Sermon - Sunday, 18 June 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 18 June.

Scripture: Acts 2: 42-47 / Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 7

Text: Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness                                       (Matthew 9: 35)


In October 1517 a letter was sent by the Professor of Moral Theology at the German University of Wittenburg to Albert of Brandenburg, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mainz.

The letter changed the course of European history, indeed its social and political ramifications, as well as its impact on the life of the Christian church, are still felt to this day.

The author of the letter was a young German priest, Martin Luther,

Enclosed with the letter were 95 theses, statements which detailed the concerns Luther had about the life and practice of the church of his day.

Luther is also said to have posted his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church of All Saints.

Whether that part of the story is true – and given the income the Scottish tourist industry generates out of the Loch Ness monster, we know the value in not spoiling a good story for the sake of a little truth – Luther’s 95 theses were quickly reprinted, translated and distributed throughout Germany and western Europe.

With October 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of what became known as the Reformation, I hope to return to the subject in the autumn.

For the moment it is sufficient to say the Reformation came late to Scotland.

In 1517 John Knox, the man acknowledged as the principal theologian and architect of the Scottish Reformation, was but a two year old child.

And by the time the Scottish Parliament met in Edinburgh in 1560, the Reformation parliament, some of the Reformation’s most notable achievements had already been realised in Luther’s Germany, in the Switzerland of Calvin, Zwingli and Bucer, and also in England.

However, with Knox’s great vision of a church and school in every parish the length and breadth of the country, as it developed in Scotland the Reformation was always very local in its outlook.

And one of the delights of the last year has been to discover that the health, strength and vitality of our church lies, not in its Moderator, the General Assembly or even the Presbytery, the courts, councils and committees of the church, but in the life and activity, worship and mission of local congregations.

Local continues to matter in the life of the Church of Scotland.

So in Kirkmichael, a small village in a very rural part of the Presbytery of Dunkeld and Meigle, the congregation has converted their Session House into a village community centre. 

Exercise classes, computing groups, craft activities, and a place for people to meet together to chat and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee: the Kirkmichael Session House buzzes with life and activity.

Meanwhile in Inverurie another congregation took the radical decision to redesign their building.

The gallery level was floored, lifts were installed, and a very attractive sanctuary was created, one in which many of the cherished features of the church were retained.

A café and fair trade shop were created on the ground floor, open Monday to Saturday.

I say café but that doesn’t begin to do justice to the quality of the design, the décor, the tables and chairs or the food being served.

While there is a paid member of staff who manages the café, church members volunteer in the kitchen or wait tables, and the place was bursting with life and activity and the happy sound of conversation and laughter.

One Saturday morning we were guests at Longniddry Parish church for a theological breakfast.

Uppity women in the Bible was the theme being explored, the story of Ruth provided the particular focus that Saturday morning, and the DVD and discussion points gave the people present plenty to chew over alongside their coffee and croissants.

Meanwhile in Clydebank, in one of the more socially and economically deprived parts of the town, the congregation of Dalmuir Barclay opens its doors each Thursday to provide a free lunch for anyone and everyone.

When did I see you hungry and give you something to eat, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

Four examples – and I could think of dozens more – four examples drawn from the Presbyteries we visited highlighting the health and strength of the church.

And one of the features common to all four was the way each congregation was responding to the opportunities and challenges of being the church and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom in their local context.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 

There is something very local to Jesus’ ministry.

It is centred on the cities, towns and villages of Galilee and whether in the synagogue or the open road, it is focused on the needs of the people he encountered.

The Biblical scholars have noted that as well as providing a summary of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, Matthew uses these verses to introduce the mission to follow, in particular, the sending out of the 12 disciples as ‘workers in the harvest’.

As one commentator has noted, Matthew also offers a scathing critique of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day. [i]

The picture painted of a people left harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, is as powerful as it is pitiful.

Unlike the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the law who used their position to exploit and disempower people, the work of Jesus, the good shepherd, will be to heal, gather and nurture.

To heal, to gather and to nurture; if this describes something of the foundation of the church’s life, and if my four examples describe something of what that life looks like in the local context of congregations today, the question for us is what it looks like in our context?

What does it mean to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in this place?

What does healing, gathering and nurturing look like in the life of Cramond Kirk?

With the assisted living complex at Lyle Court on the site of the former Barnton Hotel proving to be both popular and successful, with the new care home quickly taking shape on what used to be the RAF houses on Cramond Road North, and with further elderly care homes being planned for our area, how will this shape our congregation’s life and witness?

Would a church mini-bus help with transport to services or activities in the Kirk hall?

And for people whose failing mobility or mental health means coming to church is no longer an option, what pastoral care and worship opportunities can be created?

What of the many young families who attend the playgroups and dance classes, the uniformed organisations, and the myriad groups and activities already meeting in the Kirk halls: how do we nurture their spirituality and engage them in the prayer and worshipping life of the congregation?

What of our use of social media as a means of proclaiming the gospel?

Margaret and I spent a Friday evening and the wee small hours of a Saturday morning with the Edinburgh Street pastors as they engaged with people sleeping rough in Edinburgh city centre and with some of the clubbers, young men and women often the worse for wear having enjoyed a refreshment too many.

When the video of our evening was posted on the Church of Scotland social media sites it was viewed over 113,000 times and the Edinburgh Street Pastors are being inundated with offers of help and support.

So how can the use of social media better promote the worshipping life and activity of the congregation?

And with the mosque now well established at Blackhall on the site of the former United Free church, what of the local opportunity to engage with our Moslem sisters and brothers and to learn what it means to be good neighbours with people of different faiths, something which could hardly be more urgent in the present climate.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages: if Matthew’s summary provides the framework for the mission of his first disciples, it surely provides the framework for the mission and worship of the church in every place and time.

As well as being our high calling to name and give witness to God’s presence and promise and purpose in the world, it is also our great privilege to be Christ’s hands and eyes and ears in this community, and to be the channels of God’s healing, God’s grace and God’s peace here, locally, in Cramond.

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


[i] Stanley P Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p88