Sermon - Sunday, 11 February 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 11 February 2018.

Scripture: 2 Kings 2: 1-13 / Mark 2: 2-9

Text: Elisha picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan   (2 Kings 2: 13)


Ahed Tamini is one of several hundred Palestinian children languishing in an Israeli military jail this morning.

Ahed is 16 years old and she was arrested when soldiers stormed her house in the dead of night and dragged her off to prison.

Her alleged crime was to slap a heavily armed Israeli officer after his soldiers had shot her little cousin in the face shattering her skull.

Instead of investigating the shooting dead of a child, the authorities have arrested Ahed and charged her with 12 crimes.

Ahed appeared in court on 31 January 2018, shackled, pale and shivering.

The judge refused bail and she could now spend many months or even years behind bars before being brought to trial.

Thankfully as a result of her father’s efforts, Ahed’s brutal treatment has attracted international attention because no matter what your views are on the rights and wrongs of the situation in Israel/Palestine, everyone can surely agree that no child should be held in a military prison.

However you don’t need to go to the Middle East to discover situations of appalling institutional injustice, you just need to go a few miles along Ferry Road.

As many of you know, last autumn I was invited to serve on a Scottish Government Working Group on issues of homelessness.

Two weeks ago the Working Group met with a group of people who are homeless, some of whom have been sleeping rough (including Maria who you might have seen in the woods behind the church), others who are living in temporary accommodation.

Their stories made for sad listening.

Fiona has been living in Bed & Breakfast accommodation for the last 13 months.

And if your first thought is – oh, that can’t be too bad – let me tell you, this is not a 4 star Scottish Tourist Board B&B but an unregulated hostel.

With her bedroom having been forcibly entered on several occasions, each night Fiona has to barricade her bedroom door.

In 13 months the communal toilet and shower have never been cleaned by the landlord and neither has her bedding been changed.

There are no laundry facilities and Fiona washes her clothes and her bedding in the shower.

Fiona spoke of feeling trapped.

Having fled a violent and abusive relationship, there is no going back to where she came from yet if she leaves the B&B, she will be assessed as intentionally homeless and offered nothing.

Although her present situation is meant to be temporary, because of the lack of available and affordable social housing, there is no end in sight.

Fiona continues to languish in this unregulated, insanitary, unsafe B&B – at enormous cost to her health and well-being - and at enormous cost to the public purse because as tax-payers we foot the bill.

Ahed Tamini and Fiona - two young women separated by thousands of miles but each with painful stories to tell, stories of suffering and hardship, stories of despair, victims not just of bad luck or circumstance but of institutional injustice, trapped in systems they are powerless to do anything about.

Elisha picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah

and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan

Whatever else it speaks about, the Bible has a great deal to say about issues of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, suffering and hardship.

And at the heart of the Biblical narrative is a message of life, not life in the sense of mere existence, one breath to the next, one day to the next, but life in all its fullness as promised by our Saviour Christ.

Our God is a God of life and the promise of life, as well as God’s calling us to speak up and act out against whatever prevents human flourishing and life, is one of the dominant themes of the Biblical narrative.

From the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament we heard of the end of Elijah’s prophetic career with the mantle being handed on to Elisha.

It is an episode rich in imagery as the pair move from Gilgal to Bethel, and from Bethel to Jericho, and from Jericho to the Jordan, each move punctuated by Elijah’s telling the young Elisha to stay and Elisha promising to walk with Elijah each step of the way.

The story is told to herald a changing of the guard and when Elijah strikes the water with his cloak, the Hebrew storyteller evokes images of Moses parting the Red Sea with his staff, and Joshua fording the same River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant as he led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

The story culminates with Elijah asking Elisha if there is one last thing he can give or do for him?

Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit replies the young man, that is, let me follow in your prophetic footsteps.

And as the two men walk and talk together, a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.

So what did Elisha do?

Elisha picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah.

Picking up the mantle, taking up where Elijah had left off – is this not the challenge, the calling and the opportunity given every generation of God’s people?

Elijah stood in that long line of Hebrew prophets who spoke up and acted out against whatever prevented the flourishing of God’s people Israel – hypocrisy in the rituals of the temple and the teaching of its leaders, corruption in the courts of the land, and the failure of Israel’s kings to obey God’s commandments and honour God’s ways.

It was a prophetic tradition that took many voices – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea as well as Elijah and Elisha – but perhaps a voice most clearly heard in Amos with his call to let justice roll like a river and righteousness like a never failing stream.

And of course it was a tradition which took face and voice in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Early in his account of Jesus’ ministry, Luke places Jesus in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth.

Handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus opened it and read;

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Having finished and handed back the scroll, Jesus then declared to the congregation;

Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

It caused consternation then, and it causes consternation today, for it places at the heart of the Christian life a refusal to walk past on the other side of human need, a commitment to confront injustice, a willingness to act with compassion and to confront whatever would deny the freedom and flourishing of God’s people.

Yet isn’t it all too evident the human instinct is to shy away from these things, not to rock the boat and keep things as they are?

Six days after leaving Caesarea Philippi, where Peter first recognised Jesus as the Christ, and Jesus told them he was headed for Jerusalem and a cross, Mark reports Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, and led them up a mountain.

Suddenly he was transfigured before them, his face radiant and his clothes a dazzling white.

Doubtless hardly able to believe their eyes, the three disciples see Jesus being joined by Moses and Elijah, the bearer of God’s commandments alongside one of Israel’s great prophets.

So it is little wonder Peter’s instinct was to capture the moment and hold onto this dramatic spiritual experience by building three shelters.

Instead, enveloped in a cloud, the disciples heard God’s voice declaring

This is my son whom I love – listen to him.

So what does it mean as Christ’s people in this place to listen to him when he says that it is the poor in spirit who will be blessed and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will be filled?

And what does it mean for the mission and ministry of the church to listen to him when he says that the merciful will receive mercy and the peacemakers will be called the children of God?

And how is our calling as Christian women and men shaped by listening to him when he says that whatever we do to the very least of his sisters and brothers, we do to him?

In short, as we hear about Ahed Tamini and Fiona, what does it mean to pick up the mantle and to seek the life that is God’s gift to us – and to all?

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