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Sermons - January 2021

Sermon 3rd January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 3rd JANUARY 2021, 11am, 2nd SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

“Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them,
and give them gladness for sorrow.” Jeremiah 31:13

Early January is traditionally the season of the summer holiday, TV advertisement.
As the temperature drops, the tinsel is packed away
and your football team is unlikely to get promoted….
what better time to be persuaded that some sunshine and sangria
is exactly what you need?
This year, one particular advert stopped me in my tracks –
a sentence to make any advertising executive adjust his/her fee upwards.

It opens with a somewhat wild, bearded, bare-chested, middle-aged man –
a yoga-type guru.
He stands, half crouching, half dancing at the end of a wooden pier,
that stretches out into sunlit waters.
Wordlessly, in slow motion, he opens his arms in invitation.
A craggy voice-over begins:

That was some year. O, boy!
The sun came out and we were stuck inside – Lock down loco.
Working from home became sleeping at the office.
Shaking hands became – well, odd.

As the words unfold, the picture cuts to a side on view:
a chubby youngster in board shots, is running down a beach, also in slow motion.
Behind him, into shot, come other runners.
A young black man, a middle-aged, bikinied Mum.
More and more. All shapes and sizes, old and young.
(While we might choose to upgrade our own self-image,
the spread of humanity/the spread of girth,
allows us to feel invited to this human race,
galloping its way across the sun-kissed sands.

Voice-over: We stood outside and clapped for our carers.
We followed Government guidelines: Eat in. Eat out. Stay in. Breathe out.
We fought for toilet rolls and sanitized our hands enough to last a lifetime.
Our wedding got cancelled; our graduation was postponed;
and we’re just the lucky ones.

Finally, the cavalcade of runners, wheels into the sparkling shallows of the ocean,
arms aloft, athletes breaking the winning tape.
Silently, shouting, praising, exulting, leaping and laughing;
an uninhibited, dance of delight;
communal, joyous, liberated.

Voice-over: We got angry, we got sad, we cried.
We picked ourselves up and started again,
knowing the sun is always shining somewhere.
And at some point, someday,
you’ll be on your dream holiday, thinking:
Is it too early for a drink? No, no it isn’t.
Remember everything is better on the beach. And it’s ready when you are.

Yes – the travel company is called, On the beach
and yes, other travel companies are available.

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together;
a great company, they shall return here. Jeremiah 31:8

From out of Babylonian exile,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Powerful words of restoration, to the exiled remnant of Israel.
Imprisoned himself, though not deported -
spoken in the poetry of prophecy,
Jeremiah declares a daring hope, even at low/lowest ebb.
Spoken at a time when their glory days are gone,
their most prominent citizens led into Babylonian exile.
Humbled for a season, advised to settle,
pray and work for the welfare of that city
i.e. their foreign captors - and wait.

Now, a trumpet call; unapologetic hope.
The time is coming when the people themselves,
scattered far and wide, will be gathered by God
for a great, emotional return home.
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back…
Not a triumphant army, but a human river,
all ages and abilities, both sobbing and singing.

“Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.” Jeremiah 31:13

How do these words feel this New Year?
A Hogmanay when I am sure, you either received, or perhaps sent the message:
“Good riddance 2020 - wishing you all much happier times in 2021,
and hoping we can all be together soon.”

Former Dean of Westminster, Michael Mayne,
after six busy years in the parish of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge,
contracted a viral disease that left him totally without energy,
unable to concentrate and housebound for a year.
Only after two years, was he diagnosed with ME
(unhelpfully referred to at the time as, Yuppie flu.)

During his long convalescence Mayne wrote a short book, A Year Lost and Found,
in which he tried to describe as honestly as possible
what it felt like to be knocked flat and left struggling in the dark.
The response to the book took him by storm.
Not only did it sell, but he received a huge correspondence
and many requests for people to come and talk with him.
By describing, not hiding, his own humanity
Mayne was able to help others authenticate and assist, what they were going through.

Mayne acknowledged that in a pastoral or counselling role
one must maintain a degree of professional distance,
one foot remaining on the riverbank,
rather than two folks floundering in the water.
But, he also highlighted another rediscovery/truth –
In his words: that people are not problems to be solved,
but mysteries to be loved.
Entering, experiencing, sharing his own shadowlands (of sickness, pain or loss,)
Mayne unearthed a deepened compassion.
And others, searching for help or healing,
recognised intuitively, a kindred spirit.

Out of the whole experience – illness, book writing and response to his words –
Mayne was keen to identify what he had learnt.
not just what was lost, but also, what was found.
Summarising, he listed:
The need for inner space.
The need for positive thinking.
The learning to depend on others.
Perhaps for us, before we settle for good riddance 2020
That nothing is irredeemable.
(Because the theme of death and resurrection runs through all our stories,
nothing need ever be wasted, good can arise/emerge from bad.)
And the reminder, as we look forward to 2021:
The discovery of the God who shares our flesh and blood;
(vulnerable, entering into our questions;
bewilderingly, suffering within and alongside us:.
Last/unquenchable/ultimate Word of love.)
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5

So, the promise: Somewhere the sun is always shining:
I will turn their mourning into joy and give them gladness for sorrow.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.

Sermon 10th January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 10th JANUARY 2021, 11am, EPIPHANY

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11

What can I give him?
Poor as I am
If I were a shepherd
I would give a lamb

Familiar? Perhaps, the loveliest, most haunting moment
of all of our Christmas services this year;
Christmas Eve, the choir’s singing of In the bleak midwinter,
to a new setting by Cornishwoman, Becky McGlade.

If I were a wise man
I would do my part
But what I can I give him…?

In his poem, The Stars, Scots poet, Kenneth Steven,
describes a childhood of smudged sight –
from the age of five, glasses that were never quite clean;
the stars above, white and indistinct, vague pearls in a distant heaven.
But, on his fifteenth birthday, a moment of epiphany,
after his parents gave him contact lenses:

Driving home with them that night I suddenly caught sight of something,
got out by the edge of the field and looked,
amazed and disbelieving as if Christ himself had healed my eyes,
for the stars were crackling and sparking
like new-cut diamonds on the velvet of a jeweller’s window,
so near and clear I could have stretched and held them,
carried them home in my own pocket.
That was the gift my parents gave me on my birthday –
the stars.

Gifts: From poetry to music – in particular, jazz – maybe an acquired taste.
In 1961, the famous jazz musician, Dave Brubeck,
recorded in a New York studio, a short piece.
It burst into being the day Brubeck’s wife gave birth to their sixth child.
Having visited mother and child in the Connecticut hospital,
later the same day, arriving at the studio
he told the members of his Quartet the good news.
Brubeck went directly to the piano and started playing -
notes announcing the child’s birth.
Three kings of 1960’s jazz,
Paul Desmond, (saxophone) Eugene Wright (bass) and Joe Morello (drums)
responded with joy; on saxophone, bass and drums.
The tune leapt into life, was spontaneously recorded and named:
“Charles Matthew Hallelujah”.
When the child’s mother, Iola, was introduced to the piece, her verdict:
“It sounded like each member of the band
was presenting my new born with a gift.”

“Nations shall come to your light… They shall bring gold and frankincense
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Isaiah 60:3, 6

This morning’s passage from Isaiah is an oracle of outrageous gift giving.
Trains of camels from Midian, Ephah and Sheba, bearing bounty;
a tribute of generosity and submission, from foreign powers,
to the God, and God’s people, who reside in Israel.
For as long as anyone can remember, Israel has paid imperial tribute to others
Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians – always a draining away.
Now, the process is reversed - an inversion of geopolitics (Brueggemann) –
No longer, oppressive power’s knee upon Israel’s neck,
but the liberty and provision, the dignity and embrace, of God’s care.
Gifts re-establishing Israel’s identity – aa belonging to God.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come…
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Then, from Matthew, an Epiphany echo:
For the wealth of the nations, brought to downtrodden Israel;
Matthew’s, Magi gifts, to a humble cattle-shed.

Pilgrims they were, from unknown countries,
searching for one who knows the world;
lost are their names, and strange their journeys,
famed is their zeal to find the child:

Guests of their God, they opened treasures,
incense and gold and solemn myrrh;
welcoming one too young to question
how came these gifts, and what they were.
[From: Wise men, they came to look for wisdom, CH4 328]

Gifts: Gold and frankincense from former enemies to Judah;
Gold, frankincense and solemn myrrh, wise men to Bethlehem;
And from us? What gifts can/will, we give him?

Speaking on the radio this week, John Bell, of the Iona Community,
spoke of the Community’s practice to make an annual review of one’s personal finances.
In this traditionally private sphere,
Community members agree to be accountable to each other.
Members commit to give 10% in annual offerings,
but also, scrutinise, how the other 90% is spent.
They observe, that biblically, use of personal wealth is linked to the common good;
and the scriptures have plenty to say to those who grow rich
but become indifferent to the plight of the poor.

Bell recently discovered that he had more money than he had imagined.
Like some, he hasn’t spent in the usual way –
no eating out, no concerts, no holidays etc.
But, as he began to congratulate himself,
he recognised that his unintentional saving plan,
arrived at the moment when many others are close to the edge –
the stories from the midwinter update from GlassDoor/requests to the St Columba’s benevolence Committee,
illustrative of some people’s, desperate circumstances.

So, he asks: What do I do with this surplus?
Keep it; splash out, when the opportunity arises?
Or, exercise generosity, not as an expression of guilt,
but an expression of gratitude.
Bell admits he is chastened by the gospel encounter of the young man
who asked Jesus’ help to improve his spiritual life.
(“What must I do to inherit eternal life?)
Jesus didn’t recommend prayer;
rather he counselled the dispersal of his excessive wealth.
Bell concludes: “For those of us who have more than we need,
generosity is always an option.”

What can I give him? Let me finish with one other gift idea.
Recently, retired Church of Scotland minister, Revd David Scott, reflected:
‘What was the most surprising Christmas present I received this year?
It was, he said, a video of a children’s Nativity Play,
by the children in his first charge, Forth: St. Paul’s, in Lanark.

Some sixteen children played the parts of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and kings.
This year’s play was written by a woman, who was writing imaginative Nativity Plays
when Scott became minister there, almost forty years ago.
The children were filmed in costume in their own houses – then edited into one.

Peering into the parish he had known so well, glimpsing domestic settings,
certain things struck the retired minister;
the confidence of the children, their acting and their dancing:
fragments of the gospel taken home, embedded in ordinary family life;
connections made, between ancient story and contemporary celebration.

Rev Scott concluded: The most moving aspect, however,
was the discovery that the actors in this this year’s Nativity Play
were grandchildren of young people
who had participated enthusiastically,
in the time of his own ministry ‘so long ago’.
“Unexpectedly, (I saw it as) confirmation of the value of our kirk’s work
which sometimes is difficult to see and certainly to measure.” (Blog on the Learig, Jan 21)
The continuities and consolations of faith, its perseverance and passing on.
These too, real gifts – even if unseen or impossible to measure.

As a church friend reminded me, in this week of declared, Major Incident:
“We may not know whether we ourselves are waving or drowning,
but words of encouragement that we can pass on to others
who we know are struggling,
are small miracles of hope which buoy us up.”

If I were a wise man
I would do my part
But what I can I give him

“…each member of the band presenting God’s newborn with a gift.”

Give him my heart. (Christina Rossetti)

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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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