Sermon - Sunday, 1 October 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 1 October.

Scripture: Exodus 17: 1-7 / Luke 12: 13-21

Text: The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you…………….strike the rock, and water will come out of it so that the people may drink’  (Exodus 17: 5,6)


Although for most people the experience of church is something very local – we live in a particular parish or are members of a particular congregation - one of the things I appreciate most about the Church of Scotland is the sense of belonging to something much bigger.

And because we belong to something bigger, part of the one holy, catholic or universal church, one of the gifts of the church is its capacity to open our eyes, broaden our horizons, and by putting us in touch with our Christian sisters and brothers the world over, teach us the real meaning of humility and gratitude.

Peter Gai is one of the most impressive individuals I have had the privilege of meeting.

Peter is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan, someone who has ministered through the most demanding of circumstances and who continues to be a man of remarkable courage and faith.

South Sudan is one of the world’s newest countries and in December 2013 the nation became embroiled in a vicious political and ethnic conflict.

As with any conflict situation, it has been the ordinary South Sudanese who have suffered most, an estimated 2.3 million uprooted, caught in a struggle beyond their control, one that has left home and communities destroyed, with many people displaced,  injured and dead.

Four years later, and with no peaceful resolution in sight, countless South Sudanese are suffering dreadfully from the effects of hunger and the lack of clean water, shelter and security. 

During a visit to Edinburgh when he was attending a meeting of our World Mission Council, Peter Gai came to the Manse one evening for a meal.

A tall, dignified, quietly spoken man, Peter described the day armed militia came to his church hunting for people from a particular tribe, their sole intention being to torture, rape and kill them.

Standing at the gate of the compound to his church, Peter defied the militia and refused them entry, even as bullets were fired at his feet and all around him.

There are no Nuer, no Dinka, no Shilluk here, he said, we are all Christians, we are one family.

As thousands of South Sudanese have taken shelter in churches during the very worst of the fighting, the one family of Christ has been the consistent message given to the rebels by the leadership of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.

As a result of the sporadic and indiscriminate nature of the conflict, aid agencies have struggled to reach people living outside the recognised refugee centres or far from the capital Juba but through its Relief and Development Agency, the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan has been able to reach many of the areas in greatest need with much needed relief.

In circumstances which most of us have never experienced, and faced with life threatening situations we can barely imagine, the evident humanity, courage and resilience of someone like Peter Gai is quite humbling.

A proud, dignified man, belonging to a proud and dignified people, if he was here Peter would tell you that, although often frightened, it is his faith that keeps him strong despite the many hardships he faces.

And one of the reasons Peter’s faith keeps him strong is because his life experience resonates with what he reads in the Bible.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you…………….

Since making good their escape from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel have been on the move.

At the point we picked up the story this morning the whole Israelite community have set out from the wonderfully named Desert of Sin and have been travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded.

No doubt exhausted by their travels, they set up camp at Rephidim only to find there are no streams, no wells and no source of water.

Although they have already met many challenges, trapped in the heat of the desert, water in short supply, children crying, livestock struggling, people are now at breaking point and it is not too much to imagine their despair, even their looking back to slavery in Egypt as being preferable to their current situation.

Poor Moses, their reluctant leader, is again confronted by a people angry, frustrated and fearful.

Despite the many signs and symbols of God’s power – the waters of the Red Sea being parted, a pillar of cloud to lead them by day and a pillar of fire by night, a plentiful supply of manna on the desert floor – trust in Moses’ leadership and in God’s providence is in short supply.

And fearful that the people are about to stone him, Moses also appears to be at the end of his tether.

Evidently God is on trial – people feel abandoned and wonder if God is among them or not - yet rather than responding with divine anger and frustration, God instructs Moses to take his staff, the same staff with which he struck the waters of the Nile, and to strike a rock on nearby Mount Horeb and water will flow for people to drink.

Horeb: the detail is important because it was at Horeb Moses encountered God in the burning bush and it is at Horeb where God will soon give Moses the 10 commandments.

Horeb, it would appear, is a source of life, and not just of water.

Like this incident on Mount Horeb, the Bible is full of stories of great miracles and spectacular events and one of the insights they offer is the way faith is made and grown in the ordinary opportunities and challenges of everyday life.

And so, as Peter Gai reads this Exodus story about a people desperate, about a people fearful of what is happening, and about a people not knowing where to turn or what to do next, it speaks to him of the God who accompanies people on their journey, who hears their grumbling and complaining, whose concern for their well-being does not falter and who provides what they need.

And as we read the story, aware that from time to time we find ourselves in the hard desert places of life when things do not go according to plan and we end up in a place we don’t want to be and don’t know what to do next or where to turn – it can be over issues of health or employment, of home and family, of relationships, of betrayal, breakdown, bereavement and loss – there is the reassurance, as simple as it is humbling, that God will never abandon or forget us.

Paradoxically the days of challenge turn out to be as holy as the days of blessing, bringing us to that deeper faith in the One whose care, concern and love knows no boundaries.

If humility is one of the gifts which an engagement with the wider church nurtures, humility is at the heart of a harvest thanksgiving service.

We don’t need to strike a rock, simply turn a tap, for water to flow but we no more grow the food we eat than provide ourselves with safe clean drinking water; rather we depend upon the skill, enterprise and sheer hard work of countless people around the world, people we will never know or meet but people without whose labours we would not survive.

And we would do well to take heed of the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, its warning us not to take even the simplest things for granted.

Earlier this year during our visit to Kenya, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa took Margaret and me to the church-run Mother Esther school in the Maasai area.

Sadly childhood marriage and female genital mutilation are all too common among the Maasai and as well as providing a basic education, the school provides a safe place for young girls to grow and mature.

Situated along a bumpy, dusty road, many miles from the nearest township, the school had no water supply and I took with me a cheque for £6,000 from our World Mission Council to fund a bore hole.

Humbling and inspiring in equal measure, whatever else it does, meeting people like Peter Gai, learning about life in South Sudan and the work of the Presbyterian Church, visiting places like the Mother Esther school has opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and helped me appreciate that as part of the Church of Scotland, we are part of something so much bigger.

And at harvest thanksgiving this too; a profound sense of gratitude that even the simplest gifts of life are indeed sent from heaven above.

God our Creator

You have made us one with this earth

to tend it and bring forth its fruit

Teach us to respect all that has life from You

that we might share in the labour of all creation

to give birth to Your hidden glory

through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen