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Sermons - January 2020

Sermon 5th January 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 05 JAN 2020, 11am, 2nd After Christmas

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9

Among several full houses in the run-up to Christmas,
four of the services were end of term school carol services –
pews packed with excited children, exhausted teachers and proud parents.
Many of you will know something of such occasions –
recent experience or distant memory.

It prompted my own memory, of the walk to the local parish church,
where my junior school held its own carol service;
it reminded me of being much-rehearsed by my own mother,
to read the first lesson – Isaiah’s:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
And in the light of the gospel read this morning
“In the beginning was the Word…”
it took me back, to the sense that this particular reading held a particular heft/significance.
Introduced with the solemn: St John unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation…
I had vaguely heard of the idea of Reincarnation – coming back in a different form – but what was this Incarnation?
In honesty, while I would strain to stay with it,
those first phrases quickly left me bewildered:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
What was this Word all about?

It is of course a deep echo of Creation and Genesis, In the Beginning…
Now John’s revision: In the beginning… was the Word;
Christ before all things, source of the life of the world,
long before the world caught sight of Jesus of Nazareth.
But then, via the witness of John, the audacious claim:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

What might this all mean for young Freddie, baptized today, or for any of us who are reminded of our own baptisms today?

Derek Browning, former Moderator, reflected recently:
“Few things pack up and disappear so quickly as the Christmas spirit.
Few, if any, celebrate the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas now,
losing that gradual sense of unwrapping the Divine Mystery that is the Incarnation.”

The Prologue to John’s Gospel is a reminder
that Christmas by itself, is not the real deal, just as a wedding day, is not a marriage.
To borrow a phrase: The Christ-Child is not just for Christmas.
The Word made flesh is a lifetime –
Jesus’ lifetime – birth, death, resurrection – the full Monty:
And our lifetimes – birth, death and beyond –
with all the shifting, unfolding understandings
of who God is, and what God is about.
Recognition that faith/belief, is always limited, by our partial view,
(we never hold the entire picture);
recognition that faith is always a work in progress.

So much, for the sonorous, opening refrains; then, the specifics:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9

Let me finish with a story of the light, real and metaphorical:
Offered as an encouragement, perhaps as a signpost
to lead us on our way, into the new year.

Most of us will be familiar with the meeting/lecture that concludes with:
Are there any Questions?
Usually, it is the unofficial signal to shuffle papers and plan one’s exit.
Robert Fulghum, an American pastor and writer adopts a more quixotic approach.
When he hears – Any Questions? - he raises his hand and asks:
“What is the meaning of life?”
(Imagine that, at 8.35pm, as the last question at a Session meeting.)
Unsurprisingly Fulghum’s question is rarely taken seriously;
except once.

Some years ago, he attended a two-week course on Greek culture, on the island of Crete.
Near the village of Gonia, on a rocky bay, is a Greek Orthodox monastery.
Alongside it, an Institute, dedicated to human understanding and peace
and especially to reconciliation between Germans and Cretans.

The site is important. It overlooks the small airstrip at Maleme,
where German paratroopers invaded Crete
and were attacked by peasants wielding little more than kitchen knives and hay scythes.
The retribution was terrible; village populations decimated.

High above the Institute is a cemetery with a single cross –
marking the mass grave of Cretan partisans.
Across the bay, on another hill, the regimental burial ground of the invaders.
This is the backdrop to the Institute, and its desire to heal old wounds.

Its founder is Dr Alexander Papaderos.
At war’s end, he had the conviction that Cretan and German
had much to learn from each other.
They had an example to set.
If they could learn forgiveness, so too could others.

The conference came to an end.
At the last session the Director himself came to the front.
Standing in the sunlight of an open window,
he gazed across the bay to the German cemetery, and asked:
“Are there any questions?” Quiet.

“Dr Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”
A ripple of laughter; people stirring to go.
Papaderos stilled the room and searched the questioner’s eyes
gauging the seriousness of the question.
“I will answer your question.”
From his wallet he fetched a small leather pouch
and produced a round mirror, the size of a 50p.

“When I was a child, we lived in a remote village on this island.
One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror,
where a German motorcycle had been wrecked.
I tried to find all the pieces, but it was not possible,
So, I kept the largest piece and over time,
by scratching against a stone, I made it round.

It was my toy.
I became fascinated by shining the mirror’s reflected light into all sorts of dark places – nooks and crannies, crevices and holes.
Even into adulthood, I did the same.

As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game
but a metaphor for what I might do with my life.
I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light.
But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there,
and it will only shine in many dark places, if I reflect it.

I am only a fragment of the whole mirror – the whole shape I do not know.
With what I have however, I can bring light.
Change some things, in some people.
Perhaps others may see and do likewise.
This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

Then he took the small mirror and holding it carefully
caught that magical Mediterranean sunlight
and reflected it onto the face and folded hands of his questioner.
[It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, R Fulghum, pp172ff]

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…
the true light, which enlightens everyone, coming into the world.

Sermon 12th January 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
1stSUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY, BAPTISM OF CHRIST
12 JAN 2020

“Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said,
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:16-17

“I’m driving home from work, heading south,
when the sky takes hold of me – and I begin to cry.”

This is the arresting opening, to a talk from the radio series, Four Thought.
Its author is Lorna Stimson:
“In Norfolk, landmarks cling to the horizon;
the sky is bigger than anything else;
ever present and everywhere – a bit like God, if I could find one.”

The context of her sudden weeping, is the recent death of her father.
One of the things they shared was his love of clouds and stars.
So, the daughter meditates:
The sky gives us everything…light and water;
sets the mood for our days.
dramatic inky storm clouds, shrill blue summers and rainbows;
noisy rooks, aeroplane trails, breath-taking sunrises
and blank paper days, the colour of putty.
Yet, how often she asks, do we look up?

Suddenly, heavens opened, Spirit descending, that Voice:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Church calendar tells us that today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany,
(the 6th of January - day of gold, frankincense and myrrh.)
The early Church combined four elements in the Epiphany:
the Incarnation (the birth of Jesus), the visit of the wise men,
the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at the wedding of Cana –
all epiphanies - showing forth’s,
shimmering moments, allowing us to look
beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces.
Disclosure - about who Jesus is, and what he means.

After the infant Jesus comes the adult,
trumpeted by John, his kinsman,
the unsettling prophet, drawing the crowds to baptism at the Jordan river.
John, himself not the light, but come to bear witness, to the light.
Listening to John you anticipate something even fiercer,
more turbulent than he – a winnowing fork to hand, to separate wheat from chaff.
“I baptise you with water,
but the one coming after me will baptise with fire.”

It turns out, differently.
The long-awaited one, waits in line.
The heralded one, asks the herald, to perform one more announcement -
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,
to be baptised by him.”
But so quietly and humbly, there is no indication that anyone much noticed.

As so often, geography is significant:
Jordan River, rich with sacred history,  
where once upon a time the ancient Israelites, entered the land of Canaan;  
where the prophet Elijah ended his prophetic ministry,
and his successor Elisha inaugurated his.  
The Jordan, which flowed under the same “opened” sky
God first spread forth, “in the beginning,” at the dawn of Creation.  
A place with a history, a vantage point
to see the hand of God, throughout the ages.
And now the parting of more symbolic waters –
a new Red Sea for the children of Israel.

There by those not-very-bonnie banks,
a coronation of sorts takes place:
not by ascending palace/temple steps -
but by the stepping down into life’s mainstream.
First sight of the adult Immanuel – taking his turn,
shuffling alongside humanity’s walking wounded - God with us.

A coronation? Yes. But also, a kind of first death.
Prequel, foreshadowing
of a different death, a different resurrection.
Going under and emerging; drowning and soaring.
Buried in baptism, rising to new life.
Immersion - into the great river of life, its joy and its suffering;
to show not a way out, but a way through.

And for Jesus?
Torn open heavens, Spirit alighting and deepest confirmation:
“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There at Jordan’s edge, before Jesus has done anything – miracles, healings, table turning, resurrections – before he is anything, he is loved.
From that being loved, comes everything.
That is his first and deepest identity –
That is what we share as baptised Christians –
washed and welcomed, deeply loved,
potentially deeply loving.

Implications:
We are always and already God's Beloved —
not because we've done anything to earn it,
but because God’s very nature and desire is to love?  
If Jesus, beloved and beloving, has entered fully
into the messiness of human endeavor –
we are called to do the same.
People of baptism, prepared for radical solidarity, not radical separateness.

[Naming the Beloved artwork installation – Scots in Great War London.
Manifestation, visualisation – perhaps even an epiphany –
of the ties that bind – then and now.]

“Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.

So, back to the skies:
Oscar Wilde once famously coined the notion:
“We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
[Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere’s Fan]

Lorna Stimson, with whom we started,
navigating her grief through her pondering the skies:
“My faith is a shaky itinerant thing.
I have no religion but believe in something, if only I knew what.

The sky is a place to look when everything else overwhelms,
a view wider than anything in this flat, terrestrial county.

Up is heaven; up is light. Surely, Dad is up there.
I do not know how to weather this, but in the meantime,
I look up because there is a world up there.”
Four Thought. Lorna Stimson:

And we, who share the story of baptism, might keep mindful:
Heavens opened, dove descending,
water dripping, voice reminding:
“You are my child, beloved – in whom I am well pleased.”

Sermons - Decemer 2019

Sermon 8th December 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 08 DEC 2019, ADVENT II

“This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Matthew 3:3

News watchers will be aware, that thanks to the 70th Anniversary NATO Summit,
the President of the United States of America was in London this week.
Fewer of you will be aware, that he spoke from this very pulpit, on Tuesday evening.
Not only President Trump, but also Prime Minister, Boris Johnson
and heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, they were all followed by Billy Connolly.
True? Or fake pews….?

The explanation? Rory Bremner, comedian-impressionist;
delivering a reading at one of the charity Christmas happenings
that regularly take place here each December.
He started his recitation by apologising that he had lost his voice
so, was going to borrow a few others –
a president, a prime minister, a Prince etc. And, so he did.

We are in a season of competing voices.
Party political leaders, commentators and pundits have all been having their say.
Perhaps you have been involved –
knocking on doors, or opening doors to candidate hopefuls.
Thursday, St Columba’s becomes a polling station for the General Election.

Into the election mix have come other, less accustomed voices –
those of religious leaders.
The Chief Rabbi, highly critical of the failure to root out antisemitism
in the Labour Party;
the Conservative Party criticised for islamophobia.
A day after those particular headlines, a visitor to St Columba’s
told me at some length,
that in her youth, she had read all the major books of religion –
Torah, Bible and Koran –
and had concluded that because they were basically all the same,
they had nothing to say to the world of politics.
“The Church should keep its ecclesiastical snout out of the political trough!”

So, as we near an election date,
with raised voices, competing for our attention,
which voice will we listen for,
and where will we lend our own voice?

“A voice cries; in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

From that wilderness edge,
echo of the children of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land,
wild John broadcasts his truth:
I am the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words.
I am that voice crying in the wilderness, warning you, preparing you -
God is about to show us a new thing.
I am not that One – but I am witness to the One.

The One who comes after me is more powerful than me –
How much more?
“I am not fit to untie his sandal.”
The job of the lowliest – that is the comparison.
So, get ready; make yourselves clean by the waters of baptism.
Repent – not so much looking back,
as looking forward, living better.
Judged – not so much condemned, as seen truly –
as we are, and as we might be.

The crowds amass. Including the religious professionals:
“many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism.”
“You bunch of poisonous snakes!
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Don’t think that words alone, will be enough.
You may be the inheritors of religious tradition
but that confers no special privilege.
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;”'
The Almighty could raise up these stones to fill the gap and raise up children to Abraham.”

Abraham as our ancestor, is the phrase
that has had a recurring resonance this week.
On Tuesday evening, at the same carol concert that Rory Bremner gave us President Trump,
the news broadcaster, Mishal Husain
read two short passages about Mary, mother of Jesus.
One familiar, from St Luke; the other less so – from the Koran.
She introduced the reading by explaining
that Mary is the only named woman, in the Koran.
Offered, in the week of the London Bridge attack, as a sign of something shared.

Two days later I accompanied a primary school trip to a synagogue near Marble Arch.
It was energising to see the excitement of the children
exploring the space and objects of that place of prayer,
while the boys tried not to let their prayer caps fall from their heads.
It was sad to hear from the rabbi, the real fear of reviving antisemitism
in places across Europe, including his British homeland.
Just as it is sorrowful to know that there is persecution of minority faith communities – Christians included – throughout the world.

In honesty, I am not sure exactly how or where, we respond to those “big” things.
But part of the response, is to choose the voices we listen to,
and to choose the stories we tell;
clamouring voices of antipathy and destruction,?
Or share the quieter, fragile voices of hope and beauty?

Timothy Radcliffe, is a Dominican monk – former head of that Roman Catholic Order.
He has travelled extensively to some of the world’s most broken places – Rwanda, Iraq, Syria. He is no stranger to the worst that humankind can inflict on each other.

In his recent book, Alive in God, he describes a visit to Baghdad.
A restaurant, where the décor includes
an image an image of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples
and a light burns before an icon of the Virgin and her child.

Radcliffe also describes a visit to Syria in 2015.
Staying at a monastery in the village of Qara, halfway between Damascus and Homs.
A few years previously it was captured by Daesh/ISIS.
The icons were defaced, the graves in the cemetery were dug up
and the bodies scattered all over the church to defile it.
When the village was recaptured,
the Christians had nowhere to celebrate Christmas.
It was the local Iman who said:
“Come and celebrate Christmas in the mosque.”

Radcliffe concludes of this and comparable incidents:
“The most beautiful response to the meaningless acts of violence
are apparently pointless acts of love.” T Radcliffe

Today the Church of Scotland marks Vocations Sunday –
asking each and all, to consider
how we might listen for and heed the call of God
in our lives and in the life of the Church.

“The place God calls you to
is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Frederick Buechner, Wishful thinking: A Theological

As we will pray: Lead us by your Spirit,
to see the shape of your plans in the gifts you have given us.

Which voice will we listen for, this Advent?
Where will we lend our voice, this Election Week and in all that follows?

Sermon 15th December 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 15 Dec 2019, ADVENT III

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew11: 2

A Church of Scotland minister introduced this passage with the reminiscence:
Once when I was called to preach as sole nominee in a parish seeking to fill its vacancy,
it seemed appropriate to hear read – if somewhat, tongue-in-cheek:
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, prophet-envoy,
languishes in a despot’s prison cell;
his crime, to denounce Herod’s marriage (Matthew 14:3-4.)
One more prophet paying the price of speaking truth
to the guilty conscience of unchecked power.]

Now, in chains and in crisis,
he wonders whether he has staked his life on the wrong person.
The Messiah, was supposed to make the world new;
supposed to finish the costly work John started so boldly in the wilderness -
to wield the axe and bring the fire. 

Now, of all people, John is unsure;
He who leapt in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary, visited cousin Elizabeth.
He who knew Jesus to be the One
when the carpenter stepped through the reeds at Jordan’s edge:
“It is you who should baptise me.”

It had started so promisingly –
signs and wonders, healings and stirring words.
But it had panned out so unexpectedly – disappointingly?
John had the hollow cheekbones of his desert diet,
Jesus summoned up parties.
John reminded folk of their sins,
Jesus invited himself into their homes.
John readied the axe,
Jesus examined the tree, spying undetected or unlikely growth.
John warned “Save yourselves,”
Jesus reminded “It is God who does the saving.”

John wanted a tidal wave of a messiah…
what he got was a steady drip of mercy from a man called Jesus,
in whom plenty of people saw no messiah at all.
From The Seeds of Heaven pp12, Barbara Brown Taylor

John’s journey of faith travels from certitude to doubt, 
boldness to hesitation, knowing to unknowing. 
Is this spiritual failure? A lack of faith?
Or does it speak a word to our sometime circumstance?

I think of a letter received from a friend
facing the death of both parents in the same year
and a spouse’s serious illness:
Talking about the book of Job – the sense of abandonment:
“I never understood it before; now I am drawn to it.”
I think of a parent grieving for a child, telling me:
“I’m having difficulty hearing about a loving God right now.”
The jagged edges of real life.
“Are you the one…?”

Jesus response?
He does not offer quick or easy words to magic things away.
He does not condemn the despair or doubt.
Instead he holds it, and gently points to other glimpses and glints of life.
Go to John and tell him the stories of what you hear and see:
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.

Tell John the stories – quiet as they are, scattered as they are –
show and share what they reveal.
If we were asked to do the same – what stories would we choose?

I would choose the Sunday lunch homeless guest who told me:
“Being treated with dignity by the lunch team ladies made all the difference –
and having proper cutlery to eat my meal with.”

I would tell of the young man who attends a Narcotics Anonymous Support group
who told me this week: “I’m Jewish, but I am volunteering this Christmas at Crisis.”
He added: “It’s good that a church is welcoming to groups like ours.”

I think of those who have already, or are planning to make Christmas visits,
to the lonely or ill – and who do so throughout the year

I think of two inspiring young women who in the past month
have led charitable enterprises that touch the lives of this place –
Alex GKExperience/Olivia & Restart

Further afield, I think of the friend who is much involved with prison ministry.
Recounting how our prison system admits up to 600 pregnant women a year.
Recounting how the chaplaincy team at HMP Bronzefield,
the largest female prison in Europe –
will ensure every inmate will receive a small gift this Christmas.
Echoed, by our own appeal for Sox and Boxers
gift giving for the guests of our Night Shelter.

Tell them what you see and hear.
In a few moments our young people will bring us the Christmas story.
They will invite us to sing: It’s a party, everybody. It’s a party for everyone!
Jesus the saviour has come to us,
What a wonderful thing.
He is Emmanuel, God with us,
He’s the reason we sing!

So, I finish with one more story – a gospel party:
Clive Stafford Smith, a public-school educated Englishman,
has for the last three decades worked as a lawyer,
representing prisoners on America’s death-row.
It is a relentless vocation; hard graft, occasional victory and crushing defeats.

Some years ago, interviewed on Desert Island Discs
Stafford Smith spoke of his annual birthday party.
He invites many friends, including former clients.
He always starts and ends the party with Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

One year, a death-row prisoner attended
having been found not guilty after twenty-six years of prison.
A six foot nine, African American.

Throughout the party Stafford Smith noticed that he kept himself to himself,
a little withdrawn – not unsurprisingly.
Then the DJ played a particular song – a hit from the early 80’s (a time before prison.)
Hot Chocolate’s, “You Sexy Thing” (I believe in miracles since you came along…)

As the tune took hold, the former prisoner hauled himself onto the dance floor
and losing himself in the music
treated the party-goers to a glorious, uninhibited exhibition
of the electric-slide and other deeply remembered,
long-undanced moves.

Tell John what you see and hear.
Good news to the poor, sight for the unseeing, the prisoner set free.
The ransomed of the Lord shall return, obtaining joy and gladness,
sorrow and sighing, shall flee away.
Tell John what you see and hear.
And yes, I am the One, no need to wait for another.”

Sermons - November 2019

Sermon 3rd November 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 03 NOV 2019,11am

Then Jesus said to Zacchaeus,
Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Luke 19:9-10

A baptismal day (today, Maggie’s) is surely a day,
to be joyful and to be prayerful.
Most special of course for immediate family –
but a reminder too of our own baptisms,
whether recent or many decades ago.
Sign of welcome and promise,
renewed each time we play out the little drama
of water and naming, presenting and blessing.

Many baptismal days are also a moment to draw family and friends together
and my guess is that it is a day
both to reflect a little on family trees – where we come from
and to wonder what this new life will become.

Edwina Gateley, is a contemporary poet.
Born in Lancaster, trained as a teacher, but then moving to America.
where she studied theology and trained as an HIV counsellor.
In the early 1980’s, Gateley first lived for nine months in a hermitage in Illinois,
then spent a year on the streets of Chicago;
walking with the homeless and women involved in prostitution.
From these two experiences -solitude and the streets –
she founded a house of hospitality for women involved in prostitution.

In a poem entitled: Called to Become
[There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013)] 

It does not matter
How short or tall
Or thick-set or slow
You may be.

It does not matter
Whether you feel loved and admired
Or unloved and alone

For the Lord delights in you.
Unique and loved you stand.
Beautiful or stunted in your growth
But never without hope and life.

The Lord delights in you – echo of what we declared to Maggie:
The Lord delights in you – echo of what Jesus declared to Zacchaeus:
You too, are a son of Abraham.”
Zacchaeus – short of stature; short of friends.
The tax gatherer - extorting revenue for Rome’s occupying oppressors –
a Quisling, ritually unclean,
despised – economically, politically and religiously. 

As Jesus passes through Jericho,
famously, the crowd cold shoulders Zacchaeus.
So, he does something utterly undignified for a man of his station.
He runs ahead of the crowd, and climbs up into a tree,
then waits for Jesus to pass by.

Jesus draws near. Looks up.
And in the seeing and the being seen – something happens.
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community
which cares for those severely disabled said:
The way you look at someone can change their life.” 

Ludicrous and despised -
Jesus sees beneath and beyond the outer shell,
however shabby it may be.
Rejected or reviled,
Jesus still sees the face of a child of God. 

For Zacchaeus, in the seeing and the being seen,
he discovers/rediscovers his own dignity;
the moment reawakens him to the meaning of his name:
Zacchaeus – which means, “pure.”
While the crowd may snort with incredulity,
the little man laughs with a dawning joy:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The rest happens in a hurry.
Jesus calls him by his name and he quickly comes down.
There is no sermon on repentance;
but by choosing to keep company with him,
and accept the consequences of doing so –
Jesus gives Zacchaeus the experience God’s love – first hand.
Zacchaeus responds exuberantly.
Tragically, predictably, not everyone sees this as cause for celebration.
Like the Pharisee praying in the Temple,
like the elder brother refusing to join the prodigal’s return party
the crowd grumbles.
He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Heading for a showdown referendum in Jerusalem,
this is no way to run an election campaign.
What kind of Messiah does social media, with someone like that?

It is of course, utterly characteristic;
how often Jesus picks out, celebrates, unlikely companions;
the faith of a Roman soldier, a "good" Samaritan;
warnings of woe to the religious self-righteous
or those who disregard the poor.
Jesus consistently, calling out the apparently good
and calling in the apparently bad.
Bystanders demonise Zacchaeus;
Jesus declares him, a son of Abraham.

Today salvation has come to this house:
For the Lord delights in you.
Unique and loved you stand.
Beautiful or stunted in your growth
But never without hope and life.

Ask Zacchaeus;
show Maggie;
remember - all of us.

Sermon 17th November 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 17 NOV 2019

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Luke 21:17-19

Walking away from St Columba’s this week to attend a meeting elsewhere,
I was half way down Pont Street, when I met a fellow, school-gate Dad,
walking towards church.
“It really is my favourite London Church.”
In the face of such enthusiasm, it seemed appropriate to turn around and look,
pausing to take in one of the views that best shows the architect’s vision.
Sometimes it takes the unexpected,
to remind us of the beauty/gift of a thing.
Sometimes, a little distance - real or metaphorical - is required,
to refresh our sight.

This week too, from a funeral tribute: “She loved Canterbury Cathedral.”
Perhaps in your mind’s eye you can think of buildings –
ecclesiastical or other - that have captured or entranced you.
With architect’s vision, artisan’s skill - buildings have the ability –
to create space, light, form and contrast –
that deeply connect us to certain places.
(For me: Durham Cathedral, a Franciscan chapel in a converted house in Northumberland,
a cave-chapel in a hillside, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.)
We all have loyalties to certain bricks and mortar.

To which, Jesus the prophet, speaks uncomfortable words:
“The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another;
all will be thrown down.”
Words addressed to disciples who have been gawping
at the magnificence of the Jerusalem Temple –
truly a construction of shock and awe.
The length of several city blocks; reputedly so covered in gold
that the unsuspecting pilgrim would be blinded by its reflection.
Magnificent symbol of religious permanence and confidence;
the very dwelling place of God.

Yet, despite standing alongside, looking at the same temple,
Jesus and his disciples do not see the same thing.
“It won’t last.”
Ruination may be painful, that is OK,
because bricks and mortar are not the point.
Look beyond the grandeur.
God will not be incarcerated or domesticated
by any construction, however fine.

[“God exceeds every edifice, every institution,
every mission statement, every strategic plan,
and every symbol human beings create in his name.”
(Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Nov 19)]
Then Jesus teaches what to do and how to live,
when the walls come tumbling down.
“Do not be terrified, when the earth shakes, and nations make war,
when imposters preach gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred.   
Don’t give in to despair.  Don’t capitalize on chaos.  
Don’t neglect to bear witness. 

Expect things to get hard.  
Endure even when they do.  
Know that God is near, no matter what the world looks or feels like.  
Speak the truth, trusting that God’s Spirit is alive and present
in our acts of bearing witness.  
Be faithful until the end, because God is still - always and everywhere –
a God of love.

In this troubling context, it’s easy to despair.  
And yet:

Last Sunday our Night Shelter restarted, serving guests a meal
and a roof over the head for the night.
Listening to one of the GlassDoor staff:
“The need is undiminished, but there are so many good stories –
most people find a way to a better situation.
Most of them just need a little hand up.”

Or an Eastern European gentleman who returned to St Columba’s on Friday.
Over the last three years his visits have met some very low ebbs.
Living out of a broken-down car –
a move to Holland to search for work – London again.
But this week, returning to show certificates passed for train track laying.
Now, the prospect of work; the prospect of wife and child
being able to join him after years of separation.

Or the gentleman who welcomed me at the door,
here for his AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting:
a member of another congregation, but so proud to tell me –
“I have two communities – this one (AA) and my church.
My vicar tells me – if you have been saved – don’t be quiet about it!”

Later today, we will hear an update from the Young Lewisham Project (YLP) –
Which you supported very generously, via the Lent Appeal –
giving people skills, a sense of hope and self-worth. (Dave Newman)

All of these are ongoing stories; small, mostly unseen;
none of them quick fixes.
They comprise despair and hope, success and set back;
They are about enduring; the courage to say: Tomorrow I go again.
Critically, and often, the tale tells of companions –
those who understand a little of what seems overwhelming,
and who choose to abide, walking awhile, alongside.

This week I was introduced to the words and work of Fr Greg Boyle –
an American Roman Catholic priest who has worked with gang members in Los Angeles
for the past thirty years.

Via the organisation he founded, Homeboy Industries,
Fr Boyle sets about freeing people from the clutches of the gangs
by offering job training, counselling and other services;
tattoo removal, legal advice, mental health support and education programmes.
It runs a bakery and cafe, and trains people to become qualified solar panel installers.

Boyle recognises Homeboy Industries is not vastly different
from other gang intervention and rehabilitation programmes found elsewhere.
Concrete help, employment and education all play important parts:
But: “Our secret sauce is the fostering of a community of tenderness and kinship.
The only delivery system of hope that I know of is a human being –
a loving, caring adult who shows up and pays attention.”

Our long haul may be far removed from helping gang members go straight.
But in turbulent times, we are called to be steady, faithful, and loving;
never wearying, in doing what is right.
For by our endurance, souls are gained.

Sermon 24th November 2019

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 24 NOV 2019

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Luke 23:36, 42, 43

How often does it take a visitor to refresh our seeing,
awaken us to things that have become so familiar,
wonders that we have grown so accustomed to,
that they are all but invisible?
In a city, a home or a church?

On Friday afternoon, each bearing heavy rucksacks, our friends from the GKExperience, were for a while sandwiched like sardines on the London Underground.
Excited, but also perhaps a little bit bewildered – certainly for those here for the first time.
As the Victoria line (named after a Queen) approached Green Park – the tannoy announced – “Alight here for Buckingham Palace.”
Regular commuters didn’t blink.
Visitors’ eyes lit up.

Another famous London landmark – nearby, Harrods:
There is a funny story from the early C20th:
A famous, but scatter-brained composer, was shopping in the Harrods food hall.
By chance, he bumped into a lady who he vaguely remembered,
but could not quite place.
In one of those awkward conversations, the composer struggled
with a conversational gambit that would unlock the lady’s identity;
she seemed in no hurry to help.
Eventually in desperation the composer asked: “And how is your husband?”
“Still King” she replied.

Palaces and sovereigns - why this brush with royalty – topical as they sometimes are?
Today is the last Sunday of the Church year – our calendar comes full circle:
Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity and beyond;
annual signposts along the pilgrim way.
Next week we set sail again – the first Sunday of Advent.
But first, today, reaching harbour,
we report our findings about our year-long voyage;
the verdict, once all the evidence has been gathered.
And on this “last Sunday” we bestow the title – Christ the King.

Kingship runs through the New Testament.
Later believers would worship Jesus not only as king of the Jews,
but also, as “the king of kings” (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 19:16),
the “king of the ages” (Revelation 19:3),
and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).
To quote Elvis Presley:
“There’s only one king, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So, on this triumphant sounding Sunday,
we might expect the power and the glory,
Isaiah’s words: “A son will be given to us,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder.”
Or a big reveal, gospel special –
Jesus emerging from the waters of baptism or transfigured on a mountain top.

What we get, is crucifixion:
A stripped and suffocating man;
a crowd spitting venom at his tortured body;
friends, watching on helplessly from a distance.

And in the heart of this horror, amid the vile words,
amid the fear that drives the violence, and destroys humanity;
It is there, at the very moment when everything seems smashed,
light snuffed out;
it is there our ancestors in the faith – first disciples, later gospel writers –
there at the place of the skull –
they cam eto believe this was truly the place of coronation.

Perhaps the key is in the threefold taunt of today’s gospel:
From the (religious) leaders of the day, then the soldiers,
finally one of the thieves hanging next to him:
“He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

Behind all the particular mockeries devised for Jesus –
a crown of thorns, the elegant robes of rulership,
the false bowings and scrapings, followed by blows and laughter –
behind or beneath, the taunting challenge:
If…if you are God’s chosen one, let us see your power; save yourself.”

Echo of another wilderness, another temptation:
“If you are the Son of God – turn stones to bread, cast yourself from the Temple tower,
for the kingdoms of the world, worship me…”
He said no then, he says no now.
What kind of king does that?

It is a King who makes a choice.
Having set his face towards Jerusalem the message at the core of his being –
the love of God for a broken world.
He will not abandon those he came to seek – even if he must pay with his life.

In the Netflix series, The Crown, a current episode centres around a domestic disaster in 1964 – when a coal heap, perched above the Welsh mining town of Aberfan, slipped;
the resultant landslide killing 145 villagers, 116 of them children.
The narrative of the episode, is about how the Establishment reacts.
In the face of unimaginable tragedy – what is there to do?
The TV version, is that initially protocol demands that the Queen does not go.
Only later, does she visit the disaster scene.
The footnote to the episode, is that to this day,
it is apparently the Queen’s greatest regret, that she did not go sooner.

A group of clergy were once advised by an RUC policeman,
talking about visiting bereaved families. from the Troubles of Northern Ireland:
“People don’t care how much you know,
until they know how much you care.”
Archbishop Eames: “Long after families have remembered what you said,
or forgotten what you said – they will remember that you came.”

Remember: Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
“I will. I do.” Jesus replies.
“Do this in remembrance of me” the words will hear at communion.
Great reminder, of the King who chose so strange a way of kingship.
The King who chose to come,
once for all;
and comes again, a thousand times
in disguises, sometimes recognised, sometimes not.

As our communion prayer will conclude:
“In giving all,
you have not withheld from us your own dear Son,
your very self;
how can we withhold anything from you
our Lord and our God?”

In the name of Christ – still King – Amen.

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.

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

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