Sermon - Sunday, 28 October 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 28 October 2018.

Scripture: Job 42: 1-6 / Mark 10: 46-52

Text: When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, Bartimaeus began to shout, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me      (Mark 10: 47)


Courage, determination and a plain refusal to be silenced:

Earlier this year at the annual meeting of the General Assembly, the Church of Scotland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women to the ministry.

As the Moderator, Susan Brown, led a procession of banner waving, hymn singing women and men up the Mound and into the Assembly Hall, we listened to the Reverend Dr Margaret Forrester recalling the events of fifty plus years ago and the struggle for women to have their calling into ministry recognised by the church.

Always involved in the life and worship of the church, Margaret remembered being told at secondary school it was a great pity she wasn’t a boy as she would make a very good minister.

On the 22 May 1968, the Act was finally passed allowing women to be ordained as ministers, an Act which transformed the life of the church and transformed it for the better but one brought about by courage, determination and a plain refusal to be silenced.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke about the connection between the Reverend Robert Walker, one time minister at Cramond, best known in Scotland as the poster boy for the National Gallery, Scotland’s Skating Minister, and his role in the abolition of the slave trade.

Having become the minister at the Canongate in 1784, a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, minister to the Royal family when in residence at Holyrood Palace, the very epitome of an establishment figure, in 1788 Walker persuaded the Presbytery of Edinburgh to petition parliament for the abolition of the slave trade.

Known in Scotland for his elegant skating but honoured in Ghana as one of the leading abolitionists, Robert Walker spoke out against the prevailing interests of the Edinburgh of his day, a man of courage and determination who refused to be silenced.

Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox, people we admire as heroes of the Reformation, Emily Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement which gained women the right to vote, Rosa Parks and the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, their names forever associated with the civil rights movement in the United States, people of courage, people of determination, people whose refusal to be silent transformed the life of the church and wider society.

And when the history of the early part of the 21st century is written, it will surely feature the name of Malala Yousafzai.

Six years ago Malala and two other young girls were shot on their way home from school in the Swat Valley area of north western Pakistan.

In the eyes of her Taliban attackers, Malala’s ‘crime’ was to want an education.

Malala had been writing an anonymous diary for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban and she had become a passionate advocate for girls’ education in Pakistan.

With the Taliban having banned all girls in her area from attending school, they clearly perceived her to be a threat to their authority and power.

And they were right to do so.

Whatever else we value as the people of the Church of Scotland, a tradition built upon John Knox’s great vision of a church and school in every parish, we value the transformative, life changing and liberating power of education.

A universal free education for boys and girls is one of the bedrocks of our society, a right we simply take for granted, but as Margaret and I discovered on our visit to the Maasai region of Kenya, it is not a right enjoyed by children the world over, especially girls.

Supported and staffed by the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, a daughter church of the Church of Scotland, the Mother Esther School for Girls provides a place of safety and education for some 75 young girls.

Many of these girls have been abandoned at the school by their mothers, often teenagers themselves, to spare them the ordeal of female genital mutilation, and to ensure they receive an education and an opportunity in life denied to them.

Our time at the Mother Esther School was heart-breaking and inspiring in equal measure.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, featured by Time Magazine as one of the most influential people globally, and now a student at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a young woman of extraordinary courage and determination, Malala’s refusal to be silenced is helping transform the lives and educational opportunities for the girls we met at the Mother Esther School.

When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, Bartimaeus began to shout, Jesus,

         Son of David, have mercy on me   

The Bible is full of stories about people of courage and determination who refused to be silenced.

The story of Job is the story of a man struggling to make sense of his faith.

Job has suffered a series of misfortunes in life and looks to his friends for comfort.

However the insights they offer – that Job’s misfortunes are a punishment from God for Job’s misdeeds – bring Job little comfort.

Job does not pretend to be perfect but he does claim to have lived a good and godly life, a life undeserving of the misfortunes his friends believe God has inflicted upon him.

Job will not be silenced and such is the courage of his faith, his strong conviction in the justice of God, Job questions the wisdom of his friends.

Whatever else it does, the Christian faith invites our questioning, invites our wondering, encourages and even demands of us in all the opportunities and challenges of life, its days of success, its days of failure, its moments of joy, its times of tears, we continually question the promise and presence of God.

Far from being something set in stone, immovable, unchangeable, at its best faith brings us into a living encounter with the living God.

Yet don’t take my word for it, ask Bartimaeus.

Jesus and the disciples are on the final part of their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem and Mark reports they make one final stop in Jericho.

Leaving town with a large crowd they pass a blind beggar sitting at the roadside.

Bar – timaeus, that is, the son of Timaeus (like Mac – Donald, the son of Donald)  and hearing Jesus of Nazareth is passing, the son of Timaeus starts to create a fuss, pleading loudly for the Son of David to take pity on him.

The crowd tries to silence Bartimaeus but Bartimaeus will not be silenced and with courage and determination cries ever more loudly for the Son of David to take pity on him.

Mark’s narrative is dripping with irony because although he is blind, with the eyes of faith Jericho’s beggar has been able to see what others have not seen; that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of David, Israel’s long awaited Messiah.

As the narrative unfolds we learn Jesus hears the blind man’s plea above the noise of the crowd and calls him to come forward.

With the crowd changing its tune and telling the beggar to cheer up and get up, Bartimaeus tosses aside the cloak he had probably been using to gather a few coins and makes his way to Jesus.

And Jesus asks him,

          What do you what me to do for you?

This was the same question Jesus asked James and John in the previous episode in the gospel.

Whereas they sought positions of privilege and power seated at Jesus’ side at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, a request which provoked a furious reaction among the other disciples, Bartimaeus’ request is much humbler

Rabbi, I want to see.

The irony of the story is that blind Bartimaeus already sees what the sighted disciples could not see, the true nature of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and the story concludes with Jesus telling Bartimaeus his faith has healed him, the beggar regaining his sight and following Jesus along the road.

So who are the people with insight today, the people who see into the depth of the world’s opportunities and its need?

And who are the people today whose voices others would gladly silence?

And above the constant noise and chatter of social media, can we strain to hear the voices of those who speak truth to power and who offer not just a different but a better way for the world and its people.

Margaret Forrester, Robert Walker, Martin Luther and MalalaYousafzai soon to be the guest speaker at a Social Bite homelessness event at Edinburgh’s International Conference Centre ; from the evidence of the Biblical narrative to the heroes of history to people alive today, the transformation we seek for the world and its people, the gifts of education and new life, do not happen by accident but are brought about through the courage and determination of those who will not be silenced.

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