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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)

Sermon 17th January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 17th JANUARY 2021, 11am, EPIPHANY

Nathanael said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.” John 1:46

You don’t have to be a poet to identify with this scenario –
especially in days of home-schooling or, working at home.
Scottish poet, Stewart Conn recounts a family moment:
Outside, snow has fallen; inside, his children are raring to make snowmen.
Upstairs, the poet is at his desk, wrestling words onto the page – it is his living, after all..

Come on Daddy, come now, I hear them shout
as I put the finishing touches to this and that
in the safe confines of my study:
Hurry, Daddy, before it’s too late, we’re ready!
They are so right. Now is the time.
It won’t wait, on that you can bet your bottom
dollar. So rouse yourself, get the drift
before you’re muffled and left
for useless. Let’s build a snowman, then
a snow-woman to keep him company. When
that’s finished, and with what’s left over,
a giant snowball that will last for ever,
only hurry, Daddy. As soon as this poem
is finished, I promise, I’ll come –
essential first, to pin down what is felt.
Meanwhile, the snow begins to melt.

An invitation missed?
Another Dad, another moment - a happier outcome.
Revd David Runcorn, describes himself as having been
an accordionist, vicar, fast bowler and hermit.
His daily routine is to pray before the rest of the family wake up.
One morning he heard a knock on the door of the shed that is his hermitage.
His son Joshua stood there in the dark, shivering,
smiling, but searching his father’s face, a little uncertain of his welcome.
Father and son cuddled for warmth in the soft candlelight,
quietly looking at the icons, which accompany/adorn his prayer space.
One of them is the well-known icon of the Holy Trinity by Andre Rublev.

Three figures (technically, Old Testament messengers at the oaks of Mamre)
But understood by many as Father, Son and Holy Spirit
sit on three sides of a table.
What draws the observer in, is the sense of deep reverence and awareness of each other.
The Son and the Spirit incline their heads towards the Father.
The Father inclines towards the Son and the Spirit;
a beautiful, silent flow of attentiveness.
And, as if vacant for the onlooker, the table has a space,
incomplete, until the place is filled.
.
Joshua and his Dad begin to talk about it.
“Do you think they know we are watching?”
“What do you think they might say to us?” asks the child.
“Come on Josh, come on Daddy” the father suggests:
“join us, we’re waiting for you. We can’t really start without you!”
The child’s face breaks into a broad grin at the thought.
Suddenly, they are both giggling, imagining joining the company.
“I’ll have sausages, beans and chips” declares Joshua, joyfully.
[An alternative holy trinity.]
(Choice, Desire & the Will of God, D Runcorn, p7-8}

Voices of invitation lie at the heart and start of John’s Gospel.
Come and see – Jesus’ words to Andrew and his friend
when they enquire where he is staying.
Come and see, echoed by Philip to Nathanael
when one friend seeks to share Jesus with another.
Come and see – the beginning of a long and deepening friendship,
a life-changing journey.

In today’s gospel: Jesus goes to Galilee, finds Philip, invites him to “follow me.”
Philip accepts the call, then hastens off to find his friend, Nathanael.
sitting under a fig tree. The detail is deliberate.
The scriptures are seeded with significant timbers.
Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, Elijah’s wilderness tree,
Jonah, stewing in the shade opposite Nineveh,
Zaccheus, clambering into the branches, the better to see Jesus.
The prophet Micah’s beautiful vision:
“…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;”

The scholars see the tree as a sign of the presence of God.
and the term “under the fig tree” as an ancient Jewish idiom
that means. studying the messianic prophecies.
Nathanael knows those prophecies; Bethlehem will be the Messiah’s birthplace.
Nazareth, on the other hand - a village of 200-400,
dependent upon the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee.
lends no special status to its inhabitants.
So, at minimum, Nathanael is sceptical;
at worst, outright hostile: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Preconception, prejudice, won’t permit surprise.
True to Jesus’ original, Philip simply tells his doubtful friend: “Come and see."

When encounter follows, Jesus looks passed Nathanael’s prickly exterior.
Jesus isn’t in the business of put downs or point-scoring;
doesn’t demand fear or shame, as some sort of entry tax to his company.
Instead, Jesus names the quality he wants to bless.
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
A salutation that a devout son of Israel would admire.
“Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Psalm 32:2

Taken aback, suspicious: “How do you know me?”
“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Echo perhaps of Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
Echo of Micah: they shall all sit under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;”

Moment of dramatic Epiphany: like Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi,
Nathanael declares,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
The title that would eventually be nailed to Jesus’ cross.

Jesus responds “O Nathanael, I’ll show you things greater than this.
You are impressed because I recognise the dreams you dream, the tree you chose for shade.
But I will give you glimpses of heaven upon earth
and earth’s gateway to heaven.”

Words, resonating from the scrolls of Genesis: the outcast Jacob,
fleeing the wrath of Esau, the brother he has tricked.
In despair, in the desert, lying down, exhausted, alone –
his head upon a stone; that holds the mystery of an altar.
The great dream of healing - a ladder, stretching from heaven to earth;
a ceaseless traffic of angels, ascending and descending;
earth to heaven and heaven to earth – a thin place,
veil between God and God’s creation, gossamer thin.
At dawn, Jacob’s verdict: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:16.17

Upon these foundations, Jesus fashions a new promise:
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened
and the angels of God, ascending and descending, upon the Son of Man.”
Jacob and the dreaming stone became Bethel, the house of God;
now Jesus, the stone the builders will reject, becomes new gateway to the Divine.
This is Nathanael’s epiphany. Invited – he comes; seen/recognised – he sees.

I have wrestled this week with images from the riots
at the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
The sight of the Confederate flag,
symbol of the slave-owning southern states in America’s Civil War,
marched through the corridors of power in 2021 –
I can only imagine the fear that must raise in the minds of many.
Clearly, that country, so influential beyond its borders,
waits in anxiety for its Presidential Inauguration Day.
And to/in our own places of unrest and division - how do we respond?
Do we fall back on original Nathanael – convinced “nothing good”
can come from the arguments or hostilities that divide us?
Do we lock down, defend and maintain our blind spots,
our cherished prejudices/ entitlements?
Or, can we countenance that maybe,
time is up on some of our original and old certainties -
about each other, about the world, about God?

Is it possible for us, as people of faith, to see our present moment as Jesus sees it?
If, instead of hostility, we named the qualities we wanted to bless,
would we rediscover people as people –
more beautifully real than the labels we too easily place upon them?

I do not know exactly what that path looks like, or where it leads.
In honesty, it looks and feels frightening.
But it is the path, the way that promises greater things than these.
Traffic of angels, heaven breaking into earth
and Christ central to it all – cradle to cross, cross and beyond.

Can we explain it? Not really.
All we can do is come and see. Many good things can come out of Nazareth.

Sermon 24th January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 24th JANUARY 2021, 11am, 3rd SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him. Mark 1:17-18

Along a shoreline, by sighing shallows, glittering in the morning sun,
a small group of men sit together.
Weathered faces, callused hands, weaving the intricate patterns of their ancient craft,
handed down the generations, mending, for tomorrow’s labour.
Work and conversation woven together – a joke, a curse, an old story,
a spit upon the politics of the day – Rome’s continuing iron fist.
Regulating their lives - Caesar “owning” their waters and taxing their catch.
And a puppet king, who had just arrested the people’s prophet, John.
(That was sure to end badly.)

Then suddenly, on their shoreline, across that small stretch of water,
words that would change their lives.
“Friends, what are you waiting for?
Leave what you are doing – there are other nets for mending.
Come, be fishers of men.”

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.”
Mark’s version of events offers a heady cocktail of urgency and spontaneity.
“Jesus came!”
And his words, “Follow me” elicit a response, “immediately.”
There is no suggestion of previous encounter or careful consideration of character.
Mark treasures the mystery and immediacy of their response.
The invitation to follow; the RSVP, by return of post, without delay.

It is dramatic – maybe speaks to our desire for the big screen, movie moment;
the single, certain, moment of clarity/destiny.
Cards on the table, colours to the mast:
This is where I stand, – I can do no other.
Enticing, enviable? Rip off the apron, switch off the computer,
leave behind the weight of familial or professional responsibilities – all for Jesus!
Become an action hero.
Some do and have done so. History has its examples.

But for others, maybe us (?), the very drama of the tale is off-putting,
leaving us with a sense of inadequacy/disappointment at ourselves.
We try to be faithful, but we are not disciple warriors like these founding fathers.
We never made that big, seismic decision
to boldly go where no disciple had gone before…

We are left with the question:
Can we be genuine followers, without the dramatic?
Can we be genuine followers, if in one sense we never really leave home?
Well, consider the reading again and listen to its sound –
is there a familiar rhythm or melody?

Language that Mark uses:
To the leper, “Be made clean”– and immediately he was clean. (Mark 1:41)
To the paralysed man, “Stand up, take your mat and go home”
and the man stood up and immediately took his mat and went home. (Mark 2:11)
To the blind man, “Go, your faith has made you well”
and immediately he regained his sight. (Mark 10:52)
To the fisher boys: “Follow me” - and immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As the American, Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor observes:
The lakeside call of Andrew, Peter, James and John
is not a hero story, but a miracle story.
Not so much about disciples, as about God.
Not so much about what they were leaving behind,
as what they were entering into.

When the fab four give their immediate, wholehearted yes,
it might make our hearts sink – I could never do that.
They are the saints - a different breed.
But - they are exactly the same people who will doubt, deny and abandon Jesus
in the chapters to come.
Again, this is not so much a story about us and our would-be worthiness;
(our own will/willingness will only get us so far.)
It is about God.
As Jesus said: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”
Ultimately, it is God who enables us, and others, to follow.

Where might that summons lead, what form might following take?
“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” is such a familiar phrase,
that we tend to think there is only one model, and only one priority.
True discipleship is leaving behind and heading off into the sunset
for a lifetime of catching others.
Consciously or not, I think that model, if allowed to be monopolistic,
leaves us anxious and miserable –
a guarantee of un-attracting the very ones we would like to reach out to.

Remember, when Jesus said, leave your nets, follow me,
he was addressing fishermen.
“Come and become fishers of people” is language
that spoke to that particular time and place.
They knew water and the fragile, sometimes dangerous work of harvesting the depths.
While that encounter is wonderfully vivid and holds a special gospel place,
let us imagine what other invitations Jesus might have, still might voice:

To the engineer/architect/council planner/the Night Shelter volunteer:
“Follow me, house/shelter my people.”
To the artist, poet or writer:
“Follow me, recognise and reveal the colours of the kingdom.”
To the home-bound, by choice or circumstance – parent, carer or shielding one:
“Follow me, raise and nurture, watch over and pray for my loved ones.”
To the dancer and athlete:
“Follow me and let your God-given bodies do the talking.”
To the farmer and the chef:
“Follow me and feed my sheep.”
To the physician/the Relate counsellor/the church friend, the good neighbour:
“Follow me, offer time, attention and respect – the balm of your listening.”

Jesus promises abundant life
and one sure way that God speaks to us
is through the things that most give us life.
That is the gospel’s most convincing pathway.
We are not called to catch, by trapping or bullying others to our point of view.
It is God who captures the imagination.
Our call is to reflect in the water/flow of our lives,
the beauty of who Christ is. The rest is up to God. (Debie Thomas)

Our shorelines, our stretches of water – each different.
But, the calling voice, just the same:
“Follow me…” God is a beckoning word.
Geographies and roles to which we are summoned,
Endless, age-inclusive, evolving over a lifetime;
Perhaps requiring passports;
alternatively, an enduring stability - loyalty to a particular place or people.
But the promise: It is God’s call, and particularly in these testing times,
it is God who enables us to follow.

“Follow me and I will make you…”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Sermon 31st January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 31st JANUARY 2021, 4th AFTER EPIPHANY

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority,
and not as the scribes.” Mark 1:21-22

Amazement is our theme today: so, a writer this week asked the question:
When were you last brought to your knees by a sacred moment?
(Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

This week: A photographer came to St Columba’s.
In conversation, she described a recent visit to St James’ Park:
She spoke of a lady bending down, talking to a swan;
a grandfather and grandchild, covered in pigeons and parakeets, while feeding the birds.
“Perhaps it was the novelty of being out and about –
but everything was so…real, so amazing.”

Echo of the poet’s lines, which we prayed:
All my life: The bride married to amazement;
the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms;
Not simply visiting the world. (Mary Oliver, When Death Comes)

Other voices this week from our church family, inadvertently drawing attention to the sacred moments around us – sometimes, easily overlooked:
“…looking out the window to marvel at the gently falling snow
admiring the wondrous beauty of the silent woods around us.”
Nursery teacher grateful for her “small people”:
“They’re a complete joy, and I can forget all about the virus for a few hours each morning.
It’s lovely to be in a 3-year-old bubble!”

Yet acutely conscious of many who find these days hard:
Experiencing a “soggy shapelessness” – difficult to know what day it is –
alternatively, frantic hecticness – shared, by report, by home-schooling royals.
There are surely moments for everyone feeling weary, anxious, dejected or bored;
too worried about the future to live attentively to the present.
“I’m not in the best of moods – I’m just so fed up of this.”

The gospel read today recognises/admits the captivity of being overwhelmed
while offering the release of amazement.
It is actually a story of the collision between the two;
that which gives life its flight of freedom
and that which chains it to the ground.

Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum.
[You can visit its likely site today, close to the Sea of Galilee.]
He teaches. Mark does not elaborate what was said.
He speaks differently to what they are used to.
With authority.
They are astounded.

Into the assembly stumbles a ravaged and disconcerting presence.
The man with the unclean spirit.
Scholars might debate the nature of the man’s affliction,
but the power over him/the cruelty of his situation, is easily imagined.
No voice of his own, no control over his body,
Anonymous, crazed and shunned.

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Then the unclean spirit’s haunting question –
a mix of fear, animosity and despair:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?”
Jesus rebukes/commands: “Be silent and come out of him!”

A battle is played out; the convulsions are messy and scary –
I can only imagine there were people there who felt ill at ease,
embarrassed by such goings-on.
But one power is overcome by another.
Once more, amazement – such command, such authority,
What is its origin? Who is this Jesus?
The speculations mount up; his fame increases.

Out of that encounter another searchlight question:
“Jesus, what have you to do with us?”

In a couple of weeks, the subject of our Zoom Coffee Morning will be icons.
Pictures, largely from the orthodox Christian tradition, of scriptural figures or later saints,
and used as vehicles for prayer.
Visual meditations that draw the pray-er inwards.

I was shown a painting this week created in time of pandemic.
This contemporary picture bears the title: Icons for our Epoch
It perhaps comes as little surprise, that it depicts masked medical and key workers.

Our headlines are laden with vaccines –
be it vaccine approval or availability, vaccine hesitancy or vaccine hoarding.
Like the gospel, the topic seesaws between delighting and depressing.
But words that have resonated this week are the observation:
“None of us are safe until all of us are safe.”

This week also marked Holocaust Memorial Day.
The day marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,
the Nazi concentration camp, where over one million Jews perished,
part of the six million Jews, slaughtered by the Nazis;
(among them the Church of Scotland worker, Jane Haining,
of whom we heard in October’s Caledonian Lecture.)
The day, with its invitation to light an evening candle
as a conscious reminder of that inconceivable inhumanity –
And of more recent genocides – Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur.
Seventy-six years on, the survivors grow fewer and fewer –
yet their frail voices carry a terrible authority, because they were there.

There are the well-known words of the German pastor, Martin Niemoeller,
who protested Hitler's anti-Semitic measures, was eventually arrested,
and then imprisoned for eight years at Sachsenhausen and Dachau (1937–1945).

First they came for the Communists,
- but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
- but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews,
- but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out for me.

When, from the lips of the tormented soul in the synagogue,
we hear an accusatory, agonised:
“What have you to do with us Jesus?”
Can we imagine Jesus’ answer?
“Everything. I have everything to do with you.”
And can we respond to such an answer?
Make it real in our own daily living – our service, our sharing, our sacrifice?

We started with a photographer in a London park;
Let me finish with a vicar in a London park.
One more sacred moment from the week:
Revd Lucy Winkett, vicar of St James’ Piccadilly,
described this week taking a walk in a park,
the day after our brief London snow.
She passed the mostly melted remains of various snowmen/women.

On one, the twig that had served as the snowperson’s mouth, remained in place.
She saw the twig, taken from a fallen park branch, as a smile.
She carried it away with her – retaining it like a medieval relic;
a reminder, in her words, of the Christ life –
haunted by grief and shot through with miracle.
The carried twig – a sign of creativity,
“connecting me with people who imagined it as something else entirely.
… a sign of resilience, faith, solidarity and hope.” (T4tD, Radio 4, Jan 2021)

May the sacred moments of life continue to amaze us. Amen.

Opening Hours

The office is open from
9.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m,
Monday to Friday.

There is a 24-hour answering machine service.

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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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