Sermons - Decemer 2019
Sermon 8th December 2019
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 08 DEC 2019, ADVENT II
“This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Matthew 3:3
News watchers will be aware, that thanks to the 70th Anniversary NATO Summit,
the President of the United States of America was in London this week.
Fewer of you will be aware, that he spoke from this very pulpit, on Tuesday evening.
Not only President Trump, but also Prime Minister, Boris Johnson
and heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, they were all followed by Billy Connolly.
True? Or fake pews….?
The explanation? Rory Bremner, comedian-impressionist;
delivering a reading at one of the charity Christmas happenings
that regularly take place here each December.
He started his recitation by apologising that he had lost his voice –
so, was going to borrow a few others –
a president, a prime minister, a Prince etc. And, so he did.
We are in a season of competing voices.
Party political leaders, commentators and pundits have all been having their say.
Perhaps you have been involved –
knocking on doors, or opening doors to candidate hopefuls.
Thursday, St Columba’s becomes a polling station for the General Election.
Into the election mix have come other, less accustomed voices –
those of religious leaders.
The Chief Rabbi, highly critical of the failure to root out antisemitism
in the Labour Party;
the Conservative Party criticised for islamophobia.
A day after those particular headlines, a visitor to St Columba’s
told me at some length,
that in her youth, she had read all the major books of religion –
Torah, Bible and Koran –
and had concluded that because they were basically all the same,
they had nothing to say to the world of politics.
“The Church should keep its ecclesiastical snout out of the political trough!”
So, as we near an election date,
with raised voices, competing for our attention,
which voice will we listen for,
and where will we lend our own voice?
“A voice cries; in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
From that wilderness edge,
echo of the children of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land,
wild John broadcasts his truth:
I am the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words.
I am that voice crying in the wilderness, warning you, preparing you -
God is about to show us a new thing.
I am not that One – but I am witness to the One.
The One who comes after me is more powerful than me –
How much more?
“I am not fit to untie his sandal.”
The job of the lowliest – that is the comparison.
So, get ready; make yourselves clean by the waters of baptism.
Repent – not so much looking back,
as looking forward, living better.
Judged – not so much condemned, as seen truly –
as we are, and as we might be.
The crowds amass. Including the religious professionals:
“many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism.”
“You bunch of poisonous snakes!
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Don’t think that words alone, will be enough.
You may be the inheritors of religious tradition
but that confers no special privilege.
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;”'
The Almighty could raise up these stones to fill the gap and raise up children to Abraham.”
Abraham as our ancestor, is the phrase
that has had a recurring resonance this week.
On Tuesday evening, at the same carol concert that Rory Bremner gave us President Trump,
the news broadcaster, Mishal Husain
read two short passages about Mary, mother of Jesus.
One familiar, from St Luke; the other less so – from the Koran.
She introduced the reading by explaining
that Mary is the only named woman, in the Koran.
Offered, in the week of the London Bridge attack, as a sign of something shared.
Two days later I accompanied a primary school trip to a synagogue near Marble Arch.
It was energising to see the excitement of the children
exploring the space and objects of that place of prayer,
while the boys tried not to let their prayer caps fall from their heads.
It was sad to hear from the rabbi, the real fear of reviving antisemitism
in places across Europe, including his British homeland.
Just as it is sorrowful to know that there is persecution of minority faith communities – Christians included – throughout the world.
In honesty, I am not sure exactly how or where, we respond to those “big” things.
But part of the response, is to choose the voices we listen to,
and to choose the stories we tell;
clamouring voices of antipathy and destruction,?
Or share the quieter, fragile voices of hope and beauty?
Timothy Radcliffe, is a Dominican monk – former head of that Roman Catholic Order.
He has travelled extensively to some of the world’s most broken places – Rwanda, Iraq, Syria. He is no stranger to the worst that humankind can inflict on each other.
In his recent book, Alive in God, he describes a visit to Baghdad.
A restaurant, where the décor includes
an image an image of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples
and a light burns before an icon of the Virgin and her child.
Radcliffe also describes a visit to Syria in 2015.
Staying at a monastery in the village of Qara, halfway between Damascus and Homs.
A few years previously it was captured by Daesh/ISIS.
The icons were defaced, the graves in the cemetery were dug up
and the bodies scattered all over the church to defile it.
When the village was recaptured,
the Christians had nowhere to celebrate Christmas.
It was the local Iman who said:
“Come and celebrate Christmas in the mosque.”
Radcliffe concludes of this and comparable incidents:
“The most beautiful response to the meaningless acts of violence
are apparently pointless acts of love.” T Radcliffe
Today the Church of Scotland marks Vocations Sunday –
asking each and all, to consider
how we might listen for and heed the call of God
in our lives and in the life of the Church.
“The place God calls you to
is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Frederick Buechner, Wishful thinking: A Theological
As we will pray: Lead us by your Spirit,
to see the shape of your plans in the gifts you have given us.
Which voice will we listen for, this Advent?
Where will we lend our voice, this Election Week and in all that follows?
Sermon 15th December 2019
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 15 Dec 2019, ADVENT III
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew11: 2
A Church of Scotland minister introduced this passage with the reminiscence:
Once when I was called to preach as sole nominee in a parish seeking to fill its vacancy,
it seemed appropriate to hear read – if somewhat, tongue-in-cheek:
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”
John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, prophet-envoy,
languishes in a despot’s prison cell;
his crime, to denounce Herod’s marriage (Matthew 14:3-4.)
One more prophet paying the price of speaking truth
to the guilty conscience of unchecked power.]
Now, in chains and in crisis,
he wonders whether he has staked his life on the wrong person.
The Messiah, was supposed to make the world new;
supposed to finish the costly work John started so boldly in the wilderness -
to wield the axe and bring the fire.
Now, of all people, John is unsure;
He who leapt in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary, visited cousin Elizabeth.
He who knew Jesus to be the One
when the carpenter stepped through the reeds at Jordan’s edge:
“It is you who should baptise me.”
It had started so promisingly –
signs and wonders, healings and stirring words.
But it had panned out so unexpectedly – disappointingly?
John had the hollow cheekbones of his desert diet,
Jesus summoned up parties.
John reminded folk of their sins,
Jesus invited himself into their homes.
John readied the axe,
Jesus examined the tree, spying undetected or unlikely growth.
John warned “Save yourselves,”
Jesus reminded “It is God who does the saving.”
John wanted a tidal wave of a messiah…
what he got was a steady drip of mercy from a man called Jesus,
in whom plenty of people saw no messiah at all.
From The Seeds of Heaven pp12, Barbara Brown Taylor
John’s journey of faith travels from certitude to doubt,
boldness to hesitation, knowing to unknowing.
Is this spiritual failure? A lack of faith?
Or does it speak a word to our sometime circumstance?
I think of a letter received from a friend
facing the death of both parents in the same year
and a spouse’s serious illness:
Talking about the book of Job – the sense of abandonment:
“I never understood it before; now I am drawn to it.”
I think of a parent grieving for a child, telling me:
“I’m having difficulty hearing about a loving God right now.”
The jagged edges of real life.
“Are you the one…?”
He does not offer quick or easy words to magic things away.
He does not condemn the despair or doubt.
Instead he holds it, and gently points to other glimpses and glints of life.
Go to John and tell him the stories of what you hear and see:
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.
Tell John the stories – quiet as they are, scattered as they are –
show and share what they reveal.
If we were asked to do the same – what stories would we choose?
I would choose the Sunday lunch homeless guest who told me:
“Being treated with dignity by the lunch team ladies made all the difference –
and having proper cutlery to eat my meal with.”
I would tell of the young man who attends a Narcotics Anonymous Support group
who told me this week: “I’m Jewish, but I am volunteering this Christmas at Crisis.”
He added: “It’s good that a church is welcoming to groups like ours.”
I think of those who have already, or are planning to make Christmas visits,
to the lonely or ill – and who do so throughout the year
I think of two inspiring young women who in the past month
have led charitable enterprises that touch the lives of this place –
Alex GKExperience/Olivia & Restart
Further afield, I think of the friend who is much involved with prison ministry.
Recounting how our prison system admits up to 600 pregnant women a year.
Recounting how the chaplaincy team at HMP Bronzefield,
the largest female prison in Europe –
will ensure every inmate will receive a small gift this Christmas.
Echoed, by our own appeal for Sox and Boxers –
gift giving for the guests of our Night Shelter.
Tell them what you see and hear.
In a few moments our young people will bring us the Christmas story.
They will invite us to sing: It’s a party, everybody. It’s a party for everyone!
Jesus the saviour has come to us,
What a wonderful thing.
He is Emmanuel, God with us,
He’s the reason we sing!
So, I finish with one more story – a gospel party:
Clive Stafford Smith, a public-school educated Englishman,
has for the last three decades worked as a lawyer,
representing prisoners on America’s death-row.
It is a relentless vocation; hard graft, occasional victory and crushing defeats.
Some years ago, interviewed on Desert Island Discs
Stafford Smith spoke of his annual birthday party.
He invites many friends, including former clients.
He always starts and ends the party with Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”
One year, a death-row prisoner attended
having been found not guilty after twenty-six years of prison.
A six foot nine, African American.
Throughout the party Stafford Smith noticed that he kept himself to himself,
a little withdrawn – not unsurprisingly.
Then the DJ played a particular song – a hit from the early 80’s (a time before prison.)
Hot Chocolate’s, “You Sexy Thing” (I believe in miracles since you came along…)
As the tune took hold, the former prisoner hauled himself onto the dance floor
and losing himself in the music
treated the party-goers to a glorious, uninhibited exhibition
of the electric-slide and other deeply remembered,
Tell John what you see and hear.
Good news to the poor, sight for the unseeing, the prisoner set free.
The ransomed of the Lord shall return, obtaining joy and gladness,
sorrow and sighing, shall flee away.
Tell John what you see and hear.
And yes, I am the One, no need to wait for another.”