Sermon - Sunday, 5 November 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 5 November.

Scripture:  Micah 3: 5-12 / Matthew 23: 1-12

Text: Jesus said,’ The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’                                                                        (Matthew 23: 11, 12)


CrossReach has been described as one of the best kept secrets in the Church of Scotland – but as Margaret and I discovered when we spent a week as guests of CrossReach visiting some of their work from Garelochead to the Shetland Isles, CrossReach is one of the brightest jewels in the Church of Scotland’s crown.

What began in 1869 as the Committee on Christian Life and Work, then the Board of Social Responsibility and since 2005 renamed as CrossReach, CrossReach cares for people the length and breadth of Scotland.

Working with some of the most vulnerable people in our community, the services it provides range from the Perth Prison Visitor and Support Centre to the family bus at the gate of Polmont prison, counselling services for people with mental health or addiction problems to support for women suffering from post-natal depression, homes for children taken into care, homes for older people for whom independent living is no longer an option, supported accommodation for adults with learning difficulties and hostels for people who have become homeless.

This is what it looks like when we take seriously Jesus’ command to love our neighbour and to care for the ones he memorably described as even the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.

Did you know CrossReach now employs over 2,000 staff to deliver its various services?

Did you know these staff are engaged in over 70 projects the length and breadth of Scotland?

Did you know the annual cost of funding CrossReach is over £50m?

Did you know, through its Ministry and Mission fund the Church of Scotland only provides £650,000 towards these costs, the rest coming from public funding or from grants and trust funds?

Inevitably, by the very nature of its work, often very personal, private, difficult and demanding, much of what CrossReach does happens quietly, confidentially and under the radar of congregational life.

So I am glad to tell you about it this morning because my week visiting some of CrossReach’s services gave me a much deeper knowledge of the scale of its work, not least the innovative and pioneering work CrossReach is doing with children taken into care.

In one sense this is not new work because for many years CrossReach has been supporting children and young people taken into care at two large residential schools, Geilsland near Beith in North Ayrshire and at Ballikinrain in Stirling.

Today however that work is being carried out in small family homes and Margaret and I had the opportunity to visit one such home, Finnescroft Farm, near Lennoxtown.

Finnescroft Farm is home to four teenage boys and it provides a loving, safe and stable environment for these four lads, as close to a normal family home and family life as it is possible to imagine.

And because of their traumatic backgrounds – each youngster had suffered a variety of physical, mental and sexual abuse - and each one came with lots of social, emotional and behavioural problems - the last thing any of the four had experienced was normal family life in a normal family home.

Innovative, pioneering and transformative – working alongside social scientists from Strathclyde University the research confirms the health and educational outcomes for the Finnescroft boys is so much better and their employment prospects so much greater - to describe the work of loving and looking after these young boys as challenging doesn’t even get close to the reality but that is what in Christ’s name and on our behalf, CrossReach is doing.

With the Reformed commitment to providing a church and school in every parish, and with each Kirk Session having responsibility for caring for the poor in their community, CrossReach draws upon roots deep in the history of the Church of Scotland.

If you look back through the records of Cramond Kirk Session, as well as establishing the local primary school and appointing the head teacher, you will find the Kirk Session providing a coal allowance for the poor of the parish.

You will also find that it was an elder’s duty to provide a ‘wet nurse’ to help a young mother who was having difficulty breast feeding her baby.

Services for children and families, services for older people, many of them suffering from dementia, services for adults with learning disabilities or mental health problems or substance misuse, services for people who have been homeless or who have been sent to prison; the General Assembly asked that today, the first Sunday of November, we might remember the place of CrossReach in the life of our church.

Today is an opportunity to celebrate CrossReach, its work, its achievements, to learn about the range of its services, and to be proud, not I hope in any kind of boastful way, but to be proud of the Church of Scotland’s continuing commitment to take seriously what Jesus said about being a servant.

Jesus said, ‘The greatest among you will be your servant.’

The setting is the temple courtyard.

Although his initial remarks are addressed to the crowd with words of warning about those they regard as their teachers and leaders, the passage ends with familiar themes addressed to the disciples. 

Jesus’ immediate audience was the scribes and the Pharisees, the two groups responsible for maintaining the law and religious traditions of Israel.

Because they were the recognised experts in understanding and applying the laws of Moses and their subsequent elaboration, both groups enjoyed popular respect and authority.

Indeed Jesus’ opening words note the authority of their office - they sit in Moses’ seat - though in the light of what follows there is surely a note of irony in his endorsement.

As the narrative unfolds, it is clear Jesus had no complaint about the scribes and Pharisees upholding the law because the law had been God-given for Israel’s good.

What Jesus complained about was the way the law had been turned into a burden with endless rules and regulations about ritual washing, diet and Sabbath observance.

Rather than helping people live good and godly lives, the scribes and Pharisees had made the law burdensome, leaving people to struggle under the weight of its myriad conditions and penalties.

Furthermore the evident concern of the scribes and Pharisees with appearance and reputation, the ostentatious display of large phylacteries and long tassels, suggested to Jesus their religious practices were designed to impress people rather than serve God.

Such hypocrisy appalled Jesus.

Woe to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, he declared, hypocrites and blind guides, straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel, demanding the place of honour at banquets and the important seats in the synagogue, appearing to people as righteous but in fact full of wickedness.

And then with words specifically addressed to his disciples, the Son of God, the one who would soon wrap a towel around his waist and wash their dirty feet, who chided them about wanting to sit at his right and left hand, and who in an upper room would break bread with them before enduring the lonely agony of Calvary, the same Jesus said,

whoever exalts himself will be humbled,

and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Challenging, disturbing and thought provoking; as Jesus drew on the deep roots of Hebrew tradition, the prophetic demand for justice, honesty and fairness in public as much as in private life, he called all his disciples, then or now, to a life of service.

Take my yoke upon you, he said, follow my way of generous, forgiving and sacrificial love, and far from finding it heavy you will find rest for your souls.

As this year’s General Assembly ended, the Three Formers, John Chalmers, the former Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, Peter Bailey, CrossReach’s former CEO, and me, the former Moderator, abseiled down the Forth Bridge.

As well as raising over £26,000 we also generated a lot of publicity for CrossReach because far from being the church’s best kept secret, it deserves to be recognized as one of the jewels in the Church of Scotland crown.

Being a good neighbour, welcoming the stranger, caring for people sick or visiting someone in prison, feeding people who are hungry, befriending people who are lonely; all of this and more lies at the very heart of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be a church – and today and tomorrow the work continues to be done by CrossReach, done on our behalf, and done in the name of the One who invites us now to sit at his table, the Christ who came not to be served but to serve.

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