On the morning of July 26th 2022, our Head of School and the Deputy Director of St Mark’s, The Rev’d Dr Jeanette Mathews, preached at the Ecumenical Service to commemorate the Opening of the 47th Parliament, held at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Forrest. You can read her text below, and listen here.
Psalm 65 (read by the Governor General, His Excellency General [rtd.] The Hon. David Hurley)
1 Peter 5:2-4 (read by the Prime Minister, The Hon. Anthony Albanese MP)
Matt 7:7-12 (read by the Leader of the Opposition, The Hon. Peter Dutton MP)
God is in the world for good
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this event – marking a new parliamentary term – many of you will be facing new responsibilities and significant challenges. I am glad to add my prayers for you as you lead our nation in the years ahead.
A new semester has just begun at Charles Sturt University where I teach biblical studies. With a colleague I am co-teaching a subject on biblical languages where we encourage students to be aware of the reasons that there are different English translations for the same Hebrew or Greek text. I was interested to notice that the first line of the psalm read today was translated as, “Praise is due to you, O God”. This is a departure from the underlying Hebrew text which literally says, “To you silence is praise, God”. Perhaps the translators struggled with that paradox of claiming that silence is the appropriate response to the God of the universe who is beyond what any language can express, and yet goes on in 14 more verses to fill that silence with many words.
Silence may indeed be praise. But like artists and poets everywhere and in all times, people of faith cannot remain silent forever. Jewish and Christian faith has always been a dialogue expressed through words. We bring hymns and praise and prayer and lament to God, and we hear God’s words back through words of scripture and the incarnate Word that stepped into our world in human form. God also speaks to us through nature and through our relationships with each other, of course, but what a wonderful resource for inspiration and challenge the Bible has been and continues to be. We have just heard three different voices from the scriptures – all giving us words to reflect on and connect with again in our own time. And while there is a common purpose in scripture, no voice is the same. We have just heard the psalmist praising, the elder exhorting, the evangelist encouraging.
The bible is a diverse collection of literature and more often than we realise it uses poetry and poetic techniques to capture words to and about God and about our relationships with God and with each other. Good poetry and good literature evoke emotion and give us metaphors to talk about feelings as well as joyful or challenging situations we found ourselves in. Old Testament poetry written originally in Hebrew uses a typical ancient near east poetic style of parallelism that piles up phrases that say nearly the same thing but in different words. What wonderful imagery this psalm gives us: the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain! Can you hear those parallel ideas? Here are some more: the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves, the tumult of the peoples. But these ancient words are for our time also – the psalm is full of references to the natural world: to rain and soil and growth and bounty. A picture is drawn of a world of humans and nature in harmony, worshiping together. The psalmist doesn’t just speak about the natural world, but affirms that creation itself is capable of a voice. As we move into this new parliamentary term may we do all we can to hear our natural environment roar and shout and sing again with the joy of that psalm.
Picture language isn’t limited to the psalms. We heard it in one of the epistles emerging from an early leader of the church: in fact, when speaking about the responsibility of leaders in his day, the elder Peter was using a well-known Old Testament metaphor. He exhorted leaders to tend the flock in their charge, and to do it willingly, recognising their role as a gift from God. Tending the flock evokes the metaphor of a shepherd that was often used for the leaders of the Israelites. The metaphor is used in arguably the best known of the psalms – Ps 23 – the lord is my shepherd. And it was adopted by Jesus himself when he claimed to be the Good Shepherd (Jn 10). This is an image that may have resonance for us here in Australia, the country that gave the board game Squatter to the world. I have a cousin who lives near Gundagai – he and his partner made a tree-change a few years ago and now live on a property that includes endangered box gum woodland. What takes up most of their time is shepherding their flock of dorper sheep. They take this role very seriously, daily tending their flock and working untiringly to provide the best care and physical environment that they can. They’ve faced many challenges since they moved there, including fire through their property in January 2020, and they are certainly gaining less financially than their former city-based lives, but they tend their flock willingly, eagerly, trying to be an example to others as they walk lightly on their land in times of both blight and bounty.
And in the gospels we hear Jesus teaching his disciples about the value of prayer and trust, again using poetic language that is so memorable because of its rhythm and repetition. “Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” Many of those disciples would have been fathers, so he used a simple illustration in that sort of proverbial way he had of teaching – if your child asks for bread will you give it a stone? If they ask for a fish will you give a snake? Bread was baked in small round loaves back then, resembling large stones, and perhaps the fish caught in the lake in the first century were more like eels than the fat St Peter’s fish tourists get served at Lake Galilee restaurants these days. So you can see how that simple illustration works. If you will give bread and not stone, or a fish and not a snakey eel, how much more will God, our heavenly father, provide good things when we ask. So through the words of Jesus, the evangelist encourages us to keep praying, and trusting, and acting on what was taught in the law and the prophets for the good of each other. Words that are eternally relevant: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Just recently I came across a reference to the Jewish philosopher George Steiner who says we should learn poetry by heart so the words can become present to us when we need them. In another wonderful image he says that poetry will be like a pacemaker which gets the heart going again when its own impulses have failed.
This – I suggest – is what these words of poetic scripture are: a pacemaker to get our hearts going again. Some think in our day that God is beginning to disappear. Each time the census results come out a greater proportion claim to have “no religion”. The institution of the Church is losing the influence and respect it once enjoyed. It is true there will be times when silence is a more appropriate response than defensive words of self-justification for those of us in the Church. There will be time when our own impulses fail. But thank God we have a pacemaker in the timeless words of poetry of the long biblical tradition, words that can remain alive and relevant today – they can remind us that God is in the world for good. God has put us in a world of beauty that should be allowed to sing its own praises. God gives us roles and responsibilities and asks us to live them out eagerly yet humbly. God hears our prayers and like a good father wants to give us good things.
We are gathering again today in the heart of our nation, surrounding our leaders with our prayers. May these timeless words of poetry, of praise, encouragement, and challenge, get our hearts going again, for the good of our country and for the good of each other.
– Jeanette Mathews
 George Steiner, Real Presences. Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p. 9; with thanks to Heather Thompson for pointing out the reference.