Sermon - Sunday, 26 November 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 26 November 2017.

Scripture: Ezekiel 34: 11-16 / Matthew 25: 31-46

Text: When did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,  you did for me                                                                    (Matthew 25: 38-40)


Having spent much of last year living in the Moderator’s official residence at Rothesay Terrace, it was impossible not to be aware of the number of people sleeping rough in the shop door-ways, side alleys and cemeteries of Edinburgh’s city centre.

Day after day, night after night, the same faces would be huddled in a sleeping bag to keep warm or trying to catch your eye as they asked for whatever change you had in your pocket.

Knowing my connection with Fresh Start, the charity which helps people who have been homeless make a home for themselves, people have often asked what they should do when confronted by someone sleeping rough or begging in the street – stop and chat, give some money, offer to buy the person something to eat.

While I would always say (and still say) that generosity is never a fault, my response would be that if someone really wanted to help then they should give their time, money and support to one of the established charities, Fresh Start, Bethany Christian Trust, Cyrenians, the Rock Trust, Edinburgh City Mission – for these are the organisations who are making a real difference in the lives of people who are homeless.

Yet however true that is, the frustration remains that the number of people being registered by Scotland’s local authorities as homeless remains roughly similar to what it was 25 years ago – about 28,000 people.

And if you examine the figures in detail, you discover that that number includes over 5,700 school aged children.

You will not see these children sleeping rough because along with their families they are living in temporary accommodation – and the time being spent in temporary accommodation has been increasing year on year - and at what cost to their health, their education, at what cost to their sense of well-being, at what cost to the whole community.

During our travels last year, wherever we went, New York, Toronto, London and throughout Scotland, Margaret and I visited a whole variety of different projects concerned with supporting people who are homeless.

And time and again in meetings with the Prime Minister, the First Minister, MPs, MSPs and local government councillors – and even the Queen - I spoke about the continuing scandal of homelessness in 21st century Scotland.

So you can imagine my response when the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced the creation of a Scottish Government Working Group on homelessness and rough sleeping.

Chaired by Jon Sparkes, the CEO of Crisis, the group’s remit is fourfold, namely, to advise ministers on what can be done to reduce rough sleeping this winter, to advise on how to end rough sleeping, to transform the use of temporary accommodation and to consider what needs to be done to end homelessness in Scotland.

The first task, regarding rough sleeping this winter, could not be more urgent because having opened the night shelter earlier in October with a capacity for 48 people, by the 3rd night Bethany was already turning people away with a similar story being repeated in Glasgow.

The Working Group met for a 3rd time on Thursday and after a great deal of work – including meeting with people sleeping rough – it finalised its recommendations for the minister, Kevin Stewart, on how to alleviate rough sleeping this winter.

The details will be made public on Tuesday next.

As the work has developed, one of the things that has emerged is the need to challenge public perception, public perception about the kind of people who become homeless, the social and economic reasons behind it, the structural problems which exacerbate it – the widely held view that it is usually the person’s own fault and nothing much can be done to prevent it happening.

And on this point the church with its rich resource of scripture and theology has an important contribution to make, our profound conviction that each and every person is created in the image of God, and our prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink – and the King will reply………………..

When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven, the imagery he used was as evocative as it is beautiful.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed growing into a great towering tree, a pinch of leaven that inspires and transforms, secret treasure hidden in a field which demands everything from those who have the wit to notice it, a priceless pearl so easily passed over by others in their ignorance or unwillingness, a fisherman’s net into which all are included and welcomed.

And when his disciples dared to ask who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus took their breath away.

Rather than naming one of the great heroes of their faith, Abraham, Moses or David, Jesus took a child and said a child would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Moreover, unless disciples trusted and believed and loved like a child they would not enter it.

Surprising, disturbing; as Matthew’s gospel unfolds one of the questions Matthew poses his readers is this – what kind of kingdom does Jesus proclaim?

The prophet Ezekiel provides at least part of the answer.

Ezekiel lived during a bleak, desolate period in Israel’s history, a time memorably captured by the Psalmist who spoke of God’s people being forced to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

However, despite Ezekiel being in no doubt that God’s judgement on Israel was fully deserved, a punishment for her faithlessness, the prophet did not lose hope.

God would not abandon God’s people and there is a touching tenderness to Ezekiel’s picture of the shepherd looking for the scattered sheep, rescuing them from difficult and dangerous places, and leading them safely home to rich pastures and good grazing land on God’s holy mountain.

There is also something intensely practical about the shepherd’s searching and gathering and finding - and with it the suggestion that in part at least the kingdom of God comprises simple acts of care, kindness and protection.

It is a suggestion which took life and breath in the person of Jesus.

Time and again Jesus stopped and listened and reached out with whatever help was required to those poignantly described as the lost and the least.

And it didn’t appear to matter whether it was a Roman centurion worried about his servant, or a man brought to him on a stretcher by his friends, or a woman whose bleeding would not stop, or a father pleading for his demon possessed son, or a blind beggar sitting by the roadside or a tax-collector hiding up a tree – Jesus made no distinctions and in his presence people found not just healing but wholeness as the Lord of life restored them to life and health and family and community.

Generosity, hospitality and welcome; simple acts of practical care and kindness are here presented as being of the very essence of Christian life, the things that help people feel wanted, needed, valued and loved.

More importantly, whatever else it does, Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats subverts all our foolish attempts to divide the world into categories of good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, weak and powerful, deserving and undeserving.

Instead it gives us a glimpse of the king and his kingdom as we are called to respond to human need however it presents itself and not to walk past on the other side - only to discover to our surprise Christ’s presence among us.

This commentator puts it well when he writes

Christian practice is fundamentally about making space for others, especially the most vulnerable, just as God has come to make space for us[1]

So when do we see Jesus hungry or thirsty – or homeless?

Crowned not with jewels but with thorns, seated not on a throne but nailed to a cross, ours is a king who is hungry when we are hungry, thirsty when we are thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick in prison and homeless - for ours is a king who is beside us and among us and for us and one of us.

This is the faith we bring to the scandal of homelessness, the faith that in Christ’s kingdom all are wanted, all are needed, all are welcomed, all are loved – and all find a home.

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] Stanley P Saunders Preaching the Gospel of Matthew Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, USA, 2010, p260