Sermon - Sunday, 18 August 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr at Blackhall St Columba's Church on Sunday, 18 August 2019.

Scripture: Isaiah 5: 1-7 / Luke 12: 49-56

Text: Jesus said,  Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?      (Luke 12: 56)


Although it is home to the world’s most famous golf course as well as Scotland’s oldest university, St Andrews also witnessed one of the bloodiest and most notorious events in Scottish history.

As they make their way along the Scores from the Old Course past the ruined castle towards the harbour, an ice-cream in hand, I wonder how many of St Andrews’ visitors notice the letters GW in cobblestones outside the castle or pause to read the nearby plaque.

If they do, they will learn the initials GW stand for George Wishart and they will also read of the gruesome fare he suffered on that spot.

Born in Mearns, Kincardineshire in 1513, having studied classics at the University of Aberdeen, Wishart’s working life began as a school teacher in Montrose.

Wishart soon found himself in trouble with the Bishop of Brechin because teaching New Testament Greek he helped people read the Bible for themselves.

Accused of heresy, Wishart fled to England and then to the continent (Switzerland and Germany) where he encountered the teaching of Jean Calvin and became immersed in the Reformation movement.

Returning to teach at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1543, the following year Wishart came to Scotland where he quickly gained a reputation as a Reformation preacher.

His powerful and charismatic sermons popularised the teachings of both Calvin and Zwingli and as his reputation grew, Wishart attracted considerable public attention including that of an erstwhile unknown Scottish cleric, John Knox.

Unfortunately Wishart also attracted the wrath of Cardinal Beaton who ordered his arrest.

Wishart was seized in Ormiston, East Lothian, and following a trial at Edinburgh Castle, he was transferred to St Andrews where he was burned at the stake on March 1, 1546.

With the circumstances of his execution being gruesome in the extreme, such was the hostile public reaction to his death that within weeks some of Wishart’s friends took their revenge on Cardinal Beaton, killing him at St Andrew’s castle and hanging his remains from the castle’s battlements.

Although it was short, 33 years, Wishart’s life proved extraordinarily influential and he inspired John Knox and others to challenge the orthodoxy and practices of the church of his day.

Indeed if it had not been for Wishart, the popularity of his preaching, his appeal to the common person, the brutality of his death and the reaction it generated, it is questionable whether the Scottish Reformation would have taken the direction it did or would even have happened at all.

Sadly however it would be a mistake to think religious persecution and martyrdom was a thing of the past.

Earlier this week my colleague and close friend, Ian Gilmour, a man well known to this congregation, flew out to spend nine months as the locum minister at the Scot’s Kirk in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

The church is situated in the heart of Colombo and on Easter Sunday, as worshippers gathered, they heard a bomb explode in the neighbouring Cinnamon Grand hotel.

It was one of a series of bomb blasts which ripped through multiple buildings in Colombo, hotels and churches, resulting in the death of 207 people with a further 500 people being injured.

The locum minister, the Reverend Bill Davnie, told people to return home if they wanted but that he would remain to conduct the Easter service.

Almost everyone stayed for the service and for the Easter brunch which followed – refusing to be cowed by the terrorist activity and determined to affirm their faith, the Easter faith in the dying and undying love of our Saviour Christ.

Meanwhile across the world from Christians in Egypt, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to Muslims in Burma, Baha’is in Iran, Hindus in Pakistan, Falum Gong followers in China, Buddhists in India or Jews in the Middle East, people the world over are being discriminated against and attacked for no other reason than their religious convictions.

Religious persecution, it would appear, is alive and well and a Westminster All Party Parliamentary Report concluded the denial of religious freedom of practice and belief is one of the most widespread human rights abuses in the world.[1]

And from the evidence gathered, the report concluded although all religious traditions experienced persecution, the heaviest price is being paid by Christianity.

Here is what Baroness Cox said during a House of Lord’s debate:

The faith tradition now suffering the most widespread and systematic violations of religious freedom is Christianity.

It is estimated that there are at least 250 million Christians suffering persecution today, from harassment, intimidation and imprisonment to torture and execution.

As you set off for church this morning, did it cross your mind that coming to church would be a cause for harassment, intimidation or imprisonment for you or your family or would result in your torture and execution?

Of course it didn’t – but today that is the reality for many of our Christian sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

Today we will choose thirteen people from the congregation to serve on the nominating committee to call our next minister.

In 1843, a period in Scottish church history known as the disruption, about one third of the ministers, elders and members chose to leave the established Church of Scotland.

The oldest minister to leave was a 78 year old man called George Muirhead, minister at Cramond Kirk.

Muirhead left the church to which he had given his life in order that congregations should have the right to call a minister and not have one imposed upon them by Presbytery or the local landowner or the crown or whoever.

Along with some of the elders and members, Muirhead established what was called Cramond Free Church – free to call its own minister.

(It is now Davidson’s Mains Parish church – and how that came to be is a sermon for another day!)

The point is that 176 years later we are able to do what we will do today because of people like George Wishart and George Muirhead who were willing to stand up for what they believed to be right and proper and true.

And when the crowds came to hear him teach, one of the things Jesus said was;

Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth

and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

As we read about him in this section of Luke’s gospel, the picture painted is not of Jesus meek and mild, kind to children and sweet to old people.

This is a passionate Christ, passionate in his repudiation of the false teaching of the Pharisees, passionate in his desire to see justice and truth prevail in public life, passionate in his teaching the disciples and passionate in his commitment to the kingdom of God.

A crisis approached, one in which his own fate would be the central feature, and to his dismay neither the disciples nor anyone else could see it.

As farmers and fishermen, they were good at judging the weather conditions.

They knew clouds rolling in from the Mediterranean meant rain and a south wind from the dusty Negev desert meant it would be hot.

So why couldn’t they read the signs of the times with its Roman occupation, the oppressive regime of Herod, the wealthy, arrogant high priests and the false agendas of so many of the Pharisees?

Why couldn’t they discern that in his acts of healing, feeding a great crowd, raising Lazarus to life and stilling a storm, the kingdom of God was near?

And why wouldn’t they stand up for what he was telling them was right and proper and true?

George Muirhead died two years after the disruption, he was buried against the east wall of Cramond Kirkyard, and when I walked past his grave earlier this morning I thought about him and, knowing what we would be doing this morning, hoped he would feel his efforts had been worthwhile.

The freedom to worship, the freedom to belong to a church, the freedom to practice your faith and the freedom to call your own minister is not a freedom enjoyed by everyone.

Neither are these freedoms any of us should take for granted.

Rather as the cobble-stoned initials GW or the actions of George Muirhead remind us, such freedoms have been hard fought and sometimes agonizingly won.

Furthermore, as we exercise them today, these are freedoms to be cherished and protected – because if we don’t, who will?

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] Article 18: an orphaned article Report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, Westminster, London 2013