be deemed righteous, yet this was the same person who argued with God – remember his persistent questioning of God prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; or his own almost cynical response to God’s foretelling that barren he and Sarai would parent the nations with innumerable progeny?

To prove my point, I invite you to reread the Acts of the Apostles at some point doing so with a Westminster lens of perspective. Read through political eyes, Acts is an engaging story about political process at one level but a profoundly significant one at the level of considering God’s plan for humanity. Within that book there are differences of opinion and strongly argued about matters that were political as well as theological. Were difference of opinion a bad thing, Paul would not have written:

For now I see through a glass darkly. [1 Cor 13:12]

But that is exactly what he did write; and it was a recognition that no one person, or indeed group of people is the font of all wisdom. On the occasion of the 6 May 2001 centenary celebration of the first joint sitting of the federal parliament a hundred years earlier, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Neil Andrews, spoke about the great strength of the parliamentary process when he said that none of the founding fathers (and such was the unfortunate gender imbalance of that first parliament) left parliamentary sittings with identical opinions to those they brought with them at the start. All had listened to debate and all had modified their opinions in consequence.  

So just as there was a process of constructive debate reported in the Acts of Apostles leading to sound decisions, so does our Westminster system invite similar striving to sound outcomes from a constructive tension of ideas. How might this happen? I come back to those selected words from our reading today:

Love must be sincere … honour one another … bless those who persecute you … do not repay anyone evil for evil.

If these words will be honoured by you, the parliamentary process will aspire to the very best of which it is capable, through all of your differences of opinion and philosophy. But, if those words are negatived – if your love is not sincere, if you do not honour one another and curse those who attack you, repaying slight for slight, the parliamentary process will be weakened and fall in the eyes of community opinion.

Dame Edith Lyons had said:

The art of living is … the art of love.

What is it to love in the political sense? It certainly includes a process of political graciousness between yourselves as legislators. But that wouldn’t be much if that was all there was to it. Our reading this morning should not be taken as inward-looking but as outward – into community. You are in parliament not just to get on with one another but to legislate for the commonweal – the common good. What should that look like?

Let me ask you a quiz question: what Biblical parable do you think is the most frequently cited in parliamentary debates? Unfortunately, I can’t give you an answer specific to the South Australian parliament, or indeed any parliament in the Antipodes. I can, however, tell you what the answer is for the Mother Parliament, Westminster – it is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was that your guess?

Nick Spencer, in his book The Political Samaritan: How Power hijacked a Parable, wrote about this and explained why this parable has had such Hansard impact, for it is the most deeply ingrained in the community psyche. He quoted a 2015 YouGov survey commissioned by the British and Foreign Bible Society into community awareness of the parable. That survey found that of 2052 adults interviewed, 70% ‘had – or at least claimed they had – read or heard the parable.’ [p45]

Spencer gave as a possible reason for this wide reach:

The figure is astonishingly – suspiciously – high. But if so many of the British public were aware of the parable, it may be because their politicians couldn’t stop talking about it. [p45]

Why do politicians talk about it so much? Is it that they want to proclaim the Gospel virtue of good neighbourliness, or is it done as a matter of rhetorical device, to score a point as much as to prove one? Spencer analysed the use of this parable in the British parliament and concluded that:

The Good Samaritan is, in essence, a half-dead metaphor … … (part of) a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all their evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. [pp164-5]  

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has written that over the past century:

After the slaughters of World War II, the gulag, multiple ethnic and religious slaughters, the explosive rise of slums in the last decades, and so on, the notion of neighbour has lost its innocence.

The term half-dead metaphor seems awfully apt. So, what will you as legislators do to return the power of the metaphor of neighbourliness, of community, of commonweal? Through all your wonderful diversity of ideology, your differing perspectives on the world, what will you do to reach out to the broken neighbours in our community – the homeless, the drug-afflicted, the abused, the lonely just to name a few?

Shortly we will be singing the hymn, Be Thou my Vision, which starts with these wonderful words:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart

Naught be all else to me save that thou art

Thou my best thought by day or by night

Waking or sleeping thy presence my light

Be thou my wisdom, thou my true word

How can we know if our faith in service is based upon this divine vision? We can do no more than go to the very words of Jesus himself in the Inasmuch Sermon from Matthew 25:

Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these you did it to me.

May God bless your deliberations; may His Holy Spirit infuse your lively debates, your creative tension of ideas with grace; and may you ever think about the people who have elected you to serve. Amen.