Sermon - Sunday, 25 June 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 25 June.

Scripture: Genesis 21: 8-21 / Matthew 10: 24-39

Text: Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it   (Matthew 10: 39)


The name of David Livingstone is familiar to most Scottish congregations, the rags to riches story of the Blantyre mill boy who became a pioneering medical missionary in southern and central Africa during the late 19th century and whose expeditions on behalf of the London Missionary Society captured the imagination of the nation.

If the famous encounter with the journalist Henry Morton Stanley in November 1871 – Dr Livingstone I presume – is the stuff of legend, let me recommend Julie Davidson’s book ‘Looking for Mrs Livingstone’ as an excellent summer read.

Eric Liddell, Olympic athlete and international rugby player, who famously refused to compete on a Sunday, is another familiar name in church circles.

Immortalised in the 1981 Oscar winning film, Chariots of Fire, who can forget the wonderful scene of him running along the west sands at St Andrews, head flung back, with Vangelis’ haunting soundtrack.

God made me fast and when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Born in China, the son of missionaries, it was to China Liddell returned as a Christian missionary, also sponsored by the London Missionary Society, another man of extraordinary faith and commitment.

There is not a Dundonian who hasn’t been brought up on the stories of Mary Slessor, the jute mill girl and Sunday School teacher who, inspired by David Livingstone, became a missionary in Calabar, Nigeria.

Despite several bouts of illness and constant danger, Mary Slessor lived among the local people, learned their languages, earned their trust and respect, and was responsible for putting an end to some barbaric practices, not least the killing of twins.

She adopted many Nigerian children, and when southern Nigeria became a British Protectorate, she was appointed the first female magistrate in the British Empire.

Jane Haining was another remarkable woman who served as a Christian missionary.

Born in the village of Dunscore near Dumfries, Jane was sent to Budapest, part of the Christian Mission to the Jews, where she was matron in a school for girls.

Ordered to return to Scotland, Jane remained with her children – if they needed me in days of sunshine how much more do they need me in these days of darkness.

In 1944 she was arrested by the Nazis and died later that year in Auschwitz concentration camp.

She is the only Scot to have been officially honoured and named as Righteous among the Nations in Jerusalem’s sacred Yad Vashem memorial.

Last autumn some of her correspondence, including her will, was found in the attic of the Church of Scotland’s offices in George Street, and Margaret and I were able to host an event at the Moderator’s official residence where we met many of her surviving relatives.

David Livingstone, Eric Liddell, Mary Slessor and Jane Haining: four remarkable people of Christian faith, courage, and commitment who, in different ways, reveal something of what Jesus meant when he spoke about finding life only to lose it and losing life only to find it.

Minnie Watson is another Scots missionary whose name deserves to be held in the same esteem as the ones I have mentioned.

Described by the present Principal Clerk of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, the Reverend Peter Kariuki, as our mother in faith, Minnie Watson has been an inspiration to millions of Kenyans and yet 70 years after her death, although her name and her achievements continued to be revered in Kenya, she is virtually unknown in Scotland.

Another Dundonian, during more than three decades in Kenya, Minnie Watson established a network of schools for girls and boys.

Indeed, one of her pupils, Jomo Kenyatta, would go on to become Kenya's first president.

The story of the Church of Scotland’s mission in Kenya begins in the early 1890s when a group of Scottish business people established a fund for Scottish missionaries to travel to east Africa.

The first group of seven missionaries, led by the Reverend Thomas Watson, another Dundonian – what is it about Dundee and missionaries – Watson set up a mission station near the port of Mombassa.

When six of the men died, Thomas Watson moved to Kikuyu where he was joined in 1899 by his fiancée, Minnie Cumming.

The couple married but barely a year later Thomas died of pneumonia leaving the 32-year old Minnie to assume responsibility for the mission.

Kikuyu was a world away from Dundee, one can hardly imagine the hardship she faced – bereavement, drought, famine, disease – but education and welfare became her primary focus and she established an extensive network of Mission Schools for boys and girls.

For almost three decades Minnie Watson was the head teacher of the Church of Scotland’s Mission Schools in Kenya – the photographs of her reveal someone tall and slim – and she was described by former pupils as humble, patient, strict, loving, someone who was, and who remains, an outstanding Christian role model.

Perhaps it is a sign of growing older but looking back over the years I have become much more aware of the role models in my life, the people whose encouragement, support and love shaped and moulded my character and personality.

My late father who would often speak about service to other people as being the only sustainable ethic, a Boys’ Brigade captain who first encouraged me in the things of faith, a college lecturer who took me under his wing and opened up the possibility of going to university, my teachers at New College who taught me to think theologically, that is, to name and articulate something of God’s presence, promise and purpose in the world, the ministers who supervised me, Murray Leishman, Jack Kellet, Tom Cuthell, Ronnie Blakey, from whom I learned so much about the work of parish ministry, and my own minister, the late John Weir Cook, whose preaching on the grace of God was truly inspirational.

As important as anything I learned, however, what I have come to appreciate is the influence these people had as role models of what it means to walk by faith and not by sight, that is, to living the Christian life.

And whatever else Jesus did with his disciples – and the Greek word for disciple means learner – he taught them as much by the way he lived as by things he said.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled

As Matthew gathers together collections of Jesus’ teaching, Matthew also describes the concern and compassion Jesus had for people, especially the ones other people walked past, and the extraordinary way in which in Christ’s presence people found healing and hope, their burden eased, their pain relieved, and new life awakened.

As his ministry developed, Jesus gathered around himself a group of learners, 12 disciples to represent the 12 tribes of ancient Israel, and gave them authority to go out in his name, driving out evil spirits and healing people from every kind of disease and sickness.

Unlike contemporary spin doctors looking for a good opportunity to bury bad news, Jesus never hid the truth, no matter how unpleasant, from his disciples.

If they were to accept his invitation to pick up their cross and follow, they should know from the very beginning it would not always be easy.

Difficulties and disputes would arise.

Family loyalties might be strained, because the ways of the kingdom are not always compatible with the ways of the world.

Justice, not revenge, reconciliation, not retaliation, forgiveness, not the bitterness of holding a grudge, seeking to walk the second mile and to turn the other cheek: whether then or now trusting that the determining reality of our lives is not sickness, suffering and death but the liberating grace and mercy of God is not always easy.

It is hard won.

And because it is hard won we need good role models, people like Minnie Watson, who show us what the Christian life looks like.

Following our visit to Kenya in February, the story of Minnie Cumming was picked up by the Dundee Courier.

The article was read by one of her great nieces who contacted the Church of Scotland offices with lots of her great aunt’s documents and artefacts.

On Tuesday last the BBC met with the great niece and staff from the World Mission Council and the story will be broadcast in the coming days

Although she died in Scotland, Minnie Watson’s ashes were interred beside her husband Tom in the graveyard at the Church of the Torch in Kikuyu.

To visit Kikuyu last February and stand at the Watson’s grave was one of the great highlights of our year, two remarkable people in whom the truth of finding life only to lose it and losing life only to find it could not have shone more brightly.

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