Sermon - Sunday, 11 March 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 11 March 2018.

Scripture: Numbers 21: 4-9 / John 3: 14-21

Text: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever  believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.                       (John 3: 16)


Loneliness matters – according to AGE UK over one million older people in the UK say that they are lonely or always often feel lonely.

Loneliness hurts – medical research suggests loneliness is often a trigger for mental health issues and it has been suggested loneliness can be as harmful to someone’s physical health as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day.

Loneliness is insidious - there is research to suggest that people who experience a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as people with a low degree of loneliness.

Loneliness is hidden – AGE UK research indicates 17% of older people have less than weekly contact with family, neighbours and friends while 6% of older people leave their house once a week or less.

Although much of the research has focused on older people, loneliness can affect people in every age of life and in all walks of life.

From my working experience as a parish minister I am aware that many parents, especially mothers of babies and young children, are often surprised by feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness affects people from all walks of life.

Sinead O’Conner is an Irish singer and songwriter who rose to fame in the late 1980’s with her debut album, The Lion and The Cobra, since when she has gone on to achieve worldwide acclaim.

Talented, famous, wealthy – at least some of the things to which many people aspire – recently she posted a photograph on Facebook taken in a motel room in the back end of New Jersey in which she looked bewildered and despairing.

A troubled and sometimes controversial individual, O’Conner spoke of feeling overwhelmingly lonely and lost.

O’Conner is not alone.

In my travels and adventures as Moderator of the General Assembly I encountered people from many walks of life – some of the world’s most privileged people and some of the world’s least privileged people – and it might surprise you to learn loneliness was one of the things some of them shared in common.

It was the experience of some of the most senior people in public life - judges, generals, politicians, business leaders - people with huge responsibilities,

expectations, pressures and demands – who felt quite isolated in their role and who on occasion would seek me out for a pastoral conversation.

And as you could well imagine loneliness was a common experience for so many people in the homeless projects I visited in New York, Toronto, London and in various places throughout Scotland.

Some time ago Fresh Start started offering cooking classes.

Delivered by volunteers the classes taught people how to make soup or how to prepare a simple meal using fresh ingredients.

Asked for feedback on what they had gained from the cooking classes, one man said it was not the new found confidence and skills in his kitchen that mattered, it was the fact that at the end of each class the group sat around a table and ate together whatever they had cooked.

It was the only time in the week this man had someone with whom to share a meal.

The sheer loneliness of being homeless is perhaps not always recognised and understood.

Loneliness is different from being alone.

At some point most people are quite glad to have a little time for themselves – and in this season of Lent framed by Jesus’ 40 days/nights in the desert, a time of very personal reflection and prayer at the beginning of his ministry as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer, having time on your own is important.

Being alone is nurturing, helpful, desirable, enjoyable and essential for human flourishing.

Being lonely is draining, unhelpful, undesirable, unpleasant and damaging to someone’s sense of well-being and peace of heart and mind.

Loneliness has long been a theme explored in the literature of human beings since classical antiquity.

The philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, father of the existentialist school of thought, claimed an overwhelming experience of loneliness is of the very essence of being human.

According to Sartre each human being comes into the world alone, travels through life as a separate person, and ultimately dies alone.

Sartre suggested coping with this loneliness, accepting it and learning how to direct our lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is at the heart of what it means to be human.

The Christian perspective on what it means to be human is very different.

The Christian claim is that we are not isolated beings.

The Christian insight is that having been created in the image of God, male and female, we know ourselves through our relationships with one another and with God.

It is a claim rooted in the Genesis account of creation where, as well as being created in the divine image, we read God created a companion for Adam, Eve, for it was not good for the man to be alone.

It is a claim which took breath in Bethlehem’s stable when the Word became flesh and God came to live among us.

And it is a claim which finds its deepest expression in perhaps the best known of all Biblical verses, John 3: 16, St John’s profound insight God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.                      

Relationship is at the heart of our understanding of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Relationship is at the heart of what it means to be human.

The poet, John Donne, put it well when he wrote;

No man (person) is an island entire of itself

Every man (person) is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

And so, because relationship is central to the Christian faith and to the Christian life, the question becomes; how do we nurture the experience of relationship within the life and worship of our congregation?

Sometimes it is not the big things we do, sometimes it is the seemingly little things that matter.

With Cramond Residence, a new 78 bed care home being built on Cramond Road North opening later this spring, another being built on the Queensferry Road opposite Lyle Court, and another planned behind the houses opposite the Manse on Cramond Glebe Road, the pastoral care and support we offer older people will be high on Cramond Kirk’s agenda for the foreseeable future.

And if you have a car, one of the ways you can help provide that support is to volunteer to give someone a lift to and from church.

As Lesley Hoyle, the Convener of our Parish Committee reported to the March Kirk Session, at the moment providing transport for less mobile members of the congregation is done on an ad hoc basis.

Given that the demand is likely to increase in the coming months, Lesley would like to establish a team of volunteer drivers – similar to the team of church visitors who already do such a good job.

Having learned from the experience of other congregations, including Blackhall St Columba’s, a team of 24 drivers is what Lesley has in mind.

The team would be co-ordinated by a Transport Convener who would arrange the Sunday rota.

Each driver would have one or two people to collect and would probably be on duty one Sunday per month.

Safeguarding issues and someone to contact in case of any difficulties would need to be addressed but establishing a volunteer pool of drivers would be a welcome addition to the life of our congregation.

And like having someone with whom to share a meal, I rather suspect it will not be the lift to and from church that really matters, it will be someone with whom to share the journey, someone to ask about what kind of week they have had, someone to meet up for coffee in the hall at the close of the service, and on the way home someone to tell how much they had enjoyed the service - and wasn’t it a good sermon!

For God so loved the world…………….

Despite the fact we live at a time when people have never had more ways of communicating, loneliness is one of the saddest facts of contemporary life.

And while for some people the experience of loneliness can be temporary – and typically something which they are able to resolve for themselves - for others it can be more permanent and require active intervention and treatment.

On Mothering Sunday with its hymns and prayers, its groups and activities, the Christian church offers a rich treasure trove to help us respond to the human experience of loneliness.

And at its heart the story of God, the God who cares, the God who sent His Son, the God who reached out in love – and calls us to reach out too.

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