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Sermons - May 2021

Sermon 2nd MAY 2021, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 2nd MAY 2021, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER

Philip asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
The Ethiopian replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’
And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” Acts 8:30-31

Some weeks ago, when the Prime Minister’s road map allowed it,
the writer and broadcaster, Rhidian Brook spoke about the permission
to meet up with a friend and go for a walk.
After many months deprived of connection,
being allowed to walk with one other person
has been “life-giving for many, life saving for some.”
Walking and talking is a kind of double therapy,
a physical and spiritual exercise rolled into one.
“The walking might be limited to a certain mileage,
but the talking can take you anywhere.”

During one of these walks, Brook and his friend coined a new word: to strollock.
To strollock means to stroll with someone,
whilst talking about whatever you want to talk about.
It requires a pace that permits both conversation and movement.
The discourse can be surface or depth –
What happens when we die, or what will happen at the end of Line of Duty?

Though technically chariot-chat, one could argue that today’s reading from Acts
is a powerful piece of scriptural strollicking.
There are more famous biblical roads – Emmaus or Damascus –
but the road to Gaza proves significant –
not just for an official of the Ethiopian Court,
but also, presumably for Philip –
because if not, surely the encounter would have gone unrecorded.

Philip in the Book of Acts, is not the same as the Philip of the Gospels –
that is Philip from Bethsaida in Galilee
listed as one of the twelve apostles by the three synoptic writers.
The Philip in Acts is Philip the Evangelist, from the coastal city of Caesarea Maritima.
He makes three appearances in the Book of Acts.

Initially, we meet him as one of seven people chosen to care for the poor
and the Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 6).
Following complaint about the distribution of resources,
the leaders ask the community to choose some people who were
“known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.”
So, the original Twelve commission The Seven.

When a “great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem,”
the believers “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”
Philip was amongst the scattered. This is where we met him this morning.
“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip,
“Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
He goes, not knowing to where or to what he was being sent.
But like the road to Emmaus and the road to Damascus,
the road becomes a stage for encounter and the sharing of stories.

The Ethiopian court official;
the Treasurer to the Queen has been up to Jerusalem to worship.
Now, as he makes his way home, he ponders over the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Clearly, he is both wealthy and literate,
a foreigner and of a different sexual status –
one that would not permit full integration within the Temple.
When Philip approaches, the Ethiopian recognizes him
as one who could explain the local faith stories.
Unaware that Philip is also a pilgrim -
discovering new territory as he walks in faith.

Philip accepts the invitation, hops aboard,
accompanies the Ethiopian a stretch – a strollock (?)
and like strangers aboard a train, they talk at depth.

The Ethiopian says he could use some help with one passage in particular:
As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearers is dumb
So, he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him. (Isaiah 53:7)
It is no coincidence that the eunuch lingers over a passage
that dwells on one denied justice.

Who is this about? I should like to know.
It is about the one who kept silent before Pilate,
even when unjustly humiliated and slaughtered.
It is about Jesus.
Gently, guided by the Spirit, Philip shows the Ethiopian
“how his story of silence and resilience, suffering and rejection,
belongs squarely within the Story of Jesus.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus.)

Questions, conversation, openness.
We don’t have the details, but we can imagine that Philip took his cue from Jesus.
“…and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”
At some point there must have been mention of baptismal waters –
Jesus himself joining the long lines of humanity,
going down into the waters of Jordan?

The upshot?
When they came across roadside water it is the Ethiopian who enthuses:
“What is to prevent me from being baptised?”
Philip could have given a long list of Old Testament laws –
the who might be included in the covenant, and how law must be fulfilled.
But Philip didn’t.
Instead, he recognized it as a moment of grace and didn’t get in the way.

I imagine Luke records this encounter, with its questions, answers and actions,
to inspire hope that the message of Jesus was going forth into the world as promised,
even in the face of persecution and difficulties.
Luke reminds us, both story-listeners (and storytellers-tellers)
that wealth, (or lack of it),
that race, sexual status, piety, understanding (or lack of it)
are not obstacles, to the love and welcome of God.
God’s love and welcome reaches out
far beyond the expected boundaries of ritual and faith.
Baptism, which culminates this story,
is not an end result but a free gift that begins a new chapter.

How does the story end? Who can say?
“Philip never saw the Ethiopian again and never had to.” Frederick Buechner
But the implication is that the sharing of stories on the road to Gaza
reverberated far beyond its original sounding.

This we know - that Ethiopia is the nation with one of the most ancient Christian traditions in the world; the first nation to declare Christianity its state religion in 330 (Armenia makes the same claim). Ethiopian artists produced the oldest known illuminated gospel anywhere,
the Garima Gospels from c. 500.]

And Philip? He travels on to his hometown – telling his stories as he went.
Then - domestic obscurity.
Years later, he reappears in Acts 21, where Luke reintroduces him as
“Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven.”
His house is big enough for his family of six to host Luke, Paul, and their traveling companions for an extended stay.
Luke also says that Philip had “four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.”
Philip encouraged the ministerial gifts of these women.
Beyond that, nothing more.

Who gets converted on the road to Gaza?
In his Spirit-led encounter with the Ethiopian official,
Perhaps Philip is both teacher and student. What does he learn?
A shift in understanding, about insiders and outsiders,
a revision of identity and belonging;
an awakening perhaps, to the power of Jesus’ resurrection;
the strength/the currency that resurrected life can bring,
to Philip and others.

His legacy to modern day strollickers in the faith?
Open to the Spirit; unafraid to speak of his faith when asked;
valued in his community, nurturing of his daughters’ gifts;
practical helper, provider of hospitality;
faithful, on the road, and all the way home.

Sermon 9th MAY 2021, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 9th MAY 2021, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:9

This Sunday, the 6th Sunday of Easter, lies between two anniversary dates.
Yesterday, the 76th Anniversary of VE Day –
the end of World War II hostilities, at least in Europe.
Tomorrow, the 10th of May – will be eighty years exactly,
since the original St Columba’s Church, dedicated in 1884,
was destroyed by an incendiary bomb on a Saturday night.

The timing, meant that worshippers arriving for service the next morning,
met with the full impact of the building’s devastation.
Minister and Kirk Session moved swiftly and by the following week
convened for worship in the Jehangir Hall, part of the Imperial Institute.
The following Sunday, gathered in their new location, the minister, Revd Dr Scott
gave voice to so much that had been lost,
so many memories, to what had been, under the shelter of that now ruined roof:

“But now all this is gone.
The home of all these associations is swept away in a single night.
Now there is for you no longer the moving appeal of a much-loved House of God.
Now the Church of St Columba’s depends upon our loyalty to Christ alone.”

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:9
This morning’s gospel words (John 15:9ff) are also forged in time of crisis.
As John tells it, they are offered in the Upper Room on the night of betrayal.
A final gathering; a meal shared; the unsettling sight of the Master
stooping to wash the disciples’ feet; the prediction about impending treachery.
“My children I am with you only a little while longer.”
A new command: “Love one another, as I have loved you.
By the love that you show, the world will see that you are my disciples.”

When Jesus talks of going away. Peter retorts:
“Why can’t I follow? I will lay down my life for you?”
(We know how/where that promise will evaporate.)
Jesus promises to go and prepare a place for them –
but will return and take them to himself –“that where I am you may be also.”
In place of absence, he will send the Spirit.
The Spirit will testify about Jesus and all truth;
just as you, the disciples must testify, “for you have been with me from the beginning.”
Before that, you will be scattered:
“You will leave me alone, but my Father is with me.”
Jesus finishes by praying for them.
Then it is out into the night – first to Gethsemane,
and then the hurried and awful death of an innocent man, acquainted with sorrows.

Smack in the middle of this longer sequence, our reading today:

Love, abiding, friendship are the last urgent instructions/pleas/hopes/gifts, expressed by a man effectively on Death Row, the teacher’s final lessons. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:9

***

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:13-14

In a recent book by Doctor Rachel Clarke called Breathtaking about her work
(Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic), she talks about life on the frontline fighting Covid.
Early in the book she describes arriving for work
and encounters Molly behind her reception desk.
Molly is a retired nurse, now volunteer; but no one knows how old she is.
In the past there would have been the chaos and jostling in the reception area,
now there are ‘no patients, no relatives, no jostling in the coffee queue,
no shouting, no swearing, no flirting, no family spats, no crying babies,
instead there is row upon row of empty seats.”

I pause for a moment to say hello, keeping my requisite two metres’ distance.
‘Are you sure about still coming in, Molly?’ I ask, raising an eyebrow.
‘Without meaning to cast aspersions on your youthfulness,
I’m guessing you’re probably in the high-risk category if you catch it?’
She smiles. The same smile that gives confidence to bewildered new arrivals
trying to make sense of the maze of wards and hubs.
She has an uncanny ability to make everyone feel cared for –
the secret elixir, I believe, of a hospital.
“How dare you!” She cries in mock indignation.
I grin but say nothing, and a second passes. Her breeziness wavers.
‘I know the risks,’ she says quietly, touching her name badge. ‘We all do, don’t we?’

I hesitate, glancing down at the text on the badge.
‘Hello, my name is Molly. Can I help you?’ it asks.
Most definitely, is the answer.
Indeed, without the hundreds of volunteers like her, the hospital would flounder.
I know she loves her role, finds it meaningful, important.
But the idea that her selflessness might end up being the death of her
is surely a sacrifice too far?
‘I guess I think of it like this,’ I suggest, trying to put myself in her shoes.
‘You’re needed. The hospital needs you.
But wouldn’t it be better to take some time off now,
rather than get infected and risk never returning?’
‘Hmph,’ she retorts, as if dismissing a small child. ‘Aren’t you late?”

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

Abiding is also marked by Christian Aid Week, which starts today.
Its roots too, are in the soil of crisis. This year it marks its 75th Anniversary.
Christian Aid began in response to the refugee crisis following WWII.
Churches in the UK did not retreat into themselves and their own recovery,
but saw a wider need and responded.
As the charity declares: “For 75 years, we have lived out the challenge
to stand together with sisters and brothers across the world – one global family.”

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:9
Two Sundays ago, the reading set for the day was about the Good Shepherd.
In contrast to the hired hand, who flees at the hint of danger,
the genuine shepherd puts his own life on the line for the flock.
Echo of today’s: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13

As it happened, the Sunday we read about the Good Shepherd
was the exact anniversary of an incident in another war.
The Korean War between 1950-1953, fought in large part by national Servicemen,
is a largely forgotten conflict in British public memory.
[One veteran (Fusilier Mike Mogridge, Royal Fusiliers) recalled.
“The first night I got home I went out with my father to a pub…
and a fella said to me, “I've not seen you for a while, where've you been?”
I said, “I've been to Korea.”
And he said, “Oh really, did you have a nice time?”]

At the Battle of the Imjin River, a Brigade of British and Belgian forces,
faced with massed waves of Chinese troops, held high ground for three days,
until their position became untenable.
Eventually the order was given that they should attempt to break out of their encircling
enemy and find any way possible to get back to British lines.

The Adjutant of one of the regiments involved, Captain Farrar-Hockley of the Gloucesters
described one moment from the final stages of Hill 235.
It is an account given to all young officers in training, at the Royal Military Academy,
Sandhurst, in a volume, entitled Serve to Lead.

“The last preparations for departure were being made.
The signallers had already destroyed their radio sets,
and Harry was stamping on the ashes of the codebook he had just burnt.
We were all ready to move.
In small groups, the Headquarters split up and ran over the ridge.

When they had gone, I came up on to the ridge crest and prepared to descend the other side.
Bob, the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) the unit’s doctor.
was standing alone by the path that led to the steep slopes below us.
‘Come on Bob,’ I said. ‘We’re about the last to go - you ought to have gone before this.
The Colonel will be off in a minute and that will be the lot.’

He looked at me for a moment before saying;
‘I can’t go. I must stay with the wounded.’

For a few seconds I did not comprehend his meaning;
we were all making our way out - there seemed a fair chance that some of us would make it;
to stay here was to stay certainly for capture, possibly for death,
when the Chinese launched their final assault on the position.

And then I realised that he had weighed all this –
weighed it all and made a deliberate choice;
he would place his own life in the utmost jeopardy in order to remain with the wounded
at the time when they would need him most.
Somewhere, the words appear, ‘Greater love hath no man than this …’
I knew now exactly what those words meant.
Too moved to speak again, I clapped my hand upon his shoulder and went on.
(Captain Farrar-Hockley, The Edge of The Sword)

Friendship and greater love… Loyalty to Christ alone.
“We know the risks, don’t we?”
Love one another and abide.
Abide, abide, abide.

Sermon 16th MAY 2021, SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 16th MAY 2021, SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION

“While staying with them, Jesus ordered the disciples not to leave Jerusalem,
but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” Acts 1:4

In 1952 the city of Glasgow bought a painting. It cost £8,200.
Today, that same canvas is valued at some £60 million.
I understand, it now has its own room in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
The museum’s original purchase was controversial.
With post-war austerity, much of the Glasgow public believed the money
could be put to better use.
Art students presented a petition to the Chambers,
insisting they give local artists more exposure in their exhibition space.
The artist, (not a Scot) said the inspiration for the picture came in a dream.
In 2006 it won a poll to decide Scotland’s most popular painting

It is Salvador Dali’s, “Christ of St John of the Cross.”
At first glance it looks like a picture of the crucifixion,
though with a disconcerting perspective.
You cannot see the face of Jesus, just the top of his head.
His cross floats high above the earth.
The tilted angle of its construction has Jesus looking down from an awesome height,
on the scene below – a stretch of water, hills, fishermen and boats.
(The bay where Dali was living at the time – Port Lligat.)

While the cross is no longer staked to the hillside of Golgotha,
so too, on closer inspection, Jesus is not nailed to the cross.
To create the figure of Christ, Dalí had Hollywood stuntman Russell Saunders
suspended from an overhead gantry,
to see how the body would appear from the desired angle and envisage the pull of gravity.
Saunders received $35 each day for his pains.

“I think it is a painting of the Ascension.”
(Revd David Scott, Blog on the Learig, 15 May 21.)
It conveys two truths.
Firstly, Dali has caught something of the reality of the ascension
“without becoming ridiculous.”
The Christ who is ascended is, the same Christ who was crucified.
Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection are not a mistake;
Ascension is a confirmation, not a cancellation.
Secondly, the Christ who is ascended is also the one who shares our suffering,
not just once upon the cross – but always.

Today, scripture sketches post-Easter time –
from both the last verses of the gospel of Luke and the opening Acts of the Apostles refrain -
forty days after Easter – holy time.
And on this last occasion it is a time of questioning:
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
It was a reasonable question, given all they had been through.

When will you become the guy in charge -
and all of us, your faithful followers, distinguished members of your cabinet?
We have been faithful a long time now. How much longer?
Are we there yet? Isn’t it time to “show us the money?”
Questions that arise for every generation of disciples.

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:7-8

And then he is gone.
Which makes me think of the final scene of Mary Poppins,
where (Dick van Dyk), chimney sweep, Bert,
salutes the ascending/departing governess, in his unlikely cockney:
“Good-bye Mary Poppins! Don't stay gone too long…”

Mary Poppins’ umbrella/ the cloud that removes Jesus from the sight of the disciples,
one way of speaking about the presence of God –
the pillar of cloud that accompanied the children of Israel in the wilderness,
or filled the temple in Isaiah’s vision,
or engulfed Peter, James and John on the mountain of transfiguration.
From the cloud, beyond the cloud;
Jesus’ farewell command - go to the corners of the world; baptise in my name.
Jesus’ farewell promise - a new strength will be found; the Spirit will be given to you.
But, for the moment, advice/invitation - wait in Jerusalem.

Waiting is not generally our strongest suit.
We prefer a clear path, next steps, achievable targets.
But there are surely times when waiting is required,
whether chosen or forced upon us.
Periods of uncertainty and unknowing –
how we emerge from a pandemic, the future of a beloved country,
or face the challenge of diminished and aging congregations.
The uncertainty and unknowing in time of transition –
from school to college, from studies to work, from work to retirement.
Periods of uncertainty and unknowing
through illness, redundancy or relationship break down;
in time of war and climate crisis.
As a church friend related, her prayer:
“Teach me patience God. But I wish you would hurry up!”

Great or small, we yearn for answers to the how long question,
but Jesus will not be drawn,
instead, leaving space for the questions themselves, to do their work.
Such answers are known only to God the Father.
But, in these interim, these between-times, waiting is not passive.
It is being open, acknowledging pain and brokenness
in much that surrounds us or lies within.
It is a longing for what is better, a preparing for what is better;

And it is a resolution, to stand alongside Christ,
as Christ stands alongside us.

Our e-newsletter this week carries the blog by Revd Neil Urquhart,
minister of Irvine: Fullarton parish church.
He talks about a recent cycling trip to Easter Ross (Nigg Hill)
and the view of its waters.
On one hand, the mothballing of North Sea oil rigs, an apparent ending;
but on the other, in the same landscape,
the preparation of towering wind turbines.
The accompanying photos are a vivid image of a moment of potential shift –
one type of energy to another.
A visual sermon/picture perhaps,
of how as churches and congregations, we too might evolve?

Perhaps this year, Ascension serves a reminder:
Only when we look to an empty sky,
but hear the voice asking why we stand doing so,
only then, we realise that Christ entrusts the baton into our hands,
and the story of God’s kingdom come to earth,
really begins for us.

If that is so, may we make this prayer:
Heavenly Father,
by the grace of God,
and the breeze of the Holy Spirit,
so, shape us in the time of waiting,
that in the time of inspiring,
we might be/become, your cloud of witness.

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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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