Sermon - Sunday, 19 August 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 19 August 2018.

Scripture: 1 Kings 3: 1-15 / John 6: 51-59

Text: Solomon prayed, So give your servant a discerning heart to govern Your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of Yours.               (1 Kings 3: 9)


As well as being home to Scotland’s oldest university, St Andrews enjoys a worldwide reputation as the home of golf.

And whether or not you are interested in golf, the next time you find yourself in St Andrews on a wet and windy afternoon and looking for something to do, let me recommend the British Golf Museum opposite the R&A Clubhouse.

As well as lots of golfing memorabilia, the museum offers a fascinating social history of one of Scotland’s most famous towns.

You would need to be something of a golfing anorak, however, to recognise the name of Jamie Anderson.

Born in St Andrews in June 1842, his father David a greenkeeper at the Old Course, along with Young Tom Morris, Bob Ferguson and the Australian Peter Thomson who died earlier this year, Jamie Anderson is one of only four men who have won the Open Championship in three consecutive years.

Anderson’s Open Championship victories were at Musselburgh in 1877, Prestwick in 1878 and St Andrew’s in 1879.

Unlike this year’s Open Champion, the Italian, Francesco Molinari, who won over £1m in prize money, and goodness knows how much more in sponsorship deals, professional golf in the 1870’s was not as financially lucrative as it is today and Anderson died in a poor house in Thornton in August 1905 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in the grounds of St Andrew’s Cathedral.

For over one hundred years one of Scotland’s outstanding golfers has lain in an unmarked grave, unmarked that is until author and historian, Roger McStravick, researching the history of St Andrews and the Open Championship, was able to identify it in the cathedral grounds.

McStravick set about raising funds for a headstone.

In no time generous donations were received from the R&A, local golf clubs and a number of individuals and at the end of July, in the presence of two of Anderson’s descendants, and another of Scotland’s former Open golf champions, Sandy Lyle, I had the privilege of dedicating the beautifully carved headstone.

If, as you can imagine, it was a privilege to dedicate the headstone and celebrate Jamie Anderson’s golfing achievements, and fun to meet Sandy Lyle and his wife, the person who impressed me most was the historian, Roger McStravick.

A quietly spoken, modest and unassuming man, when asked why he had gone to such efforts to raise the funds needed to create the headstone, McStravick’s response was as simple as it was profound.

Having discovered something of the story of Jamie Anderson, learned of his golfing prowess as well as the sad ending to his life, and having identified the unmarked grave, McStravick told me he just felt it was the right thing to do.

The right thing to do…………………..if only we all knew the right thing to do.

For weeks and months we have been confronted by all sorts of differing views on hard Brexits, soft Brexits, good deal Brexits, bad deal Brexits, no deal Brexits – and if I am honest, I don’t really understand what they are talking about.

And given everyone appears adamant that their way is not only the right way – it is the only way – I very much doubt if the politicians, commentators and experts have a clue what they are talking about either.

If only we knew the right thing to do.

The problems of migration, refugees and asylum seekers, the tide of human misery that has swept out of Africa and  the Middle East and into Europe – in the course of my travels a couple of years ago I met refugees from Syria – a teacher, a nurse, an IT specialist – as good and decent people as you hope to meet, people who had seen terrible things and experienced dreadful trauma, and who were looking for no more in life than the chance for them and their families to be safe and the opportunity to flourish.

And while I understand no country can have an open door policy, changing the locks on people’s doors and making them homeless doesn’t seem like the right thing to do – but if only we knew what was.

In the course of my working life people will take me into their confidence and ask my advice about a problem they are dealing with or a difficulty they are facing at home, at work or with their neighbours.

If only I knew the right thing to say to them, if only I could advise them on the right thing to do.

If wondering about the right thing to do resonates with you, if you are facing a situation or dilemma in your life at the moment, if you need to make a decision and the way forward doesn’t seem at all clear, if you have a problem at home or at work which threatens to overwhelm, let me introduce you to a young king Solomon.

As we read about him in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, we learn that following the death of his father king David, Solomon made his way to Gibeon.

Solomon reigned from about 970 – 930 BC, he had yet to build his temple in Jerusalem, and Gibeon was one of ancient Israel’s most important shrines.

Having worshipped God at Gibeon where he offered the sacrifice of a thousand burnt offerings, later that night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream.

Have you noticed the Bible is full of dreams?

Remember how dreams featured in the story of Joseph, the boy with the multi-coloured coat?

Remember a fearful Elijah taking shelter in a cave and dreaming about God?

Remember how having presented their gifts to the infant Jesus, the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and returned home by another road?

Dreams matter in the Biblical narrative; they describe a deep and inner mystical experience of God.

Equally they alert us to God’s promise and purpose at work in someone’s life.

Mindful of God’s kindness to his father David, Solomon is aware of his youthful inexperience.

As he succeeds his father to Israel’s throne, one of the roles expected of him will be to serve as Israel’s supreme judge and final arbiter.

It will be Solomon’s solemn duty to uphold the law, vindicate the just and protect the rights of the poor.

In short, Solomon will be asked for the right thing to do.

Evidently the responsibility weighs heavy on the young man’s shoulders and he feels ill at ease with the mantle of kingship.

And so when God appears to Solomon in a dream and invites Solomon to ask for whatever you want me to give you, Solomon does not ask for fame or fortune but for a discerning heart to govern Your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.

The wisdom of a discerning heart?

Sound judgment, prudence, common sense – if that is how wisdom is typically described, an attribute of the mind, in Biblical tradition wisdom is better thought of as a quality of the heart.

The New English translation of the Hebrew puts it best when it says Solomon asked for a heart with the skill to listen.

Think of the difference it would make if Israeli and Palestinian found a way to really listen to one another?

Think of the difference it would make if the people of different faith traditions – Jew, Christian, Muslim – found a way to really listen to one another.

Think of the difference it would make if instead of slogans and sound-bites, our world’s leaders, its Presidents and Prime Ministers, found a way of really listening to one another.

Think of the difference it would make to the world if we listened more attentively to the changing weather patterns and fluctuations in global temperatures.

Think of the difference it would make in your home and family life, or in your place of work, if instead of always defending their point of view, people found a way to really listen to one another.

God has given us two ears and one tongue; think of the difference it would make if we learned to listen twice as much as we spoke.

Solomon did not ask for his path to be easy and his road to be straight, a life devoid of challenges, problems and difficulties – and neither should we.

Solomon did not ask to become so clever he would never again be baffled by something or someone – and neither should we.

Yet because he wanted to know the right thing to do Solomon asked for a discerning heart, a heart with the skill to listen……………… and God granted his prayer.

So listen then if you have ears to hear.

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