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Sermons - September 2020

Sermon 6th September 2020


Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Matthew 18:18

In the autumn of 2018, we undertook a congregational consultation
to ask our church members about the life of St Columba’s –
what was appreciated and helpful, what irked or could be improved.
The exercise was entitled, Listening to the Future:
Once the findings were gathered, the Kirk Session (our ordained elders) convened
to ponder and plan.
The day began with to a story, borrowed from another community of faith.
It is a story of missed messages and fallings out.
Of things held dear and hurts received, even if unintended.
In the light of the Gospel (Matthew 18) and Jesus’ advice for fractious times
It is worth a re-listen:

A young clergy couple begin a joint ministry to two congregations
in the mountain of Eastern Tennessee.
Eager but inexperienced, they learned a lot about themselves,
their congregations and mountain culture.
They learned that many decisions in their churches
were not made when the church council met
but occurred down the road at the gas station restaurant
where the farmers gathered for a cup of coffee after the morning chores.

One of the churches had had no Sunday School for over 20 years.
There were no families with young children in the church;
though there were young families in the area.
The Pastor, assisted by one other, began to try to change the situation.
It took a while and all the creativity and energy they could muster –
but after two years there was a nursery,
three age-level classes and a youth group
made up of young people from neighbouring churches.
The church became known as a place offering something for young families.
They even installed swings next to the picnic area,
which was actually used only once a year for a BBQ at the annual Homecoming weekend.

Two weeks after the swings were installed,
the pastor arrived to find all was not quite right…
Four freshly dug holes were all that remained, by the picnic area,
where the swings had been installed.
Now round the back of the church,
the same swing set had been moved and concreted in to its new location.
It took a few days to discover what had happened
but in a small town, no one had secrets.

Mary Jo James, the long-time church treasurer,
had hired some men to move the swings in the middle of the night –
instructing them: “Dig those holes deep and fill them with concrete!”

The parents in the church were pretty mad:
“What kind of church is this? Don’t you want us here?”
Other church members were puzzled and similarly outraged.
They voted to restore the swing to its location by the picnic area
and did so without delay.
The Pastor was instructed to visit Mary Jo James –
[this excited him as much as the prospect of a visit to the dentist for root canal work.]
He liked Mary Jo, appreciating her faithful worker as treasurer
and knew that she had previously shared her appreciation for the new members.
The Pastor had no idea what was going on.

As he walked towards her house the curtains twitched.
Before he could knock, the door opened she was at the door,
holding the carefully recorded financial accounts.
“I quit!” she declared, before handing over the books.
“I’m quitting the church too. No point coming in – I ain’t changing my mind!”
She shut the door leaving the Pastor on the porch
weighed down with a pile of heavy ledgers.

It took several weeks to piece together what had happened, and why?
Mary Jo had married late in life – marrying the widower, Jimmy James,
Also, from the church.
They didn’t have children, but she described it as the happiest years of her life.
When Mary Jo’s husband died, Mary Jo gave money to the church
for a covered picnic area in honour of her husband.
“Jimmy never much cared for plaques, saying who gave money for such-and-such.
I don’t want any plaques in the picnic area.
We’ll know in our hearts who we are remembering. Jimmy always did like a good BBQ.”

The problem was, as the years passed and new members joined,
many people did not remember.
They had no idea that when they placed the swings next to the picnic area,
it would bother Mary Jo so much.
Even her closest friends did not know how she felt.

We don’t have the full resolution to the story,
but as the Pastor himself wrote a book, The Four Tasks of Practical Theology –
we can presume they found their way to a good result.

We might consider that t story, not because it portrays characters or episodes
resembling St Columba’s or St Andrew’s, Newcastle –
but because it recognises conflict, and illustrates the importance of understanding
both our own stories and motivations, and those of others.

There is a misguided assumption that because we are Christians,
because we belong to a congregation, we will all be nice –
nice people, nice to each other – nice.
In contrast, Jesus, took it for granted
that we would argue, disagree, offend, sulk,
wound, and sometimes, walk away.
After all, he had first-hand experience of ambitious, arguing disciples,
self-serving and scarpering;
he comprehended how the human heart works –
both for great good and terrible harm.

So, today, Matthew’s gospel – written for the early Jewish-Christian community –
wrestling with what it is/what it takes, to foster and sustain community –
(on the one hand0 holding to inherited wisdoms and traditions,
(on the other) welcoming those, for whom such traditions meant little or nothing –
to this fractious constituency, Matthew summons Jesus words:
recognising, resolving, reconciling conflict.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Not whether there will be fallings-out;
but how to react/behave, when the toys get thrown out the pram.

Three Plans/Strategies:
Plan A: “If another member of the church sins against you,
go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Honest conversation; discretely undertaken – one to one, face to face.
Attempt a genuine resolution, not a fiction of harmony;
avoid the of sullen, unaddressed resentment.
Mindful, that we might be on either side of this scenario –
not just the party that was offended, seeking reconciliation;
sometimes the original offender.
Can we lower our defences sufficiently to hear hard truths, that we have hurt or harmed?

Plan B: “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you,
so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

If one-on-one won’t suffice, enlist others.
Not to spread gossip or gang up; not to escalate conflict -
but to ensure truth is articulated, guarded, honoured and remembered.
Jesus’ words echo Deuteronomy 19:15, the law concerning witnesses:
Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.

Plan C: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;
and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,
let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Sometimes, Jesus says, all efforts at reconciliation will fail,
and a member of the community will be lost.
Some things cannot be mended – or at least, are beyond our ability to do so.
It is to be lamented.
Dismissal or departure is not a victory – not an occasion for gloating –
it is a fracturing of the body of Christ.

Plan C may appear to grant permission to shun/ cancel out
those with whom we hold irreconcilable difference?
“…let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Yet, Jesus never regarded a Gentile or tax collector
as someone beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

[Think of that illustrious Gospel “tax collector/sinner” roll call: 
Zacchaeus, falling out of his tree, invited to play host;
the Roman centurion - officer of occupying empire - and his servant – the greatest faith;
or the crazed Gadarene among the tombs, tormented by interior demons;
women – the Samaritan at the well, bantering over buckets;
the Syrophoenician, pleading crumbs from the master’s table, for her sick daughter. ]

“Outsiders”; yet chosen by Jesus;
recipients of his love and compassion, healing and hope.
Jesus doesn’t airbrush people he doesn’t like,
or whose values and beliefs don’t match his own. 
He loves them as creatively and authentically as he can.

In Matthew, this section follows the parable of the lost sheep
and precedes Peter’s question about how often one should forgive –
“not seven times, but seventy.”
A faithful community is always seeking to restore the lost.

According to Jesus, even dispute is holy ground.
Never underestimating the difficulty of reconciliation;
acknowledging that in our own strength, it is not always possible;
it’s in our interconnectedness,
our struggles to reconcile and be reconciled,
that God promises to be with us. 
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  
Insider/outsider - the quality of our relationships matter –
from here to eternity.

Sermon 13th September 2020


Then his lord summoned him and said to him,
“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.”
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Matthew 18:32-3

Earlier this week, the Bishop of Manchester, speaking on the radio,
recalled being put on the spot, by an American TV journalist,
two days after the bombing of the Manchester Arena, Ariana Grande concert,
“As a Christian, have you forgiven the bombers yet?”
“Not yet” he replied, “I am too angry.”

As the Public Enquiry into the Manchester bombing opened this week,
The Bishop admitted he is still angry.
Though his anger now is focused, not so much on the young bomber himself –
vulnerable and groomed –
but on the shadowy figures who foment the messages of hate
that distil the destruction.
Still angry – even though he, the Bishop, was not injured;
even though he did not lose anyone close to him
and even though it is not his faith that is vilified
by association with such a monstrous act.
Still angry – forgiveness is complicated.

Disciple Peter asks forgiveness’ most famous question:
Jesus, how often must one forgive – as many as seven times?
Peter, who knew what it was to make mistakes,
Would, one day, receive the thrice-repeated blessing of forgiveness
at a lakeside, resurrection breakfast.
Here, he may have felt he was going the extra mile;
seven times – the number of perfection – remarkably generous –
surely that would make the Teacher smile?
Instead, with a story, the parable of the two debts
Jesus explodes such arithmetic.

Part I: The king is overhauling the accounts.
Before him staggers the servant with the absurd debt.
Ten thousand bags of gold – billions.
How the debt was incurred, we know not.
Could it ever, realistically be repaid? Never.
Yet, the entreaties of the servant, shift the king’s original intention.
Instead of prison bars, debt relief.

Part II: Inexplicably free, straightway, the forgiven servant
stumbles across a debtor of his own; one hundred silver pieces.
“By heaven, you will pay, or else woe betide you!”
“Have mercy, have patience, I’ll repay – give me a chance.”
The very same plea, with which the first debtor had implored the king
“Not a chance. Away with him!”

But there are witnesses.
Those who saw the unpayable debt forgiven
and the minor debt, “un-mercied.”
That cannot be right. Second time around the king agrees.
“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

From generosity comes reciprocity; pay forgiveness forward.
Those who follow me, says Jesus should be a uniquely forgiving people,
more concerned with the plank in their own eye,
than the speck in their neighbours!
A forgiving people, because we are a forgiven people.
Hard – yes, indeed – like the Bishop says: Still angry.
But not optional; forgiveness, foundational,
a crucial part of participating in God’s beloved community.

Why such insistence on forgiveness?
Because un-forgiveness is a cancer in any community,
let alone in the body of Christ.
In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes:
“Withholding forgiveness, is like drinking rat poison,
then waiting for the rat to die.”
A Prisoner of War once asked his friend:
“Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that.”
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?"

Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber compares forgiveness
to a set of bolt-cutters, snapping the chains that bind us:
“Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter.
Free people aren’t controlled by the past.
Free people laugh more than others.
Free people see beauty where others do not.
Free people are not easily offended.
Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid.
Free people are not chained to resentments.”

How often must I forgive?
“I am still angry.”
Are the two necessarily in contradiction?
As one commentator pointed out this week:
“Righteous anger is very much what Jesus did.
Yes, Jesus forgave; but he also raged.” Debie Thomas, Journey With Jesus
Turning over of the Temple money-changer tables;
paint-stripping words for the religious hypocrites who oppressed the poor;
disciples rebuked, for blocking the way to little children, into his presence.
A time for building and a time for pulling down;
to insist on change, to say, "Enough is enough”
to take sin, in its many forms, as seriously as Jesus did.
Forgiveness, not a sweeping under the carpet,
not avoidance of conflict,
not an instant, easy or costless healing or restoration;
forgiveness, not as an end,
but the beginning of the hard and future work of the kingdom.

“How often should I forgive?” “I am still angry.”
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Forgiven, we are called to be forgiving.
It is not easy.
And it is certainly not for us to judge how far, or how much someone else can forgive.
I have always found helpful, the idea that forgiveness is
not a virtue to be practiced but a gift to be prayed for.

In August we marked VJ75 (Victory over Japan);
heard tales from the few remaining veterans
who were imprisoned by the Japanese in appalling conditions.
In 2002, the Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW) Association
Held their final service and laid up the Association standards.
The chaplain that day recognised, in the words of veterans,
that the Japanese knew what they were doing,
so, there were some who still could not prayer for their forgiveness:

“Just as you find it hard, some impossible, to forgive those who tortured you,
so, the Japanese have found it hard to seek remorse and repentance.
It may not be possible in this life
to get this sorted out any more than it has been.
So today, the laying up of the Association’s standard
is a way of handing it all over to God
with thanksgiving for what has been achieved
and acceptance that we can’t do everything.”

Sermon 20th September 2020


“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:16

Two zoologists at Emory University, decided to study the evolution of fairness.
Is it nature or nurture? They designed an experiment using capuchin monkeys.
Pairs of monkeys were placed in adjacent cages where they could see each other,
and trained to take turns giving small granite rocks to their human handler.
Each time a monkey relinquished a rock,
she would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward.
Capuchins love cucumbers,
so both monkeys found this arrangement satisfactory,
and handed over their rocks with enthusiasm.

But then, the handler changed things up.
After a few fair and even exchanges,
the handler rewarded the first monkey with a chunk of cucumber as usual,
but gave the second monkey a grape —
apparently, grapes are caviar in the monkey world.

Seeing that the game had changed for the better,
the first monkey perked up, and very eagerly handed over another rock,
expecting, of course, to receive a grape, too.
But no — the handler gave her another piece of cucumber.
To make things worse, the handler then gave the second monkey another grape for free!

The results were striking. The first monkey just about lost her mind.
Not only did she refuse to eat the cucumber;
she hurled it at the handler’s face.
She then proceeded to bang against the bars of the cage,
throw her remaining rocks in every direction,
and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion.
The scientists concluded: fairness is a concept deeply rooted in our being.

“Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Yes, I am envious because you are generous.
Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair.
Excusing sloth and sloppiness is NOT fair.
Think Protestant work ethic; American Dream; Be all you can be;
that’s how the world works. That’s how fairness works.
Then like the titanic we sail onto the iceberg of this parable.

The owner of the vineyard himself makes the trip to the marketplace
to hire the labourers.
First at the start of the day, then at regular intervals, (6,9,12,3…)
even until one hour before last light.

Nothing too radical so far.
Then he instructs his manager:
Time to pay the men (as the law of Leviticus instructed.)
Only - pay the latecomers first; pay the early birds last.
Oh, one other thing: Pay those latecomers a full day’s wage.
That passed down the line pretty sharp.
The weary first-selected, perked up: An hour’s work - a day’s wage?
Then we should be in for a roll-over jackpot – maybe a twelve denarii-working day
(grapes instead of cucumbers!)
They rubbed their hands.

It was not to be.
And depending where you are in the line, reactions vary mightily.
At one end, elated latecomers; at the other, bitter full-shift men.
The grumbling rises – Why should they be valued the same as us?
Where’s the justice in that?
We took the heat of the day and did the lion’s share;
how come these others get the same as us?
(Perhaps muttering beneath their breath – “We are better than them.”.)

Have I paid you less than we agreed at the hiring time? asks the landowner.
No, but…
Take what belongs to you and go;
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.
It’s mine to give after all.
Or are you envious because I am generous?

“The parable is a little like cod liver oil.
You know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you,
but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” Barbara Brown Taylor

If we find this tale bewildering, abrasive, even offensive,
Jesus surely intended it that way.
It’s not “economic” sense – that is not its aim.
It is not fair in the sense that we have been raised with that word.
Again, that is not its aim.
Rather, taking a scene and scenario, utterly familiar to his hearers,
Jesus holds up to the light, something of His Father - of God.
The vineyard owner, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, takes the expected norms,
and like moneychangers’ tables, unceremoniously upends them.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Isaiah 55:8
The landowner’s reckoning is dictated not by good works received,
but by his generosity.

At day’s end, what concerns the landowner is not who deserves what,
but that every worker ends the day
with the dignity and security of a living wage.
The capacity to go home and feed a family
sufficient security and peace of mind to sleep well;
hope and a sense of accomplishment, belonging, and dignity.
Wondrous generosity towards all in the marketplace, especially the least;
simultaneously, calling out our sometimes-stunted attitudes towards grace for others.

Perhaps the parable’s key - Where are we in the line?
At the rear, with a sense of raucous joy –
stunned and grateful that against all the odds,
we were invited to the party?
Or frostily at the front,
nursing a grumbling a sense of injustice,
even though we have received exactly what we were promised?
The parable is a warning for deserving folk
who have forgotten how to delight in the vineyard;
like the elder son in the Prodigal Son parable,
unwilling to join the party thrown by the Father for the younger brother
who was lost but is now found.

“Are you envious because I am generous?”
“Is that where you want to stay?”
“No – not really.”
“Well then, there’s a ceilidh after work –
let me introduce you to some of your brothers and sisters.
Come. We need longer tables, not higher walls.”

Sermon 27th September 2020

SUNDAY 27 SEPTEMBER 2020, 11am

“Which of the two did the will of his father?” Matthew 21:31

At the end of that great weekend TV, British institution – Match of the Day
there is a regular, short, humourous section: Two Good, Two Bad –
trailed by a representative halo and devil’s horns.
Trawling from the footage of the recent fixtures
the pundits chuckle over two examples of something very positive –
a sublime bit of skill or an act of sportsmanship.
In contrast – Two Bad – an error, usually of slapstick nature –
a referee falling over, a spectator asleep in the crowd.
Today, Jesus’ parable: One good; one bad.
“Which of the two did the will of his father?”

It is the Monday of what we now call Holy Week.
The day before – Palm Sunday - Jesus has entered Jerusalem,
mounted on the donkey/colt of prophecy. Behold your King comes.
For the moment, adored by the crowds.
Entering the Temple, he has caused pandemonium,
overturning the money-changers tables –
incensed at the institutionalised machinery
that exploits access to his Father’s house of prayer.

The next day, early in the morning,
returning to the city after a night’s rest, on the road he is hungry.
He spots a fig tree by the road, but upon inspection finds nothing but leaves.
“May you never bear fruit again!”
Immediately the tree withered. Signs and warnings.

You can imagine the religious establishment’s reaction to all this holy trouble.
This is where we joined the gospel this morning.
Just who does he think he is?
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

“I will answer that, if you will answer one question for me.
Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The temple men confer: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us,
‘Why then did you not believe him?’
But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ the crowd will be all over us – they loved him as a prophet.”
Verdict: “We do not know.”
Off the record, they thought they knew exactly what the answer was.
“Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

There could have been a parting of the ways, then and there –
though only temporarily, for surely by now Jesus has a target on his back.
It is he who keeps the conversation running:
“What do you think?
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said,
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
Son no 1 answers: “Yeah, I don’t think so.”
but later, changes his mind, goes and sets to work in his father’s vineyard.
The father approaches the second son in similar fashion.
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
“I’m on it! No worries, happy to help, I’ll be with you in a moment…”
But he did not go.
“Which of the two did the will of his father?”
It’s a no-brainer. “The first” we all reply – temple priest and C21st disciple.

But then the kicker. Jesus switches One Good; One Bad
from innocuous morality story to spotlight on his interrogators:
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes
are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.
For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him,
but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him;
and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

“Beware chief priests and elders, you are like the second son in the story.
You talk the talk, fluent in worthy words,
but when John came and offered you the good news of the kingdom,
did you repent, did you act?
Meanwhile, the people whom you shame and condemn –
the tax collectors and the prostitutes?
They - they are like the first son in the story.
Offered the gift of repentance and salvation, they responded —
they weren’t pious, they just understood they were broken.
They were humble enough, desperate enough, to swim towards the life raft.
Starving, they could see they were being offered the bread of life.

You saw it, chief priests and elders – the crowds going out to John –
you even questioned him about it.
He told you he was just the messenger.
But even then, you wouldn’t let his words in,
wouldn’t change your minds,
because you had God fixed.
So, my friends, it is the tax collectors and prostitutes –
the ones at the edge, the little ones –
who find their way into the kingdom of God before you.

Which son did the will of the father?
And which son/which daughter am I?
In honesty, probably both.
Sometimes living up to, living out the words of faith;
sometimes not, looking away, walking by.
Two Good; Two Bad – not necessarily in such neat proportion.

Jesus calls out religion that stops at empty words.
Calls out: “All forms of Christianity that flicker to life on Sunday morning,
but then fade out between Monday and Saturday.” (Debie Thomas) Ouch!

But remember hard words from Jesus are always and only because he wants more for us.
Because to live compassionately,
to come out from behind barricades of moral certainty,
to refuse to look down on others,
or regard ourselves as unconnected to others –
to shrug free such shackles is to embark on freedom
and discover life’s truest meaning, and deepest satisfactions.

Where is the vineyard today?
It is the anxious neighbour or isolated family member in time of pandemic;
a chat, a prayer, a food shop, a birthday card.
It is the recently bereaved – a letter, a call, a remembering –
even when what we have to offer seems so inadequate or small.
It is the volunteering at the Night Shelter/ReStart –
this winter, their pattern, necessarily different due to Covid,
but even more essential.
It is the appeals of harvest – food stuff for the food bank of the Upper Room
Or donation to Christian Aid’s global neighbours’ appeal.
It is potentially changing our minds in the light of new awareness about history and culture.
It is about heeding the calls to be stewards of creation not exploiters –
realising when and what represents enough.

The vineyard has multiple locations and multiple invitations.
But through all its seasons it retains, at its heart,
the meal for the vineyard labourers –
one we will share in this sanctuary and perhaps in watching homes.

Bread, given thanks for, then broken and shared – wine poured out.
Actions speaking louder than words -
Christ’s obedience, even unto death - ultimate integrity.
Real values in a single gesture;
memorial of love’s greatest gesture.
Pathway and fuel for the journey.

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9.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m,
Monday to Friday.

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St Columba’s is located on Pont Street in Knightsbridge in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The Church is within easy reach of three London Underground stations – Knightsbridge (Piccadilly Line), South Kensington (Piccadilly, Circle and District Lines) and Sloane Square (Circle and District Lines).

St. Columba's
Pont Street
London SW1X 0BD
+44 (0)20-7584-2321

Getting here by tube

Knightsbridge Station

Take the Harrods exit if open (front car if coming from the East, rear car if coming from the West). Come up the stairs to street level, carry on keeping Harrods on your right. Turn right into Basil Street. Carry straight on into Walton Place with St Saviour’s Church on your left. At the traffic lights, St Columba’s is to your left across the street. If the Harrods exit is closed, take the Sloane Street exit, turn right into Basil Street. Carry straight on past Harrods with the shop on your right, into Walton Place as before.

South Kensington Station

Come up the stairs out of the station and turn left into the shopping arcade. Turn left again into Pelham Street. At the traffic lights at the end of Pelham Street cross Brompton Road, turn left then immediately right into the narrow street of Draycott Avenue. After just a few yards turn left into Walton Street. Carry on walking up Walton Street until the traffic lights at the corner of Pont Street. Turn right and after a few steps you will be at St Columba’s!

Sloane Square Station

Cross over the square into Sloane Street. Walk along Sloane Street until the traffic lights at the corner of Pont Street. Turn left into Pont Street. St Columba’s will then be in sight.

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