Form or Foundation in our Faith and Service?

Sermon preached at the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship’s service to mark the beginning of the 2016 State Parliamentary Year.

Preacher: 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.

It is very good to welcome Members and staff of the South Australian Parliament, representatives of various denominations and everyone here who has come to commit to prayer the work of our State Parliament. Both the Leaders of Christian Churches in South Australia and the South Australian Parliamentary Christian Fellowship are to be commended for this annual service.

Back in 1981, when I was in my first term in Parliament I was approached one morning by the late Boyd Dawkins, then a Member of the Legislative Council. As it happens we were both in Centre Hall, that demilitarised zone between the houses. I hadn’t ever spoken to Boyd up to that time, so I was left to ponder the intent behind his words when he opened the conversation in his somewhat gruff style:

“Hmm, they tell me you’re a Christian.”

I could do no other than respond:

“Yes I am.”

To which he replied:

“So am I; how about we start a Parliamentary Fellowship”

Following that Centre Hall conversation, Boyd would become the first President of the Fellowship, and I its first Secretary. Now here we are, thirty five years later, and the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship has not only survived but grown stronger over that time.

At the first meeting called to establish the Fellowship the point was made that it was to be a space where, partisanship aside, the faith the underlies the mission of all Christian parliamentarians could be nourished. There was to be no sense of ‘badge-wearing’, or form for form’s sake, but rather just a mutually-affirming fellowship to help MPs remain faithful to the foundations of their faith in their work as parliamentarians.

A few moments ago, Leesa Vlahos, the third in the dynasty of the Members for Taylor, read a particularly apt passage from Isaiah. Apt for two reasons. Firstly because yesterday was Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent, a time of fasting, abstinence, reflection and prayer followed with varying degrees of rigour – What are you each giving up for Lent?

Well the Isaiah reading is not only appropriate because it talks about fasting; it is also important for the way it talks about fasting. Isaiah quotes God asking a question that, on this first day of Lent, is seminal not only to the season but to our faith and the way it plays out in our lives:

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

The point is that the call of God here to each of us is to ensure that we are not trapped by the forms of our faith but anchored to the real foundations of our faith. For in the end, all of the rituals, even the structures with which we may surround ourselves in our faith will be hollow indeed if they themselves become the purpose rather than something much more profound.

I know that you will find this hard to believe, but churches themselves can be vulnerable to form taking precedence over foundation. This can manifest itself in many ways but I haven’t got time to filibuster my way through all the possibilities; so I will focus on just one that can be summed up in one key verse from our reading this morning:

Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Let me quote from a book that we studied a couple of years ago in the Cathedral’s Faith in the Public Square Book Club. Mark Labberton’s “The Dangerous Act of Worship – Living God’s Call to Justice”. In this two-edged sword of a book that alternately probes the weak evangelism of some churches and then, on the other hand, the weak social concern of others, Mark Labberton writes that:

Many of us want to remain asleep. Pastors have in part fostered this somnambulating life with preaching that avoids problems and prophets, controversy and complexity. When preaching plays to the culture without substantially critiquing and engaging it, it becomes part of the problem. Sermons that only apply to the individual and to the inner life of the disciple without raising biblical questions about our public lives are also a factor. So, too, are worship services that offer little more than comfort food: the baked potatoes of love, the melting butter of grace, with just enough bacon and chives of outreach to ease the conscience. All this becomes a churchly anaesthetic.

Essentially Labberton is talking about a Clayton’s faith, a decaffeinated faith; a faith of form over foundation. To me this paragraph echoes the power of our Isaiah reading this morning. Another reading that it also echoes is the Inasmuch Sermon from Matthew 25. You may not know it by that name, but you will all recognise it from the one line:

Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these …

So now that I am a Minister of a different meaning, I am constantly challenged to interrogate my own faith and the outcomes of that faith – not seeking merit, but simply because I am called to serve and to love my neighbour, whatever his or her condition or circumstance, as myself. My self-interrogation therefore is to keep asking myself: do the forms of my faith reinforce or replace the foundation of my faith?

As you know, there was a time when I was a Minister of a meaning more relevant to many of you here this morning. Back in 1993, when I was the first Minister of the Cabinet – Premier in other words – I had the opportunity to visit Greece. I had never been there before and was enthralled and keenly interested at the many things I saw and people I met there. Most relevant to this morning, was my visit to the old Agora in Athens. There, a guide taking us round who had been told of my then political status, spoke of ancient Athenian democracy and said that its institution, effectively its parliament, was known by a word that, he told us, meant “I am thinking about the people”.

In telling us this, the guide noted how different such an etymological origin for the name of the institution of government was from that which we use in English – parliament from the French ‘parlement’ – talking, a place of talking.

Now, over the intervening 23 years, subsequent enquiries by me of Greek-speaking friends and many Google searches have not been able to find this beautiful Grail of a Greek word that would translate as “I am thinking about the people”.

But what I have found is that the ancient council of citizens in Greece was known as βουλή (boule). Now it turns out that the etymology of that word is variously “volition; purpose; or advice”.

Not as poetically powerful as “I am thinking about the people” but still much more intentional than mere talking.

So, to all our MPs, to what institution will you go today and for all the sitting days of this year? An institution of mere form – where the word “parliament” – talking place – would indeed suffice; or one where there is a purpose – where there is a volition, a will, to do something in order that you may each be thinking about the people?

And what should that something be? You really can go no further than to return to the words of Isaiah:

Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke … let the oppressed go free.

Our reading this morning goes on further to talk about sharing bread with the hungry and helping the homeless as well as other deeds of social justice.

This morning, I only have time to focus on one example of how you might in your parliamentary duties undo the thongs of the yoke.

Yesterday was the start of Lent. But on this very day when many voluntarily chose to commit to acts of self-denial and hardship over the next forty six days, it was also the day when the media reported research into the current situation of enforced hardship, of imposed denial – the homeless in our midst. The report found that in these days105,200 Australians are without a home. And let me emphasise the word is “homelessness” rather than “houselessness”- for the individuals who make up this lump of a statistic are real people with names who are deprived of much more than a stable roof over their heads. The report identified, as we should surely already appreciate, the toxic net of social, economic, health and relational deprivation that hangs over them – a net not just of homelessness but of hopelessness.

Truth in reporting requires me to note that the research also noted the relatively better position here in South Australia which only makes up 5.7% of the nation’s current homeless tally. Now that’s a good talking point for “parlement”; but not of itself of any help to the 5,950 who would still remain homeless in the midst of such self-satisfaction.  Their continued existence, whatever the ratios, calls for volition, purpose and advice – for a Parliament thinking about the people.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, those of you who have been given the privilege to serve through elected office, may I encourage you to a service of a strong foundation and not just one of form. And what is that strong foundation?

There is a very beautiful hymn that came to mind as I was preparing my homily for this morning – “The Church’s one foundation”. I am sure you know it. This is the first verse:

The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

And how can we know if our faith in service is based upon this one foundation – Jesus Christ? We can do no more than go to the very words of Jesus himself:

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. Amen.