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Sermons - August 2021

Sermon 1st August 2021

Sermon 8th August 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 8th AUGUST 2021, 11am

St. John 6: 35, 41 – 51

It’s a great privilege to preaching on this Sunday when we celebrate three baptisms and welcome three new members into the family of the church. I still have gifts given to me at my baptism … a few years ago… a silver “Christening Mug” from my grandfather and a silver knife, fork and spoon from my Godmother, silver being a traditional christening or baptismal gift in Scotland. But of course the greatest gift is given by the parents who have chosen to bring their children for baptism for as we heard earlier in the service “In this sacrament, the love of God is offered to each one of us. Though we cannot understand or explain it, we are called to accept that love with the openness and trust of child.

When Jesus was on earth, some people realised what a huge and wonderful gift God had given them. But others were antagonistic and hostile, and in effect threw the gift back in God’s face.

It started in Nazareth, Jesus’ home town. There were all sorts of murmurings against Jesus and he was discounted because of his family ties. “Isn’t this the guy we grew up with? So how can he be anything special? Get him out of here!”. So Jesus was unable to perform many miracles at home in Nazareth because of the attitude of those who knew him so well, or so they thought.

In our Gospel lesson this morning we can see the discontent spreading. At this point Jesus is far to the south of Nazareth, near Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He’d just taken the five loaves and two fish, blessed and broken them and distributed them to the hungry crowds. And in the end, from that meagre gift 5000 people had eaten their fill. Now Jesus was using that incident to illustrate some theological teaching.

Manna was the bread sent down from heaven by God when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness approximately 1500 years earlier. This was at the time of the Exodus when Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt towards the promised land. Some of that precious manna was believed to have been hidden by the prophet Jeremiah and it was expected to reappear miraculously at Passover, in the last days (2 Maccabees 2: 5 – 80).

Jesus began to tie this idea of the hidden manna to himself. “I am the bread of life”, he said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v.35). In other words, “I am the manna sent by God to nourish his people today”.

Some people simply didn’t know what to do with such a gift. Exactly the same complaints as were heard in Nazareth were voiced again. “Who is this guy?” they muttered to one another. “He’s the village carpenter from Nazareth. We know his parents, old Joseph and Mary. How can he possibly claim to have come down from heaven?! ...”

Jesus comes out and speaks in public as plainly as John ever records in his Gospel: he is the bread of life and coming to him will ensure that no-one hungers or thirsts on the journey of following him in the world. But such plain speaking is also off-putting , and the crowds complain against him – just as did their ancestors in the desert. They claim to know who Jesus is, he is not the bread of heaven, he is Joseph’s son, a boy whose mother and father they know … so he can’t be anyone special.

How quick we are to judge a person’s value by where they come from or what they do. Of course, if the crowd really knew their history, they would have known that it was full of people snatched from obscurity, from ordinary lives, and given life-changing and live -giving roles in the story of salvation, for example Moses, Ruth and David as well as many other significant figures in the Old Testament.

But the crowd seemed to forget that and so the gift was no use to them. They couldn’t see it’s value, and they didn’t want to know. And all this strange talk about eating flesh would, perhaps understandably, be abhorrent to orthodox Jews.

Jesus was being discounted because of his family ties. Although we are told that he honoured Mary and Joseph, we also know that his identity, though shaped by them, was not determined by them. It was his identity as the son of his heavenly Father, that provided his security, “… the one who is from God; he has seen the Father” (v. 46).

To those of us who hear the words “This is the body of Christ” every time we attend Communion, there’s nothing unusual at all. But those who’ve not been brought up with a church background those words can still be a barrier even today. One meets people who can’t cope with Christianity because to them it smacks of cannibalism.

They’re unable to appreciate the gift and so they reject it, not realising that they’re rejecting the one thing they need above all else but Christ invites us to believe or to trust him and to accept the gift he offers.

The bread and wine are signs of God’s love, blessed by God, so that whenever we take Holy Communion we receive Christ into the depths of our being. When parents bring their children for baptism it is the beginning of their Christian journey and we are looking forward to the day when the children will come of their own free will and participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper.

“Very truly, I tell you,” says Jesus, “whoever believes in me has eternal life” (v.47). The phrase translated “eternal life” also means “life with God”. All that is necessary for life with God here and now and in the future is to trust in the words of Jesus and receive him as the bread of life.

What a present, what a gift! What should we do with it? I would suggest accept it and take hold of it with both hands.

Sermon 15th August 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 15th AUGUST 2021

Ephesians 5: 15 – 20

For the last two years the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has met online, and I suspect that in the future more church meetings will be held on “Teams” or “Zoom”. I don’t think I’m contravening the Official Secrets Act when I say that the Committee on Chaplains to HM Forces which meets twice yearly in January and September have already decided that in future, we will hold our January meetings online. This is practical, after all not everyone would find it easy to travel to Edinburgh in the middle of winter, it is good for the budget and good for the planet. However, I hope that if the Covid situation permits the General Assembly will eventually return to something like its traditional format. Not everyone is tech savvy and some people who might find the courage to speak up in the Assembly would find it difficult to do so online and also, to be honest, I’m one of those strange people who actually enjoys the traditional ceremonial attached to the Assembly including the state trumpeters and worship in the assembly hall with unaccompanied psalm singing.

It has to be said that ministers also enjoy the Assembly because it gives us the opportunity to catch up with old friends, people from our college days, former parishioners, and others. I also enjoy meeting the delegates from churches overseas, however I suspect that at the end of the week some commissioners, ministers and elders are glad to get home and back to some normal, non-church conversation.

There can sometimes be something very stifling about spending time exclusively with other Christians. Christians are so often concerned to do the right thing and to act in the right way that they don’t always come across as being quite real. This may be true of followers of other faiths as well, but it might be less true of those who have no religious affiliation. I remember that when I applied to train for ministry and attended selection school, I told the psychiatrist who interviewed me that I needed my atheist friends to keep me sane.

This is a challenge for Christians. On the one hand, Jesus tells us to be real and deplores those whom he considers to be hypocrites, on the other hand Paul spends a lot of time telling us how we should behave. The instructions given in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians from which we read this morning sound like hard going and not at all fun, the sort of guidelines that the Victorians were fond of issuing especially to young men about to embark on adult life…

The verses from Ephesians 5: 15 – 20 which we have just read can sound very negative and devoid of fun. We’re told to very careful in our way of life. We must be wise and make the most of our time. We’re warned against alcohol and told instead to be filled with the spirit, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. And we’re told to spend the whole of our time giving thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For some this passage reinforces those images conjured up by Victorian hymn writers of life after death spent sitting singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and that does not appeal.

But as we know from watching television news or just opening a newspaper, there is an awful lot of evil in the world, and we certainly would not want to promote that evil. A well-known diet plan calls forbidden foods “Syns” which rather implies that sins are simply a treat, the occasional overindulgence of food or drink, rather reinforcing the message that sin is just a bit of fun to be enjoyed, rather than symptoms of a relationship gone wrong.

How do Christians strike the balance between being kill-joys, and indulging in horrible sins which militate against God and a genuine healthy spirituality? And how can Christians promote Christianity without being entirely negative and turning people against God by their obvious disapproval of what other people regard as enjoyment?

Jesus answered this question when he encouraged his followers not to put on airs and graces or to wear a Christian façade but to constantly work at being themselves. I’m reminded of Hymn 533 in CH4 “Will you come and follow me” by John Bell and the late Graham Maule; in v.4 we sing “Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?” Those of us, and I suspect that’s most of us, who have grown up trying to conform to what other people require of us often no longer know what we’re like deep inside, the person we hide. Then we’re startled when we do something seemingly out of character but actually, we’re all acting in character, but it’s a part of our character which hasn’t been very deeply probed. 

And for Christians all of this is compounded because we know exactly how we ought to behave but wee are afraid that if we let go and embrace our inner selves, we will let down both God and the Christian faith we represent.

But this is one of the risks of the Christian life. We need to trust Jesus when he says that he loves us exactly as we are. We need to know that even when we feel embarrassed or ashamed of our behaviour, Jesus never feels that way about us. And we need to forgive ourselves for our faults, just as Jesus forgives us.

Once we’re able to face all that about ourselves, then we can cease to worry about what other people think about us and begin to become the people God calls us to be. And with that comes real freedom, freedom to behave as we wish, to have fun and to enjoy life.

The strait -laced disapproval disappears. The kill-joy attitude disappears. Christian joy and happiness engulf our being without us having to do anything about it. We find ourselves overflowing with Christian love.

We’ll be free to drink but we won’t fall into drunkenness or debauchery, we’ll be filled with the spirit. We’ll sing and make a melody to the Lord in our hearts, and we won’t be able to stop giving thanks to God for everything, through Jesus Christ.

And suddenly everything will fall into place. Suddenly we’ll discover that with Christ, we’re living not as Unwise people but as wise, making the most of our time, just as St. Paul said we should.

Sermon 22nd August 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 22nd AUGUST 2021, 13th SUNDAY after PENTECOST

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So, Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’
Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’
John 6:

With the Tokyo Olympics recently concluded, and the Paralympics imminent,
what images spring, like a gymnast-vault, to your mind’s eye?
Skateboarding, the newest event,
or British diver, Tom Daley, knitting a cardigan poolside, in order to relax?
Yet, it is probably athletics that remains the classic image of any Games.
Which discipline/event is the most truly, representative Olympian?
The highest leap or the longest throw?
The explosive, 100 metre sprint, the world’s fastest?
Or is it the whippet-thin, grimacing, marathon runner
who completes the 26 miles in the ultimate test of endurance?
From such musings comes the wisdom, oft quoted/dispensed:
“Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Our congregation, in pew, or listening from afar,
may, or may not, have its Olympians,
but it certainly represents both those at start line
and those considerably further down the track.
We have a couple who will be married at St Columba’s this week
and we have a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary –
a wedding that also took place in this church.
We have someone who begins studies/training towards Church of Scotland ministry
next month and, as William wrote in this week’s e-newsletter,
this weekend marks the thirty first anniversary of his ordination.
In any regular weekly congregation, there are those cradling babies or chasing after toddlers – and there are grandparents, and indeed great grandparents,
who gaze and remember earlier times. The full range of life and its humanity.

If one asked the Olympian, or the golden couple or the experienced minister
What it has been like?
My guess is that they might report: It has been hard, but it has been worth it.
The sweeps of life – the marathon, not the sprint
a skill or craft fashioned over many years,
a vocation or loyalty to a cause or community,
the parenting of a child, or any enduring relationship –
can bring immense richness to life, source for great gratitude,
but they come with a cost – they take, to coin a phrase – blood, sweat and tears.

It is in the honest recognition of blood, sweat and tears that resonate in today’s readings;
the metaphor of the full armour of God,
required for the struggle for faith, love and justice in an often hostile world.
And in the vignette of Jesus watching the departure of the crowds who once celebrated him,
leaving now, only the twelve. (Ephesians 6 and John 6.)

Why the evaporation of previous effervescence?
Jesus’ claim: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me,
and I in them
. This is the difficult teaching.
The flesh talk is of course part of the bread talk.
If today’s gospel sounds familiar, it may be because the Revised Common Lectionary
serves up five weeks of bread, slice after slice, from John Chapter 6 (the Eucharistic discourse)
– today is loaf end.

It began with the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand –
a story that appears six times across the four gospels;
clearly, the event meant a lot to the early church.
For the author of John’s Gospel, this “sign” is a launch pad for a series of meditations
on Christ’s identity, via the metaphor of bread. “I am the bread of life.

C21st Christians hear these words, and mostly likely think automatically of communion –
the bread broken at Last/Lord’s Supper.
But for the original listeners, Jesus’ words about bread come down from heaven
are all about Moses and the miraculous, life-sustaining manna in the wilderness –
that which kept the children of Israel alive, amid their forty-year, refugee plight.
To claim that Jesus himself was now new manna,
his bake, more potent than that which gave their ancestors not only life,
but their very sense of beloved chosenness
was always likely to stick in the throat.

Even more so when he spells out:
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you.”
Graphic and shocking; drinking blood of any kind was forbidden,
never mind the idea of eating human flesh.
Jesus is not advocating cannibalism,
but his metaphor is making a claim about where life’s true richness and meaning is found.
It resides in his, the Christ-life.; this is the heart of the matter.

So, comes the point of decision.
Perhaps around a campfire, flickering light and shadow,
after a fractious day at the synagogue; a day of doubting voices and departing friends;
Jesus asks Peter; “Do you also wish to leave?”
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

It is a beautiful moment of solidarity –
a band of brothers (and sisters), smaller now, but tighter.
“We’ve made our choice – some might say we’ve burnt our boats.
We are yours – because with you… how can we say?
With you we are alive, more alive than we thought possible.
We know now its not the easy way – your way.
But no other way will do. We follow.”

Peter’s words are not as emphatic as that other famous confession;
the question and answer at Caesarea Philippi:
“Who do you say that I am? “You are the Christ!”
But his lower key moment says something very precious about the experience of faith.
For the disciples there is a dawning realisation that to journey with Jesus
is to embrace risk and leave behind old certainties.
It will prove a bridge too far for some.
“Enough. I’m out.”

But on this occasion the Rock won’t budge, makes a choice – why?
Your words are life: some hungers can only be met in you.
Where else can we go?
Despite the difficulties, drawn to Jesus –
the choice, not to abandon, but to abide.

This week I was very happy to receive a slim volume entitled Memories of Iona.
Its author recalling seventy years of annual visits to that west coast Scottish island.
It recalls the fact that every time we cross the St Columba’s threshold
we pass the block of Iona marble quarried from the seashore of the isle
so closely associated with Columba.
Island locals may describe things differently,
but for many visitors Iona is a place of pilgrimage – a thin/spiritual place.
(In the poet’s phrase – where is no time, or more time.)
Pilgrimage is partly the seeking of an answer to the question: “Where else can we go?”

This week, it is difficult not to hear that question – “Where else can I go?”-
in the desperation of crowds round the airport at Kabul;
[or the search for safe passage across waters that divide nations
or in the picking through homes destroyed by fire, flood or earthquake.]
Can thoughts of serene Iona speak to that?

Well, as another minister reminded this week:
Iona is home to famous Celtic Crosses, outdoor witnesses to the Gospel,
marking places of communal worship,
from the arrival of Columba from Ireland in 563CE
But three centuries after Columba, the community was decimated by the Vikings.
In the late eighth century, the Vikings began a series of raids on the island.
In 806, 68 monks were slaughtered in Martyr’s Bay.
Eventually, the remaining monks left with the relics of St. Columba
and the beginnings of what became known as the ‘Book of Kells’, their illuminated Gospels.

Three centuries after that, the Benedictines came and founded the abbey.
Three centuries later, the Reformation decimated this.
Three and a half centuries later, the Iona Community rebuilt it.
Perhaps the history of Iona sheds some light on the realities of faith
and the perspectives of time.
The road of Christ is hard, he never promised it would be otherwise.
The choice to follow is not a one off – it is renewed in each generation,
and in each generation it is renewed each day, through the varying seasons of our lives.

At the ordination service of Allan Wright yesterday at St Andrew’s, Newcastle,
part of the speech given by the outgoing Moderator, Very Revd Dr Martin Fair
was shared in the sermon.
It was something of a rallying call to all who seek to follow Christ:

Based on the Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ reading from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue:
“good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind” –
The outgoing Moderator declared:

“Until the last food bank in Scotland is closed - because there is no longer any need –
We (the Church) have got work to do.
For as long as there are lost souls sleeping rough in shop doorways
or families in damp, substandard bread breakfast style accommodation –
there is work for us to do.
For as long as we continue to pollute our rivers, poison our air
and fill holes in the ground with our waste –
there is work for us to do.
Until every person in Scotland –
and in all those places where the Church of Scotland is present –
is treated according to who they are
and not by the colour of their skin and not by the place where they worship
and not by the language they speak – there is work for us to do.
For as long as people - predominately young women - are trafficked into Scotland
to work as sex slaves and in the off-the-books economy - there is work for us to do.
And for as long as women - of any age and from anywhere –
don’t feel safe walking home at night - there’s work for us to do.”

The list goes on. But you get the point….

Yes, the road is hard, its end far out of sight.
But the promise is there is no finer route to follow,
no better a collection of companions.
For ultimately it is the journey with Christ –
“Do you also want to go away?”
By the grace of God, may we find our answer:
“No, we choose to stay – for you have the words –
you are the Word – of eternal life.”

Sermons - July 2021

Sermon 4th July 2021, 6th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 4th JULY 2021, 11.00am,

“Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house),
they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”
Ezekiel 2:5

“And Jesus could do no deed of power there,
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
And he was amazed at their unbelief.”
Mark 6:5-6

A friend recounted a recent train journey, from Edinburgh to London.
It was the day before Scotland played England in football’s ongoing Euros 20.
A train packed with raucous Tartan Army, intent on enjoying the moment.
As he swayed his way to the buffet car, he was entertained by a medley of songs:
Letter to America, 500 Miles and Sunshine on Leith.
You don’t have to be a Hibs (Hibernian) fan
to perhaps recognise whose back catalogue of songs was being chorused.
Auchtermuchty’s finest; brothers, Craig and Charlie Reid: The Proclaimers.

To proclaim (definition): is to announce publicly/to indicate clearly.
It’s a good word to pair with prophet;
prophet in the biblical sense - not a “fortune-teller” but a “spokesperson.”
Prophets, described as “drunk on God –
in the presence of their terrible tipsiness, no one was ever comfortable.” F Buechner
Israel’s prophets called out/roared out against corruption,
injustice, hypocrisy and mistreatment of the poor.
Kings and priests were regularly in their sights.

For Ezekiel, came the commission:
Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel,
to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me … impudent and stubborn.
You shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.”
Whether they hear or refuse to hear
they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
Ezekiel 2:4-5

“There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper
more than once.”
F Buechner. Gospel reading highlights just that;
though on this occasion the prophet is rejected more for who he is,
rather than what he says.

It is homecoming day in Nazareth; a day to celebrate,
to enjoy the reflected glory of a local hero.
Since Jesus began his travelling ministry things have gone rapidly,
rumours and reputation taking wing.
They have heard of the healings.
He has just raised the synagogue leader’s daughter from apparent death.
Surely, the force is with him.

Initially, all is well. On the Sabbath, in the synagogue of his youth,
people listen attentively and nod their heads in approval.
Nice words for a Nazarite – wise, profound, eloquent and true.

But here in hometown, folks have a problem.
Who changes the mood in the synagogue?
A jealous neighbour of Mary, a childhood rival of Jesus; the village gossip?
Somewhere it starts, perhaps with the classic put down: “I kent his faither.”
Actually, there is no mention of his father,
but rather a deliberate dwelling on his mother:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary….?
In Jesus’ day, the only reason to identify someone by their mother,
was to question their legitimacy.
(“Sapping God’s Strength,” Barbara Brown Taylor.)
To refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary” is a calculated act,
an intended take-down, to shame Jesus into silence.
“Hey Mary’s boy; we know who you are. Just remember your place.”

The ones who apparently knew Jesus best, could not treasure him most.
And they took offence at him.
Their imaginations could not/would not expand, to consider a big possibility about him.
The gospels are full of Jesus and the miraculous,
but here is the tale of the un-miracle.
With grim finality Mark concludes: “He could do no deed of power there,”

Jesus carries on regardless. He does not demand ‘honour’, nor wait for it.
He moves on, healing and preaching.
And he commissions others to do the same.
Strangers at home; let them be home among strangers.
He sends them in pairs; an early signal that this kingdom business
is not built by soloists;
but better manifested, in mutual support and interdependence,
conveyed by community, collegiate style.

Mark is not interested in recording what happened next.
But he is very interested in Jesus’ preparatory instructions:
“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff;
no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;
but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”
(6:8-9)
He gives them “authority”, but not “entitlement.”
They are to go humbly; guests in the houses of their hosts.

This call to go forth – does it make us shift a little uneasily?
Well, if all we can imagine is tele-evangelists or street corner preachers,
maybe the encounter I read of this week may give us food for thought.

Woman in bookstore. Hasidic Jew enters: “Would you like any help?”
“Yes, I would like to know about Jesus.”

She directed him upstairs to the bookstore section on Jesus/Religion.
“No, don’t show me any more books, tell me what you believe.”
[Recounting the encounter: “My Episcopal soul shivered” -
but she gulped and told her visitor everything she could think of.]

Tell me what you believe. In spite of rejection, or embarrassment
or fear that we don’t have the right words, it is helpful to remember:
evangelism is not to get someone on our side,
not to grow the church,
but to proclaim/to tell clearly what God has come to mean to us.
This is an action performed out of love, not competition or anxiety.

“They shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 2:5
Scripture’s record, when the proclaiming starts,
is that one of two things will happen;
acceptance or rejection; repentance or resentment; fertile or stony ground.

Sometimes, as individuals, as a congregation, as Christians across the world –
sometimes we are ones claiming to know Jesus best,
but letting him be Jesus, the least.
Like the neighbours of Nazareth, too narrow in our view of what is holy,
of who, or what, is bringing the Spirit alive and making it present.
So set in our ways that we constrain Christ.
The warning: where we will not risk, we will fossilise.
And Jesus will move on, seeking welcome in less respectable places.

And sometimes as individuals, as a congregation or as Christians across the world,
we speak, or at least recognise in others, a prophetic word.
May be ignored; may be snarled at,
to keep our ecclesiastical snout out of the political trough.
But, according to Ezekiel, the proclaimer is not measured by results,
but by whether or not we deliver the message. (Faithful, not successful.)

One commentator this week, reflecting on how the Nazareth crowd
wanted to keep Jesus restricted, in the boundaries of their choosing,
highlighted the contemporary phrase: Stay in lane
i.e. stick to your business, don’t meddle in mine. Stay in lane Jesus!

Apparently, the phrase became prominent in 2018,
when the USA’s National Rifle Association criticized emergency room doctors
for commenting on America’s gun crisis.
Doctors should “stay in their lane,” the N.R.A tweeted.
They should practice medicine, stick to their areas of expertise,
instead of expressing opinions on subjects they know nothing about.
The doctors responded immediately; sharing stories of patients
who had arrived in their emergency rooms
following traumatic gun-related injuries or deaths.
“This Is Our Lane,” they tweeted.

[“A prophet's quarrel with the world is deep down a lover's quarrel.
If they didn't love the world,
they probably wouldn't bother to tell it that it's going to hell.
They'd just let it go. Their quarrel is God's quarrel.” F Buechner]

Sermon 11th July 2021, 7th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 11th JULY 2021, 11.00am,
(7th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST) John 6:14-29

On a morning of welcome – new Associate Minister, William and newly baptised, Ella -
is it really appropriate that the Gospel dish we serve today is, head on a platter?
Is this the way to greet a brother and sister to their own party?
Easier perhaps to tiptoe past this ugly, inconvenient tale;
select something more edifying –
Let the children come unto me, a baptismal classic.
We could, but what would we miss that the gospel writer wants us to see?

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest,
but what it lacks in length, it makes up with velocity.
No birth stories of Bethlehem to ease us in, just:
“The beginning of the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ…”
Key to that announcement, the wild, wilderness figure of Jesus’ kinsman, John the baptiser.
Declaring the need for turning around/repentance,
he tells the crowds who come to him in numbers:
Get ready for the One who is coming after me.
The difference between what you see in me and what he will be?
So great, I wouldn’t deem myself worthy
Even to untie his sandal and bath his feet –

the most menial task for the lowest servant.
That’s how special is the one to come.

After that entry music, Jesus blisters his way through the opening chapters;
healing, gathering disciples, ruffling the feathers of the authorities,
earning quite the reputation.
That led us last week to the return of the hometown boy to Nazareth,
where the juggernaut stopped in its tracks –
the prophet discovering that he had honour in some places,
but apparently not among the people who knew him best.
And he could do no works there.

Abruptly, the story switches back to John
and uncharacteristically for this gospel,
there is an extended description of a particular incident,
including its accompanying backstory and motivations.

It starts with a swirl of rumour and identity speculation.
Jesus’ actions have come to the notice of the highest in the land.
Who is the catalyst of these reported happenings? Elijah? One of the prophets?
Or a resurrected John the Baptist, head and shoulders miraculously reunited?

Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, in his palace
plumps for the seemingly most unlikely option.
Why? Because the guilt he harbours about John’s death
plays havoc with his imagination and sense of dread.
Rumours remind him of the man he was fascinated by –
the righteous and holy man, he liked to listen to, even when John rendered him perplexed;
John, the one Herod protected for a while.

What had brought about this odd couple?
Herod had forsaken his wife for his brother’s wife.
John, speaking truth to power calls out the marriage.
That is rewarded with a prison cell.
Then the royal birthday party – the dance of the step-daughter.
Basking in the moment, acting the big man: “Anything you want my girl.”
Surely this is about looking good in front of the elite.

The girl consults. Her mother, nursing revenge, seizes on the opportunity.
The rest needs no rehearsing.
With frightening speed, the consequences play out.
John is killed and the grim proof is paraded at the banquet.
Did the feast continue?
Away from the hall, unseen, John’s stricken disciples claim the prophet’s body.

Violent and vivid – why does Mark dwell on this episode?
One reason: clear similarities between John’s death at the command of Herod Antipas
and Jesus’ death, by the order of Pontius Pilate.
Both rulers (Herod & Pilate) look favourably upon their captives.
Each ruler desires to spare the life of his prisoner.
Eventually however, both care more about pacifying their powerbase
than exercising justice.
At the moment of testing, both act against their “better judgement”
condemning innocent men to death.
As footnote: Both of the victims’ bodies are recovered by disciples and laid in tombs.

First time listeners of the gospel may not comprehend the connection straightaway,
but the author is surely saying something about the cost of discipleship,
and preparing us for the passion of Christ.

A second reason for including this grim episode:
A recognition that there is horror in the story of God’s love for the world –
unvarnished, not magicked away or redeemed –
there to show that the gospel requires honesty;
honesty about the depths to which the world/humanity, sometimes sinks;
about life’s unfairness.
John does the right thing, then suffers anyway.
At the end of a dedicated life, he dies unsure of his Messiah.
His death, random and apparently without meaning;
no last-minute stay of execution; no miraculous conversion of prison guards.

This surely echoes with what we know;
from headline news and personal experience.
Herod’s court may seem a far country but the tragic and the undeserved happens,
and religion is no rabbit’s foot against that.
We inhabit a world where innocent are still imprisoned;
a world of sudden and random illness and violence;
where the young are prematurely sexualised and the elderly ignored;
where speaking truth to power is a rare and costly act.
If the gospel didn’t include the awful, its also/ultimate goodness would ring hollow.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus heard of John’s death,
“He left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.”
Some things were/are too terrible for words even for Jesus;
some hurts couldn’t be salvaged with a neat theology.
Before anything else, Jesus chose grief and silence;
no pious platitudes, just the need to be alone.

Only after that time – later - he fed people.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand directly follows John's death.
Jesus came back from mourning, asked a crowd to sit down,
gathered whatever bread and fish he could find, and fed people.

That gathering of community to receive sustenance from the figure of Jesus
leads us back to the baptism for Ella we will move to shortly
and the welcome we extend to William.
For Ella, formerly welcoming her into the family of faith,
trusting that today’s gospel hasn’t completely put her off the idea – or William?
Mindful of the Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila’s words:
“Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”

While there may be a mixture of excitement and trepidation at the step you now take,
know also that the decision that you take contributes in ways you may never imagine
to the life of this place and beyond.
We are used to the beauty of the infant baptism,
but it is good to be reminded of the same gift offered to, and accepted by, an adult.
It is good to witness a brave decision about future loyalties.
It is an encouragement to the faith of all of us;
a reminder of our own baptisms and belongings.

Whether being baptised, or starting a new ministry
or simply bringing the prayers of one more Sunday,
may the words from the prayers prepared by the Congregational Prayer Group
speak for, and to us, all:

May the words we have spoken
and the dreams we have shared
and the faith we have renewed today
give us wisdom, comfort, and courage
for all the days ahead;
for the way is often hard,
the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.

But deep down there is another truth,
we are never alone.

Sermon 18th July 2021, 8th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 18th JULY 2021, 11.00am,
(8th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST)

Those of you who were able to tear yourselves away from the football last Sunday evening might have noticed that Channel 5 were showing “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a  brilliantly funny film, with a stellar cast including Dame Judi Dench. Oscar winner Judi Dench must be one of the best known actors in the world today having starred in “A Room with a View”, “Mrs Brown”, “Shakespeare in Love” and  “Philomena” as well as James Bond films and numerous stage and television appearances. She has said that when her late husband, the actor Michael Williams was alive they enjoyed camping holidays on the Isle of Mull where no one disturbed them.

Similarly, Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, has spoken about how much she and her husband enjoy sailing their yacht off the west coast of Scotland, just the two of them alone on the water.

It is understandable that those who live their lives in the public eye, be it royalty, actors, prominent politicians or some church leaders feel the need to retreat, to escape the public gaze and have some time to themselves.

It seems from our gospel lesson this morning that Jesus and his disciples felt similar pressure from the crowds. The disciples were just back from their first mission. They’d started from quite a low point in Jesus ministry, for he’d just been rejected in his own  home town of Nazareth when he sent the disciples out in pairs to teach and to heal and to spread the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom.

It must have been quite a frightening experience for the disciples. They’d just seen the rejection suffered by their leader and the hostility shown towards him by his own people and they were doubtless aware of the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod, yet they were sent out with no backup. Not only were they unarmed, they took no spare clothes and no food or money, so they had to either sink or swim by relying on God and on the generosity of strangers.

Mark does not tell us explicitly the results of that mission but in v. 30 we do have this one short sentence: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught”. The impression is given that they couldn’t wait to tell Jesus about everything they’d been doing. But even while this was going on, many other people were still coming and going and we’re told that Jesus and his disciples had no time even to eat. So the Lord suggested that they all went away by themselves on a kind of retreat. They clambered into the boat and headed for a quiet place, probably intending to seek solitude somewhere up in the rocky hills and mountains of Galilee.

But despite what we might sometimes think, people aren’t stupid even when they’re in a crowd. The crowds saw them sailing away and guessed immediately the sort of place they’d be heading to, and went ahead of them by road. That is the disadvantage of a place like the Sea of Galilee – its easy to see which way a boat is heading and possible to catch up by hiking round the shore.

Now I suspect that most of us would have felt utter despair on arriving at a place which was supposed to be a retreat, a safe haven of peace and quiet, only to find huge crowds of people already gathered on the shore. But Jesus didn’t easily lose patience and when he saw for himself the great needs of the people, he had compassion on them.

On this particular occasion, the hunger of the crowd seems to have been spiritual rather than physical. In Jesus eyes they were like sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them many things.

We’re not told what the disciples did during this time. Perhaps they were able to rest, or perhaps they helped Jesus, marshalling the crowds or  sharing in his teaching ministry. Whatever they did, in due course they all climbed back into the boat and rowed right across the Sea of Galilee to the other side, to the Gentile side, the region known as the Decapolis.

Here they were met by yet another crowd, for by now Jesus fame had spread to the gentile regions. But this was a different crowd. We’re told that these were people who needed healing, for everyone ran to collect all the sick people they knew and bring them to Jesus.

And they didn’t leave Jesus alone for a moment. Wherever he went, into villages, cities, farms or market-places, they followed him. They laid the sick on mats in front of him, and begged to touch him, even if only to touch the fringe of his cloak; and all of them who touched it were healed.

What a contrast to that previous experience in his home town of Nazareth , where he was treated as of no account and where he was unable to heal many people. Yet down the ages the ministry of healing has always been at the forefront of the church’s mission. The organisation we recognise as St. John Ambulance has its origins in a hospital founded in Jerusalem in 1099 to care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Today the St. John Eye Hospital is also a very important aspect of the work of the work of the Order of St. John.

Much more recently in December 1869 a young Irishman named Wesley Bailey working as a teacher with the Church of Scotland in India was inspired to found The Leprosy Mission which still does great work over 150 years later

As Christians and members of the church we are called to continue Christ’s ministry in the world today. And the mission of the church is still very much as it was in those early days. Responding to a contemporary crisis the Church of Scotland HIV programme supports 16 projects in 13 countries around the world, including Scotland. We are still called to teach and to heal and to spread the gospel.

Some people need spiritual sustenance, just as those people did who wouldn’t leave Jesus alone when he and the disciples were looking for a quiet retreat.

Other people are sick and need healing. Of course we all need healing, it isn’t simply restricted to those who are physically or mentally unwell. Or indeed to well know public figures who feel the need for quiet time. Healing encompasses broken relationships and previous hurts and memories which damage and injure us... All of these leave us as less than whole people, whom God is longing to heal. 

Sometimes Christians feel that they can never say no. As Christ’s ministers in the world today church members often feel that they must keep going until they drop. They feel that they must be forever helping others , and may never think of themselves.

But this is a false economy. It might be possible if none of us needed healing ourselves, but we just like those very human, frail and fallible early disciples, need rest and quiet and retreat.

Church members or not, women and men, young and old are no good to anyone if we burn ourselves out. We’re no good to anyone if we’re unable to give them the attention and the help they need because we’re spreading ourselves too thinly. As Jesus recognised we need our rest and recreation.

I don’t know how far any of us will be able to travel this year, but even if you’re not going away, take time out this summer. Make sure you get the rest and recreation you need, so that you’re fit and ready to continue the church’s mission of healing and teaching and spreading the gospel.

Sermon 25th July, 9th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 25th JULY 2021, 9th SUNDAY after PENTECOST

“When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him,
he said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’
(He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.)
Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread
for each of them to get a little.’” John 6:5-7

Joy Harjo is the current Poet Laureate of the United States of America.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 9, 1951, Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation
She is the first Native American in the history of the position.
In a poem entitled, Perhaps the World Ends Here,
She muses on all that happens round the kitchen table –
the breadth of life it encompasses and the conversations it witnesses; it opens:

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
… Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table….
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
(Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.)

Harjo’s hymn to the kitchen table is a prompt,
to honour the meal tables of our own making –
and a reminder of the shared table’s significance
for the sustenance of life and its centrality to community;
a good herald for our gospel reading.

The multiplication of loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand
appears six times across the four gospels.
Clearly, the event meant a lot to the early church.
Familiar form Sunday School telling or St Andrew’s Day sermons,
it is a hillside encounter to spark the imagination and set us wondering.

Jesus is in demand. The people have seen or heard of his healings.
Why would those who are in need not seek him out now –
just brush the hem of his garment, some whispered.
Passover – when all Israel remembered its liberation from the slavery of Egypt –
Jesus goes up the mountain - echo of Moses –
and sits down there with his disciples – the rabbi’s signal for teaching time.

Settled, looking up, Jesus sees a great swell of refugee humanity
about to break upon the shore of his companion circle.
Multiple needs and hungers, despairs and hopes;
visible practicalities, demanded in the moment
and unseen yearnings, long-harboured, yet barely understood.

“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asks Philip.
“Six months’ wages wouldn’t cover the bread
enough for each of them to get even a little.” Philip is right of course.

In Mark’s version of this moment,
the disciples object to their teacher’s desire to feed the crowd, pointing out
“This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;
send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”
Faced with the insurmountable, the disciples see only their own insufficiency,
their own scant resources. You can’t really blame them.
Sensible, practical, responsible - the disciples’ instinct
is to scatter the people, let them fend for themselves.
Meeting the demands of this crisis is too large a burden;
a responsibility too far for their existing community.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, chips in:
“There is a young lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”
Andrew at least is casting around for something resembling a solution,
but he too comes to the same, logical conclusion as Philip:
“But what are they among so many people?”

To which Jesus responds: “Make the people sit down.”
In place of the deadweight of: It can’t be done.
Jesus injects the moment with life and possibility;
not the predictability of scattering, but the miracle of gathering.

Since March 2020 we have known a little of being scattered.
Many have been (and are still) bereft of company round a kitchen table,
subject to loneliness and isolation for which we were little prepared.
The absence/now return, of coffee after service;
the absence/now return of singing, albeit masked;
reminds us how life-giving it is to gather –
how much of our humanity depends on proximity;
at the school gate, the office kitchen, the sports stadium or the hospital bedside.
How food shared is often so central to that –
Sunday biscuit, picnic sandwich, wedding cake, bread and wine one final time.

When Jesus feeds the five thousand,
he does more than fill their stomachs.
When tea is brewed and a cup rattles in a saucer,
there is more than one thirst being quenched.

On a Galilean hillside Jesus encourages hungry and weary, to sit down together;
in company, to notice and attend to each other,
concerned not only for their own fulness, but the fulness of others.
In the same way that the Support Groups – AA & NA –
meet regularly in quiet church halls and other venues
on a daily basis across the secret landscape of this city.

Two encouragements/two fragments to be gathered in baskets from this place.
In a month when the regular volunteer chef for Friday night Restart
visits his family in Romania, out of the blue, an approach from a private chef,
working in a nearby home, who comes by the church.
Her employer is away for a month;
she has seen the guests coming and going on winter evenings.
Could she help out this month?
Her employer is happy to pay if the cause is charitable.

Or the request from a Professor of Imperial College
who gives time to teach students as part of the Play for Progress
(we supported with the Lent charity.)
Due to COVID restrictions Imperial is closed -
but it seems St Columba’s has space this summer.
And so, there is another ripple –
both from the recent generosity of those who supported during Lent,
and from those who in decades past gave and served and stewarded,
so that we have the gift of this place to share today.

This, in the face this week, of desperate reported plight of unaccompanied children
sleeping on the floors of converted council offices in South Coast towns.
A week when it is easy to ask: What can we do in the face of so much need?
A week to be glad that the small things - loaves and fishes -
the seeming inadequacies of our own lives,
handed to Christ, handed to God,
can be crafted into unsuspected kingdom banquets;
abundance found, because someone took the risk not to scatter;
the risk to gather and to imagine the feast.

In the words of a prayer from Calcutta sent to me this week:
But you, Lord, have made us responsible for each other; for the neighbour, the stranger.
This is the glory of your kingdom, you have put us in relationships;
you have made us responsible with you.
Help us, Lord, never to disown that responsibility.

The world begins at a kitchen table.
Jesus said: “Make the people sit down.”
This table … a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks,
he distributed them to those who were seated;
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow.
We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’

Sermons - June 2021

SUNDAY 6th JUNE 2021, ST COLUMBA’S DAY

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 6th JUNE 2021, ST COLUMBA’S DAY

“And looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:34-5

To whom do I belong and who belongs to me? Family, faith group, skin colour, gender, sexuality, neighbourhood or nation - am I defined by one or all of those things? Sources of great support and comfort, or false impositions that stifle? Loyalties: To whom do I belong and who belongs to me?

In a recent, vivid talk on radio by a young British Sikh, Ranjit Saimbi (Radio 4, Four Thought) explained why he doesn't want to be defined by his cultural heritage. Tracing the journey of his grandparents and parents’ generations he describes the disconnect he has felt with elements of his own Sikh culture.

His grandfather left India and settled In Uganda to make a better life for his family. They prospered, until forced to flee by Idi Amin’s dictat in the 1970’s. So, with others, his parents arrived in Wales, forced to start over in a country they barely recognised.

As a child Ranjit attended the Cardiff gurdwara, housed in a repurposed old church. He recalls those experiences unhappily. It was a place seemingly of unwritten rules, which he did not really comprehend and he struggled with Punjabi, the language in which faith was spoken. For his parents the maintenance of a clearly defined, traditional (perhaps nostalgic) faith and culture were important life-rafts in unfamiliar and sometimes hostile waters. For the young boy, they were too often associated with “chidings.” In time, he attended a school steeped both in rugby and chapel choir; things that influenced and informed his own sense of developing selfhood. And, as he admitted, it has undoubtedly led to tension with his own family and religious culture.

Overall, his talk was both a plea to combat lazy generalisations/assumptions about other people, and an acknowledgment that culture and identity are porous entities – they are not unchanging – or if they do not evolve, they risk ossification.

Family and faith; tradition and invention fall in the gospel spotlight this morning, as Jesus wrestles with his identity and loyalties.

The setting is Nazareth. Jesus has returned home after inaugurating his ministry, and it’s clear from the size and frenzy of the crowds pressing against him that his reputation has preceded him. Much has happened since the carpenter's son first left home. Heavens opening at baptism; forty-day fast in the wilderness; he has driven out unclean spirits, healed the sick, eaten with sinners, chosen his disciples and declared himself the Lord of the Sabbath. This shaking up of things brings alarm,

both to his family, intent on restraining him and more dangerously, the religious authorities. The scribes from Jerusalem, believing him to be in league with Satan. It also brings the crowds.

To the scribes’ accusation, Jesus responds – How can a house, a kingdom, Satan himself – continue to stand, if it is divided against itself? It cannot. Those who accuse Jesus of having an unclean spirit, he condemns in the strongest of terms.

At that moment the message comes through. Your mother and brothers are outside. Jesus surveys the gathering of walking wounded, the misfits, the needy, tax gatherers, prostitutes, the children, the Keystone Cop disciples – and declares: This is my family. You are my mother and my brothers, when you do what God is asking!

I recall an encounter on our church doorstep some years ago: A mid-week morning the church doors open: A young woman, passing by, hesitated at the door, scanning for signs of something. I asked if I could help. “I’m travelling” she said, in an Australian accent. “I’m travelling and I was looking for a Meeting. I saw some folks on your steps and sensed the vibe.” An illustration of that extraordinary network of AA or NA, that provide support, to the regular returner and the traveller, passing through. The unconditional welcome - where there is need, there is help.

In the gospel scene there is a reversal, so characteristic of the upside-down kingdom of God. Outside the house stand the traditional insiders — family and religious folk, the pious, the careful. Inside the house sit the outsiders – they are not the morally perfect. They’re not interested in dogma or piety; they just need love and they seem to have found it in a man who heals the sick and feeds the hungry. In their middle sits Jesus, declaring: “This is my family.”

To those of us tempted to look down on others, to lazily categorise or condemn, there is a gospel warning. “Be careful at all times with our certainties.” Apparently, those claiming moral high ground or special privilege, are furthest from Jesus; least able to make the leap from formal religion, to open-hearted love of God’s beloved, disfigured humanity.

To whom do I belong and who belongs to me?

Jesus is not anti-family. That he prayed to God, using Abba (Dad/Daddy) surely speaks something about his own family life. One of the final actions from the Cross was the placing of his own mother, into the care of the beloved disciple. “Here is your mother.” From that time on, the disciple took her into his home.” John 19:27

“Yes, Jesus divides the house, and that process hurts. But he doesn’t divide it to make us homeless. He divides it to rebuild.” Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus To raise the bar, widen the circle; to remind us, who we belong to, and reimagine, who we are connected to.

Today’s bulletin carries the intimation that Borderline, the charity that assists homeless and insecurely housed Scots in London is looking for a new Trustee, who is also a member of St Columba’s. Jesus doesn’t divide the house to make us homeless, but to make it more spacious, more welcoming and more beautiful.

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

SUNDAY 13th JUNE 2021, 3rd SUNDAY after PENTECOST

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 13th JUNE 2021, 3rd SUNDAY after PENTECOST

“A sprig from the lofty top of a cedar…
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” Ezekiel 17:22a, 23

John Muir (1838-1914) was the Scottish-American naturalist,
sometimes known as “John of the mountains” or “Father of the National Parks.”
An early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the USA.
He wrote: “Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life…
If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite!
Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods,
though open to everybody?”
Of a visit to the woods, he once recalled:
“I had nothing to do but look and listen and join the trees in their hymns and prayers.”

Fellow American, Henry Thoreau is quoted as saying: “I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me you have a seed there and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Acorns to oaks; silent and imperceptible growth; flourishing and shelter –
scripture is a veritable garden centre to lure us today.
The very familiar parables of Jesus; the less familiar cuttings/grafting of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel speaks out of a time of calamity –
the period immediately before and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC.
He was probably among the leading citizens of Jerusalem
who had been transported to Babylon in 597BC.
Like the later vision of the valley of dry bones,
summoned to new life by God’s breath/spirit,
here too are words to inspire,
while not ignoring current circumstances.

The central image – God involved – tenderly planting:
“A sprig from the lofty top…. becoming a noble cedar:

On the mountain height of Israel, I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit….
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” Ezekiel 17:22a, 23

For the exile it is the dream of a restored homeland.
For Christians, there is perhaps an echo of Jesus himself;
the suffering servant, the backwater rabbi,
so little listened to, so ultimately unloved.
Yet whose tree of life has spread in ways beyond imagining,
and in whose shade, we ourselves find shelter.

Then, Jesus, the noble cedar who tells the parables of plants and growth.
First, reminding that while farmers can be as attentive, conscientious, skilful,
ultimately, the profound mystery of growth remains beyond them.
The farmer trusts a process that is ancient, mysterious, cyclical, and sure.
trusts the seeds, soil, sun, shade, clouds and rain.
Yes, he/she participates in the process by planting and harvesting;
pays attention to the seasons, and gets to work when the time is ripe.
But he/she never harbours the illusion that he/she's in charge;
knows that they operate in a realm of mystery.
Just so, says Jesus, the kingdom of God;
Just so, perhaps all our ventures –
especially the realm of faith and love –
it is ultimately God’s work, God’s growth.

The late Eugene Petersen is one of the leading most accessible Christian writers of the past fifty years. A long-time parish minister, before moving to academia;
best known for his translation of the bible, The Message.

Petersen grew up in small-own Montana.
From his teenage years, he recalls a man called Chet Ellingson,
Chet was about ten years older than Petersen - a businessman, a friend of his parents.
He was a Christian, but wore that badge lightly;
as a divorcee he was only allowed a peripheral part in the church of the day.

In the autumn he would take Petersen for early morning hunting trips to the local marshes.
“I shivered there with my twelve-gauge Winchester,
waiting, talking, feeling adult. Chet treated me as an adult, before I was an adult.

I can’t remember him ever instructing me or giving me advice.
There was no hint of condescension or authority.
The faith was simply there, spoken and acted out
in the midst of whatever else we were doing –
shooting, rowing, retrieving; or at times, working or worshipping
or meeting on the street and making small talk.

He wasn’t trying to do anything for me
(and never knew what he was, in fact, doing.)
What he did was become a bridge
on which I travelled from immaturity to maturity,
on my way to becoming “fully alive like Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
About seed sowers such as Chet Ellingson, Petersen concludes:
“Only in retrospect did we realise the spiritually formative influence they had on us.”
Leap Over the Wall, E Petersen, Pp 23

Jesus’ second parable is the famous, famous mustard seed.
We deploy it all the time to encourage small beginnings –
the significance of the first step, the encouragement to embark.
It is classic Sunday School landscaping.

Yet, maybe this planting is meant for less settled gardens.
According to some, people of Jesus’ day did not plant mustard seeds –
wouldn’t dream of it.
It was a rapid growing weed that would overwhelm other choice plantings.
So, what is Jesus saying when he describes the sacred and the holy
as a tiny, insignificant mustard seed?
What does it mean to take an invasive weed, we would sooner discard than sow –
and declare it to be the heart of God’s kingdom?

And what about all those birds?
The image of the burgeoning bush offering shelter to all the birds of the air is beautiful –
I personally love it.
But like sowing mustard seeds, is it another kind of instructive joke?
Birds after all eat seeds and fruit; cause havoc in cornfields.
Birds are why farmers put up scarecrows.
“But Jesus isn't a scarecrow kind of gardener.” Debie Thomas

The kingdom of God is all about welcoming the unwelcome.
Sheltering the unwanted. Radical inclusion.
The garden of God doesn’t exist for itself;
it exists to offer nourishment to everyone the world deems unworthy.
It exists to attract and to house the very people we would rather shun.
Its primary purpose is hospitality, not productivity.

As Mary Oliver’s lovely poem Wild Geese concludes:
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.

“Convince me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Psalm 92 set for today finishes:
12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
14 In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap…

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life…”
And our vocation? Nothing but “to look and listen
and join the trees in their hymns and prayers.”

SUNDAY 20th JUNE 2021, 4th SUNDAY after PENTECOST

MORNING WORSHIP
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 20th JUNE 2021, 4th SUNDAY after PENTECOST
Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, Mark 4:35-41

The opening verse of our opening hymn
is a pretty good executive summary
of the scripture readings we have heard this morning:
Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
who bade the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep:
Oh, hear us when we cry to thee
for those in peril on the sea.

From the boundaries of Creation
referenced in Job’s “face-off” with the Almighty:
“Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?
To storm tossed disciples on the Sea of Galilee:
“A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat,
so that the boat was already being swamped.”

And just in case you are a landlubber,
the Psalmist conjures the turmoil of those who go down to the sea in ships
“They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.”

So, today’s scriptures are decidedly tempest-tossed;
they also give full expression to how humanity cries out, in the teeth of the gale.
From Job’s: “Why is this happening to me? What have I done to deserve this?”
To the anguished cry of the disciples:
“Jesus, do you not care that we are drowning?”

The Hebrew scriptures are full of such questions and accusations.
God, where are you? Why won’t you save us? How much longer must we endure?
Rouse yourself, Lord! Why have you forsaken us?
(“What do we do when God falls asleep?”)

In Job’s world framework, the understanding –
those who lead a good life and are obedient to God’s commands
will be rewarded with good fortune.
Alternatively, when tragedy strikes, in some way they deserve it.
Job knows that he has not sinned – still he suffers.
“Where’s the justice in that?” He cries out for a courtroom to question the Divine.
“Let the Almighty answer me!”

Then, as we read, God responds; God responds as a poet.
Not with analysis, not with final answers,
but instead, with awe-inducing questions of God’s own:.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements - surely you know!
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

Our reading included only first eleven verses – four chapters-worth follow –
describing the works of creation – from oceans to constellations
and the hidden lives of animals.
Job asks courtroom; God replies, cosmos.

Prof Catherine Heymans, first female Astronomer Royal for Scotland,
authority on universe’s dark matter.
“We don’t understand what makes up 95% of our universe.
I mean that’s an epic fail as far as science is concerned.”

Job is given a cosmic vision from the divine, of the divine.
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you.” (Job 42:5)
Job’s questions are never answered directly.
Instead, there is a shift in understanding;
acknowledging the place of chaos in the cosmos,
yet concluding the world still rests on a secure foundation.

Hard, or desperate questions fired at God, often amid pain or fear,
Are not contained to the older scriptures – the gospel too.

After a long day with the crowds on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee,
Jesus decides to cross over to the other side.
The geography is significant; the Eastern shore is gentile territory.
Jesus is breaking new ground – potentially hostile.
He is disturbing the status quo. That is when the storm arises.

Its suddenness or its ferocity is exceptional.
Men whose livelihood is to ply their trade upon the waters are thrown into disarray.
In one corner – fearful disciples hanging on for dear life screaming for help;
in the other, the Teacher, asleep on a cushion.
“Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

Former Moderator, Very Rev Dr John Chalmers is known to many of you at St Columba’s.
Beyond the church he might be known as the father of JJ Chalmers
who featured in last year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
Ten years ago, last month, while serving as a Royal Marine in Afghanistan,
JJ was blown up by an IED in Helmand province.
Ten years on, his father John spoke about what followed.
The worst nightmare plunged him and his wife Liz into the darkest place.

John was on a personal high after successfully completing his first General Assembly in Edinburgh as the Kirk’s Principal Clerk on Friday the 27th of May 2011
when his world spun on its axis and turned upside down.

The horrific experience changed his perspective on his Christian faith and life.

“There is an expectation that one should sense a presence of God
that would comfort, calm you and hold you, but for us it was just silence.
Friends and colleagues from the Church came to the front door
and they did not know what to say
but they knew how to drink a cup of tea and sit with us.

When I look back, I think that was the presence of God with us in flesh and blood –
people who were courageous enough to come and see us
when there are no easy words.
We were really in the darkest place where you could be,
it was the worst nightmare I have ever lived through
and a mother’s worst nightmare as well.

That of course was not the end of either John and Liz’s story, or of JJ’s.
They all bear witness to remarkable things that have followed.
But it is worth remembering that is how it started –
“it was wreckage in the first few weeks.”.
The storm was awful.
And in it there were no easy answers, no short cuts, out.
At best they could endure.

Significantly, they remember simple acts of neighbourliness –
inadequate as those neighbours must have felt.
What was important – what is remembered;
a willingness of some to place themselves in proximity to suffering –
even when there were no words or explanations that would do.

In the gospel fragment, yes Jesus awakes,
and yes, with a word of command, he stills the storm.
(A capability that marks out the Messiah.)
But, is that the story’s real point?

Early in the pandemic there was understandably, the rallying cry for unity:
“We’re all in the same boat.”
Actually, time has shown, we may have been in the same storm,
but we are most certainly not all in the same boat.
Experiences have varied greatly, from inconvenient to catastrophic.
Poorer communities, minority ethnic communities and those living with disabilities
have been afflicted disproportionately
and cry out for the healing of these inequalities.

By contrast, in the Sea of Galilee’s gospel storm,
Jesus is in the same storm and the same boat.
He rests in their midst, tossed as they are tossed,
soaked as they are soaked, endangered, as they are endangered.
Though the disciples cannot grasp it,
there is no point in the night when God is absent or even distant.
Conclusion: Jesus, as present in the furies, as in the peace that follows.

Of course, we want God to calm the wind and seas.
We want things under control.
We assume, like the disciples, that the miracle is in Jesus calming the storm.
But this storm-calming power isn’t the kind of power Jesus came to demonstrate.
It is the kind of power Jesus came, in order to give up.

[In time, the storm created by Herod and Pilate could not be calmed,
the wind in this storm would howl until the hour of his death,
and even his prayers could not end its siege.]

Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples is a reminder that discipleship
is not an easy option or necessarily a comfortable road.
It is a reminder that sometimes, discipleship is the call to trust and endure;
to find inner calm through faith.
And when those around us are living through such a moment,
it is a reminder that our presence, steady friendship,
listening ear, practical help, continuing prayer,
may be the thing someone needs to help them hold on till the storm passes.

As we sang:
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know his voice,
As we will sing:
We have an anchor that keeps the soul
steadfast and sure while the billows roll;
fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love!

SUNDAY 27th JUNE 2021, 5th SUNDAY after PENTECOST

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 27th JUNE 2021, 5th SUNDAY after PENTECOST

Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came
and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly,
‘My little daughter is at the point of death.
Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 
So, Jesus went with him. Mark
5:22-24

A Tale of Two Daughters: the girl, just twelve years old;
the woman, twelve years un-consoled.
A story within a story; seemingly separate,
but their proximity and parallels,
surely not placed by chance; each encounter in some way informing the other.

Jairus: A leader of the synagogue; powerful, privileged, accepted, male.
Yet suddenly rocked, by his helplessness to save his sick child.
What would he not do, to bring her health?
Perhaps he has tried everything – the travelling rabbi is the last throw of the dice;
uncaring now what his religious colleagues would say
about associating with the one with the unconventional/dangerous reputation.
So, Jairus the father goes, falls at his feet and implores.
And his plea is answered. Take me to her.

But along the way, someone else’s life gets in the way.
She could not have been more different.
Twelve years sick, haemorrhaging life blood,
her money gone on failed medicines,
ritually impure, impoverished, female and vulnerable;
her own body has become a source of isolation and disgrace;
outcast and embarrassment; shunned into silence by bad religion.
Lonely beyond description.

Some years ago, the Friends of St Columba’s undertook a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral.
We were met “as pilgrims” by Canon Mark Oakley, then a member of the cathedral staff.
Oakley is now a chaplain in one of the colleges of Cambridge University.
During lock down, he has offered a series of online conversations entitled,
“What really matters?”
Recently, he talked with a young man called Lee Welham; Lee is a seller of the Big Issue.
As I understand it, he is both a familiar sight and a known character
in that part of the famous university town.
In the short 15-minute conversation, conducted over zoom and then onto Twitter,
Lee explained a little of his particular story.
Born with a gift of the gab he left studies in accountancy
to work in seaside towns for ten years, entertaining customers with humour and chat,
as he sold fairground rides and beach paraphernalia.

His move to Cambridge was miscalculated; becoming homeless,
admitting the shock of going from, someone walking past Big Issue sellers,
to being a Big Issue seller.
As he said: “Up until 6pm selling the Big Issue is OK. After 6pm it becomes very lonely.” Initially, he found being on the street, terrifying.
Hardest of all was the sense of invisibility.
[Oakley recounted from his days in London the homeless person who said to him:
“Congratulations, you’re the first person to look me in the eye today.”]

Lee’s story has perhaps worked out better than most.
He appears to both generate community and find support within it;
A hairdresser who offers a haircut;
someone else who puts his clothes through a washing machine.
When asked: How can people help?
“Let them know that you see them.
Build up the vendor; help them up the ladder – you have a ladder.
Maybe once a week, once a fortnight, once a month – stop and talk to them.”
In answer to the conversation’s central question:
What have you learnt? What really matters?
“After COVID the whole country should have learnt the lesson.

Human contact. Family. Food with friends. Do nice things for people.
Grab the ones you love – never let them go.”

On the road to the house of Jairus an invisible woman steps forward.
She too, like Jairus, is desperate.
And in that pushing, jostling, last chance saloon crowd,
she makes a stunning act of civil disobedience. (Debie Thomas)
She reaches out to grab, to hold, just to brush -
what she longs, might be the fabric of life,
the garment, that one day soldiers would play dice for, outside Jerusalem’s walls.

Jesus senses something has gone out from him;
the healer bears a cost, imposed by the healed.
Amid the throng he halts, asks: Who touched me?
Ludicrous question; the disciples roll their eyes –
Boss, we’re packed like sardines here – it could be anyone.
Who touched me? Not the question of a touchy celebrity,
but an engineer of community.

Stopping, amid the immediate task, the call to Jairus’ home,
Jesus seeks something more from the one who sought him.
For the one isolated by illness, he desires not just health, but restoration.
Recognising his search for her, she comes;
aware of her shocking trespass – the rabbi rendered impure, by her impulsive action.
In fear and trembling, she falls down before him.
And in a torrent of words tells him the whole truth -
perhaps for the first time someone really listens, to what she needs to say.
And Jesus? Instead of condemning her action; praises her faith;
instead of condemning unclean; he calls her Daughter.
[She begins to climb her ladder.]

Jairus is witness to this. One can only imagine the overload of what he was seeing.
Surely beside himself at the delay for his daughter.
Confronted by a surprising/unwelcome(?) re-ordering of priorities;
the need of the invisible outsider, elevated above his own?
Confusion at the rabbi who does not react in anger at being made ritually unclean;
on the contrary – applauds the trespass.
Did he quickly calculate the now, un-clean rabbi could not enter his own house?
Did it dawn on him, the part he/his religion played in the woman’s isolation and suffering?
What orthodoxies created oppressions?

But before he could make sense of these things - the worst of news.
While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say,
‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’
 

Yesterday, arriving early at a crematorium south of London,
I found the large car park packed.
As the main chapel doors opened a very full congregation emerged.
So-striking – the vast majority were young adults.
I wondered who/what had drawn them altogether.

After they had gone, I went to recce the smaller chapel for the service I was to take.
I was met by a friendly smartly dressed, bearded man in his 30’s/40’s.
I wasn’t quite sure who he was or what his role was. Organist? Chapel attendant?
He obviously knew the space and showed me what I needed to be ready.

I asked him about the big service that had just been.
A young man aged 24 – who had died in a car accident.
The next service to follow was to be for a ninety-one-year-old,
complete with standard bearer from the British Legion.
“That’s OK; you kind of expect it.
It’s the babies and the young ones I find difficult”

he said, reflecting on the many and varied ceremonies
that he witnesses in the course of his day.
At the end of our conversation, he signed off:
“But I’m just the gardener – covering for the normal chapel attendant who’s ill today.”

A Tale of Two Daughters: the woman, twelve years un-consoled.
now, the girl, just twelve years old – final scene.
Jesus asks Jairus to keep walking; even in the valley of the shadow of death.
Declares: Do not pronounce death, where I see life.
The professional mourners, like money-lenders,
are driven from the temple of the child’s room:
To the parents in the midst of the storm: “Do not be afraid.”
To the child, a hand outstretched: “Little girl, get up.”

After awakening - appetite; Give her something to eat.
Jesus doesn’t dwell on proving others wrong; doesn’t draw attention to himself;
actually, commands the witnesses to: Keep it a secret.
Concentrate on what really matters – life to be lived, love and food to be shared.

So concludes our Tale of Two Daughters; the Twelve-Year Tale:
So full of things to notice; so human and humane.
Yet not a story that covers everything –
not a perfect Hollywood movie ending.

Let us recognise that for many,
there isn’t the longed-for reawakening from apparent death, or dramatic healing;
for many, prayer isn’t answered with the results we most plead for.
For some, there is only the hardest road, to be endured.
As we sang: (Hymn 718 We cannot measure how you heal.)
We cannot measure how you heal
or answer every sufferer’s prayer,
yet we believe your grace responds
where faith and doubt unite to care.

As we try to be a family of faith, imperfectly perfect/perfectly imperfect(?);
in honesty, let us say that sometimes all we have in our empty hands - is to pray;
To pray for grace enough to make it through this day.
Clinging to heaven’s hem – if only just.
Or grace enough, to support another, enduring the worst.

To remember, to treasure the Psalmist’s promise,
(however far off it may yet seem):
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

And holding something of Christ’s healing and humility before us –
his lightness of touch;
to make the Psalmist’s words our own:
“… my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Psalm 30: 5b, 11, 12

Sermons - May 2021

Sermon 2nd MAY 2021, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 9th MAY 2021, 6th SUNDAY OF EASTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 16th MAY 2021, SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons - April 2021

MAUNDY THURSDAY, 1st APRIL 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
MAUNDY THURSDAY, 1st APRIL 2021, 8pm

Introduction, Lighting of Candles & Call to Worship

Hymn 393 We turn to God (Eventide)

Prayers of Approach & Lord’s Prayer

Old Testament reading: Psalm 116

Anthem Christus Factus est (Bruckner)

Gospel Testament Reading: John 13:1-35

Hymn 376 ‘Twas on that night (Rockingham)

Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Musical Interlude

Celebration of the Lord’s Supper

Musical Interlude

As the silence begins the sanctuary is cleared and a single candle placed on the communion table as the lights are lowered.

Silence


Hymn 393 We turn to God (Eventide)
We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.

We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.

Hymn 376 ‘Twas on that night (Rockingham)
'Twas on that night when doomed to know
the eager rage of every foe,
that night in which he was betrayed,
the Saviour of the world took bread.

And after thanks and glory given
to him that rules in earth and heaven,
that symbol of his flesh he broke,
and thus to all his followers spoke:

"My broken body thus I give
for you, for all. Take, eat, and live.
And oft the sacred rite renew
that brings my saving love to view."

Then in his hands the cup he raised,
and God anew he thanked and praised,
while kindness in his bosom glowed,
and from his lips salvation flowed.

"My blood I thus pour forth," he cries,
"to cleanse the soul in sin that lies;
in this the covenant is sealed,
and heaven’s eternal grace revealed.

"With love to all this cup is fraught;
let all partake the sacred draught;
through latest ages let it pour,
in memory of my dying hour."


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 116
1I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications.
2Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
3The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.
4Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”
5Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful.
6The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
7Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
8For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
9I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
10I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”;
11I said in my consternation, “Everyone is a liar.”
12What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
13I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
14I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
15Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.
16O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds.
17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord.
18I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,
19in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!


Gospel Reading: John 13:1-35
13Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

18I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” 21After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

GOOD FRIDAY, 2nd APRIL 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
GOOD FRIDAY, 2nd APRIL 2021, 11am

Introduction & Lighting of Candles

Call to Worship: Isaiah 53 :7-9

Introit: Miserere Mei (Byrd)

Hymn 378 Praise to the Holiest (Gerontius)

Prayers of Approach & Lord’s Prayer

Introduction to the Passion

Reading of the Passion I: John 18:1-11 The Garden: Betrayal & Arrest

Hymn 125 Lord of all being (Ombersley)

Reading of the Passion II: John 18:12-17 Interrogation & Denial

Anthem O vos omnes (Croce)

Reading of the Passion III: John 18:28-40 Before Pilate

Hymn 382 O sacred head (Passion Chorale)

Reading of the Passion IV: John 19: 1-16a Mocked & Condemned

Anthem Crux Fidelis (John IV of Portugal)

Reading of the Passion V: John 19:16b-30 Crucifixion

Silence

Lord’s Prayer

Reading of the Passion VI: John 19:31-42 Taken down & Buried

Musical Interlude

Prayers of Thanksgiving & Intercession

Hymn 380 There is a green hill (Horsley)

Dismissal & Silence


Hymn 378 Praise to the Holiest (Gerontius)
Praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise:
in all his words most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways.

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
which did in Adam fail,
should strive afresh against the foe,
should strive and should prevail;

O generous love! that he, who smote
in Man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man
for man should undergo;

And in the garden secretly,
and on the cross on high,
should teach his brethren, and inspire
to suffer and to die.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,
and in the depth be praise:
in all his words most wonderful,
most sure in all his ways.

Hymn 125 Lord of all being (Ombersley)
Lord of all being, throned afar,
thy glory flames from sun and star;
centre and soul of every sphere,
yet to each loving heart how near!

Sun of our life, thy quickening ray
sheds on our path the glow of day;
Star of our hope, thy softened light
cheers the long watches of the night.

Our midnight is thy smile withdrawn,
our noontide is thy gracious dawn,
our rainbow arch thy mercy's sign;
all, save the clouds of sin, are thine.

Lord of all life, below, above,
whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,
before thy ever-blazing throne
we ask no lustre of our own.

Grant us thy truth to make us free,
and kindling hearts that burn for thee,
till all thy living altars claim
one holy light, one heavenly flame.

 

Hymn 382 O sacred head (Passion Chorale)
O sacred Head, sore wounded,
with grief and shame bowed down,
O Kingly head surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown!
How pale thou art with anguish
with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that face now languish,
which once was bright as morn!

O Lord of life and glory
what bliss till now was thine!
I read the wondrous story;
I joy to call thee mine.
Thy grief and bitter Passion
Were all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.

What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, heavenly Friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine for ever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.

Be near me, Lord, when dying,
oh, show thy cross to me,
and my last need supplying,
come, Lord, and set me free!
These eyes, new faith receiving,
from thee shall never move,
for they who die believing
die safely, through thy love.

 

Hymn 380 There is a green hill (Horsley)
There is a green hill far away,
without a city wall,
where the dear Lord was crucified,
who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
what pains he had to bear;
but we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiv'n,
he died to make us good,
that we might go at last to heav'n,
saved by his precious blood.

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin;
he only could unlock the gate
of heav'n, and let us in.

O dearly, dearly has he loved,
and we must love him too,
and trust in his redeeming blood,
and try his works to do.


Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 53:7-9
7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

The Passion according to the Gospel of John

Reading I: The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus
18 After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. 2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” 5 They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.”[a] Jesus replied, “I am he.”[b] Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6 When Jesus[c] said to them, “I am he,”[d] they stepped back and fell to the ground. 7 Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”[e]8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he.[f] So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” 9 This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” 10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11 Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Reading II: Jesus before the High Priest
12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” 24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Reading III: Jesus before Pilate
28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters.[g] It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters,[h]so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” 32 (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters[i] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. 39 But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 40 They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.

Reading IV: Jesus is mocked
19 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3 They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.
4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He entered his headquarters[j] again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”
13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat[k] on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew[l]Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.


Reading V: Jesus is crucified
So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew[m] is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth,[n] the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew,[o] in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
25 And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Reading VI: Jesus’ Side Is Pierced
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows[p] that he tells the truth.) 36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” 37 And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: SATURDAY 3rd APRIL 2021

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: SATURDAY 3rd APRIL 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

Welcome & Opening Prayer

Old Testament Reading: Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24
3:1 I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God's wrath;
3:2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;
3:3 against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.
3:4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones;
3:5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation;
3:6 he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.
3:7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; 3:8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;
3:9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.
3:19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
3:20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

Anthem: Thou knowest, Lord (Purcell)

Gospel Reading: Matthew 27:57-66
27:57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 27:58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.
27:59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth
27:60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.
27:61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. 27:62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 27:63 and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' 27:64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." 27:65 Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." 27:66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

Time of Quiet

Prayers for Holy Saturday
O God, creator of heaven and earth, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so may we await with him the coming of the third day and rise with him to newness of life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord

For hope
God, ground of our hope,
when we are cast down or dismayed,
keep alive in us your spirit of hope.
Fill us with all joy and peace
as we lead the life of faith,
until, by the power of the Holy Spirit,
we overflow with hope;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord’s Prayer

Benediction
In this place will be heard once more
the sounds of joy and gladness,
the voices of bridegroom and bride;
here too will be heard voices shouting,
‘Praise the Lord of Hosts,
for the Lord is good; his love endures for ever.’

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

Sermon 4th April 2021, Easter Sunday

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 4th APRIL 2021, EASTER SUNDAY

“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen,
they went to the tomb.” Mark 16:2

Some years ago, an Army chaplain colleague, while on operations overseas,
decided that in the camp where he was located,
he would keep a routine, that he believed
would be a quiet but steady witness to his faith.
Early each morning as the camp stirred into life,
he would sit in his fold out chair, in front of his tent, and read his bible –
and in the Anglican tradition say the daily office.
Towards the end of his six months tour a young soldier eventually asked:
“Padre, have you not finished that book yet?”

In my own experience, I too was once found reading that book (the Bible)
and engaged by a mischievous young officer.
“Good book, Padre?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m enjoying it, thank you.” I replied.
As he made to depart, he turned and added:
“You do know it’s just like The Sting?
(The famous Robert Redford, Paul Newman movie,
which culminates with a great con/sting on the crime boss, Robert Shaw)
“Everyone thinks he’s dead - but he’s not really.”

Finishing a book; a final twist – appropriate, given today’s gospel.
Hilary finished Mark’s book/gospel this morning.
Yet, the pew bible you will show you that the final chapter of Mark continues on.
The Lectionary set for today halts/stops at verse eight.
Why? Because most New Testament scholars believe
that that is where the Gospel of Mark originally ended – abruptly -
with the story of the women who go to the cemetery.

The women - the ones who had been there from the start,
supporting and feeding the growing band throughout the days in Galilee;
witnessing in the course of a handful of Jerusalem days,
happy hosannas and the atrocities of Golgotha.
They had stuck by and watched.
Seen the spent, broken body, prised loose from its cross.
It was they who sought to give their loved one some final dignity –
the rhythms and rituals, the final, beautiful, useless gestures of burial.

Earlier this week a church friend sent me some thoughts on Holy Week.
It started with words he had heard recently.
“Jesus was dead. Dead. Dead.”

He reflected: “I am always happy to just linger with Good Friday,
not particularly wanting to move on to Easter Sunday.
Please don't think that I'm being morbid,
but I just find the stories of those days to be real and truthful.
I just go along with Easter Sunday, but I don't really need a triumphant God,
the congregational jollity, or a "conjuring trick with bones".
I would rather have a God who is willing to show up in the dark, lonely places….”

I hope some of you will have watched the gospel meditations,
filmed by our friend Revd Christopher Rowe
from his parish of Colston Milton in Glasgow.
At times they have not been a comfortable watch –
but I think an important one.
His Good Friday film is one long framed shot of a large cross,
made from scaffolding polls and wreathed in scarlet material.
It stands on rough ground at the top of a terraced street.
In the distance a high-rise block of flats – further still, a glimpse of blue hills.
It is shot, early morning – and in moments of silence,
one can clearly hear birdsong.
The narration is principally the Good Friday story – Christ’s crucifixion.
Movingly, at the film’s conclusion, without spoken words, a subtitle comes up:
In this way God loved Milton by giving his only Son.

“You know he’s not really dead, Padre.”
“No, you’re wrong. He is dead. Dead. Dead. That death is real.”
So, on the dawn of the first day of the week - what did the women find?
Nothing that they expected.
The stone rolled away and a mysterious young man
pointing to Jesus’ empty tomb and announcing the resurrection.
Then the instruction:
“Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee;
there you will see him, just as he told you."
An instruction, at least initially, they seemed unable to follow:
instead fleeing from the tomb,“for terror and amazement had seized them;
and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."
Initially, the Good News inspires neither belief, nor transformation.
No Easter fanfare; no hopelessness to certitude.
Instead, only frightened women fleeing from a cemetery in silence:
As one preacher said: “That’s no way to run a resurrection.”

Mark’s version of the story honours this mystery.
The text doesn’t leap to explanation, to proof, or even to joy.
It allows the bewilderment of the first witnesses to be just that.
The silence/speechlessness of the first witnesses
serves to remind us, we are not in charge of Easter; God is.
The silence/speechlessness of the first witnesses
serves to highlight the messenger’s words:
“He has been raised; but he is not here.
You will need to look for him elsewhere.”
Go back to where it all started – Galilee - there,
as verse one of chapter 1 declares:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Disciples – return to the struggles and joys of ordinary life –
as you seek to live the Christ-like life –
that is where you will meet him.
In the bathing and bedtime story of the child
and the hospitality of the Night Shelter;
in the office politics and the daily decisions,
the housing estate and the corridors of power;
in the causes we advocate and the people we visit;
at the hospital bedside and the crematorium.
Christ – out and about, gone ahead of us.

I heard recently of a church congregation that at the start of Lent
took the painful decision to close.
The best they could envisage was a dignified death.
At one crucial session meeting, a couple of week's ago,
half the Kirk session stayed away –
grief, bewilderment, apologies that they had something else to do.
A real low point: but, it was not the end of the story.

My correspondent confided: “And you know what? God was already ahead of us.”
The retiring minister contacted a neighbouring congregation,
asking whether they would be interested in “ingrafting” the about-to-close congregation.
Their Pastor and session immediately responded "yes".
It emerged that back in the 1970’s when the declining congregation was at its peak,
some members had planted some members in the congregation
that, years later, was about to receive them.
The Pastor heralds the new arrangement as a “reunion.”
The old congregation will dissolve this month and start its new life in May.
“Perhaps this is a Resurrection Story I can believe in?”

We know a little of resurrection, because in time,
the frightened silence of the women on Easter morning eventually gave way to proclamation.
Alarm subsided, courage deepened, trauma healed, and amazement grew.
They learned how to choose hope, how to make the story their own,
and as they did, the story blossomed and grew.

There is a final wonderful moment in Christopher Rowe’s Easter Sunday Milton/Galilee film.
Suddenly, making its slow way up the street’s incline – an ice cream van –
trundling along with its jaunty jingle.
Suddenly an emblem, an icon, a sign of “an unbelievable truth.”
In Christopher’s words: “Love is going ahead of you and won’t stop
until it blossoms everywhere.” Alleluia.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,
according to his power that is at work within us,
to him be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations,
for ever and ever! Amen.

Sermon 11th April 2021, 2nd SUNDAY OF EASTER

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 11th APRIL 2021, 2nd SUNDAY OF EASTER

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,
and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

‘Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ John 20

A little over two years ago, thanks to the kindness of a church friend,
I, along with several family members, made the pilgrimage to South West London,
to see that year’s Calcutta Cup rugby match.
The annual fixture – Scotland v England; at Twickenham, “Rugby HQ” –
a ground, where at the time, Scotland had not won for thirty-six years.

With me, my daughter, Olivia, then age seven; her very first, big, sporting occasion.
Her excitement at the size of stadium, the buzz of the crowd, sheer greenness of the pitch – making it a special day for a Dad.
Then – the whistle blew – and after all the anticipation…despair.
A slick and mighty England repeatedly and remorselessly shredding the Scottish defence –
after only thirty minutes, the game long gone,
the hosts piling on a lead of 31-3 - a sporting massacre.
Then, at the lowest ebb, in the midst of the England fans,
a seven-year-old voice rang out:
“I still believe in you Scotland!” (A phrase now passed into family folklore.)

“Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Believing is a big deal in John’s Gospel.
Mark uses the verb thirteen times; Matthew, nine times and Luke, seven.
In John, it appears over ninety-nine times.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

“I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1)

In John’s/the Fourth Gospel believe is always a verb.
“To believe is to trust: to trust what God has done in Christ,
and to act as if it were true.”
To believe is to wash another’s feet; to abide in love; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Jesus’ believing is less interested in what we think/feel.
than how we act.
In our time, believing in Jesus, is often portrayed as intellectual assent,
or acceptance of historic formulations. Creeds as credentials.
e.g., Son of God, born of a virgin, died for our sins,
resurrected from the dead; will come again to judge the living and the dead.
That is part of the story. After all, the gospel reading ends:
“But these (signs) are written so that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,
and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31

But we should be wary of giving priority to Christian beliefs,
over Christian believing/trusting.
Creeds do not trump conduct;
certainty without question, is not greater than faith with doubt.
John’s resurrection story illustrates this:

The first day – empty tombs and familiar strangers in the garden;
Mary, called by name, bearing, breaking news to the disciples.
Then on the evening of that first day
behind closed doors, dreading fates, comparable to that of their Master;
Jesus comes to that still-frightened company.
Into their confusion - suddenly, jaw-droppingly, quietly – he is there.

And his first words? After death. After resurrection.
Neither stony silence; nor anger that they went AWOL on the eve of the battle.
Instead, “Peace be with you.”
A bridge - from guilt to mercy, despair to hope, fear to courage.
Peace be with you – greeting and gift, restoration and command.

Re-formed, the disciples are swiftly commissioned:
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
“A boat is safe in the harbour, but that’s not what boats are for.”

Readied for sending, they are resourced.
“When he had said this he breathed on them saying,
Receive the Holy Spirit.”
For John, resurrection is also Pentecost; new life and immediate Spirit.
So, the Church is midwifed into being,
delivered and welcomed into the light
by the forgiveness and breath of the resurrected Jesus.

Famously, like a father caught in traffic, Thomas is late for the birth; misses it.
He hears about these extraordinary things
but demands more than make believe, to make believe.

Thomas is the honest questioner; finds it hard to believe, or trust the word of others.
He does not pretend. Without the evidence, I cannot trust.
He dares to voice uncertainty, even amid the uncertainty of others.
He does not ask for greater proof than his peers –
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, I will not believe.”
they, after all, had similarly been shown the scars by Jesus.

In Radio’s, Private Passions: Sister Teresa Keswick, Carmelite nun in Norfolk:
a woman of impeccable Christian credentials.
This contemplative nun was asked about those
“who find it hard to accept the existence of God.”
Perhaps, surprisingly she responded: “It’s a view I share.
There may well not be a God. But you can’t prove that either.
And the pointers are, that there is one; the pointers being love and beauty,
In spite of the hideous mess the world has got itself into.
There is something beyond.”

She was asked: Do you feel the presence of God?
“Personally, I don’t on the whole have feelings of that sort.
I think everyone has the sense of the numinous, you can get it on a starlit night,
Sometimes you feel yes – there is a master plan, there is love beyond everything.
Sometimes, it’s just the stars.
I don’t think it matters very much.
One’s conduct matters more than the way one feels.”

Thomas’ integrity endures a longer empty tomb,
but the shepherd comes back for the left-behind sheep -
just as he promised he would.
Thomas recognises his Lord in scars, not wonders.
For Thomas, the wounds were critical.
The scars were the continuity between the crucified one and the risen one;
Jesus’ identity so bound, so defined by the sacrifice he had made –
that if those scars were not real, then this was no Jesus.

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), is the Japanese art
of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer
dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.
When pottery smashes, kintsugi may make an object more beautiful
with the jigsaw of its golden veins - its cracks giving it unity.
As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object,
rather than something to disguise.

“A kintsugi bowl contains the memory of what it used to be,
a recognition of suffering and resilient beauty.
More than just a means of repair, kintsugi offers pottery and us, the hope of resurrection.”
(Something Understood)

“To believe is to trust what God has done in Christ, and to act as if it were true.
“I still believe in you - “My Lord and my God.”
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Sermon 18th April 2021, 3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 18th APRIL 2021, 3rd SUNDAY OF EASTER

Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.
Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’
And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Luke 24:38-40

The image of the Queen, attending the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh,
in the chapel at Windsor, seated masked and alone, due to COVID restrictions,
will perhaps be an abiding one.
Whatever one’s view on departing royals or funeral ceremonies,
the sight of a fellow human in time of bereavement asks ultimate questions.
When someone dies what is lost, and what endures?
When someone dies, what happens next – if anything?
For us, would be followers of a risen Christ,
in these days of Eastertide, what do we see and hear,
what do we comprehend and what might we trust?

The gospel read this morning comes as a sort of Phase III of the first Easter.
Phase I; the discovery by the woman of the stone rolled away and an empty tomb.
Phase II; the two disciples, forlorn and heading home,
but encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus –
the identity of the stranger revealed in the breaking of bread in their own home.

Then Phase III: Into the least promising of circumstances.
A hiding place, fear-filled, rank with defeat;
the, as yet un-arrested remnant, cower;
the Master’s death, still a terrible reproach, to a collective failure of nerve.

Yet, that is where it begins – rock bottom.
Jesus comes. Comes and gifts the greeting: “Peace be with you.”
Echo of those pre-crucifixion words:
“Peace is what I leave with you; my peace I give you.
Not as the world gives. Be not afraid.” (John 14: 27)
Continuity of promise and blessing – an unbroken thread, a seamless garment.

Like John’s gospel last week, Luke’s account is all about tangible physicality –
hands, feet, food, not phantom.
In a concluding discussion of one of the Lent Book discussion groups,
there was an observation that resonated for today.
Our discussions over recent weeks have been around the theme of evangelism –
prompted by the recent book of author, Hannah Steele.
Trying to work out the why/how and when we share the news of Jesus/the love of God,
most sided with the view that an evangelism based on
welcome, hospitality, friendship, prayer and support was a more convincing model
than the stereo-typical, street-corner approach of: “Are you saved?”
As one member summed up:
“Perhaps congregations like ours are the hands of Jesus, serving and caring,
rather than the feet of Jesus, going out to tell/evangelise.”

The writer Michael Rosen’s had serious COVID-19.
He was on a ventilator for 48 days last year.
Some years earlier, in honour of the 60th Anniversary of the NHS, he had written a poem.
While in hospital last year staff pinned a copy of the poem above his bed.

These are the hands that touch us first
Feel your head - find the pulse - and make your bed.
These are the hands that tap your back
Test the skin - hold your arm - wheel the bin.
Change the bulb - fix the drip
Pour the jug - replace your hip.
These are the hands that fill the bath
Mop the floor - flick the switch - soothe the sore.
Burn the swabs - give us a jab
Throw out sharps - design the lab.
And these are the hands that stop the leaks
Empty the pan - wipe the pipes - carry the can.
Clamp the veins - make the cast
Log the dose - and touch us last.

(Michael Rosen: Many Different Kinds of Love – A Story of Life, Death and the NHS - published by Ebury Press of Penguin Random House 2021. ISBN 978-1-52910-945-0)
“These are the hands…. that touch us first and touch us last.”

Rachel Cooke is another contemporary voice from the COVID front line.
For many years a hospice doctor, specialising in palliative/end of life care.
Contrary to what people often assume, she says it is not a depressing/morbid field
in which to work.
On the contrary, she finds there a beauty and aliveness that is a constant source of inspiration.

When the pandemic struck, Rachel Cooke transferred from hospice,
to hospital work with COVID patients.
Not an easy choice, given that she is also mother to young teenage children.
Of her more recent experience she poignantly talks
about looking out of her hospital building into the car park –
seeing cars lined up, their drivers or passengers inside, just looking at the building.
Loved ones of patients who were unable to visit,
but kept a sort of vigil by relative proximity.
Illustration, as with yesterday’s funeral, of the many separations t
hat have made (and continue to make) illness and death even harder.

One thing Rachel Cooke stresses however was that in her experience,
the staff did absolutely everything possible, that if/when a patient was dying,
they would ensure that there was someone/some member of staff,
who would sit with the dying, to hold a hand, so that they did not die alone.

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.

As with the promise of peace that Jesus speaks, both before and after resurrection,
the wounds of hands and feet from Good Friday,
both exist and persist, in Easter’s light.
In other words, resurrection is not a cancellation of the Cross;
what went before is not a mistake.
The way of love and vulnerability, of strength in weakness, of self-giving,
remains the way.
The wounded, hungry, resurrected Jesus is recognisible,
because he embodies/is consistent, with the Jesus who went before;
(the Jesus who) emerged dripping from Jordan’s waters,
wrestled decisions in the desert,
warmed himself by campfires, drank wine in people’s homes,
appreciated the fragrance of precious oils, wept at a friend’s grave,
knew anger at injustice and prayed in time of fear in Gethsemane –
and finally, fought for breath at public execution.

That is the invitation in:
“It is I myself. Me. The one you know. Touch and see.”
That is the power and promise of the resurrection.
The Son of Man – the human one - does not return manicured and mended –
the scars are reminder that he has travelled through his ordeal, not round it.
The “gardener,” meeting Mary by an unexplained and empty tomb;
a stranger, walking the Emmaus road with grieving disciples;
words of peace to those scared, behind locked doors –
early evidence, that God will also accompany us through, not round,
our own ordeals, past, present, or yet to come.
As some of today’s headlines declare: “Mam, you are not alone.”

Look at my hands. It is I, myself.
The one you love, and the one who loves you.
There is no fear, no separation or loneliness now, you cannot face.
Put your trust in me – just as now, I put my trust in you.
“You are witnesses of these things.”

“You are my witnesses.
When the world looks for the risen Christ,
when they want to know what that means, it is us they look at.
Not our pretty faces and sincere eyes, but our hands and feet –
what we have done with them and where we have gone with them.” B Brown Taylor

Sermon 25th APRIL 2021, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 25th APRIL 2021, 4th SUNDAY OF EASTER

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. …
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.” John 10

In recent days there has been much about a so-called, European Super League.
The proposed formation of a competition of about a dozen of Europe’s most-monied clubs.
Had it progressed, it would have ensured a platform for the invited clubs to participate without fear of ever being removed from a highly lucrative cartel.
The lead voice, the Chairman of one of the club’s announced grandly
that the initiative was: “To save football.”
It might well have saved the chosen clubs in the competition,
but it seemed to offer little to all those clubs in leagues and competitions
that would be left behind.
Compared this week (A Thought for the Day, Rev Sam Wells) to the scenes of collapse
when a city is overrun – the lucky few, airlifted to safety on the last helicopter;
the remainder, left to an unknown fate.

To save – or not to save.
At the time of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, retired minister, Revd David Scott
reflected on the image of the funeral, with the Queen, a solitary, masked figure –
a very conscious adhering to the restrictions that have limited pandemic funerals.
Revd Scott linked this identification of monarch and people to an earlier example.
After Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Second World War,
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, said: “I’m glad we’ve been bombed.
It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.
The Princesses would never leave without me, and I couldn’t leave without the King,
and the King will never leave.”

Next month will be the 80th Anniversary of the destruction of the original St Columba’s
by enemy action – a casualty of the Blitz.
In that same month, May 1941, an American photojournalist called Robert Capa
arrived in London. He set about recording images of people and places in London’s East End, which would be published as “The Battle of Waterloo Road.”

Capa was a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to America;
a hard-drinking, poker-playing, womaniser.
As a photojournalist he had already covered wars in Spain and China
before becoming a freelancer for “Life” magazine, during World War II.
In time, he took some of the war’s most enduring images from London’s blitz,
to North Africa, Italy, and the liberation of Paris.
Perhaps his most famous images, are the eleven surviving photos
taken in the initial attack on Omaha Beach, as part of the Americans’ Normandy landings
on D-Day (6th June, 1944); credited with inspiring the fearsome realism
of the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan.”

Two years before those D-Day photos an incident in 1942, proved a watershed moment.
Capa was in England, frustrated by his inability to get near to the war;
no proximity, meant no pay.
One day he visited an American air base at Chelveston, outside London.
There, the Flying Fortress aircraft had just commenced daylight bombing raids into Germany.
Capa spent time with the crewmen. They listened to Bob Hope on the radio.
The mission was called. Twenty-four planes took off.
Six hours later, only seventeen returned.

One of the returning planes crash landed on the airfield.
Several of the crew had been killed or wounded.
Capa ran towards the plane as it slid to a halt on the turf runway.
A hatch opened. A severely injured crewman was handed out to waiting medics.
Two fatalities followed. The last man out was the pilot.
Instinctively, Capa moved closer to get a shot.
The traumatised pilot turned angrily on the American:
“Is this what you were waiting for?”

Capa snapped his camera shut, left the airfield without saying another word.
On the train back to London he vowed he would no longer be an “undertaker.”
If he had to attend funerals, then he would have to be part of the procession.
Combatants would only tolerate his presence if he shared their experience.

The change, wrought by that airfield incident, came to fruition in the Omaha Beach images.
Normandy veterans who only saw the photos many years later, were moved.
One commented: “He must have wanted those photographs very badly.”
Others noted that in all of Capa’s work they could not see a single image of violence;
only pictures of beauty and sadness.
“They show so many moments in which the human spirit triumphs over adversity and evil.”

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
When we talk of footballing Super Leagues, Princesses and the Blitz or war photographers,
I guess we risk - has this anything to do with our own small-scale, peace-time lives?
Indeed, does talk of shepherds and sheep resonate at all with I-phone life
and home-delivery shopping?

There are of course, still shepherds;
the demands and dependencies of farming life
are still critical to our world.
James Rebanks, gives contemporary voice to this.
His family have kept sheep in Matterdale in Cumbria for some six hundred years.
Rebanks himself, left school at sixteen but later went on to study at Oxford,
before returning to the family farm.
In his books The Shepherd's Life, and English Pastoral
he conveys a deep rootedness and understanding of place.
“The longer I am here, the clearer I hear the music of this valley.”
The distinction between me and this place blurs
and when they set me in the earth here
it will be the conclusion of a life-long story of return.
[The I and the me fades away, erodes with each passing day,
until it is already an effort to remember who I am
and why I am supposed to matter.]
The modern world worships the idea of the self, the individual; but it’s a gilded cage.
There is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land.
In a noisy age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue.”
James Rebanks, “English Pastoral”

Contemporary shepherd, Reebanks certainly offers wisdom for our age –
particularly through his careful stewarding of the land.
He also acknowledges the toughness of the shepherd’s life.
This connects to the biblical image, so associated with Jesus.
The Good Shepherd is a whole lot more than Sunday School cuddly lambs.
Jesus’ shepherd inhabits the edges of polite society; untamed places.
His life involves danger, in contrast to the hireling shepherd –
who will scarper in moment of crisis, (“Take the helicopter out…”)
viewing sacrificial shepherding as absurd.
Jesus’ shepherd is in it for the long haul.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.

This week, both Kirk Sessions - St Columba’s, Pont Street and St Andrew’s, Newcastle
have met. Both congregations face situations and challenges, specific to different contexts;
yet both face some commonalities.
All of us, committed church member, or curious passer-by
are feeling our tentative way into the “new normal.”
Trying to discern what will endure from times past
and what will emerge from new circumstances.
The power to lay down, and the power to take up.

One suggestion, is that we may be less seduced by things
we have gone without in recent times, that were less than good –
we may choose to travel abroad less often,
we may accept that some produce is harder to get,
embrace eating seasonal, local produce.

Alternatively, we may continue with things adopted in recent times –
a better appreciation of the world around us,
a desire to walk/cycle more,
a better attempt to look out for our neighbours,
a valuing of touch, listening and friendship.

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us –
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods
and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
(See I John 3:16-24)

Sermons - March 2021

Sermon 7th March 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 7th MARCH 2021, 11.00am, 3rd SUNDAY OF LENT

“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves,
and the money changers seated at their tables.
Making a whip of cords, he drove them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.
He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
He told those who were selling the doves,
“Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

As a child I have a dim recollection of seeing a black and white movie –
possibly Citizen Cain (?)
A scene where a grown up goes berserk in his study/office –
in a moment of anger or frustration he wrecks everything that is ordered.
Great sweeps of tabletops, ornaments, papers, glass crashing to the ground.
Bookcases and cabinets wrenched from their settings,
to leave the room as if a typhoon has swept through it.

Astonished by this display of destruction, my mother, herself a trained actress,
explained that the actor hadn’t really broken real things – they would just be props.
Despite this lowering of the stakes involved,
I couldn’t help but think that it must be incredibly good fun to run amok like that…
and get paid for it!
[I await congregational responses – either to correct my film knowledge,
or to analyse my “disturbed childhood.”]

The gospel today – the cleansing of the Temple – is not short of mayhem –
though it is more than a child’s delight in breaking glass.
At the Feast of the Passover pilgrims came from every known corner of the world;
a great flood of humanity streaming towards the home of God on earth;
Jerusalem’s Temple, their destination.
Astonishingly grand, a construction already forty-six years in the crafting.
On the high ground, of the city on a hill,
its floor plan, a dramatisation of Israel’s relationship to God.

First the Court of the Gentiles; open to non-Jews, god fearers drawn to the sacred sites.
Next the Court of the Women – self-explanatory,
in a tradition that saw men and women worship separately.
Then the Court of the Israelites,
at which the thanksgivings and sacrificial offerings were received by the priests.
At its west end, the Temple proper.
And at the Temple’s west end, behind the veil, the Holy of Holies,
home to the Ark of the Covenant, Israel’s most sacred possession.
The Holy of Holies, into which only the High Priest might enter,
and he, only on the Day of Atonement.
An architecture of faith, drawing the pilgrim into proximity to the divine –
though a divinity quarantined,
lest the pilgrims be scorched by a face-to-face encounter.

Into Jerusalem the annual pilgrims streamed – up to 300,000.
Into the Temple coffers poured an avalanche of the world’s currencies.
The mighty religious edifice was also a money making machine;
sustained both by the offerings, and by the annual Temple tax,
collected throughout the land prior to the Passover festival.
If pilgrims paid at the Temple itself,
they had to exchange their home currency for the special coinage of the Temple –
one that carried no graven image, the head of king or god.
Hence the need for money-changers, whose tables lined the Court of the Gentiles.

And because of the system of animal sacrifice,
the need also for a ready supply of livestock – sheep, goats, birds.
They could be purchased away from the Temple,
but wasn’t it more convenient to buy on site.
Temple tax, currency exchange, sacrificial purchase –
a small empire of commerce had taken root
around the throne of a once wandering God.
What was once the adventure of being led by the fire and cloudy pillar
had become this mayhem of marketeering and religious rules.
God bought and sold?

When Jesus entered the Temple was already part of his story;
Presented there as a baby by shy new parents – blessed by Simeon and Anna;
Returning on the cusp of manhood
to sit and talk with the wise minds of that place –
and astonish them with his own wisdom;
Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?

Jesus surely held a vision of what the Temple, at its best, was intended to be;
he longed for it to be true.
Jerusalem, City of his ancestor David, was the city he wept over;
its Temple should have been a sanctuary, a light set upon a hill,
a house of prayer for all the nations,
a thin place, his Father’s house.

So, the clearing of the courtyard takes place.
Spontaneous or premeditated, token gesture or full spring clean – we don’t know.
Whether it happened at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, as John records it
or in the days of the Final Week, as the other gospels declare –
that too is unsure.
But it represents a burning of the boats, there can be little turning back.
Jesus goes to the heart of the nation’s religious-political establishment
and declares it to be rotten.
“Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!”
Later his disciples would remember Psalm 69:9
and attach a sense of prophetic fulfilment to this startling event:
"Zeal for your house will consume me."
Such a challenge to power and powerful men will not go unchecked.

This is part of the Christ we seek to follow –
not just the Great Comforter, but also the great Unsettler.
As a nun once said to me: “May the peace of God disturb you.”

Irish priest and poet, the late John O’Donohue, Beauty
“A prophetic thought claims its own future,
it awakens, disturbs and brings transformation.”
In the latest of Christopher Rowe’s film meditations from his parish of Colston Milton,
one of the Church of Scotland’s designated priority areas,
his camera takes the bus journey from bleak low-rise housing estate
to signs of Glasgow’s wealthy centre – a parable of sorts.

Historically, the wealth of that city, as with Bristol, or Liverpool or London,
fed by the profits of the slave trade –
an uncomfortable awareness brought upon us much more in recent times.
Triggered in part by the prophetic thought/action of the American footballer,
Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 helped to launch a movement to take a knee
during the national anthem before NFL games
to protest racial inequality and police brutality.

His actions came at personal cost.
He lost his work. He persevered.
[Kaepernick opted out of his contract as a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers and became a free agent in March 2017. He was unable to sign with another team after the demonstrations.]
Subsequently, his sports shoe sponsor created an advert, narrated by Kaepernick:
“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Monied sportsmen may leave us cold, especially if their message is uncomfortable,
but there are other prophets or prophetic actions that confront us.
Recently the BBC journalist Orla Guerin tweeted:
“What a smile - this is Ahmed Rageeb, who is 9.
In many years of travels he's one of the most extraordinary children I have ever met.
When teachers don't turn up at his primary school in the city of Taiz in Yemen,
Ahmed stands in and takes the class.
Ahmed has been blind from birth.”

The televised report showed hundreds of children arriving for lessons each day
in the ruins of a school near to front-line fighting between the government and Houthi rebels.
As the children themselves say:
“We are in danger as we come to school and in danger as we leave school.”
The report from Yemen was aired in the same week
that the UK Government reduced its aid budget to Yemen.

Still too remote? Unimaginable, not really our business?
Though perhaps there is a bridge this year via for our Lent Charity, Play for Progress,
with its outreach to unaccompanied minor refugees and asylum seekers.

“A prophetic thought claims its own future,
it awakens, disturbs and brings transformation.”

The powerbrokers of the Temple are swift to push back at the disturber in their midst:
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

The gospel certainly asks us in this season of Lent what needs overturning?
What fresh air/spirit is required for the sanctuaries of our churches or communities;
in our public squares and private hearts?
It also draws us deeper towards the cross.
Jesus’ rising up against vested interests
will lead to the Son of Man being raised/lifted up –
crucified, for all to see, and all to fear.

As says St. Paul: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.
but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.’
The wisdom and power of God disclosed in
the puzzling foolishness and vulnerability of the cross.
This is our journey to Easter.

Sermon 14th March 2021

Sermon 21st March 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 21st MARCH 2021, FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24

Early in the C20th, the years between the wars (1918-36)
an Anglican monk called William Sirr
moved into an old stable block, all that was left of a grand house in rural Worcestshire.
Fr William was a member of the Society of the Divine compassion,
but he felt called to try out a particular vocation
to a more “retired” monastic life,
hoping that in time others would join him.
Many visited, but few stayed.

After restoring the stables to a place, ready for a monastic community
and filling the place with a sense of prayer, he fell ill.
It became clear he would have to leave – his dream unrealised.

On his last morning, in the place that had been home for eighteen years
a friend and fellow clergyman (Revd Sidney King) visited him.
King had watched over the years of planning, the preparation, the waiting –
and the non-arrival of a community.
Over time he had ceased to enquire about new candidates,
for fear of embarrassing/upsetting Fr William.

The day of departure, was recorded by Revd King:
“On this last morning when I saw (Fr William) on his bed, his face lit up in welcome.
I asked him if I might pray with him.
I knelt, at what was his last prayer in the monastery.
I commended him to God and besought God’s peace upon him.

When I rose from my knees –
looking me straight in the face, serene and untroubled –
and apropos of nothing said in the interview or in the prayers:, Fr William said:
“We must not mind being a failure – our Lord died on the Cross a failure.”
Words I can never forget, nor the tone
of his serene, quiet response in the Will of God.
I knew in that absolute surrender of his will to God,
he had entered into the victorious mind of our Saviour on the Cross…
into which nothing can break or destroy.”

In time, the Society of St Francis took over the care of Glasshampton
and since then it has flourished as a community house for the Society
and a place where many people seek peace and resoration.
From Fr William’s “failure” much has blossomed.
(p.16-17, The Mind of Christ, D Scott)

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Today is Passion Sunday; the circling aircraft of Lent begins its descent to Holy Week.
The crowds gather for the Passover Festival in Jerusalem;
Jesus too, with his disciples.
A group of foreigners, Greeks, request to see Jesus.
Much of the non-Jewish world spoke Greek,
so, it is convenient shorthand for folk beyond Israel’s borders.
Their arrival, the distance and depth of their search, acts as a sign –
like the first leaf of spring.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Now the hour is come; time is ripe – in sports parlance, the business end of the match.
The arrival of Greeks – a code: Now, let the message break forth
from the confines of one particular place and people –
to become a message for all time and every place.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Plenty folk want to see Jesus – probably for many different reasons –
Jesus the healer, the teacher, the activist,
provincial celebrity, potential king, over-turner of an occupied state, a saviour?
As Jesus knew, many might be seeking him,
but they had a particular Jesus in mind.

So, to the Gentiles’ request, Jesus responds with a meditation on his death.
He tells a tiny parable – understandable to any culture and any age.
A seed can do nothing on its own. It has to be buried in the ground.
This is a fearful experience – darkness, burial, change.
But if it is buried, it will die as a seed and grow into something more beautiful –
a lily of the field, a bushel of corn –
a tree, in the branches of which the birds of the air find shelter.

He is – or will be - that grain of wheat falling into the ground;
dying, in order to bear much fruit.
He admits that he’s afraid: “Now my soul is troubled.”
He describes the cross as a gathering place;
an agony and a glory; a crime and a communion,
he says it is the place where his own must follow and there find;
a revelation and re-uniting:
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
Now is the hour. He has come this far. Now, he must go all the way.

Without the death of the grain, there can be no crop;
without the Cross, no proof of how far God will go for us;
without the death of Jesus, no resurrection harvest of love.

In honesty, we are keener on rising than falling.
That is why Jesus had plenty of crowds, but apparently very few followers.
And by the time of his death, there remained only a handful of women,
who watched from a distance.
[“Even the core followers – when they saw where he was going,
remembered they had something else to do!” B Brown Taylor]

As one commentator wrote this week:
“I often flinch away from the Jesus of the Passion —
the vulnerable, broken Jesus —
because I want a muscular, superhero Jesus instead.
I want the dramatic rescue, the quick save.
I don’t want to learn the discipline of waiting at the tomb, in the shadowed place,
in the realm where my questions far outnumber the answers.
I am impatient for resurrection….
I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle;
many of us wrestle with the Jesus of Holy Week,
because he looks so different from what we expect in a Saviour.”
(Debie Thomas, Journey With Jesus)

One of the features of Lent this year has been the steadily accumulating collection of gospel meditations filmed and narrated by our friend, Revd Christopher Rowe –
minister of Colston Milton Parish Church – a Church of Scotland Priority Area.
(They are not an easy watch. But I think they are important to watch.)

Recently, Christopher spoke to our Wednesday Zoom Coffee Morning gathering:
about his parish, its poverty, its addictions, its isolation,
its history and reasons for its social and economic decline;
but also its remarkable community of neighbours.
He spoke about great plans for community driven projects,
with which he arrived twelve years ago.
He spoke about how much of that has remained unrealised.

Increasingly, he talks about the importance of simply being there.
He recognises with honesty that his community is ill-equipped
to provide the personnel for a traditional Church of Scotland congregation,
with office holders and neatly timed and packaged worship.
At the same time, he recognises that he is only there,
because the Church of Scotland system currently resources his ministry.
(St Columba’s and St Andrew’s, Newcastle are part of that system,
with the contributions that are made each year.)
Christopher’s Sunday morning congregation doesn’t show much sign of numerical growth.
He feels increasingly - less, a minister of a Church of Scotland congregation,
more a chaplain to a housing estate.

Christopher’s congregation is not alone –
in various places, small congregations with aging members,
face difficult questions about what to do, or what to be.
What to hold on to; what to let go.
Even congregations that are not facing urgent questions of whether to continue or not,
will have decisions to make about life after the pandemic.
What should be restarted and what should be allowed to rest/die?
What letting go, could actually be the burial, with honour,
that leads to new life – perhaps in quite unexpected ways.
A realisation, in time, that falling into the ground may not be the worst thing.
I once heard of an angry outburst and its brave response:

“Christianity is for losers!”
“No, Christianity is for those who are not frightened to lose.”

In a week’s time we enter the losing time – Jesus’ Holy Week,
the fearful, relentless stripping away –
first the crowds, then the disciples, even his clothes – finally his life.

Apparently, that is the way – that which must be endured.
“Should I say – Father, save me from this hour?
No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.
Father glorify your name.”

Greeks arrive. It could be the moment for international success –
a completely different chapter to the one we inherit.
Jesus could have said his time wasn’t up, but he didn’t.
He knew how bread is made. Unless a grain falls…

“We must not mind being a failure - our Lord died on the cross, a failure.”
But from the buried grain, the unimaginable fruit.

Sermon 28th March 2021

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: MONDAY 29th MARCH 2021

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: MONDAY 29th MARCH 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

Welcome & Opening Prayer

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9
42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
42:2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
42:3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
42:4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
42:5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
42:6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
42:7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
42:8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
42:9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Anthem: Hide not thou thy face (Farrant)

Gospel Reading: John 12:1-11
12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 12:5 "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"
12:6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
12:7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." 12:9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 12:10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 12:11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Time of Quiet

Prayers for fortitude
God of grace and glory,
you have called us to take hold of eternal life.
Help us to run with resolution the race that lies before us,
our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
May he always be to us the pattern we follow,
the redeemer we trust, the master we serve,
and the friend to whom we turn.
Keep us faithful till death,
and bring us at the last into your eternal presence
to receive the crown of life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For our absent friends
God our Father, you are present to your people everywhere. We pray for those we love who are far away. Watch over them and protect them. Keep far from them all that would hurt the body and harm the soul. Give to them and to us the assurance of the strength and peace of your presence, and keep us all so near to you that we will be for ever near to one another. In your good time, may we renew our fellowship on earth, and at the last come to the unbroken fellowship of the Father’s house in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord’s Prayer

Benediction
In this place will be heard once more
the sounds of joy and gladness,
the voices of bridegroom and bride;
here too will be heard voices shouting,
‘Praise the Lord of Hosts,
for the Lord is good; his love endures for ever.’

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: TUESDAY 30th MARCH 2021

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: TUESDAY 30th MARCH 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

Welcome & Opening Prayer

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7
49:1 Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.
49:2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
49:3 And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified."
49:4 But I said, "I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God."
49:5 And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength-
49:6 he says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
49:7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, "Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

Anthem Holy is the true light (Harris)

Gospel Reading: John 12:20-36
12:20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.12:21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 12:22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 12:23 Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 12:24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 12:25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 12:26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. 12:27 "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--' Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 12:28 Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."
12:29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 12:30 Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 12:32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."12:33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 12:34 The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" 12:35 Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 12:36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

Time of Quiet

Prayers for cheerfulness
God of hopefulness and joy,
give us a cheerful sense of our blessings.
Make us content with all that you provide for us.
Teach us that nothing can hurt us
since you hold us in your kind and loving hands.
Chase from our hearts all gloomy thoughts,
and make us glad with the brightness of hope;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For hospitals and healing
God of love, your Son brought healing to the sick and hope to the despairing. We pray for all who suffer pain, or who bear the burden of illness, or who have to undergo an operation. Give them the comfort and strength of your presence, and surround them with your healing love and power. May they know the fellowship of Christ who bore pain and suffering for us, and at the last won victory over death.
Bless those who share with Christ a healing ministry, researchers, doctors, surgeons, nurses. Use their sympathy and skill for the relief of suffering, the conquest of disease, and the restoration of health; and crown all their efforts with good success; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord’s Prayer

Benediction
In this place will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness,
the voices of bridegroom and bride;
here too will be heard voices shouting, ‘Praise the Lord of Hosts,
for the Lord is good; his love endures for ever.’
May the Lord bless you and keep you.

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: WEDNESDAY 31st MARCH 2021

HOLY WEEK DEVOTIONS: WEDNESDAY 31st MARCH 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

Welcome & Opening Prayer

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
50:4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
50:5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
50:6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
50:7 The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
50:8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
50:9a It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Anthem: Let thy merciful ears, O Lord (Mudd)

Gospel Reading: John 13:21-32
13:21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, "Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me."13:22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking.13:23 One of his disciples--the one whom Jesus loved--was reclining next to him;13:24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.13:25 So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?"13:26 Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." So. when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.13:27 After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "Do quickly what you are going to do."13:28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him.13:29 Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the festival"; or, that he should give something to the poor.13:30 So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.13:31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 13:32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

Time of Quiet

Prayers for inner peace
Set free, O Lord,
the souls of your servants from all restlessness and anxiety.
Give us your peace and power,
and so keep us that,
in all perplexity and distress,
we may abide in you,
upheld by your strength
and stayed on the rock of your faithfulness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For home and family
Lord, you have been our home in every generation. Defend our homes against all evil; surround them with your presence and make them sanctuaries of your peace and joy. Bless those dear to us, wherever they may be, and grant that they and we may dwell together in the shelter of your love, until we come at last into the Father’s house in heaven, the family of God complete; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord’s Prayer

Benediction
In this place will be heard once more
the sounds of joy and gladness,
the voices of bridegroom and bride;
here too will be heard voices shouting,
‘Praise the Lord of Hosts,
for the Lord is good; his love endures for ever.’

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

Opening Hours

The office is open from
9.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m,
Monday to Friday.

There is a 24-hour answering machine service.

Connect with us

Find us

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

St. Columba's
Pont Street
London SW1X 0BD
+44 (0)20-7584-2321
office@stcolumbas.org.uk

Getting here by tube

Knightsbridge Station

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

South Kensington Station

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

Sloane Square Station

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

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