Sermon - Sunday, 30 June 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 30 June 2019.

Scripture:  2 Kings 2:1,2, 6-14 /  Luke 9: 51-62

Text: As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem  (Luke 9: 51)

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

  • An investment of up to £25 million over the next seven years into a Growth Fund supporting projects to help the church’s life and witness flourish at local and regional level.
  • A focus on engaging with people under the age of 40 years and the aim of creating one hundred new worshipping communities during the same seven year period.
  • The cost of the central administration – 121 – to be cut by up to 30%, the present four councils of the General Assembly to be merged into two,  with the annual meeting of the General Assembly to be streamlined
  • The number of presbyteries in Scotland to be reduced from forty three to about twelve and a review of the size and role of Kirk Sessions in the life of the local congregation.

These are among the headline decisions emerging from last month’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Described as a radical Assembly, it opened with the Convener of the Council of Assembly, Dr Sally Bonnar, saying its decisions could shape the future of the church for years to come and closed with the Lord High Commissioner, the Duke of Buccleuch, suggesting it could prove to be the most significant General Assembly since the Union Assembly of 1929.

Radical, transformative, game-changing – these are not words normally associated with the annual meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - suffice to say the decisions taken at this year’s Assembly have the potential to reshape the Church of Scotland at every level, nationally, regionally and locally.

Devolution is at the heart of the proposals, devolution of decision-making and devolution of resources from the centre to a re-organised and re-energised regional and local church with the central aim of equipping congregations for mission in their local context.

And not before time too!

For many years our own Kirk Session has been one of many Kirk Sessions in active correspondence with the central authorities at ‘121’ saying the present system of governance, especially the calculations used to fund the ministry and mission of the church is unsustainable.

As a church we have been struggling to recruit people for the different ministries of the church and there have never been more vacancies than at present.

As a church our overall income is falling.

And from Shetland to Stranraer so many congregations are spending valuable time and money on maintaining buildings which are no longer fit for purpose.

Of course it is not all doom and gloom, far from it, and as I was privileged to witness a few years ago, from Shetland to Stranraer there are many wonderful examples of Kirk Sessions and congregations engaging with their communities in thoughtful, practical, caring and imaginative ways.

Yet all the good work being done here and elsewhere does not detract from the fact that at every level of the Church of Scotland’s present administrative arrangements and its patterns of congregational life, its ministry and its mission, things need to change.

Change!

How many ministers does it take to change a light bulb?

Who said anything about change?

In conversation a couple of weeks ago with one of our members, she recalled being a teenager before there was a landline telephone in her family home.

It was a thing of wonder.

Can you recall the first telephone or the first black and white television in your home?

Life has turned full circle as there is no landline in our son’s home.

Robert and Morag wouldn’t thank you for one either because like so many people of their generation their lives revolve around their smart ‘phone.

Most mornings I walk from the Manse to the shops at Barnton to buy a newspaper.

Robert hasn’t bought a newspaper in years, preferring to read the news online.

The world is changing, changing almost out of recognition, and whether in medicine, education, communication, transport, or the patterns of working life or home and family life, the pace of change has never been greater.

If stability and continuity are two of the gifts the church brings to this fast changing world, that important sense of security and constancy so vital to the human soul, our faith that God’s care and concern remains the same yesterday, today and forever, it is foolish to think the life of the church can remain immune from the changes happening in wider society.

As any evolutionary biologist would tell you, in a changed and changing environment a species needs to adapt in order to survive and flourish.

So too the church, it too must adapt to the changed and changing human environment and find new ways of engaging with people and sharing the gospel of our Saviour Christ.

And as evidenced throughout scripture, the good news is the dynamic of change and responding to changing circumstances is at the heart of our faith because God’s people have been – and always will be – a people on the move.

Elijah’s ministry and mission are drawing to a close, his life and purpose almost complete.

Elisha follows, bewildered, anxious and unsure.

Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, fearing perhaps Elijah’s prophetic shoes are far too big for him to fill.

In spite of his uncertainty, Elisha remains loyal, refusing to leave Elijah’s side even when instructed to stay behind, crosses with him back and over the Jordan from the west bank – the Promised Land – to the east bank – the wilderness.

Finally, with Elijah taken up into heaven, Elisha picks up his mantle – yes, this is where the phrase comes from – and crosses back over the Jordan to the Promised Land to be with the people of Israel in all their turmoil.

As prophetic power moves from Elijah to Elisha, the dynamic of change is at the heart of this story, changed and changing leadership for the changed and changing circumstances of God’s people as they enter the Promised Land.

And the same dynamic of change is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry too.

 Follow me……that had been Jesus’ invitation to the fishermen…………an invitation at once simple and yet profound, an adventure in life and faith as these first disciples were led to discover the truth about themselves, their responsibilities to one another, the world in which they lived and the God whose grace and love was at the heart of all things.

Follow me………….and with Jerusalem and its cross now casting its shadow over all that is about to happen, Luke reveals something very important, namely, although headed for Jerusalem, Jesus’ real destination is not the holy city but his Father in heaven.

As the time approached for Jesus to be taken up to heaven…………does Luke want us to see that is our real destination too?

If the historic enmity between Samaritan and Jew provides the background to the gospel narrative, as the narrative unfolds the disciples are rebuked for wanting to call down fire and brimstone on the Samaritan village.

And would-be followers of Jesus are also rebuked, each making their excuse as to why the time isn’t quite right and each being told their excuse is not good enough.

In Jesus’ company it is not good enough to imagine things will never change or to think you can remain the same.

In Christ’s presence the same old same old will not do.

Rather the dynamic of change is at the heart of our relationship with God, a dynamic characterised in the words of one commentator by a grace so strong, so wide-ranging and so surprising that many will find it shocking.[1]

So what will all this mean for the Church of Scotland in the coming years?

  • The traditional parish system will be replaced by a network pattern of hub ministries – a church for north-west Edinburgh for example – with a ministry team providing worship and pastoral care from a central point

 

  • As denominational boundaries fade, these teams will work ecumenically and comprise a variety of ordained and full time staff.

 

  • Partnerships will develop to ensure certain church buildings – Holy Trinity in St Andrews is one example – will become community assets

 

  • And given one size no longer fits all, different models of church life will emerge across the country as the people of Christ create what is most suitable for their city or town or village or rural or island community.

Exciting – yes it is.

Radical – time will tell.

If it is true – and it is – God’s loving concern for us and for all creation is the same yesterday, today and forever, in this changed and changing world it is also true God promises to make all things new.

And this too is true; called to follow, God’s people have always been and always will be a people on the move.

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

 


[1] Tom Wright,  Luke for Everyone SPCK, London, 2001, p 118