Sermon - Sunday, 3 November 2019

The following sermon was delivered by Very Revd Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 3 November 2019.

Scripture: Habakkuk 1: 1-4, 2: 1-3 / Luke 19: 1-10

Text: Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house for this man, too, is a son of Abraham’   (Luke 19: 9)

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

This is the season of All Saints.

As the early Christian church grew, many people were martyred for their faith and, inspired by their example, the early church felt it important to remember their loyalty and sacrifice.

However, in the great centres of the early church, places like Antioch and Rome, there were soon more martyrs than there were days in the year and so a common feast day to commemorate all martyrs was instituted.

This is the origin of All Saints and since 835AD it has been observed on 1 November.

The problem is we don’t really ‘do’ saints in the Church of Scotland.

Although the veneration of saints and the celebration of their feast days is an important part of the Roman Catholic and high Anglican tradition, venerating a saint, praying to a saint and asking that saint to intercede on our behalf is not something which sits comfortably in Presbyterian piety.

There are four saints depicted in the stained glass at the back of our church but I would be surprised if too many of you could name them?

St Andrew, St Cuthbert, St Columba and St Margaret – and I would be even more surprised if beyond St Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint, too many of you could tell me their feast date?

Nevertheless the season of All Saints provides an opportunity, even for dyed in the wool Presbyterians like us, to think on the faithfulness of Christian people past and present, especially those who have taken risks and made sacrifices for the sake of their faith and for the values such faith inspires.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be one such person.

Executed by the Nazis in 1945 at the age of 39 years, Bonhoeffer’s writings, especially his collection of Letters and Papers from Prison, are a treasure of spiritual wisdom, social conscience, pastoral care and theological insight.

Bonhoeffer will never be canonised but his faith and his faithfulness in the most difficult of circumstances is a continuing source of wonder and inspiration.

So too is the faith and faithfulness of Jane Haining.

Jane Haining is the only Scot to be honoured as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Veshem, the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Jane Haining was matron of the Church of Scotland Mission School in Budapest, a school attended by Jewish and Christian girls.

Ignoring the advice of church officials, Jane Haining refused to return home after war broke out in 1939.

She said that if the girls needed her during the days of sunshine, they needed her much more during the days of darkness.

Betrayed by the school cook’s son-in-law whom she caught stealing food, Jane Haining was taken to Auschwitz in 1944 where she likely died in a gas chamber.

She was 47 years of age.

Entitled Jane Haining – a Life of Love and Courage, it might interest you to know Mary Miller has just published a new biography of one of Dumfriesshire’s most famous daughters.

Jane Haining is another person who will never be canonised yet here is a woman who lived a remarkable life and who made an extraordinary sacrifice for the faith she held dear and the values such faith inspires.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jane Haining: although they will never be canonised there are at least two things they shared in common, two things which might well encourage us in our journey of faith and life.

The first is a commitment to remain true to their faith even in the most trying and difficult circumstances.

Illness, accident, anxiety, bereavement and loss – can you think of a time when far from feeling strong and secure in your faith, what you felt was the absence rather than the presence of God?

Perhaps too you have looked around at some of the things happening in the world, continuing conflict in the Middle East, dreadful poverty in South Sudan, the outbreak of disease in west Africa or the natural disasters that devastate some of the poorest countries in the world and wondered how any of this made sense when set against the Christian conviction in a God of love.

If you have then you are not alone for as long ago as the 7th century BC the cry of the prophet Habakkuk could not be more heartfelt or gut wrenching

How long O Lord, how long must I call out to you for help but You do not listen?

Or cry out to You, violence, but you do not save?

Very little is known about Habakkuk.

Active perhaps around 612 BC, a contemporary of Jeremiah, based in Jerusalem, perhaps a priest in the temple, rather than a series of speeches addressed to the people of ancient Israel, the book describes a dialogue between the prophet and God.

Habakkuk is perplexed.  

Habakkuk doesn’t understand why injustice is allowed to prevail and he is perturbed by God’s apparent failure to act.

Yet deeper than his perplexity, is the strength of Habakkuk’s faith.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Habakkuk continues to believe God had not abandoned God’s people and as the book unfolds Habakkuk is vindicated.

God reassures Habakkuk there is still a vision for the appointed time and God’s purposes of justice would yet prevail.

Holding to our faith, trusting that even although we don’t see it at the moment, the purposes of God’s goodness, justice and love will not be defeated – if that is one of the qualities evident in people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jane Haining, so too is the transformation which comes when people choose the ways of God over the ways of the world.

Whatever else it is, the story of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s diminutive tax collector, is a story of transformation.

Jericho was one of the trading routes in ancient times and as such a place where taxes could be raised.

As a tax collector Zacchaeus was an agent of the occupying Roman power and as chief tax collector Zacchaeus was in a position of considerable power.

As long as Zacchaeus handed over to the Romans the amount they levied on Jericho, they would have had little or no interest in how he raised it or what he kept for himself.

And the fact Zacchaeus had acquired considerable personal wealth suggests he abused and exploited his position to his considerable advantage.

Doubtless despised and reviled, did Zacchaeus already know something about Jesus?

Had he heard his fellow tax collector Levi had become a disciple?

Luke does not tell us.

What he does tell us is that Jesus addressed Zacchaeus by name calling him down from the tree and inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home.

The crowd murmured their disapproval, it is not difficult to imagine why, yet for Zacchaeus the encounter proved to be life changing.

Whereas his previous life had been one of personal gain, in all probability a corrupt and dishonest life, a changed Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to provide four-fold restitution to any person whom he had defrauded.

The story of Zacchaeus – did you know the name means pure – is the story of a man who in Christ’s presence found his true self.

It is the story of transformation which comes about when people choose the ways of God over the ways of the world and seek to make themselves rich, not in the things of earth but in the things of heaven.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jane Haining had chosen the ways of the world, one would have escaped to the United States, the other returned home to Scotland, and both would probably have survived the war.

Instead they chose a different path.

They chose a life lived for others, a life sacrificed for others and yet a life that was true, true to themselves, true to their faith, true to God.

They chose our Saviour’s costly way of the cross.

They chose a life rich in the things of heaven.

St Andrew, St Cuthbert, St Columba and St Margaret: we might not ‘do’ saints in the Church of Scotland but in this season of All Saints we need people to show us what it means to keep believing and to keep trusting and not to lose hope and not to lose faith when the going gets tough.

We need people to show us the difference it makes to choose the ways of God over the ways of the world, people who help to keep us true, true to ourselves, true to one another, true to our faith and true to God.

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