Sermon - Sunday, 14 July 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 14 July 2019.

Scripture: Amos 7: 7-17 / Luke 10: 25-37

Text: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher’, he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’.        (Luke 10: 25)


In the spring of 1798 shepherds and farmers tending their flocks and fields in rural Somerset were occasionally disturbed by itinerant beggars wandering the lanes or sleeping rough in the woods.

One man whom the farmers saw regularly stood out from all the rest, not least because he would wander along muttering to himself, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings and talking obsessively as he walked.

It was a queer thing one farmer reported.

I’se oft thowt that his brain was that fu’ of stuff that he was forced to be always at it whether or not, wet or fair, mumbling to hissel’ along t’roads.

It was a shrewd judgment for the mumbler in question was no less a figure than William Wordsworth spotted in the act of composing one of his poems.

Later that year, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth would publish the Lyrical Ballads, one of the seminal works of English literature and the start of the literary period now known as English Romanticism.

The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Frost at Midnight, Tintern Abbey, The Idiot Boy, the Thorn and early passages of The Prelude were composed on these Somerset lanes; the farmer was quite right, Wordsworth brain was indeed fu’ of stuff.

Would I be right in guessing poetry is not everyone’s favourite form of literature?

Do you have awful childhood memories of ploughing through some obscure text or being forced to rote learn a few lines to recite in class?

Me too!

As the years have passed however I have found myself not only reading poetry but finding in poems inspiration for sermons as well as images and rhythms which have helped me prepare prayers for public worship.

One day perhaps I will come close to the poetic beauty of one of George McLeod’s prayers

Holy Spirit, Enlivener,

Breathe on us, fill us with life anew.

In Your new creation, already upon us breaking through,

Groaning and travailing,

But already breaking through

Breathe on us

Till that day when night and autumn vanish

And lambs grown sheep are no more slaughtered

And even the thorn shall fade

And the whole earth shall cry Glory at the marriage feast of the Lamb

If this sermon was given a title it would be Faith in Poetry - and I hope it is evident the title has at least two possible meanings.

It could mean we have faith in poetry as one of a number of distinct but related literary forms, that it is an art form in its own right and one to be experienced, celebrated and enjoyed alongside music, painting, sculpture and dance.

Faith in poetry could also be taken to mean that poetry is one of the ways we can articulate some of the deep things we hold to be true about ourselves, about one another, about the world in which we live and about God.

And one of the reasons I have faith in poetry is not because I find poetry always easy to understand – I don’t – it can often be difficult, challenging, elusive, even obscure – but for the very reason I don’t always find life easy or ministry easy or faith easy or the Bible easy – it too can be difficult, challenging, elusive and even obscure – yet more often than not it is poetry which helps me explore the depth of something, a question, a concern, a doubt and allows me to celebrate the mystery and majesty of God.

At its best poetry explores the depth of human experience – and at its best faith does the same - opening our hearts as well as our minds to the intellectual, emotional and spiritual roots of what it means to be alive and what it means to be human, to the nature and character of God and what it means to live with faith.

Have you noticed how much poetry is found in the Bible?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters, He restoreth my soul.

As well as the Psalms you will find many poetic images and phrases in the struggles of Job with his comforters, in the sometimes erotic imagery of the Song of Songs, in the Wisdom literature as well as the Book of Proverbs with its collection of insights into what makes for a good and godly life.

You will also find poetry in the sometimes difficult book of Ecclesiastes where the author Qoheleth - the name means teacher – coming to the end of his life takes stock of the world as he has experienced it, a world full of contradictions and surprises.

To everything there is a season he writes, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

Was Jesus a poet?

Although I don’t think Jesus was a poet in any conventional sense, I find it helpful to think of Jesus as poetic in the similes and metaphors he used – the kingdom of God is like – ­as well as poetic in the parables he told, parables like the Good Samaritan.

Here is a parable with deep roots in the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, a tradition epitomised by Amos, the prophet famous for his majestic image of justice rolling like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream [1]

A shepherd, living in the village of Tekoa a few miles south of Bethlehem during the middle part of the 8th century BC, although it was a time of great prosperity, Amos was concerned by the evident corruption in public life and idolatry in the religious life of the kingdom.

According to Amos some in the land had grown wealthy and powerful but had done so at the expense of people weak and vulnerable.

And so in a series of coruscating speeches, Amos called for social justice to be the indispensable expression of true faith and piety.

Turning his prophetic ire towards the royal court and church of his day, Amos conjures up the image of a plumb line, something very familiar to his hearers, inviting them to measure themselves and their way of living against the truth, justice and integrity of God’s laws and commandments.

And isn’t this what Jesus asked the lawyer to do, to measure himself against the plumb line of God’s laws and commandments?

Teacher he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Whatever else it does, this is a parable which takes us deep into the nature and character of God, what it means to be human and what living with faith looks like.

The story invites its listeners to ask about the values of a religious tradition prioritising ritual cleanliness over human need and allowing a priest and a Levite to hurry by on the other side fearful of contaminating their hands.

It poses the scandal of it being a Samaritan, someone faithful Jews would consider an outsider, even an enemy, being the one who demonstrated the care and concern at the heart of God’s law?

And it leaves us wondering who our neighbour is and what it means to love our neighbour today.

So where is the church in this story?

Is it the one injured and bleeding and in need of help and kindness by those it considers strangers and outsiders?

Is it passing by on the other side, more concerned with maintaining its own rules and traditions?

Is it the inn-keeper willing to welcome the injured man for as long as it takes for him to recover?

And where are you in the story, the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, the injured man?

And just how do we love and allow ourselves to be helped and loved by the people others would ignore?

He is such a fast God, wrote the poet R S Thomas, always before us and leaving as we arrive.

Over the years a great deal of time and energy has been spent asking whether or not the Bible is true?

If it is important to discover the historical veracity of these ancient texts, it is also wise to keep in mind the deeper purpose of the Bible is to ask us whether or not we are true.

When news reports revealing the ordeal endured by people in Yemen or South Sudan or Libya, with political discourse and governance in this country dominated by questions of Brexit, and with congregations across Scotland providing free lunches for children who would otherwise go hungry through the school holidays, how does the poetic imagery of a plumb line and the story of a good Samaritan help us be true, true to ourselves, true to one another, true to our neighbour and true to God?

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] Amos 5: 24