Sermon - Sunday, 22 September 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 22 September 2019.

Scripture: Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1 / Romans 8: 18, 31-39

Text: Jeremiah 18: 5 Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away. Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?  (Jeremiah 8: 19)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN  

There are nights that are so still,

writes the poet,

There are nights that are so still

That I can hear the small owl

Calling far off

And a fox barking

Miles away. It is then that I lie in the lean hours awake listening

To the swell born somewhere in

The Atlantic

Rising and falling, rising and

Falling

Wave on wave on the long shore

By the village that is without light

And companionless.

And the

Thought comes

Of that other being who is

Awake, too,

Letting our prayers break on him,

Not like this for a few hours,

But for days, years, for eternity[1]

Unable to sleep, the poet has endured a long and troubled night.

A problem, a worry, something on his conscience, a concern for himself or for someone else:  the poet does not tell us but evidently he has had a troubled night, tossing and turning, tossing and turning.

Whatever it is, it has kept him wide awake for as he lies in bed he can hear the calling of a small owl, the barking of a fox and the sound of the waves rising and falling on the long shore.

And yet as the minutes drift slowly past, the thought comes to him that he is not alone, companionless, for there is another being, a heavenly being, God, who is also awake, letting the poet’s prayers break upon Him, and not just for a few hours, but for days, years, for eternity.

Entitled The Other, R S Thomas’ poem is the first in a little booklet of readings and poems gathered together by the Reverend Peter Millar, a colleague and good friend of our former associate minister, Colin Douglas.

Retired, widowed some years earlier, and now facing incurable cancer, Peter Millar has gathered the various readings and poems from sources around the world because they lighten my path and help me to see my life in a greater frame of meaning.

However, although he continues to be faced with a great deal of uncertainty in his life, Peter is acutely aware of the uncertainty faced by many people in the wider world, politically, environmentally, socially as well as personally.

Convinced of our common humanity, that we all share a common heart-beat wherever we are on this small, spinning planet, Peter is persuaded that if we remember the many ways in which we are connected to one another, and connected to the fragile earth which is our home, even in these uncertain times we can have fresh dreams and renewed vision for the future.

In the midst of it all, Peter writes, it is important to pause and to hear the small owl calling, the fox barking, and that swell of the tides rising and falling.

Urgent, reflective, raw, insightful; if you want to know what living with faith looks like in uncertain times, then let me suggest it looks something like this.

Yet whether or not anything in Peter’s life story or in the readings he has gathered resonates with your life story, whatever else we can say about the times through which we are all living, we can at least say they are uncertain.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit, with a deal, without a deal, parliament prorogued, a general election likely, whatever the outcome does anyone really know in the short, medium or longer term what impact the eventual outcome will have on the economy, on trade, on the availability of fresh food supplies and medicines, on the border in Ireland or on the likelihood or otherwise of another independence referendum in Scotland?

If uncertainty dominates the political landscape, it also dominates the environmental landscape too.

September, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but not if you live in the Amazon rainforest where vast areas have been destroyed by fire or polluted by illegal gold mining.

And not if you live in the Bahamas where hurricane Dorian has left a trail of destruction in its wake.

Carbon emissions, coastal erosion, extreme weather patterns, melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, global warming; as the 16 year old Swedish girl and environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, crosses the Atlantic in a zero-carbon yacht to attend the UN Climate Action summit in New York, all part of her campaign to raise public awareness of the human causes of climate change, we hear the alarm bells but do we really know what exactly it all means for the future of our planet?

Much closer to home, following the departure of their minister earlier this year, I was appointed as the interim moderator at the neighbouring congregation of Blackhall St Columba’s, a daughter church of Cramond Kirk.

Permission to call a new minister has been given by Presbytery, a nominating committee has been elected, but with several hundred vacancies in the Church of Scotland at present, with the number of ministers much reduced and with the current crop of probationers receiving on average 60 or 70 parish profiles, this strong, well led, well-resourced congregation is facing an uncertain time.

And as your minister I am very aware of the challenges and uncertainties many of you are dealing with at home or at work or with your health.

So what of faith in uncertain times, its point, its purpose?

Listen to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and the remarkable insights he offers on  living with faith through uncertain times.

Having preached a controversial sermon in Jerusalem’s temple [2] – yes, it happened in those days too – a sermon ignored at the time – yes, it happened then as well – a sermon in which he warned people that their false religion was worthless, their worship of idols and their pursuit of material wealth and riches at the expense of justice and truth,  his urgent and repeated warning that unless they changed their ways the people of God would face the wrath of God, Jeremiah takes no pleasure when his preaching is vindicated.

At the mercy of their more powerful neighbours, God’s people are in despair with many of them taken into exile.

Is the Lord not in Zion, they wail, is her King no longer there?

Is there no balm in Gilead, they ask, no healing for the wounds of the people?

Although it is not always an easy read – the searing condemnation and message of judgement can be quite overwhelming at times – although he lost faith in the people of Israel, Jeremiah never lost faith in God.

And because he never lost faith in God, although terrible, Jeremiah was quite certain even during these uncertain times, God’s judgment on God’s people would not be the last word and final outcome.

Restoration and renewal would come – why – because God could be trusted to remain faithful to God’s promises.

And because God could be trusted to remain faithful to God’s promises, a new day would dawn, people would again buy houses and vineyards in the land, and God would write God’s laws in their hearts.

God could be trusted – God can be trusted.

Whatever the challenges we face nationally or internationally, whatever the uncertainties swirling around us personally or environmentally or politically, at the heart of our faith stands a cross and an empty tomb, the sign and seal not just of God’s judgment on us and upon the world – it is most certainly that – but the sign and seal of God’s continuing concern, God’s continuing compassion, God’s continuing love for us and for the world.

God can be trusted and the apostle Paul surely put it best when he wrote that our present sufferings bear no comparison to the glory as yet unrevealed.

For Paul the cross and empty tomb provided the evidence of God’s faithfulness, evidence that led him to conclude that in the light of Jesus’ dying and rising again there is nothing in life or death, nothing in all creation, nothing which will ultimately frustrate the good purposes of God nor separate us from the love of God in Christ.

All of which is not to underplay or deny the uncertainties of these days or to diminish the challenges and difficulties they present – as the poet knew, as we all know only too well, a sleepless night is no fun – but it is to draw comfort and strength from the hope and promise of our faith that even as we lie in bed, tossing and turning, tossing and turning,  there is another who is also awake letting our prayers break on Him, not like this for a few hours, but for days, years, for eternity.

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] The Other  by R S Thomas

[2] Jeremiah 7: 1-15