Sermon - Sunday, 7 July 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr to Blackhall St Columba's Church on Sunday, 7 July 2019.

Scripture: 2 Kings 5: 1-14 / Luke 10: 1-12

Text: Jesus said, Go, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.            (Luke 10. 3)


During the middle/late 1970s, when I was a divinity student at New College, two Dereks spoke at a lunchtime meeting.

Dr Derek Doyle had been a medical missionary in Africa with the Church of Scotland while his close friend, the Reverend Derek Murray, was a Baptist minister.

Inspired by the work of Dame Cicely Saunders who established St Christopher’s Hospice in London, the two Dereks had a vision – to create a centre of excellence for palliative care in Edinburgh – a place where people who were dying could die well and where the patient and their family could receive the best possible physical, emotional and spiritual care.

So it was that the seeds of what became St Columba’s Hospice were sown.

Forty years later, and having visited many people over the years, I was part of the team which helped raise funds for the new St Columba’s Hospice to be built.

And I was glad to do so because if you have had reason to visit someone in St Columba’s, or if you are one of the great army of hospice volunteers, you will know what a special place it is.

And one of the things which make it a special place is the respect, care, compassion and love so evident in the way staff and volunteers go about their business.

For many years Michael Paterson, a minister in the Scottish Episcopal Church, was St Columba’s full time chaplain.

Michael came to Cramond Kirk one evening to speak about his work.

The evening started with a quiz as Michael tested us on our knowledge of St Columba’s, the number of beds, the range of illnesses and conditions it treats, the extent of its day care and home care provision, the cost per patient, the international scope of its educational work and the wide range of services provided by volunteers.  

After the quiz Michael went on to speak more specifically about his role as chaplain leading services or supporting patients and their families as well as members of staff.

An artistic man and a very good pianist, each day Michael would set out the hospice chapel and quiet room with a variety of pictures and images designed to encourage people of all faiths and none to reflect on the deep issues of life and death.

As well as traditional Christian symbols of a Bible, a cross or bread and wine, Michael liked to place a jar of stones and a bowl of water on the communion table.

Anyone using the chapel was invited to take a stone and place it in the bowl, a sign and symbol of the letting go of a burden of guilt or worry or concern.

There were forty two stones in the jar and at the end of each day Michael would find most if not all of them had been placed into the bowl of water.

At times very moving and at times very amusing, as well as the worship services and quiet times in the chapel, Michael also spoke about his involvement with people whether patients, relatives, hospice volunteers or members of staff.

And one of the things which impressed was not just the pastoral sensitivity Michael displayed but the extraordinary urgency of these conversations.

Now urgency is not something you would immediately associate with St Columba’s Hospice.

When you walk into St Columba’s you feel as though you are walking into a calm, peaceful and well-ordered place.

Yet as Michael explained, when people know they are dying, typically they have neither the time nor the inclination for the usual small talk about the weather or the football or where you went on holiday.

Instead people want to talk about the important things in life, the things that really matter, the deep things of family and friendship, and of hope, truth and love.

And what was it Jesus said to the seventy two disciples as he sent them out in pairs to the towns and villages he was about to visit?

Jesus said, Go, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a

purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

No time to waste, certainly no time for idle chatter, a job to be done, a task so important disciples were to travel light because he didn’t want them weighed down with a whole lot of unnecessary baggage – there is an extraordinary sense of urgency about Jesus’ instructions.

As will soon become evident as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, in his dealings with Samaritans and centurions, outcasts and sinners, the scope of Jesus’ concern extended much further than just for the people of Israel.

Jesus came proclaiming God’s gifts of healing and hope for all God’s children.

Go, he said…………………..and with the reference to the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few have you ever noticed Jesus frequently described his ministry in terms of sowing and reaping.

And one of the reasons he draws upon sights and sounds and images so familiar to the people of his day is because he wanted to impress upon his disciples how much he depends upon them to deliver his message.

And what was that message?

In essence it was a message of healing, a message of peace, a message that the kingdom of God was near.

Go, he said, I am sending you out……….and if you noticed when the disciples entered a house the first thing they were to say was peace to this house.

Luke introduces a note of irony into his narrative, the irony being that for the most part the people of Jesus’ day didn’t want peace.

Instead people looked forward to the day when the Messiah would appear as a glorious military figure to lead Israel to victory over her enemies and restore her to prominence among the nations of the world.

Yet from the very beginning of his ministry it is clear Jesus embraced a very different understanding of Messiah.

Rather than the old way of an eye for an eye, the way of retaliation and revenge, Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them.

One commentator put it well when he wrote,

But (Jesus’) rejection of that (old) way was not based simply on pragmatic considerations.

It grew directly out of his knowledge and love of Israel’s God as the God of generous grace and astonishing powerful, healing love. [1]

Now that note of urgency begins to make sense.

As they went out in pairs the disciples weren’t offering people a new religious idea or different ways to understand their ancient customs and rituals.  

Instead they confronted people with a choice, a moment of decision, a life or death moment, an opportunity for people to turn away from Israel’s flight into ruin and to embrace instead God’s way of healing, forgiving and sacrificial love.

With parables such as the sower or the man who built his house on rock and the man who built his house on sand, this was a theme Jesus returned to time and again.

And Jesus returned to it because then or now he knew how important it is for people to sort out who and what really matters in life and the things that are important – so that when the sun disappears and troubles come, illness strikes and life is hard, we already know where our hopes and dreams lie and are already sure in whom our life and trust is centred.  

Or as Michael Paterson put it, in his pastoral engagement with patients, their families, hospice staff or volunteers, people don’t want to know about his favourite film or whether or not he is a vegetarian.

Instead people want to know if he can sit with them in their pain without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.

People want to know if he can see beauty in the person even when the person he is sitting beside feels anything but beautiful.

People want to know if he will stand with them in the centre of the fire and not shrink back.

Above all people want to know what sustains him through the tough and difficult days of life and whether or not it will sustain them too.

And tomorrow or next week or next month is too late, they need to know – and they need to know now.

And so do I…………………..and so do you.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen

[1] Tom Wright,  Luke for Everyone, SPCK, London, 2001, p 121