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Sermons - August 2020

Sermon 2nd August 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 02 AUGUST 2020

Thirty-three years ago, I began my first job in London.
As it happened, the office was one block from where St Columba’s stands.
At the time I would have considered them two different universes.
My job title: Advertising Agency Account Executive.
Those in the know understood: tea boy and photocopier.

Sales promotion was the name of the game.
Competitions, coupons, point of purchase displays, prizes, product samples;
These were the tools of the trade.
This somewhat came back this week with the news that Buy one! Get one free!
is a casualty of the government’s initiative to counter obesity,
in the light of increased susceptibility towards Covid-19.

Meanwhile Isaiah proclaim to the exiles of Babylon:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
you that have no money, come,
buy wine and milk without money and without price.

There is plenty of giveaway in the Gospel too. –
Jesus’ words to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.”
Five loaves and two fishe, the introductory offer.

Giving and receiving; receiving and giving.

In Philip’s Birthday, American poet Mary Oliver describes
The gift of something close to her heart, its unexpected reciprocity:

I gave,
To a friend that I care for deeply,
Something that I loved.
It was only a small

Extremely shapely bone
That come from the ear
Of a whale.
It hurt a little

To give it away.
The next morning
I went out, as usual,
At sunrise

And there, in the harbour,
Was a swan.
I don’t know
What he or she was doing there,

But the beauty of it
Was gift.
Do you see what I mean?
You give, and you are given.

At a funeral some weeks ago a family member composed a poem for his late mother.
It sketched out a life and its various parts; she had many different facets.The poet mused:

What remains as she departs?
Her generosity was such
That what she shared with us
Lives past her going
(A Woman of Parts: In memory of Elizabeth Gordon, by her son Andy Gordon)

You give, and you are given.
A generosity that lives past one’s going.
[Even if it hurts a little to give it away:]

The great gospel giveaway emerges from appalling events;
Just as the prophet’s promise (Isaiah) is those in exile.
Gruesome news of a cruel death, John the Baptist –
Jesus had lost his kinsman, his own baptiser;
the prophet-preparer of his way.
Chilling reminder of the cost of truth-telling,
and the ruthlessness of those gathering against him.
Shocked or numb: sick at heart, or scared;
Jesus withdraws across the water to a lonely place, apart;
his desire, to be alone.

But the crowds - the sick, the sad –
hunger for many things – not just bread.
There they wait, refugees from a hurting world.
And grief-struck though he was, it moves him.
(The literal translation, it tore his gut.)
Jesus has compassion on them.

Elsewhere, many times; compassion – a golden, gospel thread:
for the scared father of a sick son, for a blind man, and the widow of Nain.
In the parables; the master who forgave the debt of his slave,
the horizon-scanning father of the prodigal son,
the good Samaritan - all “had compassion.”

So rather than seek quiet anchorage,
Jesus steps ashore into the midst of their need.
Spends himself - another day –
Precious, exhausting; healing and blessing.

The light waxes and wanes.
The disciples, like political handlers, suggest the show is over for the day.
Time to disperse, people! Jesus looks around.
Perhaps it is the forlornness of this unpromising place;
echo of an earlier wilderness:
Recollects the Psalmist’s question:
Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Ps 78:19

Hold together; don’t drift away.
“They needn’t go; you give them something to eat.”
“Master…? There must be five thousand mouths out there (that’s just the men)
and we got five loaves - and a couple of fish.
We got pretty much nothing.”
“Well, bring me your pretty much nothing.”

So, in cool of the day, an open air banquet of kinds.
Loaves and fishes – inadequate, but a beginning.
Received, raised in honour, in name of the Great Provider.
Blessed, broken and shared –
that same ritual, sealed forever in an Upper Room.
Late in the day – mercy takes the form of bread;
compassion to communion; scarcity to abundance.
deepening like evening shadows

You give them something to eat.
On the day that Mother Teresa was made a saint, the Vatican held a pizza party for 1500 homeless people. For a moment at least, guests, not beggars.
That meal, that moment opening a window.
Pope Francis saying of such transformative gestures:
“We may not conjure up solutions but we can initiate processes.”

Closer to home, we can happily report that the Friday Night drop in
organised by ReStart
has begun again at St Columba’s –
and that has meant a lot – to guest and volunteer alike.
But in the same week news from Glass Door, who co-ordinate our winter Night Shelter, reiterating the difficulties that Covid is placing upon them
as they/we plan for the next winter season.
And the prediction that given what they are seeing in terms of job losses
and the likely economic situation next winter,
there is likely to be more need than ever for safe shelter and a hot meal.

Another brutal cost/fall out of pandemic; the rise in domestic violence.
More than 40,000 calls and contacts to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline
during the first three months of lockdown,
most by women seeking help.
In June, calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual,
According to Refuge, the charity which runs the helpline.
And as restrictions ease, a surge in women seeking places to escape their abusers.

At the start of this week, looking at the Isaiah reading,
I was struck by the observation that the prophet’s words
are the promise that the exiles will survive
and that returning to Jerusalem they will have a covenant with God
as loyal and lasting, as the one forged between God and King David.
The humiliated, the insignificant will survive – and more –
They will become a light to the nations.

A couple of days later, radio’s Soul Survivor:
Donna Summer’s, I Will Survive. Karaoke classic.
[Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive
I've got all my life to live
And I've got all my love to give and I'll survive
I will survive]

Reminiscence of a family holiday.
It starts with the memory of a Big Suitcase.
Shopping and packing in anticipation of a first overseas family holiday.
Mother, and three children. Son and twin, seven-year-old daughters.
The reminiscences are from one of those girls, now a mother herself.

Everything about the holiday – wonderful.
Airport wonder; hotel with a pool; kids club and disco every night.
The two seven year olds from day 1 getting up to karaoke and dance
their own version of I Will Survive
in lime green and orange skirts.
No real reason for the choice of song – just one they’d heard and imbibed.
By the end of the week,
confident that they were pretty much professional entertainers.

At the time they the children knew their parents had divorced.
That was sad – but it was the way things were.
Only later in life did the reasons behind the separation become clear.
Their father was an alcoholic and violent with it.
Their mother worked multiple part time jobs to raise the children.
Clothing, feeding, keeping safe; even saving to go on a special family holiday.

The daughter, with the perspective of the adult,
now aware of what her mother had been though.
“I can only imagine how proud she was, how relieved she was,
to be sitting in that hotel bar, sipping a cocktail
and watching her girls prance around on the stage.”
And the song, we unwittingly chose: I will survive – so meaningful to her.

A concluding: “She never runs out of love.
Her ability to still be able to love so fully, never stops amazing me.”

Family few or five thousand;
guiding principal on the journey from lamenting what we don’t have
to what on earth are going to do with all these left overs?
Giving that becomes receiving; generosity that lasts, beyond the giving;
“Bead and fishes love - never enough, until we start giving it away.”

Sermon 9th August 2020

ST COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 09 AUGUST 2020, 11am

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to Peter, 

"You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." 
Matthew 14:31-33

In 2017 there was a chaotic finale to the Academy Awards, Oscars' ceremony. 
The prize for Best Picture was announced – “And the winner is, (the musical) La La Land.
Cast members came forward to joyfully receive acclaim. 
But, hesitation, then, consternation; 
suddenly it was announced that Moonlight was the winner - 
"And, no ladies and gentlemen, this is not a joke."
Unprecedented. Confusion, Embarrassment. Organiser heads would subsequently roll.
But Moonlight emerged triumphant.

Moonlight is the story of an African American child growing up in Miami.
The principal character, Chiron is played by three actors - 
child, teenager and young adult.
Raised - barely - by a heroin addicted mother, the boy is gay and withdrawn.
Poverty and personhood - his road is unremittingly tough.

Key to the story, is the single relationship where the boy, Chiron 
is shown a degree of care and affection. 
The irony: the one adult figure he can trust, as a child, is Juan, a local drug dealer.

The scene for which the movie is perhaps best remembered takes place 
Away from the grim housing projects, at the beach. 
Chiron cannot swim, has never been in the sea. 
Juan encourages him in, and teaches him the rudiments of swimming.
The camera follows the pair into the waves.
Juan begins by getting the child to lie on his back, 
one hand under him, one hand gently cradling the boy's head above the water.
"Let your head rest in my hands. Relax. I got you. 
I promise you, I'm not going to let you go."
It is tender, beautiful to watch. 
Also, unexpected, confusing our preconceptions about the adult, drug dealing character.
Shown attention, Chiron trusts and floats – begins to be a swimmer.
As audience, we perceive this moment is more than just a swimming lesson,
As the boy lies back, relaxes, buoyant in the up and down motion of the ocean, 
delighting in the new experience of being in the sea, Juan smiles:
"That right there - you're in the middle of the world."

Another sea, another moment, another turning point.
The Sea of Galilee, the Lake of the Harp, a body of water surrounded by hills, 
prone to sudden, violent windstorms.
The Matthew is the only author to record Peter’s wave walking,
all gospel writers share an ancient understanding of the sea 
as an abode of demonic forces, the place on earth where chaos reigns; 
to walk upon it, to calm its fury, a true sign.

After a day with the crowds, ending with the feeding of multitudes 
from the loaves and fishes, 
Jesus tells the disciples to go on ahead and cross the lake. 
Jesus himself disperses the crowds and heads for the solitude of the hills 
that he had postponed throughout the day.
Night-time; wind and waves intensify, 
and the disciples, still far from land, struggle against the turbulent water.
Fear overwhelms them – those in peril on the sea.

Jesus comes to them on the waters; they do not recognise him.
Terrified: “It is a ghost!”
“No” responds their Teacher, “it’s me; I got you. Do not be afraid.”

Perhaps that should have been enough. But the men in the boat were only human.
None more so than Peter:
Peter – impetuous, passionate - often saying what others are thinking.: 

“Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  
We tend to hear this as exemplar of Peter’s impetuous, worthy faith – 
“Jesus, I’ll be with you, even in the storm!”
Actually, isn’t there the echo of an earlier, less noble question:
“If you are the Son of God…”
The voice of the Tempter in the forty-day wilderness,
soon after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
“If you are the Son of God, turn the stones to bread,
 jump into the arms of angels, 
take the knee, in return for the riches of the world….”
Now Peter: “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  

Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter steps boldly (recklessly?) out of the boat.
For one luminous moment Peter walks; then realizes what he’s doing.
Like a skimming stone’s fading velocity, stutters and sinks.
“Lord, save me!”  
“Immediately,” Jesus reaches out his hand, catches and delivers.
“I got you. I promise you, I'm not going to let you go.”

“Nowhere in the Gospels are we called to prove our faith (or test God’s character) 
by taking pointless risks that threaten our lives.  
Whether we’re talking about respecting the power of the sea during a vicious storm, 
or heeding expert medical advice during a global pandemic, 
the same caution applies.  
Recklessness is not faith. Stupidity is not courage.”   Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus

So, Peter’s test fails.  
Jesus doesn’t calm the sea for Peter’s convenience.  
Peter can't manipulate Jesus into Making Faith Easy.  
But, while the madness of the waves is unabated, 
the wildness of the sea is no proof of God’s absence.

Our gospel story is less about Peter’s sinking attempts to come to Jesus,
More about Jesus coming, always coming, towards the disciples,
exactly when they feel overwhelmed and frightened.
Of course, they were fearful, just as we are fearful of many things:
Covid-19, failing economies, 
social isolation, political brokenness.
ruptured relationships, sick children,
grinding jobs, no job, addiction, mental health:
tsunamis, real or imagined, that we could name.

To each of our fears, Jesus’ words:
“Do not be afraid. It is me. Coming to you. With you. For you.
Do not be afraid to let go and let God take care of you?
I got you. I promise I won't let you go.”

Neither our fearfulness nor our faithlessness 
will alter Christ’s course to us upon the waters. 
In words of Julian of Norwich:
He did not say: 
You shall not be tempest-tossed, 
you shall not be weary, 
you shall not be discomforted. 
But He said, you shall not be overcome. Julian of Norwich

Exhausted, hauled back into the boat,
the storm calms to awesome silence;
All in the boat, together worship:
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”
“That right there - you're in the middle of the world.”

Sermon 16th August 2020

ST COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 30 AUGUST 2020 (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Two texts:

Exodus 3:5, Then the LORD said to Moses, “Come no closer! Remove the
sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy
ground.”

St Matthew 16:23, But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me,
Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on
divine things but on human things.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be
acceptable in Thy sight, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

The Nominating Committee for a new minister had been going over
Curriculum Vitae after Curriculum Vitae in the hope of finding the perfect
minister. None so far. Tired of the whole process, they were about to call it a
night when they came upon this letter of introduction from a candidate:

To the Nominating Committee: It is my understanding that you are in the
process of searching for a new minister, and I would like to apply for the
position. I wish I could say that I am a terrific preacher, but I can't -
actually, I stutter when I speak. I wish I could say that I have an impressive educational
background, but I can't - no fantastic college or university qualifications,
but I do have good experience from the school of "Hard Knocks." I wish I could say
I bring a wealth of experience to the job, but I can't - I have never been a
minister before (unless you count the flock of sheep I have been
shepherding). I wish I could say I have wonderful pastoral skills, but I can't -
sometimes I lose my temper and have even been known to get violent when
upset. Once I even killed somebody, but, gracious people that you are, I am
certain you will not hold that against me. I know churches these days want
young ministers to attract young members, and I wish I could say that I am
young, but I can't - actually, I am almost 80...but I still FEEL young. With all
that which might go against me, why am I applying for your position? Simple.
One afternoon recently, the voice of God spoke to me and said I had been
chosen to lead. I admit, I was a bit reluctant at first, but... here I am. I
look forward to hearing from you and to leading you into an exciting new future.

Yours sincerely,

As you can imagine, the Nominating Committee members looked at one
another in disbelief. The chairperson asked, "Well, what do you think?" The
rest of the committee was aghast. A stuttering, uneducated, inexperienced,
arrogant, old, obviously neurotic, ex-murderer as their minister? Somebody

must be crazy! The chairperson eyed them all, before she added, "The letter
is signed, 'Moses.'"

You knew that, didn't you? The Moses saga is one of the most familiar in all of
scripture. From our earliest Sunday School days we remember the story of
his birth into a nation of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, how the mean old Pharaoh
had issued a population-control decree saying that Hebrew baby boys should
be put to death, the floating basket in the bull-rushes to hide our infant
hero.

Finally, Pharaoh's daughter to the rescue with Moses being brought into the
palace as an adopted member of the royal family.

We also remember that Moses was not allowed to forget his heritage. A
clever bit of deception by his big sister Miriam had allowed him to be wet-
nursed by his own mother with Pharaoh's money paying for the privilege.

But, today, we turn to this unusual story that is the focus of this morning's
Old Testament lesson. The Burning Bush, a symbol adopted by Presbyterians
around the world to show how God can and does turn the ordinary into the
EXTRAordinary, the transforming power that comes when the natural meets
the SUPERnatural. The bush was probably an ordinary bramble bush, the
most usual kind of vegetation in that part of the world. The fire would not have
been that remarkable because spontaneous combustion is not unheard of in
a dry, hot, desert country. But a fire that burns but does not consume? Hmm.
Moses comes over to investigate. Suddenly, he hears his name: "Moses,
Moses!" The voice is coming from the bush.

Moses leans in, his head cocked to one side in wonder. "Here I am."

The voice again. "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for
the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

The place on which you are standing is holy ground. We’ll return to these
words later.

Words, however, create worlds for us. I think it was the German philosopher
Martin Heidegger who once said that “Language languages.” In others
words, language or words and imagination conjure up for us other worlds or
perspectives that help us to see things either differently or in a new light.

Last words are final. From faith-filled to despairing, and from the sublime to
the ridiculous - the last words of many famous people have been written
down. I suspect this was done because it is expected that these last
utterances will say something about how that person lived and what they
want to say to those they leave behind.

Some last words are funny. Some are serious. Some are poignant.
Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and writer, allegedly said with his usual
flamboyance, “either that wallpaper goes, or I do!”

Humphrey Bogart, the American actor, is reported to have said in regret, “I
should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”

Whereas, perhaps more poignantly, George Best, the Northern Irish
footballer, left a handwritten note on a card by his hospital bedside, “Don’t
die like I did.”

And, most impressively, for me, and I hope it’s true, according to Steve Jobs’
sister, Mona, the Apple founder’s last words as he was slipping from this
world to the next, were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Throughout the four gospels we have an extensive collection of Jesus’ last
words. I’m not talking about the so-called last words from the cross, but rather
the teachings, in those parts of the gospels where Jesus is trying to prepare
the disciples for his departure. They are words which call upon those
listening, and other later followers (including you and me), to pick up where
he left off and to try and live as he lived.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke these words to
his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.

This command of Jesus is often quoted and referred to, but I would contend
that perhaps it is often misunderstood. For example, someone is diagnosed
with a chronic illness or a disability develops and then they sometimes say, “I
guess this is the cross I must bear!” The popular assumption is that cross-
bearing refers to something over which they have no choice so they need to
bear it with courage and strength.

NO, that is not what I believe the passage is speaking of. These unfortunate
situations can be categorised in other ways, and no one would surely say that
having to live with such a “burden” (if I may call it that) is a good thing,
but this
passage is not about these kind of things, about which we can do nothing.

This passage is about choices. In some ways, ALL of today’s passages are
about choices. We are called to choose to pick up a cross; we are called to
choose the way of the cross; we are called to choose the way of Jesus; we
are called to choose to answer the call to faithfulness.

In Jesus’ day the cross was a symbol of death, specifically a symbol of
execution by the state. For Jesus’ followers to live the kind of life he was

talking about was to risk death and persecution. But, we must remember that
before the cross was the way Jesus died; it was the way Jesus lived,
choosing to take up the cross that that enables others to live, risking death
and persecution, misunderstanding and social ostracism; to go against what
many would consider the “status quo”.

I once had the good fortune to catch, on a flight back to London from Tel Aviv,
the American film based on the book called “The Help”. In this hilariously
funny and yet serious period drama, Skeeter Phalen, a young white woman
who had just graduated from university and wanted to be a writer, and two
African-American women Abeline Clark and Minny Jackson, took on the age
old segregationist traditions of the deep south of the USA in the 1960's and
sought to write a compassionate and realistic expose from the point of view of
the women who worked in white households, raised white children and were
treated as third class non-citizens and non-persons. They were able to enlist
the stories of a number of other women and it became a publishing sensation.
Skeeter shared the royalties with all of the women who had helped to make
this book a reality (and, indeed, it was such a success that it was turned into
a film).

Skeeter’s book rocked the boat, she took great risks but her book was part of
the tide that was sweeping across America; a tide that would eventually
change their nation through what we now describe as the civil rights
movement. It challenged the rich white southerners who did not want their
world challenged, let alone changed. They did not understand that gaining
status from putting someone else down is simply wrong.

Of course, this one book did not win the war against segregation in the South;
it may not even have won one battle, but it was one step on the long road to
justice for the African-American population. A journey that continues in the
Black Lives Matter movement. Each act of faith and courage puts one more
chink in the racist armour which segregationists have used to protect
themselves for generations.

Skeeter took up her cross and brought out the truth of what so many people
were living and brought true justice that much closer.

During these strange times, in the midst of a global pandemic, I believe that
we are re-discovering what it means to be church. Whilst I would not want to
discourage church attendance, normally - I believe corporate worship is a
vital part of the Christian life – I would also say that our whole lives must be
lived in the light of our faith - our lives beyond Sundays – our lives in the
world of our work and our leisure must be lived in a way that does not
contradict what we claim to believe. Believe me when I say that actions
always speak louder than words.

There are so many examples that I could cite of those whose faith was lived
out in actions - but we don’t have to be a Mother Teresa, or a Jean Vanier, or
a Desmond Tutu, to be someone whose faith is lived out daily.

In our giving to the homeless. In our donations to food banks. In our
campaigning for justice and our lobbying of politicians. In our care of the
environment and our personal change in behaviour to bring about climate
change. In our getting alongside those on the margins of life. In our
challenging of misogyny and sexism and racism, in the church and in the
world. In our care for self and others, for friends and neighbours and loved
ones. In our graciousness and in our generosity, especially our generosity of
spirit. We are standing on holy ground.

Clearly it is not easy - crosses are heavy - they hurt the shoulders - the crowd
sometimes ridicules the one carrying the cross. But this is a choice we make.

In our desire to show God’s love, which is in the process of changing our
lives, we need to keep our focus sharp and our resolve strong. We need to
make decisions about life, not just fall into a certain kind of action because
it is easier, or cheaper, or more popular. And we need to allow that passion to
burn within us so that, like Moses, we discover God’s extraordinariness in the
ordinary experience of our human lives.

Dear friends, will you be drawing a picture or an icon or a logo, this week, of
yourself and will you be choosing some words and, if so, what you do you
want people to see, what do you want people to say?!

As St Paul wrote, Let your love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what
is good. Here, we find ourselves, standing on holy ground. Amen.

 

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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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