Sermon - Sunday, 17 February 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 17 February 2019.

Scripture:  Jeremiah 17: 5-10 / Luke 6: 17-27

Text:  Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…………..woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation                 (Luke 6 : 20 & 24)


The World Mission Council is one of the jewels in the crown of the Church of Scotland.

As well as sending mission partners to work in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and different parts of Asia, the Council maintains contact with a variety of partner churches around the world, many of them daughter churches of the Church of Scotland.

One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the General Assembly is when delegates of these churches are welcomed by the Moderator, an international group of women and men, creating that wonderful sense of our church being part of something so much bigger.

Some years ago I had the privilege of being the guest preacher at the 100th anniversary of the Evangelical Church of Mozambique, one of the daughter churches of the Church of Scotland.

The 100th anniversary service was held at Mehikani on the border between Malawi and Mozambique where Church of Scotland missionaries had come over the mountains from Malawi and, as was their custom, established a school, a hospital and a church.

Although the site was no longer in use – I met one elderly man who had been born in the hospital - people still honoured what the Church of Scotland had done one hundred years earlier to bring the Christian gospel to Mozambique.

Although our church still sends a number of mission partners to work with partner churches today, the emphasis is different.

Today the emphasis is on nurturing partnerships between congregations in Scotland and congregations in one of our partner churches as well as promoting issues of local and sustainable development.

And given the continuing growth of the church, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where once we gave, now it is our turn to receive, for we have much to learn from our partners about nurturing faith and discipleship especially among young people.

All being well with his visa application, I am pleased to tell you that in April we can look forward to welcoming the Rev Stanley Okeke and his family to Cramond Kirk.

Stanley is a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and, as part of the process to transfer into the Church of Scotland, Stanley will spend a year with us on what is called a familiarization programme.

Although we will have something to teach Stanley, how much more will he have to teach us?

Having worked as a nurse for many years in Malawi, Carol Finlay is now a member of staff with the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council.

Writing in the February/March edition of WM, the Council’s magazine, an article entitled The Ethics of Aid, Carol Finlay described watching a short video request for aid. [1]

You will have seen similar such appeals on television, often describing quite heart-rending situations, but what caught Carol’s attention was the fact she knew the people involved and the place being highlighted.

And as she watched it, Carol said the appeal made her feel uneasy.

The vocabulary and tone of voice not only gave the impression that the need was urgent, it also gave the impression that if listeners did not give generously, it would lead to many deaths.

And the appeal left Carol feeling it would be the viewer’s fault and on their conscience if they did not empty their purses and children subsequently died.

Carol wondered if the appeal was made with the intention of making people feel guilty if they did not give something.

Or was it made with the intention of making people feel good if they did give something?

Either way, was that the correct motive – guilt or reward - and would it really bring about the transformation and create a sustainable solution to the situation being highlighted?

These are good questions, challenging questions, and the issues raised do not lend themselves to quick and easy answers.

As Carol wrote, it is easy to give and we have all done it, put a £1 in a collecting can, filled a Christian Aid envelope or clicked a button on our mobile ‘phone and felt as though we have done our bit.

As well as wondering if that is all it means for us to ‘do our bit’, Carol’s article also asked if we ever stop to ask exactly where the money is going and whether it will be well used for its intended purpose.

Carol also raised the difficult issue of aid being given for something in return – a government promising to build a road in return for access to the country’s gold mine, someone sponsoring a child’s education in return for an annual photograph to put on the fridge door so others can see what good people we are.

As I said, challenging questions, tough questions, questions which don’t lend themselves to immediate or easy answers, but important questions for at the heart of her article was Carol’s passionate concern about how aid given for humanitarian reasons can best become a means of promoting just and sustainable global development, lifting people out of need and creating the opportunity for people to look after themselves.

You will not be surprised to hear, although the Bible does not have anything to say on the ethics of international aid, it does have a great deal to say about our response to human need.

And in the words of the New Testament commentator, Keith Nickle, the Biblical message is clear: rather than feelings of guilt or hope for reward, our motivation to do good for other people is shaped and informed by the realisation of the good God has already done for us and will continue to do in the future. [2]

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said………

In contrast to Matthew’s famous Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s account is known as the Sermon on the Plain.

The similarities are obvious…………..blessed are those who hunger, blessed are those who weep………..the obvious and immediate contrast being alongside the blessings are an equal and opposite number of woes……………woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are poor.

What is also different is that while the Sermon on the Mount is directed to the crowds, the Sermon on the Plain is directed at the disciples.

Beginning with the fishermen brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John, Luke has already told us Jesus started to gather around himself a group of disciples.

From the Greek meaning learners, these first disciples now need to learn what it means to put into practice Jesus sermon in Nazareth’s synagogue, his calling to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, release for the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

What kind of life does this commit them to living?

What kind of people does this commit them to being?

As blessings and woes are set against each other, one of things we discern is Jesus giving his disciples an insight to what it looks like to live in harmony with the law and love of God – the blessings - and what it looks like when people are oblivious to God’s presence, purpose and promise – the woes.

In other words, responding to human need isn’t primarily about winning favour with God - as if such a thing was possible.

Neither is it a question of setting a good example to persuade others to the cause of Christ, or vanquishing evil with good, although all of these things and more may happen as a consequence.

Rather what Jesus is pointing disciples towards is the life-changing realisation that knowing ourselves embraced in the care, compassion, forgiveness and goodness of God in Christ, the only recourse open to us is to respond in kind.

Not guilt, not reward, the Biblical insight offers a very different perspective on what motivates us to help others and Carol Finlay puts it well in her article when she says having the power to improve the lives of other, is for us all, a privilege, and one that comes with its own sense of obligation.

Christian Aid, Fair Trade, Fresh Start; three of the charities regularly supported at Cramond Kirk, each in their different ways trying to reduce the effects of poverty, promote climate justice, help people make a home for themselves, treat people with dignity and create the opportunity for lives to be transformed - at our best we do not walk past on the other side of human need because God in Christ has not walked past on the other side of our need.

And this too is true; it is the breadth and depth of God’s abundant goodness which sets the pattern for all of us to follow.

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] Carol Finlay The Ethics of Aid WM February/March 2019, Church of Scotland

[2] Keith F Nickle Preaching Luke: Proclaiming God’s Royal Rule, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2000, p67