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Sermons - January 2020

Sermon 5th January 2020

SUN 05 JAN 2020, 11am, 2nd After Christmas

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9

Among several full houses in the run-up to Christmas,
four of the services were end of term school carol services –
pews packed with excited children, exhausted teachers and proud parents.
Many of you will know something of such occasions –
recent experience or distant memory.

It prompted my own memory, of the walk to the local parish church,
where my junior school held its own carol service;
it reminded me of being much-rehearsed by my own mother,
to read the first lesson – Isaiah’s:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
And in the light of the gospel read this morning
“In the beginning was the Word…”
it took me back, to the sense that this particular reading held a particular heft/significance.
Introduced with the solemn: St John unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation…
I had vaguely heard of the idea of Reincarnation – coming back in a different form – but what was this Incarnation?
In honesty, while I would strain to stay with it,
those first phrases quickly left me bewildered:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
What was this Word all about?

It is of course a deep echo of Creation and Genesis, In the Beginning…
Now John’s revision: In the beginning… was the Word;
Christ before all things, source of the life of the world,
long before the world caught sight of Jesus of Nazareth.
But then, via the witness of John, the audacious claim:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

What might this all mean for young Freddie, baptized today, or for any of us who are reminded of our own baptisms today?

Derek Browning, former Moderator, reflected recently:
“Few things pack up and disappear so quickly as the Christmas spirit.
Few, if any, celebrate the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas now,
losing that gradual sense of unwrapping the Divine Mystery that is the Incarnation.”

The Prologue to John’s Gospel is a reminder
that Christmas by itself, is not the real deal, just as a wedding day, is not a marriage.
To borrow a phrase: The Christ-Child is not just for Christmas.
The Word made flesh is a lifetime –
Jesus’ lifetime – birth, death, resurrection – the full Monty:
And our lifetimes – birth, death and beyond –
with all the shifting, unfolding understandings
of who God is, and what God is about.
Recognition that faith/belief, is always limited, by our partial view,
(we never hold the entire picture);
recognition that faith is always a work in progress.

So much, for the sonorous, opening refrains; then, the specifics:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9

Let me finish with a story of the light, real and metaphorical:
Offered as an encouragement, perhaps as a signpost
to lead us on our way, into the new year.

Most of us will be familiar with the meeting/lecture that concludes with:
Are there any Questions?
Usually, it is the unofficial signal to shuffle papers and plan one’s exit.
Robert Fulghum, an American pastor and writer adopts a more quixotic approach.
When he hears – Any Questions? - he raises his hand and asks:
“What is the meaning of life?”
(Imagine that, at 8.35pm, as the last question at a Session meeting.)
Unsurprisingly Fulghum’s question is rarely taken seriously;
except once.

Some years ago, he attended a two-week course on Greek culture, on the island of Crete.
Near the village of Gonia, on a rocky bay, is a Greek Orthodox monastery.
Alongside it, an Institute, dedicated to human understanding and peace
and especially to reconciliation between Germans and Cretans.

The site is important. It overlooks the small airstrip at Maleme,
where German paratroopers invaded Crete
and were attacked by peasants wielding little more than kitchen knives and hay scythes.
The retribution was terrible; village populations decimated.

High above the Institute is a cemetery with a single cross –
marking the mass grave of Cretan partisans.
Across the bay, on another hill, the regimental burial ground of the invaders.
This is the backdrop to the Institute, and its desire to heal old wounds.

Its founder is Dr Alexander Papaderos.
At war’s end, he had the conviction that Cretan and German
had much to learn from each other.
They had an example to set.
If they could learn forgiveness, so too could others.

The conference came to an end.
At the last session the Director himself came to the front.
Standing in the sunlight of an open window,
he gazed across the bay to the German cemetery, and asked:
“Are there any questions?” Quiet.

“Dr Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”
A ripple of laughter; people stirring to go.
Papaderos stilled the room and searched the questioner’s eyes
gauging the seriousness of the question.
“I will answer your question.”
From his wallet he fetched a small leather pouch
and produced a round mirror, the size of a 50p.

“When I was a child, we lived in a remote village on this island.
One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror,
where a German motorcycle had been wrecked.
I tried to find all the pieces, but it was not possible,
So, I kept the largest piece and over time,
by scratching against a stone, I made it round.

It was my toy.
I became fascinated by shining the mirror’s reflected light into all sorts of dark places – nooks and crannies, crevices and holes.
Even into adulthood, I did the same.

As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game
but a metaphor for what I might do with my life.
I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light.
But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there,
and it will only shine in many dark places, if I reflect it.

I am only a fragment of the whole mirror – the whole shape I do not know.
With what I have however, I can bring light.
Change some things, in some people.
Perhaps others may see and do likewise.
This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

Then he took the small mirror and holding it carefully
caught that magical Mediterranean sunlight
and reflected it onto the face and folded hands of his questioner.
[It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, R Fulghum, pp172ff]

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…
the true light, which enlightens everyone, coming into the world.

Sermon 12th January 2020

12 JAN 2020

“Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said,
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:16-17

“I’m driving home from work, heading south,
when the sky takes hold of me – and I begin to cry.”

This is the arresting opening, to a talk from the radio series, Four Thought.
Its author is Lorna Stimson:
“In Norfolk, landmarks cling to the horizon;
the sky is bigger than anything else;
ever present and everywhere – a bit like God, if I could find one.”

The context of her sudden weeping, is the recent death of her father.
One of the things they shared was his love of clouds and stars.
So, the daughter meditates:
The sky gives us everything…light and water;
sets the mood for our days.
dramatic inky storm clouds, shrill blue summers and rainbows;
noisy rooks, aeroplane trails, breath-taking sunrises
and blank paper days, the colour of putty.
Yet, how often she asks, do we look up?

Suddenly, heavens opened, Spirit descending, that Voice:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Church calendar tells us that today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany,
(the 6th of January - day of gold, frankincense and myrrh.)
The early Church combined four elements in the Epiphany:
the Incarnation (the birth of Jesus), the visit of the wise men,
the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at the wedding of Cana –
all epiphanies - showing forth’s,
shimmering moments, allowing us to look
beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces.
Disclosure - about who Jesus is, and what he means.

After the infant Jesus comes the adult,
trumpeted by John, his kinsman,
the unsettling prophet, drawing the crowds to baptism at the Jordan river.
John, himself not the light, but come to bear witness, to the light.
Listening to John you anticipate something even fiercer,
more turbulent than he – a winnowing fork to hand, to separate wheat from chaff.
“I baptise you with water,
but the one coming after me will baptise with fire.”

It turns out, differently.
The long-awaited one, waits in line.
The heralded one, asks the herald, to perform one more announcement -
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,
to be baptised by him.”
But so quietly and humbly, there is no indication that anyone much noticed.

As so often, geography is significant:
Jordan River, rich with sacred history,  
where once upon a time the ancient Israelites, entered the land of Canaan;  
where the prophet Elijah ended his prophetic ministry,
and his successor Elisha inaugurated his.  
The Jordan, which flowed under the same “opened” sky
God first spread forth, “in the beginning,” at the dawn of Creation.  
A place with a history, a vantage point
to see the hand of God, throughout the ages.
And now the parting of more symbolic waters –
a new Red Sea for the children of Israel.

There by those not-very-bonnie banks,
a coronation of sorts takes place:
not by ascending palace/temple steps -
but by the stepping down into life’s mainstream.
First sight of the adult Immanuel – taking his turn,
shuffling alongside humanity’s walking wounded - God with us.

A coronation? Yes. But also, a kind of first death.
Prequel, foreshadowing
of a different death, a different resurrection.
Going under and emerging; drowning and soaring.
Buried in baptism, rising to new life.
Immersion - into the great river of life, its joy and its suffering;
to show not a way out, but a way through.

And for Jesus?
Torn open heavens, Spirit alighting and deepest confirmation:
“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There at Jordan’s edge, before Jesus has done anything – miracles, healings, table turning, resurrections – before he is anything, he is loved.
From that being loved, comes everything.
That is his first and deepest identity –
That is what we share as baptised Christians –
washed and welcomed, deeply loved,
potentially deeply loving.

We are always and already God's Beloved —
not because we've done anything to earn it,
but because God’s very nature and desire is to love?  
If Jesus, beloved and beloving, has entered fully
into the messiness of human endeavor –
we are called to do the same.
People of baptism, prepared for radical solidarity, not radical separateness.

[Naming the Beloved artwork installation – Scots in Great War London.
Manifestation, visualisation – perhaps even an epiphany –
of the ties that bind – then and now.]

“Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.

So, back to the skies:
Oscar Wilde once famously coined the notion:
“We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
[Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere’s Fan]

Lorna Stimson, with whom we started,
navigating her grief through her pondering the skies:
“My faith is a shaky itinerant thing.
I have no religion but believe in something, if only I knew what.

The sky is a place to look when everything else overwhelms,
a view wider than anything in this flat, terrestrial county.

Up is heaven; up is light. Surely, Dad is up there.
I do not know how to weather this, but in the meantime,
I look up because there is a world up there.”
Four Thought. Lorna Stimson:

And we, who share the story of baptism, might keep mindful:
Heavens opened, dove descending,
water dripping, voice reminding:
“You are my child, beloved – in whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon 26th January 2020

Sun 26 Jan 2020

Jesus said: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4: 19-20

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

Some may recognise the opening lines of John Masefield’s, Sea Fever.
Some may even be able to recite it – a memory of school days, lodged deep.
This week it was read during the funeral service of a church member –
for whom some of his happiest moments were with family and friends upon the waters.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

A wild call and a clear call – that may not be denied.
St Augustine’s: Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.

When the empire of Herod Antipas, with its rule of brute force and capricious power,
strikes God’s messenger and silences the Baptist,
Jesus’ public work begins.
Jesus withdraws, but he has not gone into hiding.
Capernaum, fishing village by the shores of the Sea of Galilee
is in the heartland of Herod’s rule.
Jesus is raising the herald’s fallen standard.
The message Jesus announces is still John’s: Repent.
A summons – a readiness for life.

Though Nazareth to Capernaum is a minor geographical detail,
It marks a major theological point.
For Matthew, it is the fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah,
In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
a place overrun by foreign domination, both in the time of Isaiah and Jesus.
Associated with the hellishness of war and its aftermath;
but in the latter time, he will make glorious the way of the sea,
the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Unlikely territory for an emergent messiah:
Nathanael: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Galilee of the gentiles looked upon by the heartland people with suspicion,
a bit like the way Lowland Scotland regarded
the Gaelic-speaking Highlands before 1745. (L Fisher)

Then, a wild call and a clear call for the first disciples.
In Matthew, the prose is spare and direct.
Jesus addresses two pairs of brothers and they follow immediately.
The demands of discipleship are sharp – a decision, whole-hearted.
So, the story begins.

There is no explanation as to why he chooses Peter, Andrew, James and John.
No indication of special qualities;
Apparently, the ability that matters, is availability.

Did Jesus summon others along the shoreline, or at the tavern table?
Others, unrecorded by scripture, who declined;
too busy, too fearful, turning away, or settling for less?
“Alas for those who never sing and die with all their music left in them.”
(Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century)

No explanation of why them –
no explanation of what really will be involved –
neither the joys, nor the costs.
Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.
That can only be learnt in the journey itself,
in the company of Christ and his friends.
All they can do is set out;
propelled beyond their known world,
beyond any understanding of who they are.

Just as people discover who they are as parents,
in the raising of children, not before.
As a wise nun once advised: “Don’t worry, your child will teach you more about the love of God than any book you have read.”
Now, when I tell Oliva (aged 8) how lucky she is to have the best Dad in the world!
She is smart enough to remind me: “Yes, but I made you!”

There is a lovely verse in John’s Epistle: “Dear friends, now we are children of God,
and what we will be has not yet been made known.” I John 3:2
Follow me. Invitation, challenge, summons…?
Loyalty to, and a trust in, a future. as yet unseen.

Rhidian Brook will be familiar to some;
a regular voice on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, for twenty years.
He spoke here three years ago; I hope, will return in the Spring.

A few years ago, he was contacted by the Salvation Army
to write a book about the global AIDS pandemic
and the work/response of the Salvation Army, in the wake of its devastation.

Initially, Brook was very reluctant to take on the task.
Although a man of faith, he doubted he could do much, or make a difference.
He had no particular knowledge of the field, he was no expert.
To which he was told: “The world of HIV/AIDS has enough experts.
We don’t want a statistician or a specialist.
Go expecting to learn, and you will find the story.”
But my family?
Take them too – where you are going it will help you.

One by one, his objections were whittled away.
Eventually, the question: “Can you think of a good reason why you wouldn’t do it?”
(More Than Eyes Can See pp23)

So began a nine-month journey to some of the world’s most unfortunate places –
to an outsider, truly the lands of contempt
Kenya, Rwanda, China, the USA –
all places reeling, in varying degree,
from a cocktail of poverty, illness, violence, hopelessness and indifference.

In one scene of unutterable squalor,
he meets the Madams and some of the young women in a Mumbai brothel.
The sight of one of their children being cradled by its mother,
between clients, reduces him to tears.
It is there that he recalls the advice given to him
by one of his experienced Salvation Army associates:
“Don’t think you have anything to take into these situations.
Remember, God is already there, at work;
you just have to walk into the activity of the kingdom.”
Ibid pp83

Follow me:
“I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;”

Follow me: Let’s go. Jesus called. And the fisher boys stood up.
Not because they were experts, or thought they were better than anyone;
not because they understood all that they were doing.
But because they heard a call and knew deep down,
that if they ignored it, they would never find peace.
So, leaving their boats, they boarded a different ship.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 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

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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