Sermon - Sunday, 20 August 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr to the congregation of Hamilton Old Parish Church on Sunday, 20 August at the Kirkin' of South Lanarkshire Council.

Scripture: Exodus 3: 1-12 / Matthew 16: 21-28

Text: But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’        (Exodus 3: 11)

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

It is a pleasure to join you in Hamilton Old Parish Church this morning for the Kirkin’ of South Lanarkshire Council and, on behalf of the present Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning, it is my privilege to bring you all the greetings, prayers and good wishes of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

As you know, the ministry of the Church of Scotland is based around a parish system and at our best each of the 800+ congregations of the Church of Scotland is concerned with the health and well-being, not just of the members of the church, but with all the people of their parish.

Such a concern is something shared with Scotland’s local councils because whatever your party allegiance as elected representatives, or your role as council officials and staff, you aspire to providing the best public services for the communities you are called to serve.

Church and council, with shared interests and common concerns, vital parts of the life of local communities, coming together this morning in the presence of God to seek the blessing of God in all the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

So, at this Kirkin’ service, let me hold up two of the great figures of Biblical tradition, Moses and Peter, heroes of the faith, and yet as we hear about them this morning, neither man appearing very great or very heroic.

Moses is appalled because God has asked him to return to Egypt and plead with Pharaoh to release God’s people Israel from slavery.

Peter is equally upset because Jesus has just told him that he was headed for Jerusalem and the fate that would await him.

Moses starts to question the wisdom of God’s plan.

Who am I, he asks, that I should go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?

And you can hear Peter’s voice shaking with emotion as he vows he will never let Jesus be put to death.

Moses and Peter; two troubled heroes of the faith, yet as their stories unfold, embracing the universal themes of hope and despair, desire and longing, surprise and bewilderment, a holy encounter takes place.

The story of Moses, the Hebrew baby hidden in a basket in the bulrushes, found by an Egyptian princess and brought up in the Egyptian court, is a wonderful tale.

However, it takes a dark twist when in a fit of rage Moses kills an Egyptian soldier.

Forced to flee, Moses makes a new life for himself in Midian where he finds work as a shepherd and marries.

Visit Israel/Palestine today and you will see Bedouin shepherds trekking for days with their flocks across barren hillsides in search of pasture.

So it was with Moses, the Hebrew-born adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, as one day he led his father in law Jethro’s flock across Mount Horeb.

Moses sees a bush on fire, nothing so unusual in such a hot and arid environment, except this bush is not being consumed.

And as he moves closer, he hears his name being called from the bush, Moses, Moses.

The Hebrew storyteller’s description of what happens next is as simple as it is profound when, aware he is in the presence of God, his sandals removed and his face covered, Moses is told to take God’s message of liberating hope to God’s suffering people and to plead with Pharaoh for their release from captivity.

A burning bush, holy ground, the voice of God, and as Moses stammers his protestations, it is evident he is as surprised as he is confused.

Years later on another hillside, this time in the north of the country in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Peter and the disciples are left reeling.

Peter has just named Jesus as the Christ but the moment of holy insight is about to take its own dark turn as Jesus reveals the fate which awaits him in Jerusalem.

Poor Peter, still flush with excitement from his great declaration but now shocked by what he has heard, the one who was to be the rock on which Christ would build his church, now accused of being Satan and a stumbling block to the purpose of God.

Light and dark, encouragement and rebuke, insight and reprimand, surprise and bewilderment; and at the heart of both stories a holy encounter as both men are led to a fresh understanding of God’s presence and promise in the world, and both are given an insight into the part they must now play.

And what I hope you will notice is that neither man is promised a life of privileged fame and fortune, of celebrity status in a glossy magazine with the paparazzi recording their every move.

Rather, both men are called to a life of service, commitment, hardship and even danger.  

Hardship and danger awaited Moses when he returned to Egypt and finally led the people of Israel on their long journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Hardship and danger awaited Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem.

And for Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, this is one of the deep truths of Christian faith that you (should) expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy.

Earlier this year, while I was still Moderator of the General Assembly, I joined Edinburgh Street Pastors late one Friday evening as they packed their rucksacks and prepared to head out into the night.

Our team spent the first couple of hours on George Street stopping to chat with people sleeping in the shop doorways or in the little side alleys.

Stories were shared, so too were hugs and kisses, as warm as the seemingly endless supply of tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits coming from the rucksacks.

Photographs were taken, so too a video which was viewed over 113,000 times on the Church of Scotland’s social media site, and prayers were said as the Street Pastors moved slowly along one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious thoroughfares, engaging in the most simple acts of human kindness with some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland’s capital city.

Rowan Williams puts it beautifully when he says;

Christians will be found in the neighbourhood of Jesus - (and) Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering.

Yet a concern for hidden people of life, the ones so often and so easily overlooked, is not just a concern for the church, it is a concern shared by everyone engaged in public life.

Recently the Sunday Herald reported the shocking fact that one rough sleeper dies every week on Scotland’s streets and there is evidence to suggest the numbers of people sleeping rough is increasing.

Of course, rough sleeping represents the tip of the homelessness iceberg, but the equally sad reality is that the hidden part of the iceberg is not reducing in size.

Despite good legislation, and many good intentions, the numbers of people applying, and being accepted by Scottish local authorities as homeless remains very similar to what it was 25 years ago.

And if you examine these numbers in detail, you will discover that at September last year, 5,751 pre-school and school aged children were registered as homeless in Scotland, a 17% increase on the previous year.

You will not see these children sleeping rough.

These children and their families are living in temporary accommodation – and the length of time spent in temporary accommodation has been rising year on year, 24 weeks in 2016 as compared to 23 weeks and 18 weeks in the previous two years.

5,751 pre-school and school aged children – and at what cost to their health, their education, their sense of well-being?

And at what cost to the health and well-being of our communities?

Whether it is through the public life of a local authority, or through the life and worship of a local congregation, at our best we are all troubled by issues of injustice and we are all committed to addressing and resolving poverty so evident in the experience of homelessness.

From any perspective, such work is challenging and demanding, it involves questions of resources and priorities, but from the Christian perspective it is important, indeed it is essential, because, as Rowan Williams rightly observes, Christian people are found in the neighbourhood of Jesus, and Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering.

Far from being an attractive proposition, in whatever shape or form it takes, being a good neighbour, walking the second mile, turning the other cheek and loving our enemies as Christ demands, is challenging, difficult, messy, costly and sometimes dangerous.

Yet when like Moses you dare to do as God asks, or, like Peter, you pick up your cross and follow where Christ leads, then like these all too human heroes of the faith, you will find yourself walking on holy ground.

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