Celebrating the bard's birthday:
Sunday 25th January 2009
Reading: Psalm 8
Mark 1 v 14-20
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Just what is it that keeps the myth of Robert Burns alive?
What is it that turns his followers into a worldwide cult perpetuating the wisdom he penned in a very short life some 250 years later?
I’d like to suggest it is not so much the man – it is the message. A timeless message that needs to be told again and again.
An ability to see things for a certain day and age but seeing, in fact, things that speak to every day and age.
A social gospel if you like - that needs preached time and time again.
Robert Burns, who, if you can believe his victorian and somewhat puritan biographers, lived a colourful life spoke into situations that were familiar then and are all too familiar now.
Just one of the reasons the bard’s work has survived and continues to be revered all over the world is its incisive critique of culture and particularly of those who sat in judgement of others and set themselves up as superior to the rest.
O ye wha are sae guid yoursel’,
Sae pious and sae holy
Yeve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebours fauts and folly:
Whase life is like a wee-gaun mill,
Supplied wi’ store o’ water:
The heapet happer’s ebbing still,
An’ still the clap plays clapper
Ye see your state wi’ theirs compared
And shudder at the niffer
But cast a moment’s fair regard
What makes the mighty differ?
Discount what scant occasion gave;
That purity ye pride in;
And (what’s aft mair than a’ the lave )
Your better art o’ hidin.
From Burns’ Address to the unco guid, or the rigidly righteous.
The folk Burns poked fun at on a good day – or slandered on a bad day are still around, still making the same judgements, still pitching themselves as superior beings – and still propping up the kirk!
What keeps the memory of Robert Burns alive is the timeless observation of the ills – and sometimes the good – in the world around him, ills and good that are still very present in this day and age.
2,000 years ago, Jesus addressed the ills of the society surrounding him and called for people to change – to change their ways and, in so doing, to change the world.
And the struggle that Burns had in his day with the hierarchy of the kirk seems little different to the struggle Jesus had with the keepers of the faith in his day.
There was hypocrisy and injustice. There was a self righteousness and superiority in those who held power. They didn’t practice the things that they preached.
That’s why, when Jesus sought folk to become his disciples, he didn’t look in the synagogue, he looked on the beach.
He didn’t look for folk who thought they were good enough – he dragged along with him those who would never have considered themselves willling or able to spread the good news.
The keepers of the faith were failing in their task, so Jesus called up some new defenders, taught them a different way – a way of love and not judgement.
In our gospel reading this morning we find Jesus recruiting not among the righteous or the so-called holy but among fishermen.
The pharisees who were entrusted with upholding God’s law had turned that law into something harsh and impossible, had turned the God of love in to something remote and inaccessible.
Jesus wanted to reclaim faith for ordinary people.
In a Cotter’s Saturday night, we are presented with one facet of the gospel according to Rabbie Burns: every man is called to be a defender of the faith, starting with his own kith and kin.
The gospel is a message to be preached, not from lofty pulpits but in our own homes and hearths.
“The cheerfu’ supper done, wi’ serious face, They, round the ingle, form a circle wide; The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal grace, The big ha’ Bible, ance his father’s pride: … He wales a portion with judicious care; And “Let us worship God” he says with solemn air. They chant their artless notes in simple guise; They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim; … Then kneeling down to heaven’s eternal King, The saint, the father, and the husband prays.”
Burns proclaims the humble cotter not only the father of his children and the husband of his wife. He is also “the saint”, the one who leads his family in prayer and the reading of the Scriptures.
Burns clearly believed in the priesthood of all believers: that every believer is a minister, that we are all called to preach and to live out the gospel in our everyday lives, not least in our own homes.
Faith and life are one. The ‘cotter’, as much as the ‘minister’, is called to lead others to God.
Burns had a gift for reading situations and not beating about the bush in interpreting and speaking into those situations. He spoke as he found and was not frightened of causing offence in so doing.
And Burns upset the social elite of his day in the same way that Jesus caused offence and outrage among those who considered themselves the social elite in Galilee.
And the response was much the same: “the common people heard Jesus gladly”; the Pharisees made it their aim “to destroy Him”.
Following in the footsteps of Jesus, Robert Burns spoke of ordinary life, of the life he and the folk around him endured every day:
The harshness and beauty of nature:
“O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!”
Its incredible that those words that have been encapsualted into common speak the world o’er come from Burns’ poem To a Louse, penned when he saw a louse on the bonnet of a lady worshipping in church.
It’s a real gift to be able to take the most ordinary things of everyday and turn them into parables and, in those proclaim the wisdom of God.
But that’s a gift that you and I are encouraged to pursue every day.
To look at our life with the mirror of God.
To consider the most ordinary happenings and see God speaking to us through them.
And don’t we need the assurance today that God does speak to us in daily life.
That in all the beauty around us, in all the wonder of creations as proclaimed in the Psalm we read, that God is present.
But that God is present too in the harshness of life – in our worries about jobs and income, in our fears for the future, in the loss we feel because our loved ones are no longer with us or are out of reach.
In all that, too, we need the assurance that God is present.
Burns waxed eloquent on the fears that plagued humans:
In To A Mouse:
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!
Burns was well aware of the fragility and sometimes the fickleness of life and even in that epic tale Tam O Shanter, Burns manages to interlace beautiful poetry with his social comment and warning:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white--then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.--
Nae man can tether time or tide;
It seems he couldn’t separate his faith and life.
And that’s as it should be.
Its when we try to separate the one from the other that we run into difficulty and we become like the subjects of much of his poetry: folk who preach one thing and practice another.
I started off by saying that what keeps the Burns movement alive is not so much the man but the message and we’ve now come full circle – to a great extent, the man was the message. He spoke of things he knew, injustice he had witnessed, temptations to which he had succumbed, hardships he had endured.
That’s why in the conclusion of his address to the unco good, he cautions us thus:
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark,
The moving why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark
How far perhaps they rue it.
Who made the heart, ‘tis he alone
Decidedly can try us:
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance, lets be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.
Through all of life, its ups and its many downs Robert Burns never seemed to lose sight of the overarching love and power of God embracing all:
And, though he had reason to question – and in fact did, though he often ranted on the unfairness of life, in the Epistle to the Rev. John M’Math, Burns said this:
“God knows, I’m no the thing I should be,
Nor am I even the thing I could be,
But twenty times I rather would be
An atheist clean,
Than under gospel colours hid be
Just for a screen.”
Burns knew and proclaimed the truth that the gospel must be for all of us anything but a screen.
The gospel is a call to action.
Not something we can hide behind but something that drives us forward to make a difference by living out the love of God wherever we are.
Can we hear that call to action in this place and this time?
Can we, upstanding members of the kirk be seen, not as hypocrites or defenders of the faith, but folk who practice what they preach?
That social gospel needs to be heard in our world today.
But it more than anything needs to be lived.
And today, we are being called to take up the challenge.
A challenge not perhaps to wax eloquent, though there’s nothing wrong in that, but a challenge to follow Jesus wherever he leads us as did those fishermen, following Jesus into the unknown.
Our world is filled with the unknown today.
And you and I are called to bring the assurance of God’s love and God’s power.
You and I are called to kindle the flame of hope.
In this time of uncertainty, hope is what we cling to – not some impossible hope, but hope in the God of all who is not remote but intimately cares for you and for me.
So let’s leave Robert Burns for a time today, planting words of hope in our hearts from his poem: a man’s a man.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bearthe gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.