Sermons - May 2020
Sermon 3rd May 2020, Easter IV
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 03 MAY 2020, EASTER IV
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. Acts 2:46-47
Two reflections received this week, from people who know this building well.
“We were watching the live stream today in our sitting room
and instead of the great rose window of St Columba's
we had a window overlooking an almost equally blue sunlit North Sea.
Across which were streaming long lines of gannets heading home to the Bass Rock.
As you talked about all the troops in the WW1 who were drawn to St Columba's
the gannets heading homeward made me think of all those who like me
have headed home to St Columba's our mother church
certain of a welcome and a sense of belonging.”
A distant ocean, birds in flight, eloquent of longing, and a sense of home;
that is a beautiful meditation and heartening to think
that our joining together by live stream, somehow refreshes that thirst within us.
But another message conveyed another reality, a differing reality.
Reflecting on the lockdown, up until this past week:
“The weather was fantastic which made people feel in holiday mood all the time,
whither working from home or simply retired,
children on school holidays for a wee while! and so it continued.
Then (for me) Wham! woke up to a very wet dull Tuesday morning
which persisted all day.
No gardening, no walks around the fields, shopping a possibility but maybe others would think likewise, wet day, empty shops!
[Though I also made use of the time to correspond and 'phone more friends.]
Was the good time over now,
had the sunshine lulled us into a sense of false security
in difficult and tragic times?”
Home learning meltdowns or isolating despairs,
hospital vigils or griefs borne without the customary comforts of fellow mourners
and physical embrace.
Each household will know something of the ups and downs of these days.
In the training of Army recruits time is given to the so-called core values –
courage, discipline, loyalty, respect for others, integrity, selfless commitment.
Sceptical recruits sometimes question why the need for such discussion.
Explained by the maxim:“Training to the right thing on difficult days.”
From our own training manual, the scriptures,
are there insights for the right thing on difficult days?
In the Book of Acts there is a description of the earliest days of the new community in Jerusalem, in the aftermath of the first Pentecost.
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles,
the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
[Everyone around was in awe - all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! ]
And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common.
They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources
so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple
followed by meals at home,
every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God.
People in general liked what they saw.
Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved. [The Message]
It sounds magnificent; vibrant, practical, prayerful, joyful.
And it runs the risk of making us feel miserable.
Nostalgia – biblical or congregational - can be disheartening – de-spiriting.
We should guard against it.
It is important to recognise that, as the Book of Acts records,
it is no time at all before the community experiences
both external opposition and internal dispute.
Goods held in common and sold for the relief of those in need – yes.
But also, in short time, (Acts 5) the tale of Ananias and Sapphira
who seek to withhold what they have sold.
Acts describes the best of what a church community is capable of,
but also spells out, that as flawed human beings,
we will always struggle to live up to that best capability.
Unity and woundedness, victory and failure
struggle to do/be the right thing, on difficult days;
characteristics of Christian living.
What were marks/core values of the early church?
Scripture – allowing ourselves to be engaged
by words of poetry, challenge or comfort, from Old and New Testaments;
shaped by the stories we tell –
of Christ and centuries of inherited faith.
Fellowship – the quality of our relationships;
the willingness to always keep an eye out for the newcomer,
the shy or the silent one.
The breaking of bread, in the sacrament of communion
the domestic kitchen table and the Night Shelter –
appreciating the gift of food and its particular blessings when shared.
Communal and private. Stuttering or eloquent.
Speaking to and listening for God.
Shouting room and still waters:
The response to sunny days and difficult days.
Two groups who know the normal St Columba’s:
Hill House School who come for a weekly assembly
and the support groups of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Both have prayers that they say each week.
O God give us courage:
Courage, to try new things and not to be afraid of making mistakes.
Courage, to get up when we are down and to go on again.
Courage to work with all our strength
and to know that it is not the beginning
but the continuing until it is completely finished,
that yields the true glory…
And Reinhold Niebuhr’s (1892-1971) Serenity Prayer,
which we will prayer in full later, but opens with the well-known:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Finally, let me circle back to the two correspondents, where we started:
Was the good time over now, had the sunshine lulled us into a sense of false security
in difficult and tragic times?”
Her own answer:
“No, the dull day was reminding us that life throws many different challenges
and it is up to us to accept and beat them in the best possible way
to everyone’s advantage.”
A rallying cry from within our own ranks.
And for the observer of birds streaking across the North Sea,
for any who yearn for the things of God,
closing lines of American poet Mary Oliver’s lovely poem, Wild Geese:
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Sermon 10th May 2020, Easter VI
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 10 MAY 2020, EASTER VI
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. John 14:1-2
On Friday morning, 75th Anniversary of VE Day I received this description of how one World War II veteran spent the original VE day:
“(On VE Day) I was stationed in a small town near Belsen. (in Germany)
I was the orderly officer for the day - my main duties, admin and security.
With regard to the latter, at the time, we were guarding a British Army Captain
from another unit. He was awaiting court martial, back in Britain, on a charge of murder,
having shot a major in his own unit.
(In those days, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had not been recognised.)
Earlier, we had not only liberated France, but also her champagne,
so, each member of the company was issued with a bottle of champagne to celebrate victory.
On VE Day, there we were, in Germany;
him on a murder charge, and me guarding him –
the pair of us drinking our champagne. Macabre!”
At St Columba’s, from the pages of the Church Magazine of summer 1945,
minister and congregation were proud to record that throughout the war
worship took place, every Sunday – the only exception - Sunday 11th May 1941 –
the morning when worshippers gathered to find the church in ruins
following its destruction by enemy action, during the night.
Almost exactly four years to the day, on 8th May, 1945, at 5pm,
a Service of Thanksgiving to mark VE Day
was held by the congregation, hosted at neighbouring, St Saviour’s, Walton Street.
After four years of worshipping in the Jehangir Hall one worshipper remarked:
“It was grand to have an organ again.”
The sermon began: “It has come at last. Germany is defeated.”
The congregation of the day would not have needed it,
but the prayers that day, remind us that the war touched every part of society;
the war effort undertaken, not just by those in uniform:
“For the tireless bravery of merchant seamen and fishermen.
For the loyalty and labour of men and women in factory and field:
for the good guardianship of the Civil Defence
and for the spirit of unity and devotion among all our people
which triumphed over weariness and danger.”
Following years of blackout, one of the central images to VE Day,
was the restoration of light.
A symbol of release, from fear into freedom - a great deliverance.
The gospel reading from John 14 is spoken in time of blackout.
They are words that inform a Victory Day – yes;
but first, they are words for the difficult days of unknowing –
either how long, or how much, must still be endured.
In the gospel, friends gather to share a special meal.
An upper room – discrete, for fear of discovery.
Loathe to voice it, each one there senses the sands of time draining away.
The one whose company they have kept these three years –
their compass and companion, is – they fear –
about to be torn from them.
Though he could make good his escape,
he seems intent on a collision, he surely cannot survive.
Beyond the closed doors, darkness circles and closes in.
After kneeling down and washing the disciples’ feet at this Last Supper,
Jesus makes his farewells.
(These chapters of John, 14-17 are known as the Final Discourse.)
But as well as saying goodbye, he promises to see them again.
At the edge of his own grave,
Jesus says that what he is about to go through, is the beginning of the “way.”
Despite what they fear most,
Jesus assures the disciples, that he and they, disciple and master,
will remain connected, neither abandoned, nor alone.
Love - relationship – will not be severed;
changed – perhaps – but continuing.
Death, neither God’s last, nor lasting word.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
I go into a future you cannot see, but into which, you can follow.
If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
In the shadow of his own cross, Jesus says:
You have a place - with me and with God.
God has not chosen to be God without us.
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.
Familiar at funerals, these are not simply afterlife words.
They are for the now life.
In the clarion call of Christian Aid, whose special Week starts today;
“We believe in life before death.”
In the immediate aftermath of World War II Christian leaders in Britain and Ireland met,
determining to do all that they could to alleviate the plight
of the millions of refugees displaced by war.
Initially known as Christian Reconstruction in Europe we know it now as Christian Aid.
Its aim was not to evangelise, but to respond to need,
believing that compassion transcends all borders.
Twelve years later, Christian Aid Week began.
For over sixty years, individuals and congregations have gone door to door
or shaken cans on the high street to raise money for the world’s poorest -
believing poverty, an outrage against humanity, that can and must be eradicated.
Christian Aid works in partnership to provide urgent, practical assistance
where need is greatest.
Through campaigning advocacy, it also seeks to address the root causes of poverty.
It meets need, regardless of people’s faith –
though it undertakes its work as an expression of its own faith.
“Truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me, will also do the works that I do…
Currently operating in thirty-seven countries, across continents.
it is responding to the coronavirus outbreak in Africa, Asia and in Latin America and the Caribbean. (Details are in our newsletter or via Christian Aid website.)
The charity itself addresses its supporters:
“Over the last few months, you’ve shown love to your neighbours in so many ways.
You’ve picked up the phone. You’ve brought them food. You’ve prayed for them.
You’ve shown that you’re by their side. And they’re not alone.
And while this Christian Aid Week will feel a little strange,
we know you will do what you can in these unusual circumstances
to reach out to your global neighbours too.”
Neighbourliness is echoed in the words of Dr Scott’s sermon on VE Day 1945:
“Now that the threat of bombs and blasting is past,
it is a joyful thing to bear testimony
to the steadfastness, courage and loyalty of a sorely harassed congregation.
But while the enemy caused grievous harm in the destruction of the church –
the truth is, these stern years have strengthened and deepened
the fellowship of St Columba’s.
If we have known as never before the horror and misery
that the works of wicked men can bring,
we have also known as never before, how wonderful are the works of God
and how sure is the promise: “Lo, I am with you always!” (R.F.V.S)
And finally, footnote to our VE Day veteran.
In his diary is the label from his bottle of champagne: Moet & Chandon Brut Epernay 1937. A church friend researched it. “You shouldn’t have drunk that champagne –
the bottle would be worth £5000 today!”.
On Friday, the former soldier reported:
“The label is back in its rightful page in the diary.
This evening, I will remember with love my younger brother Bert
who died on an RAF raid on St Nazaire. I will also have a wee dram.”
In my Father’s house are many dwellings.
God has not chosen to be God without us.
Sermon 17th May 2020
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 17 MAY 2020, EASTER VI
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” John 14:16, 18
A dispatch from the Hebrides arrived yesterday; the author reflected:
“On this morning's run along the lochside I was very aware
of the salty tangy seaweed, the vanilla scent of the gorse
and the sweet perfume of bluebells near Rose Cottage.
Tranquil birdsong in the Castle woods, the clang of a boat in the bay
and the insistent penetrating call of the cuckoo on the strong breeze.
Nature hanging on - perhaps thriving - in lockdown.
… … …
I've also been struck this week by a couple of examples of how people
are hanging on to humanity - or at least their sense of humour –
in the ongoing pandemic.
First, hearing the BBC Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg,
playing requests on the piano of past Eurovision hits –
he can play every winning tune in the history of the competition!
From the piano in the Dutch embassy in Moscow
he played whatever songs people requested.”
Second, this morning on BBC Radio Scotland.
The sports correspondent, instead of talking about the impasse in Scottish football
which has been dominating every bulletin since the lock-down,
he got his rather surprised colleagues to choose a random number from 1 to 18
and then allocated them a team in the German football league
to engender interest in the games over the weekend!
He was so enthusiastic and cheery about it, he made me smile.
Indeed, this weekend, a handful of fixtures for Germany’s Bundesliga.
mark the first return of professional European football –
When teenage sensation, Erling Braut Haaland scored for Borussia Dortmund
instead of being mobbed by jubilant team-mates,
he made sure they all kept their distance
as he performed a little dance on the side-lines,
observing the strict hygiene rules that the league has to follow.
Described by fans, watching on television, after a nine-week absence –
“Surreal. Eeerie. Odd.”
The German phrase that accompanied yesterday’s return – Geister spiel - Ghost Games.
Last week as part of the 75th Anniversary of VE Day celebrations, Katherine Jenkins,
Forces sweetheart of this generation, sang a wartime repertoire
to 5,000 empty seats in our neighbouring, Albert Hall.
Today at St Columba’s - Ben, Liz, myself – empty pew, upon empty pew.
Are recorded hymns and imaginary children, just Ghost games? Wishful thinking?
To borrow a phrase – Has Jesus left the building?
Yet we are here.
Longstanding church members, newly arrived, friends of friends –
from many different places, new and old.
If the messages that we have received via the office speak truly:
for some, the sense of connectedness, the awareness of others praying has actually been strengthened by the enforced distancing.
These virus days are educating a great deal about connection and disconnection.
Moments of exasperation with Wi-Fi, and disappearing Zoom callers!
More grievously, the isolation of loved ones.
The inability to give a hug when most needed –
Care Home, hospital bedside or crematorium.
Presence and absence; empty space and intimacy,
ghost games or new awareness of unseen, powerful realities?
Such questions permeate the gospel reading.
Continuing on from last week’s – In my father’s house are many dwelling places –
it emerges from locked doors and rising fear.
Gathered together with the disciples, on the night of Last Supper and betrayal,
Jesus stops to explain things.
The disciples are already grieving Jesus,
struggling with his likely death and their loss, wondering what will become of them.
Knowing he must depart, guessing they will be torn apart,
Jesus predicts how the sheep will be scattered when the shepherd is struck.
Bewilderment, fear, guilt and despair - orphans in the storm.
But, in that beautiful phrase: Having loved them, Jesus loved them to the end;
delivering the promise: “I will not leave you orphaned.”
To disciples, fearing abandonment, Jesus promises:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, [KJV – comforter]
to be with you forever.
Not orphans, bereft; but part of a world-wide family;
the Spirit of God present everywhere –.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139
No time, no place, where God, Father, Son and Spirit is not with us.
Wishful thinking? Evidence? What difference does it make?
From the big picture – Christian Aid Week, just concluding - but still open to support.
It’s global vision of shared humanity and responsibility;
it’s mobilisation of faith, to counter the obscenities and injustices of poverty,
while bringing relief to those most in need.
In the small picture, ordinary folk – some church, some not –
making the phone call, running the errand, offering a little contact and reassurance –
often surprised and delighted that they receive much more in return,
than the small amount they feel they have given.
From long before Covid-19, it is Scotscare’s - Blether Buddies;
a telephone companionship scheme staffed by volunteers.
For us perhaps, it is the invitation this week, to Sunday Schooler and church old-timer
to become pen friends, corresponding our way to enhanced connection.
It is the Comfort blankets of the craft group – every stitch a prayer.
Jesus promised: “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Then commissioned each of us to play a part to make that promise true.
To finish; two more scenes played out behind closed doors:
Yesterday, the online installation of the new Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – Revd Dr Martin Fair –
“We find ourselves in uncharted territory, having to re-imagine church.
The first disciples were given no blueprint, no detailed plan, radical or otherwise,
But rather the promise that through every circumstance and change,
God’s love remains. And from love, flows peace.”
And the church member – who has loved our church for many years
but for too long has not been able to attend, due to ill health:
in response to my hope that she would always feel connected, replied:
“I will never stop being part of it.”
Abiding presence, unseen as the wind,
Nature hanging on; humanity hanging on:
Ghost games…Yes. Holy Ghost games.