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Sermons - April 2020

Sermon 5th April 2020, Lent VI, Palm Sunday

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 05 APRIL 2020, LENT VI, PALM SUNDAY

“I lit a candle and sat in my dining room watching snowflakes whirling through the air
in the cold blustery wind as I joined in with you in praising God.”
One of the messages received recently from St Columbans
watching and worshipping via the live stream.
Another, described the pleasure of sunshine, spring green and hanging out the washing.
Another – “You should see the garden shed and even the linen cupboard!”
Self-isolation, offers opportunity, both for domestic clear up
(Think children’s address – Ducks in a row):
And a paying of attention to things we too often hurry past –
the light/colours on the sanctuary wall from the stained-glass window,
a sense of what a building and its people mean,
now that we cannot physically be there.

Dusting off overlooked corners – real and metaphorical –
there are of course other realities to the week past,
potentially, to the week to come.
We are aware of members of the congregation who have been ill with Covid19 –
and mercifully have recovered.
Others continue with burdens that long pre-date, and will outlast, this current emergency.
Another member of the church explained how a recent night’s rest
had been broken by a horrible nightmare - a classic of anxiety.

So, with a mixed bag, we arrive at the outset of Holy Week,
the final days – the journey to the Cross,
the recognition of death
and the hope of Easter and resurrection.
Perhaps we will approach it this year with a different intensity –
more open to its sorrows, hungrier for its blessings.

It begins with street theatre:
Jesus knew the prophecies of Zechariah
in which the prophet spoke of a shepherd appointed by God over His people.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,
Humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem;
And the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations;
His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

When Jesus summoned a donkey's colt, because “the Lord needs it”
he declares himself living fulfillment of that prophecy.
A very public statement – “I am the long-expected one, who comes in the name of the Lord.”
So begins the calculated, chaotic, joyful ride,
from Mount of Olives into the golden city, Jerusalem,

He comes through the olive groves,
mounted on a donkey, one leg draped over her colt,
someone’s old cloak under him.
Laughter and foolishness bringing Passover pilgrims together into a waving crowd,
creating a royal carpet of garments and branches.
Legend held that this was the gate through which the Sabbath arrived each Friday;
Legend too, that this was the gate through which the Messiah would one day come.
It is little surprise, that this arrival/entry into the nation’s capital, at Passover,
should provoke such uproar.
As Matthew records:When Jesus entered Jerusalem,
the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"

The Greek word used for turmoil gives us the modern-day word seismic.
Jesus’ deliberate choice of transport – the donkey of prophecy –
causes the tectonic plates of empire and established religion
to shift and rumble.
Palm Sunday is way-more than Sunday School procession.
It is a collision course with Rome and its puppets.
And, as we know, that cannot/will not go unchallenged.

-----

You may have seen that Bill Withers, the 1970s soul singer died this week.
Perhaps his most famous hit, the 1972, Lean On Me.
Gospel-tinged and inspirational, the song was based on his experiences
growing up in a West Virginia coal mining town.
When times were hard, neighbours would lend each other help and assistance;
the memory stuck with the singer.
It was later performed at two inaugurations of Presidents of the United States of America.
Lean On Me has recently become associated with the Coronavirus pandemic,
with people posting their own versions to support health workers.

What struck me from the obituary columns was Withers’ family statement:
“a solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world.”
I think that fits Palm Sunday pretty well too.
Jesus comes – unarmoured and ultimately alone, even amidst the crowd,
“a solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world.”

Jerusalem in turmoil asks: “Who is this?”
We too, locked down and unsure of what lies ahead: “Christ who are you?”
The answer, in part, can only come
by what we will listen to and take in, over the coming days –
The Passion of Christ: stark, holy, brutal, and beautiful.
In our own unchosen circumstances, let us remember
it is no simple, easy ride for Jesus.
When he prays in Gethsemane, he pleads for his life, the cup to pass.
Brutalised by Rome’s soldiers, he is so weak,
someone else must carry his cross.

And lifted up, dying words include:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The cross as lynching tree; isolation and oxygen-deprived lungs.

Who is this?
It is the one who then – suffered for us.
And now - suffers us with us.
The cross - the heart of Christ.
Love stretched forth, giving its all.
“A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world.”

There are no guarantees for the week ahead –
just as there were no guarantees for Christ.
Some of us surely now live, more aware of our mortality, than in earlier days.

Our response?
Well, one possible borrowing: David Hockney, British artist –
Currently in isolation but painting a Normandy spring and sharing his new work online.
“This will in time be over and then what? What have we learned?
I am 83 years old; I will die. The cause of death is birth.
… … …
I intend to carry on with my work, which I now see as very important.
We have lost touch with nature rather foolishly
as we are a part of it, not outside it.
… …
The only real things in life are food and love in that order,
(just like our little dog Ruby.)
I really believe this and the source of art is love.
I love life.”

A donkey is a ludicrous beast for a victory parade – a war horse is more fitting.
Yet no one needs a stallion for a journey crowned by crucifixion;
a donkey is perfectly fine. (after Eleonore Stump)

“The cross pulls us towards God and towards each other,
a vast and complicated gathering place.
In the light of the resurrection,
“the cross draws us towards love.”(Debie Thomas, www.journeywithjesus)

Sermon Maundy Thursday

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
John 13:12-17

Eternal God, in the sharing of a meal
your son established a new covenant for all people,
and in the washing of feet
he showed us the dignity of service.
Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit
these signs of our life in faith
may speak again to our hearts,
feed our spirits, and refresh our bodies. Amen.

Sermon Good Friday

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.
John 19:16-18

O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
who at the last, through wood and nails,
purchased our whole salvation,
wield well your tools
in the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench
may here be fashioned
to a truer beauty of your hand.
We ask it for your own name’s sake. Amen.

Sermon 12th April 2020, Easter Sunday

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
EASTER SUNDAY, 12th April 2020

Jesus said to Mary: “Go to my brothers and say to them, 
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 
“I have seen the Lord.” John 20:17-18

If Desert Island Discs morphed into Desert Island Movies – what eight would you choose?
Self-isolated, the thought might fill some happy hours or social media exchanges.
For me, somewhere in the mix would be Chariots of Fire – 
the tale of two Olympic athletes, Englishman, Harold Abrahams and Scot, Eric Liddell.
Liddell, famously withdrew from his preferred event, 
because the heats were scheduled for a Sunday – 
and instead, gloriously won gold at an alternative, less-trained for distance.
To my mind, the movie’s most memorable line:
“But God made me fast – and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

The pleasure of running/exercise is perhaps more keenly felt, in these days of lockdown.
Our sunny parks are currently, ceaselessly criss-crossed by runners.
In childhood, if I went running with one particular brother, 
we would plod round our route, chatting and puffing away. 
All very civilised. But beware!
Invariably, with 50 metres to go, and always without warning, 
my sibling would suddenly burst into a sprint, leaving me in his wake
throwing his arms aloft in triumph,
breaking the imaginary tape, to declare himself Winner! 
in a race I didn’t even know I was in!

Running, is very much part of the first Easter - a resurrection relay.
The stone rolled away is the starting pistol, 
sending Mary running through Jerusalem’s dark, pre-dawn alleyways.
The return leg, is the footrace between the Beloved Disciple and Peter; 
the former, arriving back at the tomb first, but pausing at the entrance;
Peter, arriving second, ploughing straight in – his gospel character, entirely.

Hurried footsteps in the dark is alarming – 
something is not as it should be.
Darkness, confusion, bewilderment and tears 
are all features of the first Easter. 
No one is really sure of what they are seeing;
nor do they fully comprehend the implications.
Over two millennia, we have made Easter morning bright – 
trumpets and exuberant flowers, joyous hymns and confident declarations.
That is the celebration of one truth - right and beautiful – 
our spirits search for such moments. 
But let us remember the original Easter is much more fragile.
Perhaps that speaks better to our circumstances this year, 
uncertain as we are, behind our own locked doors.
How can/should we, sing of resurrection, 
while there is so much death and fear of death all around?

Let me offer two voices that quietly speak to that difficult question.
One from this week – a beautiful meditation from a church friend, 
responding to the stories and rituals of Holy Week this year. 
Reflecting on the Maundy Thursday communion 
and Good Friday reading of the Passion:
“Setting one’s own table for Communion last night 
and then listening to the continuing tale of the overnight happenings, 
betrayal, trial, flogging and murder (only possible word) in today’s readings 
were very special, perhaps more special, for being alone.”
This year there was no busyness to pull attention away, to distract:
“This year, none of that, just a quiet thinking about what happened 
and that 2000 years on it still affects everything and everybody, 
whether they accept it or not.
We’ll look forward to Sunday’s joy and celebration.”
The Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, “The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.”

[I hope this Easter morning all will feel comfortable to receive, 
whether it is your usual custom or not.
There is a wondrous inclusivity to the Easter words:
I am ascending to my Father and your Father, 
to my God and your God.”]

The other voice is also solitary; that of the grieving Mary.
She who has run in distress to friends; 
witnessed an empty tomb, but cannot perceive its meaning; 
then staying alone at the place of sorrow, when others have departed, 
because what else, she feels, could she do.

Mistaking the figure for the gardener; 
she couldn’t have expected anyone else – 
her sights earthbound; not looking for a risen body.

“Tell me where you have laid him?”
“Mary!”  
That was enough. 
The recognition of who she was. 
I call you by name; you are mine; precious in my sight. 
And suddenly, though it is still dark, 
the world still violent and mean; 
it is also radiant, beautiful, full of possibility, transformed.
Because the life that lit her own, his life, 
is not crushed or annihilated. 
It is risen; still with her, still for her.
Once more, she can love, she can live – though it will be different – 
“Do not hold onto me” – do not cling to the past – 
allow me to lead you to new things, in new ways.
“Do not be afraid.”

Two quiet witnesses to the magnitude of Easter;
from the original garden of sorrow 
to contemporary, solitary confinements.
Easter in both; Easter in all.
Christ – renewing perspective to our locked down worlds, 
raising us above the fear of death 
restoring us, to run the race set before us.

So by grace, this Easter, dark to dawn, 
let us run, live, love and laugh,
for in doing, we will assuredly feel our Maker’s pleasure.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah!

Sermon 19th April 2020 Easter II

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 19th Apr 2020 Easter II

“Jesus breathed on them, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:22

“It is ironic, that at the very time that recycling centres and charity shops are closed,
I have decided to have a good clear-out.”
So, reported a church friend recently.

Lockdown certainly holds the potential for the deepest of spring cleans.
In a spirit of continuing to get our ducks in a row,
Saturday morning “tradition” – we’ve achieved it about twice –
is allocated as a family, all hands-on deck, tidy-up-the home, moment.
Yesterday for a while, Olivia and I worked together on the bathroom.
One responsible for the skilled labour of mirror polishing; the other, more basic duties.

To breathe life into proceedings, the choice of music was upbeat and contemporary –
Jess Glynne, Sigalla and appropriately, Clean Bandit.
[Recognition? Nothing? Ask the grandchildren.]
However, even that playlist could not sustain a domestic chore, cooperative enterprise, indefinitely.
So, before long, I found myself alone.
The upside – I get to choose the music.

Through moments such as these, I have arrived this week at Folk on Foot.
Launched by the broadcaster and former BBC executive Matthew Bannister,
It brings together his three passions:
folk music, walking and telling stories in sound.
In each episode Matthew walks with a leading folk artist
in the landscape that has inspired their music.
The musician sings or plays, in that location.
Landscapes are often spectacular, Highland mountain tops or remote white sand beaches.
But they can also be a disused brick factory on the outskirts of Sheffield
or a Sussex wood, in the middle of the night.
In addition to the music, a listener will also catch sounds of the natural world:
curlews circling overhead, waves crashing on the shore,
campfires crackling and rivers burbling under bridges.

A reviewer of the podcast wrote:
“The music is transcendent, the sense of place is transporting,
and if you need escape - from politics, illness, from anything –
it’s a restorative breathing space in sound.”
Timely, for days such as these.
Proving once again that music, joyful or lamenting,
often touches the parts that words cannot reach.

Yet, though we may delight in being led to wider horizons through music and soundscape –
a necessary feeding of the soul -
we are also called to remain grounded and present to the places where we are.
As people of faith we asked to inhabit both big picture and local detail.
A Thought for Today this week (Revd Lucy Winkett)
quoted the early Desert Fathers and Mothers – Christianity’s first monastics.
Faced with the almost unlimited spaces of the deserts of Egypt and Syria,
they chose the stability of small communities or hermitages,
living by the maxim: God is not elsewhere.

A lockdown room, a breathing space
and God is not elsewhere
are all notes in today’s gospel soundscape.
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the disciples were together, with the doors locked, because of their fear.

After death. After resurrection.
Beautifully; unbelievably:
Neither stony silence; nor anger at friends went AWOL, on the eve of the battle.
Instead, “Peace be with you.”
A bridge – ashes to garlands, guilt to mercy, fear to courage.
“Peace be with you” – greeting and gift, cure and command.

Showing his wounds, confirming his life before the Cross;
Jesus then breathes on them.
A detail we sometimes miss – yet, now,
in a time of masks, ventilators and measured distances.
so much more conscious of breath.
In Hebrew, breath and spirit – the same.
“Receive the Holy Spirit – receive the spirit of Jesus.”
In John’s Gospel, Resurrection and Pentecost rolled into one.

Breath of course has biblical pedigree:
In a room gasping for air, Jesus’ breath echoes the whisper of God in Genesis,
breathing life into the dust of Adam.
Later, in the visionary valley of dry bones encountered by Ezekiel –
comes the command: “Come, breath, from the four winds
and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” (Ezekiel 37:9-10)

Breath and spirit - to clay jars of humanity.
Breath and spirit – breeze, to places of stagnation and decay.
Then. And now?
Breath/spirit of Christ, coming to/enlivening our own locked rooms? Our prayer?

In the Gospel, re-formed, resourced,
the disciples are readied for setting out:
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Not in our own strength alone;
not dependent on our own competencies and achievements,
but trusting in the abiding love and ever-present strength
that God bestows upon us –
enough for the next day, the next hour, or even just the next step.

Which surely brings to mind this week’s most enduring image –
Captain Tom Moore’s garden march, his hundred laps/lengths.
His message: “We will get through it in the end.
It might take time, but at the end of the day we shall be OK again.
All you people who are finding it difficult at the moment,
the sun will shine on you and the clouds will go away.”

Easter spirit – because God is not elsewhere.
Emmanuel spirit – because God is with us.
Breath of God – peace of God.
Hallelujah. Amen

Sermon 26th April Easter III, Luke 24

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
26th April 2020 Easter III, Luke 24

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Luke 24:35

Captain Tom Moore is due to celebrate his hundredth birthday this week.
Recipient of some 25,000 birthday cards,
raiser of some £30 million pounds for NHS-related charities,
he is now tops the music charts – and will be the first 100 year-old to do so.
Definitely a figure who has brought a collective smile to the nation’s faces.

On Friday, at St Columba’s there was an echo of another famous fund-raiser,
in time of national emergency.
Due to Covid19, we held our first, on-line funeral at St Columba’s.
Through the care and thoughtfulness of the family a lovely service was planned –
honouring the deceased with hymn, reading, tribute and music.
As so often, music touches the parts that words cannot always reach.
So, via a recorded piece – with assorted Zoom family voices joining in –
we heard the words:

Tho' you're tired and weary still journey on,
Till you come to your happy abode,
Where all the love you've been dreaming of
Will be there at the end of the road.
Recognise it? Sir Harry Lauder’s, Keep right on to the end of the road.

Lauder, described by Winston Churchill as “Scotland’s greatest ambassador”
was an international star, famous for his songs and comedy
in the music hall and the vaudeville theatre.
During World War I he worked tirelessly for the national interest,
undertaking tours intended to raise recruits for the war effort, and entertaining the troops.
Later in the war, Lauder promoted The Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund,
a charity to help war wounded.
His only son, and infantry officer, was killed in France on 28 December 1916.

As I sat behind the communion table listening to those words – words of loving association for that particular funeral family, I also thought of the thousands of wartime troops who passed through this place between 1915-19, who would have known that song.
Keep right on to the end of the road.

This morning, perhaps the most famous stretch of road, in the scriptures.
A pilgrim pathway; holy ground.
Ironic, that Emmaus today, is lost – or at least no one entirely sure where it is.
Yet the mind map to/from Emmaus is held dear.

The beginnings are bleak.
Two refugees, trudge away from wrecked dreams;
desolation behind, emptiness ahead.

Cleopas and another – wife or companion?
Witnesses to the rollercoaster of recent days;
triumphal entry, temple teaching –
Surely this was our time: He the One to bring it about.
Yet, strange reluctance to seize the moment,
unwilling to surf the crowd’s approval to a landslide victory.
Instead, the tightening noose,
the menace of earthly powers.

An upper room, a final meal;
bread fragmented, wine poured out.
A kiss in the garden, a kangaroo court,
the viciousness of soldiers unchecked.
Now, in vain, attempting to shut out the memory
of a place called Skull (Golgotha) – where the light went out.
Then final insult more – a ransacked tomb –
though there are some wild rumours about that.

A stranger falls in with their walk:
Defeated, grief-struck, the two pour out their lamentation.
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…
Stop the clocks – We were wrong…”
The stranger allows them to tell it all,
the small healing of being listened to without judgement
or attempt, to resolve away.

But, after the listening and the speaking of sorrow,
the stranger’s reply: Could it have been any other way?
Don’t our scriptures tell it so –
a Suffering Servant, an enduring Messiah,
a cross before a crown?

The stranger tells the story back to them,
and as he does so, the story changes. (Debbie Thomas)
It becomes something bigger, more ancient, more profound.
Retold, their own griefs are set within a suffering
that somehow eases their own sorrow;
a suffering that in ways beyond words,
redeems their world. (Perspective and eternity.)

Finally, the first evening star - journey’s end.
The stranger makes no demands, seems set to journey on.
The disciples are free to leave it there.
They choose differently:
An invitation, the courtesies of hospitality, a place at the table;
ordinary and precious, bread and wine;
then, utterly un-ordinary; guest becomes host,
taking bread, giving thanks, sharing:
Memory - love’s previous feast;
Reality - love’s present feast.
Then their eyes were opened –
Something understood, “the happy abode,
where all the love you've been dreaming of
there at the end of the road.”
Risen Christ.

This week, friend and colleague in ministry,
chaplain working within Mental Health hospital facilities described his current practice:
“I bless the bread and wine in the Multi-Faith Sanctuary
and then go around the wards (with hosts only) and share Holy Communion,
almost like a reserved Sacrament.
Sometimes, we just have to put our tradition to the side
and try to do what’s best and meaningful for those in need.
It’s God’s work, not ours.
All dressed up in PPE, of course!”

Which reminded, of two parish, home communions with those approaching death –
one in a hospice room, the other in their own home:
On each occasion, after the words said and the bread and wine shared, both recipients gazed long and hard at the cup and plate on their makeshift altars:
One said: “So beautiful.”
The other: “It makes me think of so many things.”

This is core, the heart, the sacred ground of our faith;
made known in the breaking of bread.
The quiet resurrection, in the days when there are no great, Easter trumpets.
The quiet resurrection, when we pray “Stay with us” –
and the patient Christ comes into make “the happy abode,
where all the love, we’ve been dreaming of,
is there at the end of the road.”

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St Columba’s is located on Pont Street in Knightsbridge in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The Church is within easy reach of three London Underground stations – Knightsbridge (Piccadilly Line), South Kensington (Piccadilly, Circle and District Lines) and Sloane Square (Circle and District Lines).

St. Columba's
Pont Street
London SW1X 0BD
+44 (0)20-7584-2321
office@stcolumbas.org.uk

Getting here by tube

Knightsbridge Station

Take the Harrods exit if open (front car if coming from the East, rear car if coming from the West). Come up the stairs to street level, carry on keeping Harrods on your right. Turn right into Basil Street. Carry straight on into Walton Place with St Saviour’s Church on your left. At the traffic lights, St Columba’s is to your left across the street. If the Harrods exit is closed, take the Sloane Street exit, turn right into Basil Street. Carry straight on past Harrods with the shop on your right, into Walton Place as before.

South Kensington Station

Come up the stairs out of the station and turn left into the shopping arcade. Turn left again into Pelham Street. At the traffic lights at the end of Pelham Street cross Brompton Road, turn left then immediately right into the narrow street of Draycott Avenue. After just a few yards turn left into Walton Street. Carry on walking up Walton Street until the traffic lights at the corner of Pont Street. Turn right and after a few steps you will be at St Columba’s!

Sloane Square Station

Cross over the square into Sloane Street. Walk along Sloane Street until the traffic lights at the corner of Pont Street. Turn left into Pont Street. St Columba’s will then be in sight.

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