Sermon - Sunday, 20 October 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr at Cramond Kirk on Sunday, 20 October 2019.

Scripture: 2 Timothy 3: 10 – 4: 3 / Luke 18: 1-8

Text : Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up   (Luke 18 :1)

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

The Edinburgh Food Project has just published their mid-year report – and it makes for sobering reading.

Established in 2012, the Edinburgh Food Project is responsible for running eight Trussell Trust food banks throughout the city.

Comparing the six months to June 2019 with the same period last year, Edinburgh Food Project reports a 48% increase in the number of children and adults being supported with food parcels.

During the first six months of this year 2,074 children and 5,307 adults received food parcels.

The report also revealed that during the school summer holidays – weeks not included in the reporting period – 436 food parcels were provided for children and 1,226 for adults.

Food parcels being handed out to children and adults not in some developing country in the so called 3rd world, or a war torn country, or a country devastated by drought or natural disaster – these are food parcels being handed out to people in Edinburgh.

And for the avoidance of doubt, you cannot just turn up to one of the eight Trussell Trust food banks and ask for something – you need to be referred by one of the statutory agencies or through one of the social welfare organisations.

Emma Galloway, the chair of Edinburgh Food Project put it well when she said:

Edinburgh Food Project was born out of the firm belief that in a city like Edinburgh it is simply unacceptable for people to go hungry for lack of food.

Unacceptable – perhaps like me you could think of much stronger language.

Aware of the number of people who were returning to their food banks on a regular basis Edinburgh Food Project recently commissioned some research to try and understand the reasons behind people falling into crisis, hungry and in need of food.

If a break down in relationships, debt (especially issues with energy bills but also with funeral costs), addiction and unemployment were among the reasons you would anticipate, top of the list of reasons identified for people being referred to food banks were changes to the benefit system and mental health issues.

And so in response to the research, as well as handing out food parcels, the food bank in South Queensferry is running a drop-in service where people can find support to address their needs with a view to breaking the cycle of misery and dependency.

2,074 children, 5,307 adults given food parcels in the six months to June 2019, not in one of the poor countries of the world but in one of the richest, and not in one of the poor cities of the world but in one of the richest.

It was the late David Sheppard, for over 20 years the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool who coined the phrase God’s bias to the poor.

An outstanding cricketer in his youth, Sheppard’s theological insights were shaped by his time working in the docklands of London and then following his arrival on Merseyside in 1975.

Facing a period of acute economic and social crisis, the decline of its port and associated commerce, this was a time when Liverpool experienced high levels of unemployment and almost a complete breakdown in community life in different areas of the city.

Racial tensions were high and many of you will recall July 1981 and the trail of destruction caused by the Toxteth riots.

Along with his friend, Derek Worlock, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Sheppard challenged Liverpool City Council for its lack of leadership and its failure to act and in his book Bias to the Poor, he argued such a bias was not a political statement but a willingness to listen to the poor, exist with them, and try to stand in their shoes.

And what was one of the characteristic features of Jesus’ ministry?

It was a willingness to listen to the people others pushed to the margins, the beggars, the lepers and the woman who could do no more than grab the hem of his cloak.

It was his evident concern to spend time with such people, eat with them, listen to them and stand in their shoes.

It was his teaching his first disciples not to walk past on the other side of human need.

It was his promise that whatever we do to help the least of his sisters and brothers, we do for him.

And yet………….for all we know that to be true, when you and I are faced with the overwhelming and seemingly endless nature of human need, it is hard to keep hopeful and often difficult to keep going.

Despair creeps in, disappointment edges towards disillusionment – compassion fatigue – and you would not be the first person to question whether the little you can do or give really makes the slightest bit of difference.

Listen then to what the apostle Paul said to Timothy.

Coming towards the end of his ministry, a ministry which led him, and through him, the message of the gospel, from Ephesus to Philippi to Antioch to Athens and to Rome, there is a real sense in this letter of Paul handing over the baton of leadership and responsibility to Timothy.

As he reflects on what he has been able to achieve – or better, what God has achieved through him – Paul, the man who persecuted the people of the early church before becoming one of its greatest ever missionaries, doesn’t pull his punches.

Following Paul’s example, Timothy is to preach the word in season and out of season, he is to correct, rebuke and encourage, and he is to do so with patience and careful instruction.

Patience, persistence and perseverance: if these are some of the dominant themes in Paul’s letter, they are also among the themes found in Jesus’ odd little story about the judge and the persistent widow?

With an economy of words, the scene is beautifully drawn, of a town in which a world weary judge had neither time for God or compassion for a poor, unimportant widow.

The details of the case are not discussed.

Instead Luke describes the woman’s persistence in seeking redress and a judge’s refusal to listen to her case. 

The story falls strangely on our ears.

It falls strangely because if we imagine God to be the judge in the story, the thought of God needing to be pestered and badgered to do the right thing seems very odd indeed.

What you need to remember is Luke wrote his gospel at a time of dreadful persecution in the early church, that is, at a time when people were being harassed and probably arrested, tortured and killed for their faith.

In other words, Luke wrote for a people who might be sorely tempted to lose heart and give in and give up.

In all the challenges they faced Luke wrote to strengthen their resolve………….. because if a callous and hard hearted judge could finally be persuaded to act by the

widow’s persistence, HOW MUCH MORE will God act in response to their plea and cry?

One of the reasons, one of the many reasons, I am proud to be a minister in the Church of Scotland is because of our church’s commitment to tackle issues of poverty, injustice and social inequality.

At a national level, through its Church and Society Council, and at a the local level through the life of its congregations, the Church of Scotland, its ministers and people, have always been at the forefront addressing issues of homelessness, poverty and inequality.

And one of the distinctive features of our church is its willingness to commit people and resources to some of Scotland’s most socially and economically deprived areas.

Whatever else you find in Glasgow’s Easterhouse, Castlemilk or Drumchapel, Dundee’s Menziehill, Stirling’s Raploch or Edinburgh’s Craigmillar, Wester Hailes or Muirhouse/Pilton, you will find the church.

And one of the reasons you will find a church is our shared commitment to neither give up nor give in but instead to give face and voice to God’s bias to the poor.

Patience, persistence and perseverance: although Luke wrote for the people of his day and age, his words resonate with people of every day and age.

Costly, demanding, frustrating; of course when faced with facts and figures like those provided by the Edinburgh Food Project, it is easy to despair and give up and think nothing can be done to change things for the better.

Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Jesus’ odd little story of the hard hearted judge and the persistent widow invites a very different response; that in the face of injustice God’s people are always to pray …………..and never to give up.

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