Sermons - February 2021
Sermon 7th February 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 7th FEBRUARY 2021,11am, 5th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
“And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Mark 1:39
Capernaum – the place, where the adult Jesus chose to live.
A fishing village on the shores of Lake Gennesaret, the lake of the harp (so called for its shape) – the Sea of Galilee as we know it.
Today, its ruins are a place of pilgrimage;
columns of a C3rd/4th synagogue, the remains of 30/40 households,
the recent discovery of a near-by Roman barracks – a bridge across the centuries.
A stone’s throw from the synagogue, a brutally modern church hovers over the “site”
of the house of Peter’s mother-in-law.
Leaving the synagogue, with worship over –
the teaching, with authority, the dramatic healing of the one tormented by the impure spirit –
Jesus and friends move to the hospitality of the brothers, Peter and Andrew –
Jesus’ new community.
There, away from the company, quarantined,
Jesus finds Peter’s mother-in-law, laid low.
He attends her bedside; no watching crowd;
undivided attention, gentleness of touch, trust – ingredients of healing.
House of prayer or homestead, synagogue or upper room –
the intention is the same, location of secondary importance.
Or rather, every location is significant.
We become very fond, very attached to our places of worship –
beautiful sanctuaries nourish such loyalties –
places to regularly seek the Divine.
But often Jesus encountered people in their homes:
He raises Jairus’s daughter in the synagogue leader’s house.
His friend, Mary anoints him with oil at her home in Bethany.
Salvation comes to Zacchaeus when the despised tax collector makes Jesus his houseguest.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize Jesus
when he breaks bread at their dinner table.
When we make the invitation at the start of live-streamed services
to light a candle at home, as we light candles in church,
it is the reminder that everywhere can be sacred ground.
“Holy things happen in the places we call home.”
Consolation or challenge, particularly amid the pandemic,
when we are largely restricted to home.
In one obscure, Capernaum home, Jesus raises her up –
the same word used for Easter morning: “He is not here, he is risen.”
In this case, a woman ritually unclean, a refugee among her own kin,
led home, restored, on the sabbath day.
For the sake of humanity, more than one law is transgressed.
In turn, her response:
“…the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
This too on the sabbath: she makes her choice, judging the consequences,
declaring by her actions that the act of serving
trumps the sacredness of the sabbath.
After sunset, the ending of the sabbath, the crowds gather.
Many who are sick, in body or mind, come to the rabbi who spoke with authority,
in whose presence healing happens.
What are we to say about healing in these days
haunted by images of teams of masked health professionals
rolling COVID patients to clear lungs and sustain life?
What are we to say about healing, when our friend Revd Christopher Rowe,
parish minister of Colston Milton in Glasgow, an area of multiple deprivation,
reminds us, in his film-meditation this week,
that average life expectancy in his parish is sixty-four,
fifteen years less, than some other parts of the same city, only miles away?
What is the work of healing in our day and age?
Well, we might, along with other members of the Kensington and Chelsea Interfaith Forum
encourage our communities to equip ourselves with the facts, challenging any misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine.
Urge each other to follow Government guidelines,
take measures to keep ourselves well
and seek information on the Covid-19 vaccine so we are ready when it is offered to us.
In the Forum’s statement words: “… to benefit not just our family and friends
but society more widely, a principle shared across all faiths.”
Or, as we hear time and again about the pressure on NHS and other carers,
we might float the idea, borrowing from the practice of our Armed Forces.
Following six-month operational tours, standard practice
is to give personnel a month’s post-tour leave.
Recognition that it takes time to recover.
Arguably, many on COVID’s year-long, frontline workers
are exposed to a more draining intensity than many military operations.
We cannot/should not, expect to replace COVID intensity
to a replica intensity, the full-on clearing of the back-log of routine demands.
At the individual level, as followers of the healing Christ,
“Maybe our task as healers isn’t to perform magic” (Debie Thomas)
but, to offer the comfort of steady presence,
dignity and friendship to life’s walking wounded –
especially for those who will not find a cure.
To make sure, if we can help it, that no one dies abandoned and unloved.
Back in Capernaum: After the tumult, exhilaration and exhaustion –
a few snatched hours of sleep.
But long before the cockerel summons the dawn, then when it is very dark,
the search for solitude – a deserted place, prayer. We know this is not a one-off.
For Mark, “dark” is a loaded phrase;
It is dark when the religious leaders hand Jesus over to Pilate (Mark 15:1)
It is dark when the women come to the tomb, where Jesus has been buried (Mark 16:2.)
Jesus prays in the time of dark – prayer comes at a cost.
Even for Jesus – perhaps particularly for Jesus, prayer was not always benign.
(Think of his get-me-out-of-here prayer in Gethsemane.)
But prayer is part of him.
He needs to withdraw, to draw from the well;
He needs to rest, to reorient the heart;
time and space to replenish wisdom, courage and love.
Living with the tension between compassion and self-protection.
in a world flooded with desperate need,
Jesus is unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude.
A carer, who has experienced the breakdown of burn-out,
commented to me this week, on Jesus, withdrawal to the hills:
“Wise words. I learned their truth the hard way and its still hard to do.
Too many messiah complexes going on!”
Jesus, alone, in prayer, is a challenge to a culture
that applauds 24/7 striving and sees stillness as weakness.
Jesus, alone, in prayer also challenges those of us who talk a lot about prayer –
but often fail to set aside time to actually pray.
(Perhaps a time for setting a Lenten intention?)
Respite is brief; the disciples are demanding.
They clamor for an immediate messiah, immediately.
Again, Jesus will not be confined –
neither by the religious authorities and their sabbath laws,
nor by the expectations of his anxious disciples.
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also;
for that is what I came out to do.”
From Simon Peter’s house, to other homes:
Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple once said:
“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
There may have been compelling reasons for Jesus to stay,
but after prayer, his decision is to follow his own sense of mission and timing.
“Time to move on.”
That choice raises questions for our own lives of faith – individual and congregational:
Is sowing a seed, then walking away, or leaving be, sometimes enough?
Can we leave the settled and predictable – perhaps even the successful –
in order to embrace the unknown or obscure, the more profoundly faithful?
Can we make such choices, even when others, friends and loved ones, do not understand?
Shaken and stirred, as we are by this pandemic,
changed and challenged, how will we emerge?
Let us pray that when we emerge, and emerge we will,
we will find in the hours of the day that Jesus lived, at the edge of Lake Gennesaret -
in its healings, encounters, meals and prayer -
ways for us to emerge bravely, beautifully and faithfully.
Sermon 14th February 2021
The Tv programme Death in Paradise, seems to be popular, it uses a format that has stood the test of time, the investigation is played out in front of the viewer and then the detective calls all the suspects together and reveals the person responsible, as he solves the mystery in front of the select band of people.
The story of the transfiguration is very much like that TV programme it is all a bit of a mystery what happened. And why it happened. Then all is revealed to a very select band of interested parties.
Peter, James, and John climbed a mountain with Jesus and sat with him on the mountaintop.
They were already excited and they were in anticipation of what was to come.
Then it happened. Jesus was transfigured; He metamorphosed into something glorious.
His face shone like the Sun, his clothes were a dazzling, brilliant white, and he stood there in his glory that was to come.
Peter, James, and John had to shade their eyes from the brilliance.
Then Moses and Elijah, the two biggest people in the Hebrew Bible stood with him and were discussing something with Jesus.
It is a mystery exactly what, why, and how.
The Western World - the industrial and scientific world, the conspiracy theory world, The Richard Dawkins delusional world is intolerant of mystery.
We live in an age which is obsessed with the idea of knowing and explaining everything.
A story is told of Gordon Brown, former Prime minister and son of the manse, his father expressed the usual before dinner command -- "Hurry up, and wash your hands and come to the table so we can say a prayer and eat."
As the Gordon went toward the bathroom, he was heard to mutter, "Germs and Jesus, germs and Jesus! That's all I hear around here, and I can't see either one of them."
There are many things, that we can't see, many things that we can't touch, which are real and powerful:
The World wide web
The electrons which flow through the billions of miles of wires we have strung up around the world
The radiation that we transmit from microwave dishes and radio antennae to power our telephones i pads and televisions
The love that we experience from our parents and our partners.
All these things are unseeable, untouchable - yet real.
Mystical experience is very much a part of our faith. Indeed it lays at the root of all that we believe in.
Today we see a group of friends going up on a mountain and hearing God speak and Jesus being transfigured by a bright light in the presence of three of his disciples.
Unexplainable and dare I say it, unprovable - in the scientific sense at least – spiritual realities underpin and indeed, permeate, our faith.
The transfiguration of Jesus is one such story which takes some explaining.
Theologians cannot agree exactly why the transfiguration happened.
I tend to side with the school of thought that the transfiguration happened to strengthen Jesus before his journey to Jerusalem - and it was witnessed so that we might be encouraged in our faith.
The spiritual reality - the spiritual power made evident that day - had a purpose. A good purpose.
Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah; we don’t know what they were talking about.
Perhaps they were laying out the plan for Jesus. Perhaps, they were telling Jesus what he must do in order to receive glory.
Perhaps Elijah and Moses were offering Jesus encouragement for the hard road ahead. Jesus knew what had to happen, Jesus knew God’s plan and we can only imagine what was going through Jesus’ mind.
Is this what I really have to do? Is there no other way?
In this moment, Jesus got a taste of future glory along with the three disciples.
This was the reward at the end of the path, but Jesus path went through Calvary.
The Transfiguration spurred them on through darkness....as Ken Gire puts it ‘it was quite literally the light at the end of the tunnel, glimpse of glory at the other side. To share Christ’s glory means we must first share his suffering.’
The Transfiguration reminds us that things look different when one stands in God's very presence. The good news can sound like bad news.
When we find ourselves in the very presence of God, it can be very unsettling. Our way of living and of thinking is challenged.
The challenge is to see beyond where we are.
Let me try to illustrate this with the help of Walt Disney.
Children's stories are full of characters who move back and forth between different realms of reality.
Take Cinderella, for example. You know the story of four mice pulling a pumpkin, whisking Cinderella away from poverty into an exalted moment of acceptance and glory. In one transforming moment, the servant is transformed into the queen of the ball. Suddenly, everyone can see Cinderella's beauty and worth.
Or take the story of The Lion King, where Simba, a young lion cub, makes a series of wrong choices that lead to his father's death. He has to flee. After a long exile, he is challenged to return.
While wrestling with the decision, he sees in a pond his own image, mysteriously transfigured into the image of his deceased father. In that moment, he sees the purpose of his life and discovers the courage to return.
Or take Beauty and the Beast, where the beast is transformed by love back into a prince.
In these stories, transfiguration is seen in a whole new way. The challenges faced are overcome.
As it was for the disciples, during these very mysterious moments on the mountain, the man they had followed up the mountain was transfigured before them.
It is not God that had to move forward in the journey of faith to be ready for these moments on the Mount of Transfiguration, but rather it was the disciples who had to be prepared for such a moment.
At the heart of our faith, we affirm that God is the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow.
We're the ones who must grow in our faith.
We're the ones who can see with greater love and depth.
The disciples were literally struck down by the impact of what they were a part of.
The radiance of Jesus as he shone like the sun. The sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah. The bright cloud overshadowing them from which came the voice proclaiming Jesus as God's son and beloved.
The disciples were overwhelmed.
The challenge is how we respond when we're overwhelmed.
The challenge for the three and the challenge for us is to listen, to know that there are those times when we encounter the holy, the very presence of God, that we're not in control. We can only listen and trust.
How many times have you sat in this – or any – Church and heard the words preceding the Scripture readings: “Listen to the Word of God”? How many times have you heard the Gospel story of the Transfiguration and yet have not heard the central word – “Listen”!
“Listening to God”. God speaks, we Listen.
It is not an invitation it is an instruction.
“Peter said to Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters— one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
This scene in the Transfiguration reminds us we have to get beyond trying to merely preserve the moments beyond our fears and listen to where God would lead us.
We are not very good at listening. We live in a society much more prone to “speaking” rather than “listening”. Peter was still Talking when God told him LISTEN!!!
Today, as we hear the Word of God, we are told that “listening” is part of obedience – part of discipleship.
I saw today news of an earthquake in Fukishima Japan.
That made me recall a few years ago watching the scenes from Christchurch in New Zealand.
There was one TV news clip that struck me, when the rescuers stopped work, They called out for silence. – and at such times all work stopped.
Everything stopped! No one walked – or talked – or barely breathed. They listened!
Hope of rescuing the living lay in the possibility of hearing a voice or a similar sound indicating a living person.
Having listened, they would dig with renewed fervour and purpose – but without listening – all their frenetic work might have been aimless and fruitless.
However, some of the people rescued may have perceived the silence quite differently.
When they heard sounds of digging activity, they knew there were efforts being made to free them, but they did not understand why periodically everything fell silent.
Fearful that their rescuers might give up, many cried out in those moments of silence – or pounded against the walls of concrete and steel that held them imprisoned – not knowing that such sounds were the very things for which their rescuers listened.
Thus “listening”...... listening for the silence – and listening for the sounds of those trapped – was the hope of the rescuers and the rescued.
It's an old saying that we can't always choose what is going to happen to us in life, but we can always choose how we're going to respond to what has happened.
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish theologian, is attributed with that well used quote "If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger." The result is how one responds. For as we listen and get back on our feet, we have to come back down the mountain.
The vision of the Transfigured Christ on the mountain top not only changed the views of Peter, James and John concerning Jesus – but it also changed their lives! If we wait around for our own “vision” from on high – we may never change.
Yet if we choose to silence our insistent voices – to hear and to Listen to the Word – then the true nature of Christ may indeed transfigure our lives.
In the next few days we will enter the Lenten Season.
Some will talk of giving something up. Let us talk of taking something up.
Let us use this time during Lent as a time to cultivate the art of “listening”.
Let us take care to listen to each other more than we are ordinarily inclined to do.
Let us set aside some time each day for at least a few moments of quietness – away from the usual hectic pace that is often the driving theme of our lives.
Especially let us open our mind and spirit, as we read and think of the teachings of Jesus and listen intently to hear his claims upon our lives.
Perhaps our own vision of Christ – as we have never seen him before – may change the course and the quality of our lives – forever!
Sermon 21st February 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 21st FEBRUARY 2021, 11am, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT
“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember
the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature
of all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:16
This week, at the latest of Lucy Llewellyn’s hot-ticket Zoom Coffee Mornings –
the subject for discussion was Lent,
coinciding with the traditional season opening fixture – Ash Wednesday.
Lent is the season of 40 days, Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday –
It gets us to the start line of Holy Week.
Forty is a significant biblical number –
40 years, the children of Israel, wandering in the desert;
Jesus, driven by the spirit, following his baptism, into the wilderness
for forty days and forty nights.
Topically, quarantine, from the French word, for 40,
began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics.
Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports
were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing.
In church circles, ritually, the time is circumferenced
by the symbolic burning of last year’s palm crosses
and the residue used to “ash” worshipers’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return; repent and believe the gospel.”
The start of the journey to Easter,
is a back-to-basics reminder of our mortality.
Not to scare to death, but paradoxically, to be more alive.
What emerged from our discussions was how little Lent was a part of Kirk tradition.
It simply hadn’t featured in days gone by.
More positively it was acknowledged as potentially a time to make space –
to exercise the muscles in the spiritual gym.
A time for taking up, rather than giving up –
especially in a year that has seen so much already stripped away.
As another minister observed: “Arguably, our Lenten journey began a year ago,
in March 2020, and we have not managed to find the way out of it yet!”
Assistance from the scriptures?
As with forty days and quarantine, the Old Testament tale has a topical feel.
(The Flood, Noah’s Ark and God’s concluding rainbow.)
In the past year, rainbows have appeared everywhere,
Christmas tree ornaments, painted pictures in windows of homes and shops,
A focus for our candle lighting, Sunday by Sunday.
They have been associated with gratitude
for the work and self-sacrifice of NHS staff other key workers during the pandemic.
Before that, rainbows have been a sign of inclusion and welcome,
an arc over people, regardless of sexuality or race – rainbow nations.
The story of God’s rainbow covenant was recorded by the people of Israel
in the midst of exile from their homeland, a time of chaos and distress.
In Genesis, it is a sign of the covenant between God and all the earth,
every living creature of all flesh;
that the waters shall not again destroy.
The rainbow is set in the sky, after the flood –
an unstrung war bow, pointing away from earth -
not as a sign so much for humanity,
but as a reminder for God.
Noah never says a word.
While he and his family were selected as the remnant to survive,
there is no suggestion that the humanity they go on to represent
are restored to the perfection of Eden.
Neither the flood, nor the covenant restore paradise.
Humanity remains just that.
So, the scripture offers a provocative insight;
If God wants to stay in relationship with humanity,
then God must change;
swapping vindication for forgiveness, anger for patience,
wipe-out with enduring love.
The covenant appears to be God laying down his weapons.
From now on, when God sights the restraining order rainbow,
God must remember his promise of divine loyalty,
even when humanity is disloyal.
This is the promise we inherit and upon which we rely,
especially whenever waters threaten to overwhelm.
We are looked upon and loved; remembered, not forsaken.
Forsaken, is a word we will hear at the other end of the Lent journey.
Borrowing from the psalms: “Jesus’ cry upon the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Perhaps to understand the depth of Calvary’s anguish,
we should look again at how the story starts:
Mark’s gospel starts at a gallop.
No genealogies, no birth backstories, just:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark 1:1
John the Baptist, preparing the way, for the Messiah,
crowds coming to be washed in the rivers of the Jordan;
Jesus himself baptised.
At the outset of his public ministry,
he quite deliberately identifies with the people of
“the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”
No fanfare, no ceremony.
He simply joins the line of shuffling humanity going down into the sacred river.
He stands alongside the faults and failures,
all the brokenness, that those battered crowds represent.
Christ is not aloof. He is baptised with us and baptised for us.
Mark gives no detail about the temptations – only:
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts;
and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1;12-13
Testing/temptation follows baptism; follows commitment to the Father.
Apparently, it is God-driven –
not necessarily a sign of lack of faith or strength of commitment.
Possibly, quite the reverse –
times of trial, evidence of a living, vibrant commitment to God.
Trialled or examined, exactly because we are more alive, not less so.
This week a friend wrote to me of a particular wilderness experience
he and his small faith community are facing.
The situation lies beyond our own denominational bounds,
so I trust there are no confidences betrayed,
though the scenario is one the Church of Scotland is increasingly called to consider.
My friend’s church has just learnt that due to a variety of circumstances,
particularly financial, it can no longer continue.
Its guardians/trustees have taken the decision that it must close.
My friend, a very committed member of that community, wrote:
“I understand the decision, but it is hard and a bleak note
to start our Lenten journey.
The next few weeks will be hard
as we deal with our anxieties, doubts, second thoughts, mourning.
But also looking forward to new life.
But then Lent is the appropriate season for this journey.”
Profoundly, (to my mind) he makes a connection
between the congregational situation he and others are facing
and the experience of accompanying a family member
through terminal cancer, some years ago –
in his words, the “imperfect metaphor” of his loved one’s last days.
After months of surgery, chemotherapy, chemo-induced delusions,
the emergency room and more surgery, it was time for palliative care.
Three months in the hospice, pain free
and with time to prepare for death with dignity.
Incredibly hard for the family, but so much better than what had gone before.
Precious time, particularly a final Christmas day in the hospice,
perfect in its own way.
And a final picture: the gift of a wink from the patient’s bed,
to my friend as he took his leave for the last time.
His letter this week concluded:
“I know that a lot is going to rest on my shoulders,
and I know my patience will be tested as I cope with my anxieties and doubts.
But it is my desire that these last months will be marked by grace and dignity.”
Lent offers the annual opportunity,
to refocus/concentrate on what is important in life – whether growing or letting go;
consent, to be stripped of what distracts us,
reawakened, to the blessing of the present moment;
intentional, about our turn to God.
A time of testing, but also of trust;
wilderness and wonder, wild beasts and angels.
To trace the rainbow through the rain, (George Matheson)
to behold the heavens opening, at the baptism of the Beloved;
that we might understand more deeply,
the Father who sent the Son,
and the Son who serves the Father.