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Sermons - September 2021

Sermon 5th September 2021

Sunday 5th of September 2021

Mark 7 :24-37 
The Ugliest Word

A little girl in a Sunday School class was drawing using every one of her crayons. The teacher asked her what she was drawing. The little girl replied, ‘I am drawing a picture of God.’ The teacher replied, ‘But, Susie, nobody knows what God looks like’. To which the little girl replied without stopping her drawing, ‘ They will when I am finished’. So how do we really know what God is like?

You will not be surprised to hear that I believe if we want to know what God is like, then the best place to start is with the Bible and, in particular, the Gospel narratives. Some may recall how tight lipped, restrained and reticent with words Jesus was. He was a professional preacher, a teacher and so we might expect that the collected record of his works would be huge, like some of the teaching of his distinguished rabbinic predecessors. Instead, all we have is tiny, rather thin pamphlets, called the Gospels.

Whatever Jesus did, he did not nag people into the Kingdom of Heaven. His most powerful messages were not sermons, but conversations, or actions. He illuminated or illustrated the nature of God in the signs of care, the words of comfort and compassion, actions of love and grace which he extended to those who were on the edges and in the centre of society.

The setting of the incidents in the Gospel reading today may be important. In Mark’s Gospel geography appears to be significant and part of the message. These healing miracles do not take place in the area of Jesus’ home, but in an area and district very definitely ‘outside the fold’.

It may be crucial that Mark sets the incidents in the midst of alien territory. Mark appears to have been writing to the Church at Rome in particular. It was a gathering of Christians in a very different ethos from that of Judaism. Rome was an environment where Gentiles and Jews may have had serious tensions.

These two stories are clearly provocative and controversial. The first incident some find disturbing as it seems to suggest Jesus was extremely resistant to the request of the Syrophoenician woman. It appears, on first reading and hearing, that Jesus rejects her request. If Jesus had a public relations expert on his team, this incident would have been toned down or removed. Yet it is through the provocative dialogue with of Jesus that the wonderful mercy of God is revealed.

In Mark’s Gospel we only hear the voice of a woman twice. Once at the tomb asking, ‘Who will roll the stone away for us?’. The other is here when a mother is fighting for her daughter.

Perhaps we might need to think about this incident alongside a number of the conversations recorded in all the Gospel narratives. Hid discussions with his mother at the wedding Cana of Galilee, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with Nicodemus at night, his dialogues and arguments the disciples, the Rich Young Ruler, and the dispute with Simon the Pharisee. All reveal the wish of Jesus to disturb or reveal something which might shatter the normal assumptions of those who engaged with him.

Here he engages with a woman who does not share his religious or ethnic identity, to converse and reflect. As a result her faith shines through and, despite being an outsider, Jesus asserts that she is included in the compassion of God. She demonstrates her faith and Jesus declares clearly that she is encompassed and enfolded in the grace of God. Her demonstrable faith has enabled her to engage with the grace of God and, by long distance, her request is answered positively and her daughter is healed. In this account we learn that God’s action and caring concern comes in surprising and mysterious ways to people we might not expect. A message we may all need to remember.

The second narrative is distinctly different, though it still takes place in what would be ‘foreign territory’. Here Jesus uses personal touch, and physical means to cure the man who is inarticulate and deaf. The method Jesus used was not unknown in the Ancient Middle East for cures or comfort of the suffering. It even generated a pattern of using such physical actions in the service of baptism before the Reformation.

The physicality of the incident may , however, be more important as it clearly states Jesus touched the man. Touch is a very powerful symbolic gesture. We know this from our own time , through the care of babies who may die without human touch, in the AIDS crisis and the fact that touch was so sadly missed and had dramatic consequences for so many millions in the Covid pandemic due to the infectious nature of the virus.

What we may not realise in the familiarity of the use of touch and its importance to us, is the shocking impact this would have in the minds of the contemporaries of Jesus. There and then, the disabled of any kind or less physically able were labelled by society as ‘unclean’. To touch them, as Jesus often did, would be to become ritually unclean and unfit for worship. He broke with religious tradition in entering into physical contact with this outsider and suffering individual. By so doing, Jesus made himself vulnerable and open to accusations of impurity and failing to fulfil the ethical code of his religion.

The two incidents picture graphically the nature of God. They declare clearly what qualities God possesses supremely. In love, God reaches out to heal and restore us. God’s love is expansive, abundant, full of grace. Jesus demonstrates that God blurs boundaries and embraces enemies.

The Bible says ’Love the stranger’ 36 times. The longer and more often I read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and Mark, I become more conscious of the inclusive nature of the Gospel message of Jesus. Again and again we are being told by Jesus of God’s nature of inclusion. Embrace the outsider, include them.

A little known New Zealand art house film was made on a small budget, called Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It is the story of a Maori foster child who is placed with an unconventional couple living on the edge of New Zealand’s bush country.

The movie opens with a police car arriving at a ramshackle farm. In the car are a policeman, a child welfare officer and a pudgy thirteen year old, whose name is Ricky Baker. We are told that his is ‘a bit of a handful’. He lies, steals, throw rocks, defaces property, burns things, paints graffiti, and that is what they know about him.

As Ricky gets out of the car, the fears of the audience are heightened. Then suddenly we hear Bella Faulkner, the farmer’s wife squeal with delight. ‘Here I come!’, she shouts. And round the corner comes a large farm woman.

The welfare officer says, ‘Mrs Faulkner, this is Ricky Baker’.

‘Ricky Baker’, the woman repeats. She utters the words Ricky Baker as if they were the most beautiful words in the world that could be said. As if Ricky Baker was the best person ever to step out of a car. ‘Ricky Baker’ she says, ‘Yes, Here you are!’ and with that she encircles the awkward boy in an enormous hug.

Her acceptance , her inclusion, her generosity of spirit, despite all the evidence that might make her hesitate, overcomes and cancels any resistance.

Carl Sandberg, the poet was once asked ‘What is the ugliest word in the English language?’

He replied, ‘The ugliest word in the English language …’ and then he paused for a long time so that the importance of what he had to say was communicated, ‘The ugliest word is the word in the English language is the word… ‘exclusive’’.

Marks and Spencer in its advertising campaign some time ago got it right, They commended their wares as :

‘Exclusively…for everyone’, just like God’s grace.

Jesus demonstrates here that for God

No one is

Too far gone
Too low, too abased, marginalised, too far beyond the boundaries
Too bad to be removed from the unconditional love of God.
There are no barriers, boundaries, regardless of race, nationality or gender
In God’s view no one is stigmatised, branded as unacceptable.
There is no partiality with God. No preference for the rich or the powerful, the insiders and those who have apparently the influence, the means of determining the future and unfettered direct access to the ears and mind of God.
Due to the faithfulness of God
There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’,

There is only us.

The message is clear :
You are welcome
You are loved
You belong
You have a place.
God does not do it our way.
God thinks, plans and acts differently.
We enjoy blessings and privileges that we have not earned.

We are not saved by our virtues, we are saved by Jesus .
We are not saved by our good deeds; we are saved by faith.
We are not saved by sacrifices, by religious rituals, or by keeping the rules and regulations punctiliously, we are saved by mercy.
We are to be free from our reliance on our own virtues rather than the saving power of God.
CS Lewis is probably was right when he says there are three surprises awaiting us in heaven.

‘First the people who are there whom we never expected to be there.
Then the people who are absent whom we always expected to be there.
Then the greatest surprise of all, the fact that we are there’.

God is God of inclusive grace – the picture Jesus paints of God.
What does God look like?
A welcoming gracious loving generous inviting God ready, willing, able and anxious to include us.
Are we prepared to accept God’s invitation?

Sermon 12th September 2021


Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Mark 8:29

Emerging from the new school year this week
I heard of a memorable, mini-encounter this week.
A primary school child returned home after Day 1 of school.
His parents asked what his new teacher was like.
“I have the coolest teacher in the world!” A highly promising verdict:
“Yeah. She has blue hair…and tattoos, loads of them!”
I suspect there was a slight narrowing of parental eyes. … “Really.”
On one arm she the tattoo of an astronaut.
“When we asked why you has an astronaut tattooed on her arm, she told us:
Because when I was young, I really wanted to become an astronaut.
But now, I am a teacher making astronauts of the future!”
The coolest teacher in the world?

Identity, and the implications of identity, lie at the heart of today’s gospel -
North of the Sea of Galilee, at the source of the River Jordan
lies the city of Caesarea Philippi.
In Jesus’ day, site of Roman temples, dedicated to emperor gods;
home too, to local cultic religions.
A city reeking of imposing grandeur, politics and religion,
claiming the powers of heaven and earth.
It is there – deliberately perhaps – that Jesus asks:
“Who do people say that I am – what’s the word on the street?”

The disciples are not short of answers: “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.”
I guess those were the polite answers; they might equally have answered:
“People say you are the illegitimate son of Mary,
a heretic to your religion, or a traitor to your nation;
a fraud, a drunkard or a demon.
Oh, and there’s plenty don’t care who you are.”

Jesus neither affirms nor denies their answers.
He listens; allows the disciples to offer up what they think they know about him,
based on other people’s speculations and assumptions.
[This is how faith evolves. We name what we’ve heard, examine what we’ve inherited.
the “certainties” others have handed on. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Sep 2021)]

After all the answers, voiced or not, Jesus’ haunting follow-up:
“But who do you say that I am? What do I mean to you?”
Perhaps there is an awkward/embarrassed silence,
as Jesus waits to hear what his friends truly think.
Perhaps there would be the same, if we were asked the same.

Do they really know me? Trust me? Love me?
Peter, the Rock, in a moment of impetuous magnificence declares:
“You are the Christ.”
Then just as swiftly, Jesus begins to teach the disciples:
“The Son of Man must undergo suffering, be rejected, be killed
and after three days rise again.”
Peter says “Christ”; Jesus responds “Cross.”
“Madness” Peter blurts back.

We shouldn’t be surprised.
The disciples’ great hope, cultivated over the three years of following,
the liberator from so many oppressions -
they had seen his signs, heard him proclaim a coming kingdom.
Was their champion to surrender without a fight -
submit to the death of a common criminal?
How dare he trample on his followers’ dreams and expectations?
“This is not what we signed up for.
There must be a better way Rabbi – more messiah - less… defeated?”

Peter’s persuadings bear a terrible echo for Jesus; the temptations of the wilderness:
“If you are the Son of God, the Real Thing...
Make stones be bread. Leap from the Temple heights. Bow the knee in worship.”
Now, Peter’s temptation: “Be messiah; but with the power that keeps you (and us) safe.”

Peter is famously rebuked: “Get behind me Satan” – the word meaning accuser/adversary.
It is not an accusation of evil incarnate, but a recognition that at this moment
Peter is less foundation stone, more roadblock – a hindrance to Jesus’ chosen way.
Peter nails the title, but not the meaning;
ironic, given the centrality of nails to the fullest revelation of Jesus’ identity –
the Cross and the scars of resurrection.

Then, addressing not just the disciples but also the crowds,
Jesus declares: “If any want to become my followers
let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.
To be a disciple you must cross the bridge –
from interested to invested, from spectator to participant.
“It is in the letting go of life, that you will truly discover it.”

There is no sugar-coating; C1st Palestine knew exactly what taking up the cross meant.
Imperial Rome raised crosses like billboard notices.
In 6AD/CE 2,000 Galilean insurrectionists were crucified;
Jesus, perhaps a child witness to such obscenities.

So, we might ask: What is the life that needs to be lost, to be saved?

9/11 Anniversary: Franciscan priest, Father Michael Judge –
Chaplain to local Fire Department in Lower Manhattan.
The first recorded casualty: Victim 0001.
Went to minister to the injured and the dying.
[In character – once when a disturbed neighbour took his own family hostage with a gun,
Fr Michael climbed in through the window,
to negotiate that they should go and have a coffee and discuss things.]
Iconic image: The firemen took time to carry him to a church
and laid him before the altar. Then returned to the mayhem.

Revd Johnston McKay, Church of Scotland minister and broadcaster
visited and reported from New York in the following days.
In his book: Glimpses of Hope: God Beyond Ground Zero,
he described visiting the historic St Paul’s Chapel.
In close proximity to the Twin Towers, the church survived,
and morphed organically, into an all-purpose centre for the relief effort.
(Not dissimilar to the St James Centre and the Al Manaar mosque
at the time of the Grenfell Fire.)

On the day Revd McKay visited, the eucharist was celebrated at the altar,
but everything else continued;
in the side aisle men slept,
sausages and scrambled eggs were being served at the back of church.
In George Washington’s pew, feet were being washed,
and on walkie-talkies (with the volume turned down reverentially low)
contact continued between the respite volunteers in the chapel
the rescuers still with work to do at Ground Zero.
And the priest spoke the words of institution:
“This is my body. This is my blood.”

“Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus does not desire us to suffer, he is not trying to crucify us;
he simply reminds us of the cost of love;
promising us, with the authority of his own life, death and resurrection,
that in the taking up of our own crosses,
the willingness to accept many dyings, great or small,
we fathom life’s deepest meaning and lasting joy.

Sermon 19th September 2021

Sermon 26th September 2021


John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,
and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’
But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him…” Mark 9:37-8

This morning, two tests for your powers of observation
for those worshipping person at St Columba’s.
One: Did you notice a restored flagpole on the tower,
the Saltire once more waving a benediction down Pont Street?
Two: Anything different about the doors to the sanctuary?
Their solid wood and glass have required an overhaul of the closing mechanisms.
A wonderfully, specialised craftsman restored them,
so that now, instead of an unguarded, heavy, swoosh-in-the-face,
the doors are easy to open, slow to close.
Easy to open; slow to close.
A metaphor/comment perhaps on today’s gospel (?)

Thirty years ago, a conversation short in length, but long in significance.
In the hills to the northwest of the Sea of Galilee,
there is a tiny monastic community perched on a hillside
above the Arab village of Deir Hanna.
The community was founded by two monks, an American and a Dutchman.
When I met him, Father Yacov must have been in his 70’s/80’s –
it was kind of impossible to tell.
With a definite twinkle he told me:
“I have a very good doctor. When I am poorly, he prescribes me a bottle of beer.
When I am very poorly, he prescribes me two bottles of beer!”

Part of Yacov’s remarkable story was how he and his accomplices
had first been drawn to that place and then established it.
The monastery’s few buildings are small, simple wooden huts.
At the community’s heart is an extraordinary cave/grotto chapel.
which over time the monks carved out from the hillside rock.
To enter the chapel, you descend a few stairs into its chamber.
The monks’ daily routine starts with prayers long before dawn;
the chapel lit by oil lamps.
This leads into a daily communion – by which time the sun rises, its light flooding in.

As a travelling student, training for the ministry, with many unanswered questions –
it was difficult not to be impressed by the warmth of Father Yacov’s welcome,
his generosity of spirit, prayerfulness, humour his faithfulness.
Surely, here were impeccable Christian credentials – a voice worth listening to.

On my last morning at Deir Hanna Yacov accompanied me down the hill
to the village bus stop. I asked him about how it felt to be this tiny Christian presence
amongst the majority Jewish and Muslim population.
In the village, Yacov was greeted warmly and widely;
I also knew that groups of young Israeli Defence Force soldiers
sometimes stopped to visit the monastery – receiving the same welcome that I had.
Pretty much the last words that Yacov said that day:
“I believe in the uniqueness of Christ.
But the older I get, the more convinced I am that God can use anyone.”
(Easy to open, slow to close.)

Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem for what will prove to be showdown
with the religious authorities and the powers of empire.
Time is running out.
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,
and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Somewhere along the line, the Twelve have begun to presume
that they alone are the managers of the mission of Jesus – the sole, soul guardians.
Someone outside the group, untrained in their ways,
their procedures, their hierarchies;
someone different, unpredictable – surely that shouldn’t be encouraged?
Ironic that the disciples’ desire to stop the “outside” healer
follows hard on the footsteps of their own failure
to cure a young child who is convulsed by seizures.

Jesus’s response? “Do not stop him …Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Apparently, preserving the power of his own group is not a Jesus priority.
If good is done by others – affirm it.
Followers of Christ do not hold a monopoly on acts of healing, or service or care.
Don’t waste time comparing yourself to others.
Don’t impose regulations that I have never required.
Instead, see where God is at work – look with unprejudiced eyes,
and prepare to be surprised.
Yesterday afternoon, arriving for the wedding of a church member, I was surprised to find the Upper Hall, overflowing with donations for Afghan refugees.
In time to be distributed to a local hotel currently housing some 800 new arrivals.
The work overseen by young volunteers.

Then, perhaps because time is running out, perhaps because this really matters,
Jesus, grabs his listeners by the collar and shakes:
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones –
be it child or widow, orphan, any of life’s casualties or bruised reeds –
if by your actions or attitudes,
it becomes more difficult for them to experience the love of God…Heaven help you!
A millstone round the neck and the ocean depths would be preferable.
Better to hack off precious limbs and go lame,
than to look perfect, but not understand the grievous nature
of arrogance or entitlement, ignorance or judgementalism.

Don’t be responsible for snuffing out the flame of another’s fragile faith.
Jesus doesn't speak literally, but reaches for the hyperbole,
so that we do not miss the point.
Consider, prioritise, care for the “little ones.”
In the kingdom community, Jesus says, there is a special place
for the weak, the vulnerable, the sinner, the struggler, the disregarded.
God forbid that our actions/attitudes ignore or exclude them.
(Easy to open, slow to close.)

On Tuesday we held a very small, family funeral in the London Scottish Regimental Chapel for artist and friend to St Columba’s of Gael Gorvy-Robertson.
Her connections to this place will be familiar to some,
but in the light of today’s gospel, worthy to retell, a little.

In 2001 the images of 9/11’s collapsing horror were replayed endlessly.
The world reacted with: Shock. Disbelief. Sorrow. Anger. Fear. Revenge.
Gael did something different – believing there to be an alternative offering she could make;
images of strong, peaceful buildings that enrich and enhance life;
images that might initiate connection.

Identifying a synagogue, a mosque, a Roman Catholic church and a Presbyterian Church of Scotland all in relative proximity in this part of London,
she asked each community if she could spend time in the four buildings
and see what emerged from her contemplations.
In time, she produced 28 photos, seven from each venue.
None of the pictures showed people.
Her images were characterised by stillness, light and dark, space and solidity,
emptiness and presence, a sense of unseen community. (A calendar of shadows.)
They conveyed connections between the external, physical, seen world of buildings
and the private, internal world of the spirit.
If you knew the building you might recognise it.
If you weren’t familiar, you might be struck by their commonalities.

In time, the exhibition was mounted in each of the four buildings.
If you saw it in your home building it helped you see and appreciate with fresh eyes.
If you visited the exhibition in an away building,
you crossed a new threshold, perhaps for the first time.
Breathing Spaces, was (and remains) something beautiful and creative,
at a time when those things were in short supply.
The foreword to the accompanying book noted,
in a time of heightened suspicion, people of different faiths were drawn into encounter:
“Gael’s calm offering and loving gift was like an ancient whisper
and as courageous as any gesture of halt.”

Gael, I trust, would approve of our restored door closers –
As current/temporary stewards of these doors
may we live out Jesus’ command:
Salt to our surroundings, at peace with one another.
Easy to open, slow to shut.

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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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