Sermon - Sunday, 8 September 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 8 September 2019.

Scripture: Jeremiah 18: 1-12 / Luke 14: 25-35

Text: Jeremiah 18: 5

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in my hand.’

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

A bus trip into town with Grandad, a pizza at Zizzi, and a ride on the Big Wheel in Princes Street Gardens – for five year old Caterina and her three year old brother, Alessandro, our daughter Lindsey’s two children, the excitement had been mounting all day.

Thankfully the evening was dry, the bus was on time, they ate their tea well and as we walked along Princes Street the big wheel loomed into sight.

Given I don’t have a great head for heights – it had seemed a good idea at breakfast time - as the children hopped and skipped beside me I swallowed hard and hoped I wouldn’t disgrace myself.

We reached the Gardens and as we queued to buy a ticket suddenly a little girl’s hand gripped my hand and a wee voice said, Grandad, I’m scared, it’s too high.

So we sat on a bench, ate an ice cream, and watched other people going round, laughing as some of them screamed as they went.

Of course if you lived in Norwich it wouldn’t be the city centre where you would find a fair ground attraction but the city’s ancient cathedral.

Dating from 1096, with the second highest spire in England, did you see the news reports of the helter-skelter installed in the cavernous nave of Norwich Cathedral?

Accepting it was a slightly risky idea, the Cathedral’s Canon, Andy Bryant, said a visit to the Sistine Chapel inspired him to devise a way to let worshippers get closer to the cathedral’s ceiling so they could see its ornate 15th century roof bosses which tell the story of salvation from creation to resurrection.

And so the helter-skelter was installed, its 40 foot high platform affording people a much closer view of the roof bosses and stained-glass windows, all part of the Church of England’s Seeing it Differently programme designed to give people the opportunity to experience cathedrals in an entirely new way and open up conversations about faith.

We celebrate very solemn things here, said Canon Bryant, some very heart-breaking things happen here, so isn’t it appropriate to celebrate another aspect of life which is our fun and our enjoyment?

What do you think; a silly gimmick or a worthwhile initiative?

Whatever you think, given the increase in the number of people worshipping in English cathedrals, Norwich included, as well as an increase in visitor numbers, cathedrals are one of the success stories in the Church of England.

And according to Canon Bryant, one of the reasons for their success is their willingness to take risks and engage with the community in ways parish churches are not able to do, a sign, he claims, of a confident church looking for fresh ways to attract people through the doors in order to share the hopes and promises of the Christian faith.

Taking risks, engaging with people differently, finding fresh ways to share the gospel story and encourage conversations about faith and belief: if these are some of the hoped for outcomes from Norwich Cathedral’s helter-skelter, they resonate with the Radical Action plan approved by our own Church of Scotland’s General Assembly earlier this year.

  • A £25 million growth fund to help the church’s life and witness flourish at a regional and local level
  • a focus on engaging with people under the age of 40 years
  • creating one hundred new worshipping communities in the next seven years
  • reducing the costs of central administration and streamlining the administrative structures of the church
  • devolution of decision making and devolution of resources to a re-organised and re-energised regional and local church

Although these proposals might not have the news appeal of a helter-skelter, if enacted they have the potential to radically reshape the Church of Scotland, their aim being to equip congregations like ours for mission in their local context.

And at the Kirk Session meeting on Monday evening it was agreed to host a congregational seminar in November – details will follow – to discuss not just what the proposals will mean for Cramond Kirk but how best we can take an active part in shaping them.

With different patterns of home and working and community life, with different expectations about what people can do and achieve, and with the internet and social media having transformed the ways we communicate and interact with one another, we know we live in changed and changing times.

And we also know the pace of change has never been greater.

If the church is to flourish as I imagine we would all like to see it flourish, if Cramond Kirk is to thrive as I imagine we would all like to see it thrive, and if the flame of Christian faith is to burn as brightly in the hearts and minds and attitudes and values and lifestyles of the people of Scotland, our young people in particular, as I imagine we would all love to see it burn, then given the changing social and cultural environment in which we live, the church, its ministers, elders and members must be willing to change too.

Thankfully our tradition and our scriptures are full of rich resources to help us do so.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah

Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem during the latter part of the 7th century and the early years of the 6th century BC.

His book offers a fascinating insight into a man who often struggled with his faith and sometimes recorded remarkably honest statements about his feelings towards God.

The book also reveals Jeremiah’s attempt to discern something of God’s will and purpose for the people of his day.

So we hear that as Jeremiah watched the village potter busy at a wheel, his hands carefully working and shaping the clay, one of the things Jeremiah noticed was that the end result was not always pleasing or acceptable to the potter.

Perhaps the clay had not been of the right consistency.

Perhaps the shape of the piece was not to the potter’s liking.

Whatever the reason, Jeremiah watched as from time to time the potter would discard the piece and start again.

And from this ordinary and everyday event came a word from God, a prophetic word about God the potter and Israel the clay.

O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?’ declares the Lord.

As you hear the story, can you picture the scene, the potter at his wheel working and reworking the clay?

What do you notice?

One of the things Jeremiah noticed is the clay is always at the potter’s disposal, not the other way round, and it was this simple yet profound insight which allowed Jeremiah to discern Israel existed to serve God, not God to serve Israel.

Or to put that in other words, the church exists to serve God, God does not exist to serve the church, and one of the things this means is that God is always shaping and re-shaping the church.

From its earliest times when the first disciples didn’t know what to make of Peter visiting the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius, struggled over the question of circumcision and fretted about Paul’s great missionary adventures into the Gentile world, the Holy Spirit of God has continually shaped and re-shaped the church in response to the new social, political or economic context in which it found itself.

The Reformation brought dramatic change to the church in Europe, socially, politically as well as spiritually and, inspired by their conviction in the centrality of scripture, St Paul’s great message that faith alone was necessary for salvation, congregations and schools were established in parishes throughout Scotland as through John Knox and his colleagues, the Spirit set about re-shaping the worship and life of the church in Scotland.

Today the centre of Christianity is moving southwards from its European heartland to Africa and South America, the appointment of a South American Pope being one obvious example.

In other words, the process continues because the most important thing to notice about Jeremiah’s powerful image of the potter at his wheel is this: we are in God’s hands, not God in ours.

Quite what this will mean in the coming years for congregations such as ours, an end to the parish system perhaps and the creation of team ministries, the devolution of resources and much greater ecumenical engagement, the church in Scotland as opposed to the Church of Scotland, time will tell.

Of this much we can be sure; God will continue to shape and re-shape God’s church in Cramond, in Scotland and throughout the world until we and all creation truly reflect the purpose of divine grace and love.

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