Sermons - November 2020
Sermon 1st November 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 05 NOV 2017
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count,
from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb, Revelation 7
“Hallow” in Old English, means “holy” or “sacred.”
Last night, Hallows' Eve/Halloween – “the evening of holy persons.”
Today, All Hallows/All Saints Day.
What are we to make of it, this 1st of November, 2020 -
in a year of unimagined things,
in the week of a Presidential election,
with implications well beyond the borders of the USA;
in days before a second national lock down, due to continuing pandemic?
And in our own church tradition,
which runs shy of over reliance on saints;
is All Saints Day simply the disregarded, elder brother
of a more playful, trick or treating, Halloween sibling?
Earlier this year the Italian conductor and composer, Ennio Morricone died.
He created in many styles, but is perhaps most widely known for his film scores –
the haunting music for The Mission, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, for example.
On radio, last week, I heard two musicians discussing his film score for Cinema Paradiso.
Set in post-World War II, Sicily,
it is the story of the friendship between Salvatore,
the mischievous, intelligent son of a war widow.
And middle-aged, Alfredo, the projectionist at the local, movie house, the Cinema Paradiso.
Initially hostile, the projectionist begins to teach the child
how to work the film equipment, loading and changing reels.
Over time, sharing his deep love for the flickering black and white images
on the silver screen.
During the shows, the audience can be heard booing
when there are missing sections, causing the films to suddenly jump,
bypassing a critical romantic kiss or embrace.
The local priest, who previews the films, orders these sections censored,
and the deleted scenes are piled on the projection room floor.
In time, Alfredo encourages the adult Salvatore to leave his small town and pursue his passion for film making.
He does – staying away for thirty years
and only returning to attend the funeral of his mentor and friend.
The two musicians, listening to the film’s main score,
discussed why they loved the film:
because it illustrates what is handed on between generations.
In real life, the film score was co-written by Morricone and his son, Andrea.
Apparently, Morricone Senior had tried to dissuade his son from being a musician,
fearing that it was much too fickle a career to rely on.
After Cinema Paradiso, Morricone Senior revised his opinion.
No, you should go into music.
Passion. Passed down and passed on.
In our faith, All Saints Day is a day to remember what is passed down and passed on.
It is a day both to look back and to look forward.
Maybe not as dramatic as the film influence – Alfredo:
but most of us will recall others who have shaped our lives, and continue to do so.
Revd Tom Gordon: quoting from The Ecumenical Institute had this idea:
In our heads, in that inner part of your being,
there is a table, big or small.
Round that table sit people who matter to us, who influence us,
relationships that have shaped us.
They may be alive or dead,
they may be intimate contacts or people we have never met.
They may be literary/cinematic figures.
The table need not be constrained – it can, perhaps should be,
a stimulating community, full of life and colour.
But because they matter to us, they are part of us – our communion of saints.
“Everyone has a table. Everyone has their saints.
Everyone has their time of communion. Everyone is influenced.”
In November our focus shifts to those who have gone before us.
Remembrance Sunday; our Annual Bereavement Service.
Those who are living, pass from this life,
yet they retain their place at the table,
their influence does not diminish.
As a friend was advised when his own father died:
“Your father’s influence will perhaps be greater on your life, now that he is gone.
Greater than it was when he was alive.”
And, as another friend was advised on the death of a family member:
“Yes, your loved one is gone.
But in ways, you might not have guessed, you will get to know her differently.”
A new understanding of relationship with us -
and the love and vitality that goes with it.
"Christian faith does not assume a life (or world) of continuous security and familiarity.
It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, interruptions and leavings.
But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings –
the leavings open a door to arrivals
that could not have been experienced otherwise.” (Walter Bruggemann tbc)
As we remember and honour those who have gone before us,
we celebrate the communion between past, present, and future.
We draw comfort, resilience, and hope from the fact
that countless others have travelled similar roads –
mourned, hungered, thirsted, and grieved –
found strength, rejoiced, celebrated;
lived bravely and beautifully.
“The saints provide a glimpse of God’s already,
in the midst of our not-yet.” Tim Beach-Verhey
The question is therefore, ‘Who are the people round my table?’
Who/what matters? Who/what remains when inevitably death comes?
There is also the disconcerting, but challenging thought,
That we might figure round the table of others –
a name on the team sheet of their saints.
That imbues a sense of responsibility, rather than arrogance.
Gospel reminds us: Practise what you preach –
integrity of word and action – in the professions or public service,
in family life and friendships, in community and congregation –
we know it when we see it.
[You have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates.
God is the father of all.
Let there be one Life-Leader for you - Christ.
Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant.
Puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you.
But be content to be yourself - your life will count for plenty.” (The Message, Peterson)]
As a child I used to catch glimpses of the former Archbishop Michael Ramsay –
Ancient and white haired – he was exactly as I imagined the Almighty to be:
Ramsay once advised:
It is only a humble person (priest) who is authoritatively a man/woman of God,
one who makes God real to his fellows.
May it one day be said of you,
not necessarily that you talked about God cleverly,
but that you made God real to people.” (Quoted in Barefoot Disciple p38, S Cherry)
Let us finish with some last words from Ennio Morricone, who wrote his own obituary.
“I, Ennio Morricone, have died.
I’m announcing my death to all my friends that have always been close to me
and to those who I haven’t seen for a while.
I salute them with great affection. Impossible to name all of them.
There is only one reason that pushes me to send my farewell
to all of you in this way, and for which I’ve decided to have a private funeral:
I do not want to disturb.
I hope they (my children) will understand how much I’ve loved them.
Last, but not least, Maria to whom I renew the extraordinary love
that has kept us together and that I really regret leaving.
I send my most painful farewell to her.”
Like Cinema Paradiso, his words are painful, poignant, beautiful –
it is not difficult to imagine that those addressed by Morricone
will keep him at their respective tables for time immemorial.
Just as we do with those precious to us.
All Saints Day and the accompanying, Communion of Saints,
holds both sides of the bereavement coin –
the pain of the loss, undoubtedly,
but also a continued connectedness with the departed.
If that is true, we can pray, later this morning:
We thank thee for the dear and faithful dead,
those who make the distant heavens a home for us,
whose truth and beauty are even now in our hearts.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual shine upon them.
And as we set foot into the new week – most likely with some trepidation,
we are reminded that we are always at a crossroads,
between past and future.
“What we will be, has not yet been revealed.
But beloved, we are God’s children now.” I John 3:2
God’s loyalty is to the future.
So, guided by the vision and promise:
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal…
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7
Sermon 8th November 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 8th NOVEMBER 2020, 10.45am, REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY
In 1928, after lying in state in the original St Columba’s church building,
allowing thousands of mourners, many of them veterans,
to pass his coffin and offer their respects,
church elder, Field Marshal Douglas Haig was carried from this place -
there is old Pathe film footage –
so, commencing the long public journey –
from Westminster Abbey, to St Giles, Edinburgh,
before eventual resting place in the ruined beauty of Dryburgh Abbey,
by the banks of the Tweed.
Amid, the massive ceremony of it all,
the Field Marshal’s coffin would have passed one landmark he knew particularly well – the grave of the Unknown Warrior,
laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, on Armistice Day, November 11th,
two years after the end of World War I – one hundred years ago, this Wednesday.
In 1916, Army Padre/Chaplain David Railton, serving on the Western Front
was moved by the sight of a wooden cross inscribed “An Unknown British Soldier.”
In August 1920, Railton wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster,
to propose the idea of a national monument for an unknown, but representative warrior.
Railton was acutely conscious of the many troops who had died
and whose whereabouts were simply unknown – the Missing.
Dean Ryle was inspired and approached both King George V
and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George.
The King was sceptical but Lloyd-George was enthusiastic
and succeeded in winning him over.
In mid-October a government committee was formed to plan the scheme
and orders were issued to the Army commander in France
to select a body for return to the United Kingdom for burial on Armistice day,
just three weeks later.
Four/six bodies (depending on accounts) were selected;
chosen because there was no way of identifying their rank or regiment.
After dark the presiding officer was led into the hut where the bodies were on covered stretchers.
Possibly, blindfolded, the senior officer indicated his choice.
The unchosen bodies were re-buried
and the chosen one transferred to a coffin made from Hampton Court oak,
mounted with a sword from King George V’s private collection.
On the coffin, the inscription:
“A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.”
The next day the coffin was given a guard of honour by the French
until being embarked on HMS Verdun, a British battleship, from Boulogne to Dover.
Then train to Victoria, where it rested on the night of the 10th.
Enormous crowds gathered to street-line the funeral procession on the 11th.
The coffin was covered with the union flag
that Padre Railton had used throughout the war,
sometimes as shroud, sometimes as communion cloth.
“It was” he said, “literally tinged with the life blood of fellow Britons.”
The funeral cortege halted at the now permanent Cenotaph.
There was an unveiling by the King; at 1100hrs, a two-minute silence,
Then on to nearby Westminster Abbey.
At the Abbey, in the congregation were nearly 1,000 bereaved mothers or widows.
Within that company, place of honour was given to those women
who had lost both husband and children.
The Government had been forced to revise initial plans.
First lists appeared to too obviously favour fashionable society.
Public outcry demanded priority for bereaved families.
The coffin passed through a guard of honour consisting of ninety-six personnel,
decorated for gallantry, seventy-four of whom were Victoria Cross winners.
At the conclusion of the service, once the Abbey doors were closed,
the grave was filled in, with earth from the main French battlefields
and in time covered with a stone of black Belgian marble.
No-one was exactly sure how the public would respond to this new memorial.
In the event, they flocked to it.
An estimated 1,250,000 people visited the Abbey in the first week.
Mountains of flowers and wreathes were laid at the Cenotaph.
Clearly, it was a much needed, public expression of a private sorrow;
Giving permission and focus for lament.
The unknownness of the Warrior guaranteed his democracy;
an everyman - for every parent, every spouse, every child or friend.
Former Dean of Westminster, Michael Mayne –
“In honouring this one anonymous man
and placing him in this most public part of the Abbey on Remembrance Day 1920
they were making the strongest possible statement about human value;
about the worth of every single human.”
Each of us ordinary, at the same time, extraordinary.
Unknown. But precious.
What other unknowns might we find precious this Remembrance Sunday?
(Well, recognising today’s presence of an Air Vice Marshal)
In World War II, approximately 400-500 men from the Caribbean
flew as Air Crew in the Royal Air Force – not something widely recognised or understood.
Of these, approximately 70 were commissioned as Officers, and 103 decorated for gallantry.
I declare an interest - one of those who served, was my late Uncle-in-law (Clem Brutus).
Another was Guyanese actor, musician, writer and poet, Cy Grant.
Son of a Moravian minister and a music teacher mother,
in 1941, Grant joined the Royal Air Force,
which had extended recruitment to non-white candidates
following heavy losses in the early years of the Second World War.
He was commissioned as an officer after training in England as a navigator.
He joined 103 Squadron, flying out of Lincolnshire as part of a Lancaster crew.
In 1943, on the return leg of a bombing mission into Germany,
his plane was shot-down over Holland:
“Suddenly I was falling in space and it was like a dream world.
I remember being buffeted by the wind and being jolted as the parachute opened.
You could hear dogs barking and then the next sensation was a huge shadow
looming up in front of you, and that was the earth.”
He was taken in by a Dutch farmer’s, pregnant wife;
sixty-five years, returning to Holland, he met the daughter.
When the local police officer handed him over to German forces.
Grant briefly considered evasion:
“At that moment that it occurred to me that escape would be pretty futile.
Here I was with my blue RAF uniform, and a black man.
You couldn’t stand out more obviously than that.”
He was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III camp, east of Berlin;
made famous by two prisoner escapes, engineered by tunnelling
and later depicted in the movies, The Wooden Horse (1950) and The Great Escape (1963).
After the war, Grant qualified as a barrister at Law,
but felt that racism in the legal profession
denied him the opportunity to practice in Britain in the 1940s.
So, he went on to become an actor on stage and in film,
as well as a singer and cabaret artist.
He was the first West Indian to be regularly seen on British Television,
singing the daily news on BBC’s “Tonight” programme in the 1950′s.
He also sang "Feeling Good" for the first time on stage;
a song that was later made famous by Nina Simone.
He founded the first black arts centre.
Unknown? Probably. Precious? I think so.
In recounting his wartime experience, Grant himself mused on the question:
“What would have happened if my parachute hadn’t opened?”
Remembrance can, perhaps should, always ask awkward questions.
W H Auden’s, Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier (English)
To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?
What would those who died prematurely have wanted to do?
How do we value the opportunities that they gave up?
Remembrance’s annual question: How do we live with the days given to us?
In the Gospel, via the ready or not, here I come, bridesmaids’ tale –
Jesus delivers the punchline:
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 23:13
It is a reminder that we have all the time in the world –
nothing more and nothing less.
Wonderful possibility, but sands of time, too.
The opportunity to mend a friendship or forgive a debt,
To cherish a loved one or take a chance,
to re-examine a prejudice, or let go a bitterness,
to break a habit, to confront an injustice,
to sing in faith and pray in depth -
these beautiful, fundamental things, will not always be there.
Both the gospel and Remembrance warn us:
Do not presume that tomorrow belongs to us.
People of faith, or not,
they urge us to do the right thing, the necessary thing,
the sacred thing, the Christ-like thing, now.
On this unimagined Remembrance weekend –
our Armed Forces currently deployed on pandemic duties;
With the absolutely characteristic humour of the serving soldier,
I was told that the news of being billeted temporarily in a Liverpool holiday camp
was greeted with:
“I’d rather go to Afghanistan than Pontins!”
At a time when the world is restless and fearful in the face of so many unknowns,
I finish with words from a wartime diary,
written in 1942, by a veteran of Crete, North Africa, Italy and Normandy.
“War is like a fever; a violent disease which has to run its course.
Physicians can prescribe, nurses watch and toil,
and in their devoted ceaseless labours
future life and death may, and does, depend.
But nothing they can do can alter the violence of the disease,
its fluctuations, its recurring crises.
They have to be borne patiently and treated as they arise.
Anxiety on the part of onlookers when things go wrong –
as go wrong they will – can do no good;
in certain circumstances it can do great harm.
The only proper course is to do all we humanely can,
and remain calm and cheerful.
This is the proper course (for fever) and also in war.” p202, Hilyard Diaries
Keep awake therefore,
for though we know neither the day nor the hour,
let us live as known, and precious,
in the sight of our loving God and Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Sermon 15th November 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2020
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;
so, I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
Here you have what is yours.” Matthew 25:24b-25
How prepared are we to change our minds? A little – not at all?
Where lie our strong opinions?
About US Presidents, about Brexit; Scottish Independence or Scottish goalkeepers?
Climate change action, a friendship or betrayal, Black Lives Matter,
Prison reform, or Government Guidelines in time of pandemic?
Might we, or will we never, change our minds on such things?
An American friend, a Biden voter, in the light of recent results wrote this week:
“Feeling hopeful. And cautious.
70 million people voted for the current President. 48% of all voters.
I think it's time for me to learn how to reach out and listen better.
They have a story to tell that I just don't understand - yet.”
The gospel read today by Jo is perhaps a story that I don’t understand yet –
or more accurately, that due to the insights of others,
I am beginning to understand differently.
Sometimes referred to as the parable of the talents;
It is often the catalyst to consider how we use/don’t use – share/don’t share
our God given talents – whether that be our ability to study at school,
mentor young people, practice law, cook meals, kick a football, care for the dying
or read the workings of the human heart.
Talk of talents often goes hand in hand with talk of stewardship –
time, talents and money. Fair enough.
Three years ago, (the last time we read this passage)
that was the interpretation on the Sunday morning menu.
“How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from.” B Brown Taylor
If the parable is really about stewardship,
what else do we imbibe along the way?
That God is best pictured, as greedy estate owner,
“reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter.”
Is the kingdom of God really a place,
where those who have plenty, receive still more,
while those who have close to nothing, lose even the little they have?
What if more familiar, more comfortable reading
is obscuring a more challenging truth?
One commentator reported reading the parable to her teenage son this week,
fully expecting him to hate it.
His reaction astonished her. “That’s a great passage!” he said.
“It sums up everything Christianity is about. I love it!”
Baffled, the theologian asked him, what exactly he "loved."
“Isn’t it obvious? I love how the third slave is the hero of the story!”
The scholars tell us, in Jesus’s day, “talents” were not coins/forms of cash;
they were hefty precious metals (usually gold or silver)
weighing somewhere between 80 and 130 pounds.
A single talent was worth approximately 15-20 years of an ordinary labourer’s wages –
an unthinkable, lottery-jackpot-sum, only the wealthiest elite might possess.
Much of that elite wealth had been accumulated by money lent to the farming poor
at exorbitant interest,
followed by systematic stripping debtors of their land.
The three slaves in the story are the wealthy master’s “retainers” or household bureaucrats —
the middle-men who oversee the land and the workers,
running the day to day business while the master is away.
Their status, wealth, and well-being are inextricably tied to the master’s.
The more money they make for him,
the better and more comfortable their own lives – that’s their bottom line.
Two of the slaves do exactly that.
They take their masters riches, built on the existing system and double them.
Who knows what the collateral damage is, or who bears the real costs;
But that is not the concern of these stewards.
When the master returns, he is delighted.
He invites the two enterprising slaves to enter into his “joy” -
the joy of further wealth, further safety – for some.
Don’t worry about the disparity.
Then, the third slave: The third slave in the story opts out.
He sees his master’s character - greedy and corrupt.
He will be complicit, no more.
Riskily, he speaks out: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter seed;
So, I was afraid, (afraid of what this life was doing?)
and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
Now, here – have back what is yours.”
The master does not dispute the slave’s assessment of his harshness.
“You’re right, my way or the highway!
Therefore, you should have at least, invested with the bankers and gained interest.”
And there is a moment of truth/an epiphany.
From his own lips, this successful owner advocates what is forbidden by the law.
(Exodus 22 and Leviticus 25).
Jesus’ audience would know that –
would have understood that this wealthy icon, was not the parable’s hero –
but unmasked as its villain.
The truth is out: The parable master does not care how the slaves make more money for him.
He wants more; he doesn’t care who knows it.
The parable is an echo of all those prophets, who in Israel’s history
harangued the political and religious elite for feathering their own nests,
while the poor suffered through a system, stacked against them.
The resistance? Knowing full well what it will cost him,
the slave buries the heavy talent in the earth.
He hides it – literally, taking it out of circulation,
thereby diminishing the system, that diminishes the poor.
“The slave is more than a quiet hero; he is a whistle-blower.” (Herzog)
At great cost to himself, he names the exploitation —
the same exploitation he colluded in and benefited from, for years.
Now he awakes, he changes his mind, he acts,
offering his stubborn ounces against the tide.
The parable concludes with the gathered wrath of an indignant leader,
whose grip is threatened,
Casting the slave into outer darkness.
the owner ruthlessly increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
The parable offers no fairy-tale ending –
but then it is told by one who, short days later,
would also be “cast into the outer darkness” -
crucified on the rubbish heaps beyond the city walls.
[Another buried talent.]
How prepared are we to change our minds? A little – not at all?
A story I just don't understand - yet.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died last week, once explained
that to overcome periods of adversity, requires us to have:
“a special kind of thought… the ability to see things differently,
to alter perspectives… to see the things, you have seen all along, but never noticed.”
Last Sunday, immediately after the end of our Remembrance Sunday service,
An encounter took place on our church steps that continues to live with me.
Outside our locked doors, I chatted to the Regimental Colonel of the London Scottish Regiment. Taken together, we were both male, white and between us bore military medals, a smart suit, poppies and robes of religion.
On Remembrance Sunday we could not have looked more
the common and accepted face of Remembrance.
From around the corner we were approached by a black man.
Though cleanly dressed, he had the slightly wild intensity
of one who might be living on the streets.
Initially, he wanted to enter the church to pray.
I explained that that wasn’t possible, due to our current restrictions.
Fixing on the medals and the poppies,
there followed a passionately delivered, if difficult to follow,
volley of critique – of war, of imperialism, of slavery and of race.
There was little in one sense that could be responded to.
A moment later he said, “I have a message for you. I have a book. Wait there I’ll get it.”
He disappeared around the corner, while the two of us waited, a little open-mouthed.
Swiftly he returned.
And thrust it into my hand.
Its title: “How to be a Fascist.”
And then he was gone.
What histories, legacies, and communities have we/do we side-line
What existing complicities are we being asked to surrender?
Are we being called to be unfaithful,
to ways of life that are comfortable for us,
but death dealing for others.?
“How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from.”
Wrestling such change in ourselves and others may not win us favour or friends;
Bill Arlow, priest in Northern Ireland, an unsung hero of the peace process.
Back in 1988, when the end of the Troubles was not in sight:
“Better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed,
than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail.”
(Quoted by Sam Wells, T4tD, Nov 2020)
Sermon 22nd November 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
22nd November 2020
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40
If you follow, or enjoy, a bit of TV hype,
you may know that recently the new series of The Crown has been released.
Tracing the fortunes of the British royal family,
it is part historical, part soap-opera; 100% sumptuous backdrops.
Whether you love or loathe its representation of the principal characters
may depend on how you view royalty generally.
This week, at home, we had a further glimpse of screen royalty,
when we dusted off the DVD of My Fair Lady.
Audrey Hepburn, the beautiful, if unlikely, Covent Garden flower girl,
“raised from the gutter” by the bullying, linguistic professor,
(Rex Harrison’s), Henry Higgins.
The story’s irony is that as Eliza passes the test
of being presented at the Embassy Ball, in the presence of royalty,
the rumour is gossiped round the chandelier-ed ballroom:
the mystery lady is a fraud –
but, not that she is an East End flower girl assuming airs and graces,
but actually, a Hungarian princess, trying to be English!
(Wonderful tunes; a perhaps dated world view.)
Today, the Church year gives us our own Royal Sunday.
The feast of Christ the King was first marked in 1925,
just a few years after the end of the First World War,
to counter a tide of rising totalitarianism.
Pope Pius XI instituted it, in the hope that a world ravaged by war,
might find in Jesus’s humble kingship, an alternative
to empire, nationalism, consumerism, and secularism.
[Writing in the Encyclical that established the feast:
“…as long as individuals and states refuse to submit to the rule of our Saviour,
there will be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.”]
At the end of the Church year, on Royal Sunday,
one might anticipate a big closing number;
a mighty finale, to send us out humming gospel chorus.
Jesus walking upon the waters or calming the storm;
Jesus transfigured on the mountain, walking with Moses and Elijah;
Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave.
Instead, as one commentator wrote this week: We get homeless Jesus.
Hungry Jesus, naked Jesus, sick Jesus, imprisoned Jesus.
(Debie Thomas, Journey With Jesus, Nov 2020)
“Royalty that stoops.” (Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge.)
Matthew alone records the parable/vision of the Last Judgement,
placing it along with several other stories connected to the end of times.
Urgent stories told, as his own death approaches.
Last words summarise what is passionately important;
what you want to hand on, to survive once we have gone.
For Jesus: understand that God’s judgement rests,
not on the orthodoxies of our beliefs,
but the willingness to ease the burdens of others.
A senior officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary once spoke about
visiting families of those bereaved by the troubles in Northern Ireland:
His advice: “People do not care how much you know,
until they know how much you care.”
Sheep and goats; all day grazing together, virtually indistinguishable;
at evening time, identified, according to type.
The good deeds – food, shelter, care – are not revolutionary;
Rather, a regular and recognisable part of Jewish teaching -
responsibilities attached to the nation’s religious calling.
What is radical, is the claim – if you do these things (feed, water, clothe, tend, visit)
to the least of any of these, my brothers and sisters –
you do it to me. To Christ.
Again: apparently, the judgement is not between those who believe
and those who do not believe:
The criteria is, between those who care and those who do not care.
How we treat each other is the barometer of our faith.
In My Fair Lady, the mother of the abrasive Professor Higgins asks Eliza:
“However did you learn good manners with my son around?”
Eliza answers that it was only because of the genial Colonel Pickering
who always acted towards her as something better than a common flower girl.
“You see, Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up,
the difference between a lady and a flower girl
is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
Lat week, in the light of another parable – The Talents –
we pondered the thought, how we hear a parable,
depends on where you hear it from.
In today’s case – Are we being called to care
or are we crying out for care?
I was very taken recently with words from a volunteer,
involved with the work of the Night Shelters.
I know this person to be incredibly faithful;
quietly, week by week undertaking a very unglamorous, unseen task,
that is essential to the provision of hot evening meals to the guests
that gather at churches across west London – St Columba’s one of many
The volunteer made no mention of that contribution;
rather commented how it felt to be invited to stay on and have a meal alongside the guests.
“It was nice just to sit; for once to be served. It was special.”
Marcus Rashford, the England and Manchester United footballer
has done much recently to raise the profile of food poverty –
particularly round the provision of free school meals in holiday time.
His response emerges from lived experience.
Growing up in a community where, if his mother was working,
his teacher would drop him off at the end of the street for his brothers to pick up,
or where the next-door neighbour’s door was always open,
or where other members of the community would drive him to football training,
he knows the power of community.
“They never made him feel asking for help was the wrong thing to do.”
(The Guardian 21 Nov 20)
High profile or anonymous, we need others, as others need us.
“Christians are always both recipients of the gospel and witnesses to it.
Each of us is both unbeliever and believer,
both commanded to care and in need of care,
(both judged by the Son of Man and identified with him in our weakness,
both under judgement for our failures to pursue justice and saved by grace,)
both a goat and a sheep. Mark Douglas p.336
Sometimes, indifference or cruelty becomes normalised
because of its prevalence exemplified by others.
(Bullying in the workplace, racism in institutions,
prejudice in employment, cruelty in war zones.)
But if that is true, so too, its counter: contagious compassion.
folk encouraged by the actions of others.
Our actions change others - for good or ill -
not just those we might help,
but those who witness our reaching out or holding back.
We forget how significant we can be in influencing each other
and the communities we serve.
That is at the heart of Jesus’ observation, command and promise –
that when we care for each other, we care for Christ.
The performance of care – audience or actor, given or received –
is the stage upon which we discover Christ,
flower girl or princess, viscount or volunteer,
celebrity centre forward or school yard defender.
The performance of care - both in ourselves and others –
he stage where we hear the invitation:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Sermon 29th November 2020 Advent I
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2020, ADVENT I
Therefore, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. Mark 13:35-7
“Please come help us Supernanny – we desperately need your help.”
For the unfamiliar, this is the mantra, implored
at the outset of weekly episodes of Supernanny.
For the uninitiated, Supernanny is the originally British reality television show
where professional nanny, Jo Frost
devotes an episode to helping a family
where the parents are struggling with child-rearing.
Strictly opposed to smacking, she is a warrior for “the naughty step.”
In the series made for America, she arrives in a London, black cab,
having watched film footage of all that is going wrong.
After scenes of epic chaos and despair –
tantrums, late nights, sibling fighting, screaming abuse –
the parents face the camera and offer the “prayer.”
“Please come help us Supernanny – we desperately need your help.”
It is an Advent-type prayer.
We dwell in a broken world, fearful of chaos, surrounded by suffering;
We long for harmony, among the nations and amid our homes.
We need God to show up.
We need God to stay.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel – we desperately need your help!
The prayer resources offered this week is the poem,
by the Church of Wales priest, R S Thomas. Entitled, The Coming it begins:
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
… … …
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
“Let me go there”, says the son – to that “small globe.” To us.
That is the heart of our faith.
That the God who is the source of life,
who holds it all, in ways beyond describing,
comes to us in the intimacy and beauty of the life of Christ.
So, each Advent, we begin again to prepare for that thing
which has already happened and we trust will happen again.
As the gospel indicates, we do not know the exact timing,
all we can do is be in a state of readiness.
Vigil is a rich/good word for this season –
suggesting waiting, watchfulness and worship.
Active waiting before God, for God –
an engaged surrender, a devotional presence,
prepared and preparing.
If Advent is Christians’ season of particular waiting,
perhaps this year it chimes/coincides with a national mood.
There is so much waiting at present:
for an end to lockdown, for a vaccine,
for a return to our normal, social lives.
All the other non-COVID-19 waitings:
for a job offer or an operation,
for a school place or the return of a loved one for the holidays,
a change in the weather or in politics,
waiting for love or waiting for divorce,
waiting for death and waiting for peace.
In reality, there has always been the waiting –
the Psalmist, more than once, cries out:
How long, O Lord?”
Just that this year, with its ground-hog days,
the usual distractions are not there
to conceal our sometime, hollowness.
Friends have spoken to me this week
both about the strain they see in marriages/relationships,
(not pandemic’s fault – but impacted the squeeze of its press.)
Also - how people’s priorities are changing.
Much of that will only become clearer in the fulness of time.
Meantime, we can say authoritatively,
waiting is part of life, part of faith;
even if by and large, we don’t wait well.
Perhaps it is helpful to consider the suggestion,
waiting is a muscle – requiring to be exercised, strengthened and toned.
Waiting, a necessary part, of a spiritual workout.
Something requiring time and application;
the space and condition in which the things that are genuinely important can grow/emerge.
In Advent, we are invited to recognise the “not yet”
while anticipating, the yet to come.
Invited to stop rushing, and see as sacred what is yet in process, unformed/unfinished.
Very often, the lectionary serves up the thunder of apocalypse at the start of Advent –
the Son of man returning, trailing clouds of glory,
emerging at the moment of dire crisis –
darkened sun, stars falling from the sky.
Vivid, somewhat frightening images.
Apocalypse means revelation, an unveiling.
As Paul puts it in this week's reading from 1st Corinthians,
we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus’ end time words can be understood, not as a conclusion, but as a warning.
As the Theology of Hope, theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us
“the world is not yet finished.”
We are to participate in the kingdom work of “building back with justice”,
living out, ‘day-to-day love” in hope that another world is possible.
Reformation’s Martin Luther:
“If I knew the world were coming to an end tomorrow,
I would still go out and plant my apple trees today.”
This week there is the opportunity to join a virtual coffee morning
with the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland,
Rev Dr Martin Fair.
Last week I heard him in conversation with Rev Sally Foster-Fulton of Christian Aid.
Christian Aid’s wonderful catchphrase: “We believe in life before death.”
When asked what Christian Aid hoped for this Advent:
“Bring people at the margins to the centre – give them their room.”
Foster-Fulton spoke of the locust infestation in East Africa, which in normal times would be making headline news – huge areas of vital food wiped out in visits of fleeting destruction.
In the context of the climate crisis,
the point made is that the consumerism, capitalism, our obsession with stuff
looks a bit like those locusts.
When asked what Advent meant to her, she answered:
“Advent not just yearning – it is expecting change.”
She drew attention to the hymn: Come thou long expected Jesus.
“And what would the coming kingdom look like?
“An upside down turning – not just a little bit left over
but a proper sharing of all this stuff.”
George MacLeod of the Iona Community, writing in the mid C20th:
“What we should be doing is to build more beautiful societies
for Jesus to come to.
A more beautiful Glasgow, with fewer slums.
A more beautiful Africa, with fewer shanty towns.
So that, if He came, we would feel less ashamed
of our failure in fellowship.”
So, Advent asks us to:
Watch and wait – like those who long for first light;
watch and wait – space-clearing, patient, anticipating –
watch and wait – hopeful, making beautiful,
expectant of the good to come.
In a year that has encompassed a great deal of American politics,
and a week of America’s Thanksgiving Day (November 26th) –
and on a Sunday of the first Advent candle,
a last word, from across the Atlantic.
In colonial New England, the story goes,
a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness in the middle of the day,
by a sudden eclipse.
Many present, panicked; others moved to adjourn.
In the darkness, one voice, however, spoke up:
“Mr Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn,
we shall appear to be fools.
If it is the end of the world,
I should choose to be found doing my duty.
I move you Sir, that candles be brought.”