Sermon - Sunday, 14 October 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 14 October 2018.

Scripture: Isaiah 61: 1-4 / Luke 4: 14-21

Text: They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; and they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations         (Isaiah 61: 4)


The Reverend Robert Walker, best known as the subject of Henry Raeburn’s painting The Skating Minister, was born on 30 April 1755 in the Ayrshire village of Monkton.

With his father and grandfather being Church of Scotland ministers, and his uncle, also Robert Walker, minister of St Giles and Moderator of the General Assembly in 1771, it is perhaps no surprise the young Robert became a minister.

And young is the operative word because it was shortly before his 15th birthday that Robert was granted a licence to preach by the Presbytery of Edinburgh.

Six years later, November 1776, Lady Glenorchy (Willielma Campbell) presented Robert Walker as minister of Cramond where he served for eight years before moving into Edinburgh to become the senior minister at the Canongate (August 1784).

Walker remained at the Canongate until his death in June 1808.

Having learned to skate on the frozen canals of the Netherlands where his father was minister at the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam, Walker became a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club.

The Club met on Duddingston Loch and at some point during the 1790s, Walker was painted skating by Henry Raeburn.

The painting remained in private hands until it was acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland at auction in 1949 for £525.

Robert Walker, Scotland’s graceful skating minister, and it wasn’t until 2007 when I visited Elmina Castle on Ghana’s Gold Coast I learned something else about the man.

For the better part of three hundred years, Elmina Castle was one the principal points of departure for the slave trade.

During those years hundreds of thousands of young African men, women and children were captured, shackled together in the castle’s dungeons, herded onto specially built slave ships and taken across the Atlantic to be sold.

Like Auschwitz or Srebrenica, Elmina Castle reeks of unimaginable human horror.

In recent years historians such as Sir Tom Devine have revealed Scotland’s extensive involvement in the slave trade, the fact that in 1695 an African trading company was established in Edinburgh and sent out the first Scottish slave ship to Africa.

Scotland prospered out of the slave trade and Glasgow grew wealthy from slave produced tobacco and sugar grown on the plantations.

Other voices, however, spoke out against the trade in human misery.

Chaplain of the Royal Company of Archers, elected as a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1784, chaplain of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, and by dint of his appointment at Canongate, minister at the Palace of Holyrood House, Robert Walker was the epitome of an establishment figure and yet against the vested interests of many in Edinburgh and beyond, in 1788 Walker persuaded the Presbytery of Edinburgh to petition Parliament to end the slave trade.

The wheels of Parliament turned slowly, William Wilberforce championed the cause and it wasn’t until 1807 and 1833 the Slave Trade and the Slave Abolition Acts were passed outlawing slavery throughout the British Empire.

If only!

Like the Great War, the war that was meant to end all wars, these acts of parliament did not end the evil of slavery.

Human trafficking is the modern equivalent of the slave trade.

According to the United Nations, around 2.5 million people are caught up in the web of human trafficking at any given time, perhaps 12,000 people to the UK, and the number of trafficking referrals to Police Scotland has steadily increased in recent years with 2017 seeing a 42% rise in referrals, 213, with 61 involving children.

Robbed of their humanity, enslaved and violated spiritually, physically, emotionally and sexually, the most frequent countries of origin are Thailand, China, Nigeria, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine with Nigeria and eastern European nationals being the most trafficked to Scotland.

Men are typically trafficked into hard labour jobs in agriculture or building sites and can sometimes be deployed to pop-up car washes.

Children are trafficked into the textile, agriculture and fishing industries.

Nail bars and cleaning companies will sometimes use women who have been trafficked.

Women and girls are also trafficked into the sex industry, sometimes boys and men are too, and I was quite shocked to learn that in Edinburgh, Airbnb flats are used as brothels with the number rising to perhaps several hundred during the Edinburgh Festival. 

Inevitably perhaps, with the flow being from east to west and from south to north, poverty and economic instability lie at the heart of the problem, traffickers playing on the dreams of desperate people with the promise of employment, prosperity and `a new way of life.

Questions are also being asked about the supply chain in food, electronic goods and textiles such as jeans or football tops, the fear being slavery at source, and many will not want to hear the answer.

Uncomfortable or not we need to hear the answers and to become more aware of this contemporary evil, partly because it is happening on our own doorstep but mainly because the Biblical narrative speaks of justice, freedom and transformation and of a Saviour who does not give us the option of walking past on the other side of human need.

At the heart of the Hebrew narratives of the Old Testament is the story of the exodus and of ancient Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt.

Time and again Moses petitioned Pharaoh to set God’s people free.

Time and again Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, the petition was denied and, culminating in the death of the first born male, all sorts of plagues were sent as a punishment.

Today the Jewish festival of Passover continues to be celebrated as one of the key moments in the history of ancient Israel, a celebration of the God who heard His people cry and set them free.

Freedom: at one level the Passover festival celebrates freedom from the bondage of their Egyptian captors, at a deeper spiritual level it speaks to their understanding of the nature of God, an understanding beautifully expressed by the prophet Isaiah.

Empowered by the Spirit of God, Isaiah spoke of being sent to bind up and comfort the broken-hearted and proclaim freedom and release for the captives.

Here is a calling which speaks into the depth of human need.

Yet beyond the intensely personal, I want you to notice Isaiah’s inspiring vision moves to embrace the transformation of the wider community.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated and they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations    

Redolent with themes of justice, hope, anticipation and freedom, through Isaiah God speaks directly into every situation of oppression and despair.

Affliction, broken-heartedness, captivity and enslavement come in many forms in today’s world – addictions, abusive relationships, zero hour contracts, homelessness, loneliness – and as much as God seeks to bring transformation into human lives, God also seeks the transformation of human structures which oppress and deny human flourishing.

So what transformation needs to take place in me and in you?

And what transformation is required in our congregation, our church and in wider society?

And is it any surprise Jesus took Isaiah’s majestic vision and made it his own?

Whether then or now, as the people of God we are called to be part of God’s transforming and liberating purpose, in our personal as well as our public life.

Much as we might wish it to be otherwise, slavery has not been consigned to the history books.

It continues in different shapes and forms, the cruel exploitation of vulnerable people, and it demands our response.

At the very least it means being aware of some of the key signs to look for in people who are victims of human trafficking.

Dropped off and collected in overcrowded minibuses with little knowledge of the area where they are working, often poorly or inappropriately dressed, research indicates typically victims of human trafficking have few belongings, few if any forms of identification and, most tellingly of all, fearful of threats of violence to themselves or their families, they will avoid eye contact and be reluctant to engage you in conversation.

On one of the dungeons at Elmina Castle where the so-called difficult prisoners were left to starve to death there is a plaque which includes these words;

May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity

We the living vow to uphold this

Seeking to resolve the horrors of the slave trade of his day Robert Walker took that vow seriously.

As we become aware of the horrors of human trafficking today, will we take it seriously too?

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