Sermon - Sunday, 25 August 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 25 August 2019.

Scripture: Jeremiah 1: 4-10 / Luke 13: 10-17

Text: When Jesus said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing     (Luke 13: 17)

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

With their distinctive jackets and their backpacks filled with flasks of tea and coffee, chocolate biscuits, flip flop sandals and lollipops, Street Pastors are a familiar part of Edinburgh’s night life.

Their aim is simple; to provide a caring presence, a listening ear and practical help to anyone and everyone they meet on the streets of Edinburgh’s city centre on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Working in partnership with the police, the city council and various voluntary and statutory organisations, and with volunteers drawn from congregations throughout the city, Edinburgh Street Pastors are celebrating their 10th anniversary.

The seed that grew into Edinburgh Street Pastors was planted in late 2007 when someone spoke to Colin Syme, one of the leaders of Edinburgh’s Community Church.

Cycling up Lothian Road very late one night, this man had seen scantily dressed young people, many of them much the worse for wear, spilling out of nightclubs and pubs.

Fights were breaking out, cars and shop fronts were being vandalized, the atmosphere was tense and rowdy, and the man wondered what if anything might be done to calm the situation and help the inebriated young people.

The man shared his concern with Colin Syme.

Aware of the work of London’s Ascension Trust, the umbrella organisation for Street Pastors, along with his friend Alistair Mackenzie, a policeman at St Leonard’s Police Station, Colin approached the police and the local authority.

A steering group was established, twelve volunteers were recruited and trained, and Edinburgh Street Pastors took to the streets on the evening of 5 June 2009.

Initially their focus was on Picardy Place near the busy Moods nightclub, an area frequented by the LGBT community, where rowdy behaviour and fights were a common occurrence, but in no time the initiative flourished with the presence of the Street Pastors welcomed by the police, the council, the nightclub and most importantly, the young people themselves.

New volunteers were recruited, a management team was created, charitable status was obtained, a base was established at the Charteris Centre on the Pleasance and the areas covered were extended to include George Street, Princes Street, the Cowgate as well as Lothian Road.

A couple of years ago Margaret and I joined them one Friday evening in May.

Setting out about 10.30 pm, always in teams of three, each team a mixture of women and men, the first part of the evening was spent wandering up and down George Street and Princes Street engaging with people who were homeless and sleeping rough in the shop doorways.

As you can imagine, on a cold evening the hot drinks and chocolate biscuits were very welcome but equally welcome was the time the Street Pastors took to chat with the rough sleepers.

Stories were shared, sometimes prayers, hugs were exchanged, there was laughter and there were tears…………..and one or two even asked to have their photograph taken with Mr and Mrs Moderator.

After a short break back at the Charteris Centre, the teams spent the second part of the evening with young people pouring out from the nightclubs where the Street Pastors’ presence provided a calming influence, the flip flops made sure people, usually young women, had something to wear on their bare feet – and the lollipops helped defuse occasional moments of aggression.

Believe it or not, experience has shown it is really quite hard to keep up being mean and angry with a sugar lollipop in your hand!

However impressive their contribution is – and as David Robertson, one of Police Scotland’s Chief Inspectors affirms, the commitment and contribution of the Street Pastors is valued and remarkable – it is still worth wondering if it is a good use of people’s time and effort.

After all, the young people worse the wear for drink or drugs have no-one to blame but themselves.

And if they hurt themselves in a fight, end up in hospital or get into trouble with the police, perhaps it will teach them a sharp lesson not to be so stupid in the future.

And the same might well be said about the great majority of the people sleeping rough in the doorways, side streets or city centre cemeteries; they too have brought their troubles upon themselves and been the cause of their own downfall.

So if people have no-one to blame but themselves for their misfortune, what point is there to the time, effort and support being offered by the Street Pastors?

Paradoxically that is just the point, for as the moving story of Jesus healing the crippled woman reveals, the grace, compassion and concern of God makes no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving, those who are the authors of their own misfortune and those who are not.

Rather, the encounter with the crippled woman offers the profound insight that God’s care and concern knows no boundaries and embraces whoever is in need for whatever reason.

It was a Sabbath and the ruler of the synagogue had invited Jesus to speak.

However it wasn’t what Jesus said that really caught the congregation’s attention, it was what Jesus did.  

As he spoke, Jesus noticed a woman, bent over and crippled, evidently in need, called her over and had the temerity to lay his hands on her.

In doing so he violated several Sabbath regulations.

And given the belief in ancient tradition that illness or disability was a punishment from God – it was the woman’s own fault she was crippled - the offence was completed when, healed of her condition, the woman straightened and started to praise God.

A blind beggar, ten men suffering from leprosy, a man with a withered hand and now a woman bent over and crippled: healing and wholeness lay at the heart of Christ’s ministry irrespective of who the person was or what had brought about their situation………….yet rather than seeing the work of God happening before his very eyes, all the ruler of the synagogue could see was Sabbath regulations being broken.

He could see the woman, bent over and in pain, he probably believed it was her own fault and the consequence of her sin, but he was blind to the fact his understanding and the various Sabbath regulations had become a barrier between him and God.

He could see Jesus, the guest preacher, who had again flouted traditional religious teaching and custom but he couldn’t see Jesus the Messiah, the one sent to proclaim that the kingdom of God was near, a kingdom in which all creation, humanity included, would be restored to health and well-being..

Weren’t there six other days in the week on which this woman could have been helped, the ruler complained?

Of course there were ……………and can’t you just picture Jesus fixing the man in the eye?

On the Sabbath you’ll untie your animal from its stall, take it for water and attend to its need so why should this woman’s need not also be addressed, Sabbath or no Sabbath.

When Jesus said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were

delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing     

 So what does this story reveal to us about God’s priorities; upholding ancient custom and tradition or helping the woman?

And what does it reveal about our priorities?

Over the years of my involvement with Fresh Start, one of the things I learned is that although at times people make wrong decisions in life, on other occasions people become homeless through circumstances completely beyond their control.

Whether supporting people who are homeless or youngsters lying incapable on the pavement, it is so easy to pass judgment – and I am as guilty as anyone for doing so.

Yet is there anyone in church this morning who has never made a mistake in life, a poor investment which led to financial difficulty or a business decision that backfired?

And is there anyone who has not been guilty of a moment’s carelessness or stupidity and suffered the consequences or been caught up in something – being made redundant - for which they had no responsibility?

As well as all their other goodies, Edinburgh’s Street Pastors are now handing out invitations to the people they meet to attend their local church.

And each church has been sent a little sticker to put on their notice-board letting anyone who has received such an invitation know that in this church they will be welcome.

And why would they be welcome?

For exactly the same reason we are all welcome, not because we always make wise choices, not because we always do or say the right thing, but because through the care, compassion and concern of God we are wanted, known, forgiven and loved and, like the woman in the parable, set free to praise God and walk tall.

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