Jill Sutton, CES
Dear CES readers and especially those responsible for homilies or sermons in the month of May,
Most of us will have read Kasy Chambers’ excellent letter on this site. And, as Christians for an Ethical Society, many of us will join her in proclaiming that we certainly do not want our nation to revert ‘back to normal’ after seeing so much admirable change in social policy. We are inspired with developments like the doubling of Newstart, moves to accommodate the homeless in safer places like hotels, the opening of private hospitals to more community access, additional leave entitlements, more equitable Job-Keeper payments to keep us attached to our jobs and the moratorium on evictions from private rental. As Kasy says, we don’t want to revert to a nation which has a two-class workforce, no housing security for renters, denial of the culture and custodianship of our First Nations Peoples, abuse of our planet’s resources causing climate change and species extinction and our shameful stewardship of this country which is related to drought and bushfires.
At this point in Australia’s history, it seems vital to me that, as Christians, we look at what we can do and how we can sustain the good policy changes we have seen in response to COVID-19. Very helpfully. Meredith Lake has pointed out, in her recent book about the history of the Bible in Australia, the way the social justice themes in our sacred texts have had a profound influence on the course of our social policy in the past. The question for all of us now is, ‘How can we follow up that tradition at this new turning point in our national history?’
Now of course I don’t hold myself as any kind of expert but I have drafted a good few sermons in my time and have regularly attended Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, St Carthage’s Roman Catholic Church in Melbourne, St Ninians Uniting Church in Lyneham and the Quakers in Turner, when I have lived in proximity to these communities. They have each nourished me wonderfully in their own way. Studying theology and backgrounding Rev Tim Costello for a few years has also made me aware of the power of a good homily or sermon so I have taken a look at the lectionary for May, and will now jot down a few thoughts I have about how our texts might help us to retain the visionary social policy changes which we imagine and ask for most Sundays in the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray, ‘Thy kingdom come’ we know that we want to sustain those developments which Kasy lists as ‘impressive’.
For the first Sunday in May (3 May) we have Paul in Acts 2:44-45, telling us that ‘All who believed together and had all things in common, They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need’ and our most beloved Psalm 23 sharing that ‘the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’. This is such beautiful material from which to look at the important work of sharing provided by the doubling of Newstart and the introduction of the equitable job-keeper payment. Thinking of the Lord being everyone’s shepherd is such a powerful reminder of the way some are still missing out as described in the Winnunga piece on our website about the over-representation of indigenous people in prison.
Then on the second Sunday in May (10 May), there is a gift of a well-known passage in John 14. ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you’. Of course, this passage is traditionally used when thinking about death but isn’t it demonstrating a recognition from Jesus that safe housing is central to our existence? Isn’t it a sign that ensuring appropriate housing should be a central focus of our social policy, and haven’t we an obligation to cry out with relief and insist that any provision of housing for the homeless in a Canberra winter is an essential part of our Christian obligation?
And then, on the third Sunday (17 May) we have Psalm 66 which has the Israelites calling out for notice and space. We listen to them so shouldn’t we be listening to those who today are similarly oppressed with wage theft, inadequate holidays and insecure employment? We could be encouraged to hear them when we read the Israelites call out, ‘You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water, yet you have brought us out to a spacious place’. Couldn’t we preach about how the current generous policies have brought so many of our oppressed citizens into a more spacious place, and about how it is our duty, as Christians, to sustain them there?
And finally in week 4 (24 May) could we hear, in Psalm 28, verses like number 5 in which we have an inspiring definition of God? We read that ‘Father of orphans, and protector of widows is God in his habitation.’ We as Christians want this protection of the orphan, of the widow, and indeed of all the disadvantaged, and here we learn that this protection is in our very definition of the One we worship.
I know that you are all sensitive to the congregations to whom you have given pastoral care and I am no expert in the manner or matter of what you say. And I know that you must and that you will choose and use texts as the Spirit moves you so please forgive me for writing to you in this way and for presuming to remind you of the rich relevance of our sacred texts. I suppose I have been impressed with the unusual and most fruitful collaboration we have seen between political parties and between state and federal governments and I crave to see the same collaboration between the leaders of our Christian churches.
Respectfully and hopefully,
Jill Sutton (firstname.lastname@example.org)