Sermons - February 2020
Sermon 2nd February 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 02 FEB 2020
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are…” Matthew 5:1-3
Where is blessing to be found?
One day this week, a chance encounter on the Fulham Road,
not far from the entrance to a large and busy hospital.
I bumped into a man I know, a little.
Not a member of this congregation, so no confidences compromised.
I would not have been able to tell you his name,
but from prior conversations about family,
I knew him to be Muslim,
knew that he lived and worked in London
and was raising a young family.
Our previous encounters had always been brief,
but he had always been encouraging about what goes on in this place.
It transpired, that four months ago, his wife had given birth to their youngest child.
The baby was born three months premature.
He was in the locale of the hospital,
because four months on, the little one was still in hospital care.
I could only imagine what that must feel like – scary, exhausting –
a whole mixture of complicated emotions and repercussions
for the whole family, including older siblings.
He described, how recently, the baby had been taken off his ventilator
and was able to breath on his own for the first time –
how special a moment that had been.
Three minutes, if that – by chance - on a busy London street;
but I came away touched by the vulnerability, the courage - the humanity,
of the man and his family –
reminded once more, how so many folks carry heavy burdens,
which for the most part we know so little about.
On a mountainside, Jesus sat down and began to teach the crowds.
In this Sermon on the Mount,
he looks out over the raggle-taggle band,
the walking wounded, their scars evident or hidden;
and he tells them about blessing.
These beatitudes are not a list of commandments, but a set of promises.
Not a self-help, book of improvement, but a life-line of reassurance,
thrown to those, who fear they may be going under.
By the standards of the strong, the list doesn’t make much sense.
Those who receive God’s favour are not the privileged classes
of the Roman empire or the Jewish religious establishment.
The beatitudes are spoken to those groups whom God deems worthy,
not because of their own achievements or status in society,
but because God’s preference is for the poor and the unsure;
the forgotten, despised and sorrowing;
justice seekers, peace makers,
those persecuted because of their beliefs.
Apparently, there is something to learn about discipleship,
that privileged life circumstances will not teach.
Blessed is not a state of happiness, as defined by the image of advertisers –
luxury and ease and exclusivity – pleasant as that might be.
Such happiness is fleeting and fickle, eventually hollow.
Rather, the beatitudes open us to an attitude
of simplicity, hopefulness and compassion.
Where is blessing to be found?
In A Poetic Kind of Place, writer Andrew King
offers a meditation, based on a true incident:
A widower sat at a restaurant table.
His wife of 43 years had died the previous week.
The young couple at the next table were strangers to him,
but somehow, they reminded him of the happiness
he and his wife had long shared.
The widower signalled to the waitress.
The bill for the couple’s meal was delivered to the widower’s table.
On a napkin he wrote a note.
He told of dining alone for the first time in 43 years.
He wrote that paying for their meal
would put a smile on his wife’s face, and make him happy, too.
He wished them a happy new year.
“There was the kingdom of heaven.
For blessed are the merciful, the meek.
Blessed the peacemakers, the pure.
Blessed are those who mourn yet whose ongoing love
comforts themselves and others.
And blessed are those whose joy in doing right creates
nourishment in this hungering world.
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
They’re the kingdom of heaven.
(By the way, this story is true.)”
If that is a little too chocolate box for your taste,
let me finish with one more, grittier story from this week.
Monday was Holocaust Memorial Day.
For that occasion, Rabbi Ephraim Mervis, Chief Rabbi
recounted the remarkable story of Rabbi Dr Joseph Breuer
An outstanding religious scholar, Rabbi Breuer’s deep faith,
extensive secular knowledge and his great personal dignity
set him apart as one of the great rabbinic figures of his age.
He studied at universities in Giessen and Strasbourg,
eventually earning his PhD in philosophy and political economy.
His worldly wisdom and charisma made him a popular teacher,
and eventually the highly respected dean of a renowned religious seminary in Frankfurt.
He was not without his difficulties:
He had poor eyesight - a challenge for any scholar.
He also found himself in a position of leadership in the Jewish community
just as the Nazi Party began its ascendancy in Germany.
Every day after morning prayers
the Rabbi would take a walk round the block to gather his thoughts.
As his eyesight gradually deteriorated,
it became increasingly difficult for him
to distinguish between passers-by, whom he knew well,
and those he had never previously met.
Adopting the Talmudic teaching that one should greet all people with a smile,
it became the Rabbi’s habit to doff his hat
and greet everyone he came across,
from his most trusted students, to the street sweepers and local shop owners.
In November 1938 “Kristallnacht” was a watershed moment for German Jews,
Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed.
Thousands of Jewish businesses were vandalised or looted.
Jewish hospitals and schools were targeted and cemeteries desecrated.
Rabbi Breuer’s synagogue was set alight and razed.
His seminary was forcibly shut down
and all the Jewish men were instructed to assemble in the courtyard of the local armoury.
SS officers barked orders at them, the consequences of which were not clear.
“All men over the age of 60, step forward.”
Rabbi Breuer was 57; he stayed in place.
A burly officer strode purposefully over to him and began shouting directly at him:
“You are over 60. Step forward!”
There was little point in arguing.
Breuer allowed himself to be shoved into the group of older men;
they were promptly sent home.
He had no idea that those left behind – the younger cohort –
were to be deported to the camps of Buchenwald and Dachau.
The rabbi had barely arrived back at his house
when there was a loud banging at his door.
“Herr Rabbiner, I must speak to you immediately!”
It was the same officer who had shoved him forward
into the older men’s group, at the armoury.
The officer urged the Rabbi to leave Germany with his family, immediately.
“But why are you helping me?”
“Perhaps you don’t recognise me in this uniform.
I was the local police constable in this area for many years.
Whenever we saw each other, you always made a point of greeting me.
I couldn’t watch them take you away.
But you really must leave now – you do not have long.”
Breuer did leave, with his family.
First to Antwerp, then to New York, where he re-established his seminary
and built a community round it. He died in 1980.
The Breuer’s community still maintains a large synagogue,
several schools and a centre for religious scholarship,
which has a significant impact on thousands of lives.
The beatitudes do not ignore the possibility of conflict and suffering.
The beatitudes bear witness to God’s unwavering proximity
even in - especially in - the darkest moments.
And wherever there is strife or shadow,
those/we who are freely blessed, are freed, in turn, to bless.
Sermon 9th February 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 09 FEB 2020
“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Matthew 5:13,14
The ancients believed that salt would ward off evil spirits.
Religious covenants were often, sealed with salt.
Medically, it disinfected disinfect wounds and checked bleeding.
Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt - hence our English word, “salary.”
Brides and grooms rubbed salt on their bodies to enhance fertility.
And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration,
salt was essential for food preservation.
“From the beginning of civilization, until about one hundred years ago,
salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”
(Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History)
“You are the salt of the earth.”
Carrying on from the beatitudes (read last week) – blessed are…
the poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted.
The walking wounded - the outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed.
Startlingly, Jesus tells them: “You are the salt of the earth.”
Of its time and place – a priceless commodity, valued, vital and treasured.
So, be salt!
Salt of course, does its best work when it is scattered.
Dissolving into what is around it.
Giving of itself, to bring out the best in all that surrounds it.
Timothy Radcliffe, former head of the Dominican Order, Alive in God:
The social crisis that is shaking the west today
is in part a loss of friendship as integral to a civilized society.
Social relationships in business and politics, even on the road – think road rage –
are conflictual and competitive.
“We dwell in our silos of likeminded,
barely acknowledging the humanity of those who belong to other tribes.”
Radical polarization of American politics/Brexit debates
indicate the collapse of cross-party friendships.
Illustration: A few decades ago, politicians would settle in Washington DC,
So, Democrats and Republicans got to know each other well.
Their children attended the same schools,
they met each other at church and at dinner parties.
Friendships were formed that enabled them
to understand and respect their opponents and so compromise
Now, politicians jet in and vote and rush back home asap.
Speeches are composed with those back home in mind.
There is no time for friendships with one’s opponents.
Consensus breaks down and the drift towards un-governability continues.
Befriending is a creative act. It breaks down barriers and pierces prejudices.
We cannot know in advance when we shall be called on to make a friendship
with someone from a different religion or of none,
or with different political views or of another generation.
Making unexpected friendships is one way in which we are salt -
friendships that the world deems impossible.
[Because the friendship of Christ creates bonds that we could not have imagined.]
There are of course moments that demand a sharper saltiness.
[Last week commemorated the annual Holocaust Memorial Day.]
One of the stories that has emerged in recent times is that of Jane Haining
Born in 1897, she grew up near Dunscore in Dumfriesshire.
She worked as a secretary at a thread maker company, J&P Coates Ltd in Paisley for 10 years before she moved to Budapest in 1932
to work as a matron in the Jewish Mission School,
which had 315 pupils, 48 of whom were boarders.
The majority of the children at the primary school were from Christian families
but some were Jews.
Miss Haining was on holiday in Cornwall when war broke out in 1939 –
seven years after she took up her post –
but immediately returned to Budapest and her charges, whom she was devoted to.
An avid listener of BBC radio, Miss Haining was fully aware
of the growing threat the Nazis posed to the Hungarian Jews
but was determined to ensure that it was a place
where all children would feel safe and protected.
Despite being under surveillance, the “house mother”
managed to keep the children safe for four long years of hardship
She was repeatedly ordered by the church to return to Scotland, but refused, writing
“If these children need me in days of sunshine,
how much more do they need me in days of darkness.”
Dr Ninon Leader, a former pupil at the Scottish Mission School
in Budapest, Hungary during the Second World War,
said the girls were encouraged to see themselves as equals
by their “inspirational” matron.
Dr Leader recalled the day in 1944, following the Nazi occupation of the country of her birth,
when it was made compulsory for anyone Jewish
to wear a yellow star of David on their clothes.
It was a badge of shame designed to publicly identify Jews.
One of the charges against Miss Haining, was
weeping when seeing children wearing them.
Acting in Miss Haining’s spirit and personality, irrespective of their religion,
every single boarder in the Mission Home sewed a yellow star on their uniforms.
“That’s how we left our building for our daily walk to the Heroes’ Square and back,
hand in hand, as equals.”
In 1944 Haining was betrayed by the cook's son-in-law,
whom she caught eating scarce food, intended for the girls.
She was arrested by two Gestapo officers at the Scottish Mission –
they gave her 15 minutes to gather her belongings - and charged with eight offences.
[Amongst other things she was accused of working amongst the Jews;
weeping when seeing the girls attend class wearing the yellow stars;
being active in politics; visiting British prisoners of war and sending them parcels.]
Haining was taken to Auschwitz where she died later the same year.
She is the only Scot named as “righteous among the nations” –
non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis –
by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
Deirdre MacDowell, whose mother Agnes O'Brien
was the modest and fair-minded matron's half-sister,
said she was deeply moved by Dr Leader’s story.
“Her girls were not afraid and it shows that she did make an impact in their lives.”
How might we be salt?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly; Isaiah 58:6-8
Sermon 16th February 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
6th Sunday after Epiphany
16th February 2020
An elderly woman sent an email to a friend saying, “The other day I was in the church bookshop and I saw a 'Honk if you love Jesus' car sticker. I thought that would be a fun thing to have on my little car. So I bought one and stuck it on the bumper. I’m so glad I did: what an uplifting experience that followed.
I was stopped at a red traffic light at a busy junction, just momentarily lost in thought and didn't notice that the lights had changed. It is a good thing lots of other people love Jesus because it was only when they all honked that I realised the light was green.
Then I saw a nice young man waving in a funny way with only his middle finger stuck up in the air. I asked my young teenage grandson in the back seat what that meant. He said it was probably a Hawaiian good luck sign or something. Well, I have never met anyone from Hawaii, so I leant out the window and gave him the good luck sign right back. My grandson burst out laughing. He was having a good time too.
A couple of people were so caught up in the joy of the moment that they got out of their cars and started walking towards me. I thought they maybe wanted to ask what church I go to, but then the light changed, so I waved at everyone, and drove on through the junction and gave them all the Hawaiian good luck sign one last time.”
Clearly, a bit of miscommunication. Most of us know what it is like to be stuck in slow moving traffic when we have one eye on the clock; it doesn’t take long for mild frustration to build: buttons are pushed, the blood pressure rises. At worst, mild irritation rises to anger then turns to uncontrolled rage.
All three of our readings have something to say to us about how we interact with others and the expectations that God has for us in our daily living.
It seems easier than ever for offence to be given and received. I am old enough to not have grown up with social media: then it was a word in the ear, a note sneakily passed in class, then at university callingl home could involve queuing to use the phone outside on a cold winter’s evening in Aberdeen: it took a bit of effort. Nowadays, with mobile phone in hand, it takes next to no time to write a short email or text or twitter feed, all of which allows us to fire off the first thought that comes into our head, and the consequences can be devastating.
All of this is happening at a time when the country is divided politically with intractable positions across the political spectrum and I do wonder in the current climate if the human impact gets lost in the arguments.
We see young people expressing their anger at climate change and environmental damage, angry at my generation for not doing more. They are vocal, yet we also see universities no platforming speakers whose positions on particular social issues are unpalatable for some students and a good deal of talk of safe spaces.
We might consider how we can grow in mutual understanding with those who hold views that we are vehemently opposed to, if we try to shut them down.
Righteous anger recognises the fracturing of relationships, it seeks resolution.
Righteous anger wants to change the status quo, it aims to be restorative.
In 1993, Stephen Lawrence an 18 year old with aspirations of becoming an architect was murdered in a racially motivated attack while waiting for a bus. He was the son of Jamaican parents who had emigrated to the UK in the 1960s. His mother Doreen Lawrence, now a Baroness, sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords as a working peer specialising in race and diversity. She spends much of her time working with the trust set up in her son’s name that works to inspire and enable young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in their career choice. The trust is built on 3 pillars: building careers, building communities and building societies.
Asked if she ever felt paralysed by anger at the injustice she experienced, she responded, “I always tried to busy myself with something. In the early days I did focus on the anger – it was like I was locked in a room with it for 24 hours a day. I didn't want to be in that place so I don't go there.”
(Guardian interview, Sat 20 Apr 2013 Tim Adams)
Does our anger harden our heart or open it up to something positive that we might not have envisaged before? Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, offers this reflection: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savour to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1993)
What do we do with our lingering anger? If we are unable to turn it into something positive, is there at least something we can do to stop it eating away at us? We can turn it over to God. We can take that anger and cry out to God. There is plenty of precedent for this in the bible, particularly in the Psalms. David says
“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1-2)
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? … I am worn out from my groaning. (Psalm 6: 3, 6)
We can cry out with confidence that God’s longing for us is a rich and abundant life. Our passages today highlight how unachievable that might be were it solely down to our own efforts.
Others have observed (Will Willimon Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins) that on the cross, God's righteous anger was on display—punishing sin and forgiving sinners. As another minister Bryan Wilkinson puts it, “God cared enough about us to get angry at our sin, angry enough to punish it and forgive it in one dramatic and decisive act.”
Thanks be to God.