Sermon - Sunday, 11 August 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 11 August 2019.

Scripture: Isaiah 1: 10-20 / Luke 12: 35-40

Text:  Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow  (Isaiah 1: 16,17)


Several years ago our former associate minister, Colin Douglas, spent the summer at the Scots Kirk in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, while the resident minister, John Purves, was on holiday.

Tired from the long journey, when he was taken to the Manse Colin was glad to get to his bed only to be disturbed by a scrabbling noise in the attic space above the bedroom ceiling.

The following morning members of the congregation came to see Colin to make sure he  was settling in and had everything he needed.

Mentioning the scrabbling sound in the attic, Colin wondered if there were perhaps some mice or even some rats– and was disconcerted to learn it was probably a mongoose.

When he asked if anything could be done to get rid of the mongoose and its disturbing scrabbling, Colin was surprised to be told getting rid of the mongoose was the last thing they would do.

Surprise soon turned to consternation because when Colin asked why not, he was told it was because the mongoose would catch any snakes.

Getting into bed that evening Colin said he lay there desperate to hear his new best friend, the mongoose, scrabbling about before he drifted off to sleep.

Ah, the wildlife of Manses – there is a book to be written!

It was no laughing matter earlier this year, Easter Sunday, as people gathered to worship at St Andrews Scots Kirk.

The church is situated in the heart of Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, and 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.

Taking charge of the situation the locum minister, the Reverend Bill Davnie (from the Presbyterian Church in the United States) told people to return home if they wanted but that he would remain to conduct the Easter service.

Having checked the church building for any suspicious packages – they were later to learn the explosions had been carried out by suicide bombers – Bill reported 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, that by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ violence, hatred and death will never have the last word.

Whatever else they did that Easter morning, the congregation at the Scots Kirk gave remarkable witness to their faith, the Easter faith in the dying and undying love of our Saviour Christ.

On Wednesday next my colleague and close friend, Ian Gilmour, and his wife Donna are flying out to replace Bill Davnie as the locum minister at the Scots Kirk in Colombo.

Margaret and I have known Ian and Donna for the better part of forty years – along with Moira McDonald, Ian was one of my chaplains during my year as Moderator.

Ian will serve as the minister at St Andrews until Easter next year and, all being well, we hope to visit them in January.

Sadly as one of our own elders, Suresh Sanders, and her extended family know, Sri Lanka, such a beautiful sub-tropical island in the Indian Ocean, popular with tourists and investors alike, is no stranger to dreadful violence and acts of brutality.

Between 1983 and 2009 Sri Lanka was gripped by civil war as Tamils fought the majority Sinhalese in a bid to create their own homeland.

Up to 100,000 civilians, mainly Tamils, were killed, as well as some 50,000 fighters on both sides, communities were uprooted and countless people fled the country.

Everyone suffered, Tamils and Sinhalese suffered. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians suffered, and people of no faith tradition suffered as the senseless brutality of civil conflict undermined traditional Sri Lankan cultural and faith values.

Today much of the work of healing and reconciliation is co-ordinated by the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka which works with communities and individuals across the religious and ethnic divide.

It is hard work because forgiveness and reconciliation between Tamil and Sinhala is not easy.

Yet however hard, grounded in our common faith that one of the gifts of the gospel is the gift of forgiveness, it is important work, necessary work and vital work because for those who have been traumatised and suffered injury and loss, there is no other way to healing and peace than the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And what was it the prophet Isaiah said to God’s people Israel all those years ago:

Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the

orphan, plead for the widow

Living in Jerusalem during the second half of the 8th century BC, and possibly from a position of some influence in the royal court, Isaiah witnessed a series of devastating invasions by the neighbouring Assyrian army which led to the destruction of most of the major cities of the region save Jerusalem.

The opening section of the book does not make for easy reading containing as it does a blistering attack on the whole sacrificial ritual of Temple worship.

Sacrifices, burnt offerings, the blood of bulls, lambs or goats – they have all become a wearisome burden to God.

Instead what God demands – and what God will count as the sign of Israel’s true piety – is a renewed commitment to social justice, an ethical life as much evident in the day to day living of God’s people as in the institutions of the land, the court and the temple, where the rights and needs of people, the poor and the vulnerable are protected.

If the opening chapters do not make for easy reading, one of the things worth pondering is the prophetic insight that God makes fierce demands of His people.

What also emerges is the profound realisation living with faith in God makes a difference.

Faith inspires new journeys.

Faith gives birth to new ways of thinking.

Faith leads to different ways of acting.

Faith guides and strengthens people in times of uncertainty and chaos.

Faith helps people create new relationships with one another and with the world.

And what was it Jesus said to his disciples?

He said, ……………be dressed for action and have your lamps lit

Standing as he did in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, Amos and Micah, as we read Jesus’ teaching, one of the mistakes we sometimes make is to imagine what Jesus said to the disciples of his day does not apply to us in our day.

Whatever else it means, discipleship, spiritual living, building our house on rock and not on sand, demands we too are alert to the injustices of our own day and age and are always ready to light a lamp of care, concern, compassion and hope for people who all too often find themselves at the mercy of circumstances and forces beyond their control – asylum seekers, refugees, women and children the victims of human trafficking, people who have become homeless.

And as Jesus made abundantly clear, whatever else it means, discipleship means taking responsibility for our own actions, the way we speak to and treat one another, the values and standards to which we aspire, the quality and integrity of the relationships we have with colleagues and neighbours as much as with family and friends.

Are they characterised by honesty, truthfulness, loyalty, kindness, compassion, concern and love?

One of the groups supported by the Sri Lankan National Christian Council is the Women’s Development Centre.

The Centre acts as a place of refuge for the many women who were abused during the civil war or whose children were forced to become child soldiers in one of the opposing armies.

Whatever their background, faith commitment or ethnicity these women are given safety, shelter and education, they can work in the Centre’s social enterprise and they and their families can receive counselling and mediation but never judgement.

The Sri Lankan Women’s Development Centre is one example of what it looks like to be Christ’s body today, his hands and eyes and voice and feet, unconditional love and compassion in the name of the One who refused to walk past or walk away but stopped when he heard a blind beggar’s cry or felt a woman tug his cloak.

Or to put that in other words, whether then or now, whether in Sri Lanka or Scotland, whether the Scots Kirk in Colombo or Cramond Kirk here in Edinburgh, what God expects – indeed what God demands - is that in all the opportunities and challenges of our day we cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow, always dressed for action with our lamps lit.

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