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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.

Sermons - February 2021

Sermon 7th February 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 7th FEBRUARY 2021,11am, 5th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

“And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Mark 1:39

Capernaum – the place, where the adult Jesus chose to live.
A fishing village on the shores of Lake Gennesaret, the lake of the harp (so called for its shape) – the Sea of Galilee as we know it.
Today, its ruins are a place of pilgrimage;
columns of a C3rd/4th synagogue, the remains of 30/40 households,
the recent discovery of a near-by Roman barracks – a bridge across the centuries.
A stone’s throw from the synagogue, a brutally modern church hovers over the “site”
of the house of Peter’s mother-in-law.

Leaving the synagogue, with worship over –
the teaching, with authority, the dramatic healing of the one tormented by the impure spirit –
Jesus and friends move to the hospitality of the brothers, Peter and Andrew –
Jesus’ new community.
There, away from the company, quarantined,
Jesus finds Peter’s mother-in-law, laid low.
He attends her bedside; no watching crowd;
undivided attention, gentleness of touch, trust – ingredients of healing.

House of prayer or homestead, synagogue or upper room –
the intention is the same, location of secondary importance.
Or rather, every location is significant.
We become very fond, very attached to our places of worship –
beautiful sanctuaries nourish such loyalties –
places to regularly seek the Divine.
But often Jesus encountered people in their homes:
He raises Jairus’s daughter in the synagogue leader’s house.
His friend, Mary anoints him with oil at her home in Bethany.
Salvation comes to Zacchaeus when the despised tax collector makes Jesus his houseguest.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize Jesus
when he breaks bread at their dinner table.

When we make the invitation at the start of live-streamed services
to light a candle at home, as we light candles in church,
it is the reminder that everywhere can be sacred ground.
“Holy things happen in the places we call home.”
Consolation or challenge, particularly amid the pandemic,
when we are largely restricted to home.

In one obscure, Capernaum home, Jesus raises her up –
the same word used for Easter morning: “He is not here, he is risen.”
In this case, a woman ritually unclean, a refugee among her own kin,
led home, restored, on the sabbath day.
For the sake of humanity, more than one law is transgressed.

In turn, her response:
“…the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”
This too on the sabbath: she makes her choice, judging the consequences,
declaring by her actions that the act of serving
trumps the sacredness of the sabbath.

After sunset, the ending of the sabbath, the crowds gather.
Many who are sick, in body or mind, come to the rabbi who spoke with authority,
in whose presence healing happens.

What are we to say about healing in these days
haunted by images of teams of masked health professionals
rolling COVID patients to clear lungs and sustain life?
What are we to say about healing, when our friend Revd Christopher Rowe,
parish minister of Colston Milton in Glasgow, an area of multiple deprivation,
reminds us, in his film-meditation this week,
that average life expectancy in his parish is sixty-four,
fifteen years less, than some other parts of the same city, only miles away?
What is the work of healing in our day and age?

Well, we might, along with other members of the Kensington and Chelsea Interfaith Forum
encourage our communities to equip ourselves with the facts, challenging any misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine.
Urge each other to follow Government guidelines,
take measures to keep ourselves well
and seek information on the Covid-19 vaccine so we are ready when it is offered to us.
In the Forum’s statement words: “… to benefit not just our family and friends
but society more widely, a principle shared across all faiths.”

Or, as we hear time and again about the pressure on NHS and other carers,
we might float the idea, borrowing from the practice of our Armed Forces.
Following six-month operational tours, standard practice
is to give personnel a month’s post-tour leave.
Recognition that it takes time to recover.
Arguably, many on COVID’s year-long, frontline workers
are exposed to a more draining intensity than many military operations.
We cannot/should not, expect to replace COVID intensity
to a replica intensity, the full-on clearing of the back-log of routine demands.

At the individual level, as followers of the healing Christ,
“Maybe our task as healers isn’t to perform magic” (Debie Thomas)
but, to offer the comfort of steady presence,
dignity and friendship to life’s walking wounded –
especially for those who will not find a cure.
To make sure, if we can help it, that no one dies abandoned and unloved.

Back in Capernaum: After the tumult, exhilaration and exhaustion –
a few snatched hours of sleep.
But long before the cockerel summons the dawn, then when it is very dark,
the search for solitude – a deserted place, prayer. We know this is not a one-off.

For Mark, “dark” is a loaded phrase;
It is dark when the religious leaders hand Jesus over to Pilate (Mark 15:1)
It is dark when the women come to the tomb, where Jesus has been buried (Mark 16:2.)
Jesus prays in the time of dark – prayer comes at a cost.
Even for Jesus – perhaps particularly for Jesus, prayer was not always benign.
(Think of his get-me-out-of-here prayer in Gethsemane.)

But prayer is part of him.
He needs to withdraw, to draw from the well;
He needs to rest, to reorient the heart;
time and space to replenish wisdom, courage and love.

Living with the tension between compassion and self-protection.
in a world flooded with desperate need,
Jesus is unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude.
A carer, who has experienced the breakdown of burn-out,
commented to me this week, on Jesus, withdrawal to the hills:
“Wise words. I learned their truth the hard way and its still hard to do.
Too many messiah complexes going on!”

Jesus, alone, in prayer, is a challenge to a culture
that applauds 24/7 striving and sees stillness as weakness.
Jesus, alone, in prayer also challenges those of us who talk a lot about prayer –
but often fail to set aside time to actually pray.
(Perhaps a time for setting a Lenten intention?)

Respite is brief; the disciples are demanding.
They clamor for an immediate messiah, immediately.
Again, Jesus will not be confined –
neither by the religious authorities and their sabbath laws,
nor by the expectations of his anxious disciples.
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also;
for that is what I came out to do.”

From Simon Peter’s house, to other homes:
Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple once said:
“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

There may have been compelling reasons for Jesus to stay,
but after prayer, his decision is to follow his own sense of mission and timing.
“Time to move on.”
That choice raises questions for our own lives of faith – individual and congregational:
Is sowing a seed, then walking away, or leaving be, sometimes enough?
Can we leave the settled and predictable – perhaps even the successful –
in order to embrace the unknown or obscure, the more profoundly faithful?
Can we make such choices, even when others, friends and loved ones, do not understand?

Shaken and stirred, as we are by this pandemic,
changed and challenged, how will we emerge?
Let us pray that when we emerge, and emerge we will,
we will find in the hours of the day that Jesus lived, at the edge of Lake Gennesaret -
in its healings, encounters, meals and prayer -
ways for us to emerge bravely, beautifully and faithfully.

Sermon 14th February 2021

The Tv programme Death in Paradise, seems to be popular, it uses a format that has stood the test of time, the investigation is played out in front of the viewer and then the detective calls all the suspects together and reveals the person responsible, as he solves the mystery in front of the select band of people.

The story of the transfiguration is very much like that TV programme it is all a bit of a mystery what happened. And why it happened. Then all is revealed to a very select band of interested parties.

Peter, James, and John climbed a mountain with Jesus and sat with him on the mountaintop. 

They were already excited and they were in anticipation of what was to come. 

Then it happened. Jesus was transfigured; He metamorphosed into something glorious. 

His face shone like the Sun, his clothes were a dazzling, brilliant white, and he stood there in his glory that was to come. 

Peter, James, and John had to shade their eyes from the brilliance. 

Then Moses and Elijah, the two biggest people in the Hebrew Bible stood with him and were discussing something with Jesus. 

It is a mystery exactly what, why, and how.

The Western World - the industrial and scientific world, the conspiracy theory world, The Richard Dawkins delusional world is intolerant of mystery.  

We live in an age which is obsessed with the idea of knowing and explaining everything. 

A story is told of Gordon Brown, former Prime minister and son of the manse, his father expressed the usual before dinner command -- "Hurry up, and wash your hands and come to the table so we can say a prayer and eat."

As the Gordon went toward the bathroom, he was heard to mutter, "Germs and Jesus, germs and Jesus!  That's all I hear around here, and I can't see either one of them."

There are many things, that we can't see, many things that we can't touch, which are real and powerful: 

The World wide web

The electrons which flow through the billions of miles of wires we have strung up around the world

The radiation that we transmit from microwave dishes and radio antennae to power our telephones i pads and televisions 

The love that we experience from our parents and our partners.

All these things are unseeable, untouchable - yet real.

Mystical experience is very much a part of our faith.  Indeed it lays at the root of all that we believe in.

Today we see a group of friends going up on a mountain and hearing God speak and Jesus being transfigured by a bright light in the presence of three of his disciples.

Unexplainable and dare I say it, unprovable - in the scientific sense at least – spiritual realities underpin and indeed, permeate, our faith.

The transfiguration of Jesus is one such story which takes some explaining.

Theologians cannot agree exactly why the transfiguration happened. 

I tend to side with the school of thought that the transfiguration happened to strengthen Jesus before his journey to Jerusalem - and it was witnessed so that we might be encouraged in our faith.  

The spiritual reality - the spiritual power made evident that day - had a purpose.   A good purpose.

Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah; we don’t know what they were talking about. 

Perhaps they were laying out the plan for Jesus. Perhaps, they were telling Jesus what he must do in order to receive glory. 

Perhaps Elijah and Moses were offering Jesus encouragement for the hard road ahead. Jesus knew what had to happen, Jesus knew God’s plan and we can only imagine what was going through Jesus’ mind. 

Is this what I really have to do? Is there no other way? 

In this moment, Jesus got a taste of future glory along with the three disciples. 

This was the reward at the end of the path, but Jesus path went through Calvary. 

The Transfiguration spurred them on through darkness....as Ken Gire puts it ‘it was quite literally the light at the end of the tunnel, glimpse of glory at the other side. To share Christ’s glory means we must first share his suffering.’

The Transfiguration reminds us that things look different when one stands in God's very presence. The good news can sound like bad news. 

When we find ourselves in the very presence of God, it can be very unsettling. Our way of living and of thinking is challenged. 

The challenge is to see beyond where we are. 

Let me try to illustrate this with the help of Walt Disney.

Children's stories are full of characters who move back and forth between different realms of reality. 

Take Cinderella, for example. You know the story of four mice pulling a pumpkin, whisking Cinderella away from poverty into an exalted moment of acceptance and glory. In one transforming moment, the servant is transformed into the queen of the ball. Suddenly, everyone can see Cinderella's beauty and worth. 

Or take the story of The Lion King, where Simba, a young lion cub, makes a series of wrong choices that lead to his father's death. He has to flee. After a long exile, he is challenged to return. 

While wrestling with the decision, he sees in a pond his own image, mysteriously transfigured into the image of his deceased father. In that moment, he sees the purpose of his life and discovers the courage to return. 

Or take Beauty and the Beast, where the beast is transformed by love back into a prince. 

In these stories, transfiguration is seen in a whole new way. The challenges faced are overcome.

As it was for the disciples, during these very mysterious moments on the mountain, the man they had followed up the mountain was transfigured before them. 

It is not God that had to move forward in the journey of faith to be ready for these moments on the Mount of Transfiguration, but rather it was the disciples who had to be prepared for such a moment. 

At the heart of our faith, we affirm that God is the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow. 

We're the ones who must grow in our faith. 

We're the ones who can see with greater love and depth. 

The disciples were literally struck down by the impact of what they were a part of. 

The radiance of Jesus as he shone like the sun. The sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah. The bright cloud overshadowing them from which came the voice proclaiming Jesus as God's son and beloved.

The disciples were overwhelmed.

The challenge is how we respond when we're overwhelmed. 

The challenge for the three and the challenge for us is to listen, to know that there are those times when we encounter the holy, the very presence of God, that we're not in control. We can only listen and trust. 

How many times have you sat in this – or any – Church and heard the words preceding the Scripture readings: “Listen to the Word of God”? How many times have you heard the Gospel story of the Transfiguration and yet have not heard the central word – “Listen”! 

 “Listening to God”. God speaks, we Listen. 

It is not an invitation it is an instruction. 

“Peter said to Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters— one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. 

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

This scene in the Transfiguration reminds us we have to get beyond trying to merely preserve the moments beyond our fears and listen to where God would lead us. 

We are not very good at listening. We live in a society much more prone to “speaking” rather than “listening”.  Peter was still Talking when God told him LISTEN!!!

Today, as we hear the Word of God, we are told that “listening” is part of obedience – part of discipleship. 

I saw today news of an earthquake in Fukishima Japan.

That made me recall a few years ago watching the scenes from Christchurch in New Zealand.

There was one TV news clip that struck me, when the rescuers stopped work, They called out for silence. – and at such times all work stopped. 

Everything stopped! No one walked – or talked – or barely breathed. They listened! 

Hope of rescuing the living lay in the possibility of hearing a voice or a similar sound indicating a living person. 

Having listened, they would dig with renewed fervour and purpose – but without listening – all their frenetic work might have been aimless and fruitless. 

However, some of the people rescued may have perceived the silence quite differently. 

When they heard sounds of digging activity, they knew there were efforts being made to free them, but they did not understand why periodically everything fell silent. 

Fearful that their rescuers might give up, many cried out in those moments of silence – or pounded against the walls of concrete and steel that held them imprisoned – not knowing that such sounds were the very things for which their rescuers listened. 

Thus “listening”...... listening for the silence – and listening for the sounds of those trapped – was the hope of the rescuers and the rescued. 

It's an old saying that we can't always choose what is going to happen to us in life, but we can always choose how we're going to respond to what has happened.

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish theologian, is attributed with that well used quote "If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you stronger." The result is how one responds. For as we listen and get back on our feet, we have to come back down the mountain. 

The vision of the Transfigured Christ on the mountain top not only changed the views of Peter, James and John concerning Jesus – but it also changed their lives! If we wait around for our own “vision” from on high – we may never change. 

Yet if we choose to silence our insistent voices – to hear and to Listen to the Word – then the true nature of Christ may indeed transfigure our lives. 

In the next few days we will enter the Lenten Season. 

Some will talk of giving something up. Let us talk of taking something up.

Let us use this time during Lent as a time to cultivate the art of “listening”. 

Let us take care to listen to each other more than we are ordinarily inclined to do. 

Let us set aside some time each day for at least a few moments of quietness – away from the usual hectic pace that is often the driving theme of our lives. 

Especially let us open our mind and spirit, as we read and think of the teachings of Jesus and listen intently to hear his claims upon our lives. 

Perhaps our own vision of Christ – as we have never seen him before – may change the course and the quality of our lives – forever!

Sermon 21st February 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 21st FEBRUARY 2021, 11am, 1st SUNDAY IN LENT

“When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember
the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature
of all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:16

This week, at the latest of Lucy Llewellyn’s hot-ticket Zoom Coffee Mornings –
the subject for discussion was Lent,
coinciding with the traditional season opening fixture – Ash Wednesday.

Lent is the season of 40 days, Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday –
It gets us to the start line of Holy Week.
Forty is a significant biblical number –
40 years, the children of Israel, wandering in the desert;
Jesus, driven by the spirit, following his baptism, into the wilderness
for forty days and forty nights.
Topically, quarantine, from the French word, for 40,
began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics.
Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports
were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing.

In church circles, ritually, the time is circumferenced
by the symbolic burning of last year’s palm crosses
and the residue used to “ash” worshipers’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return; repent and believe the gospel.”
The start of the journey to Easter,
is a back-to-basics reminder of our mortality.
Not to scare to death, but paradoxically, to be more alive.

What emerged from our discussions was how little Lent was a part of Kirk tradition.
It simply hadn’t featured in days gone by.
More positively it was acknowledged as potentially a time to make space –
to exercise the muscles in the spiritual gym.
A time for taking up, rather than giving up –
especially in a year that has seen so much already stripped away.
As another minister observed: “Arguably, our Lenten journey began a year ago,
in March 2020, and we have not managed to find the way out of it yet!”

Assistance from the scriptures?

As with forty days and quarantine, the Old Testament tale has a topical feel.
(The Flood, Noah’s Ark and God’s concluding rainbow.)
In the past year, rainbows have appeared everywhere,
Christmas tree ornaments, painted pictures in windows of homes and shops,
A focus for our candle lighting, Sunday by Sunday.
They have been associated with gratitude
for the work and self-sacrifice of NHS staff other key workers during the pandemic.

Before that, rainbows have been a sign of inclusion and welcome,
an arc over people, regardless of sexuality or race – rainbow nations.

The story of God’s rainbow covenant was recorded by the people of Israel
in the midst of exile from their homeland, a time of chaos and distress.
In Genesis, it is a sign of the covenant between God and all the earth,
every living creature of all flesh;
that the waters shall not again destroy.
The rainbow is set in the sky, after the flood –
an unstrung war bow, pointing away from earth -
not as a sign so much for humanity,
but as a reminder for God.

Noah never says a word.
While he and his family were selected as the remnant to survive,
there is no suggestion that the humanity they go on to represent
are restored to the perfection of Eden.
Neither the flood, nor the covenant restore paradise.
Humanity remains just that.

So, the scripture offers a provocative insight;
If God wants to stay in relationship with humanity,
then God must change;
swapping vindication for forgiveness, anger for patience,
wipe-out with enduring love.
The covenant appears to be God laying down his weapons.
From now on, when God sights the restraining order rainbow,
God must remember his promise of divine loyalty,
even when humanity is disloyal.

This is the promise we inherit and upon which we rely,
especially whenever waters threaten to overwhelm.
We are looked upon and loved; remembered, not forsaken.
Forsaken, is a word we will hear at the other end of the Lent journey.
Borrowing from the psalms: “Jesus’ cry upon the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Dereliction/despair?
Perhaps to understand the depth of Calvary’s anguish,
we should look again at how the story starts:

Mark’s gospel starts at a gallop.
No genealogies, no birth backstories, just:
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark 1:1
John the Baptist, preparing the way, for the Messiah,
crowds coming to be washed in the rivers of the Jordan;
Jesus himself baptised.
At the outset of his public ministry,
he quite deliberately identifies with the people of
“the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”
No fanfare, no ceremony.
He simply joins the line of shuffling humanity going down into the sacred river.
He stands alongside the faults and failures,
all the brokenness, that those battered crowds represent.
Christ is not aloof. He is baptised with us and baptised for us.

Mark gives no detail about the temptations – only:
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts;
and the angels waited on him.” Mark 1;12-13

Testing/temptation follows baptism; follows commitment to the Father.
Apparently, it is God-driven –
not necessarily a sign of lack of faith or strength of commitment.
Possibly, quite the reverse –
times of trial, evidence of a living, vibrant commitment to God.
Trialled or examined, exactly because we are more alive, not less so.

This week a friend wrote to me of a particular wilderness experience
he and his small faith community are facing.
The situation lies beyond our own denominational bounds,
so I trust there are no confidences betrayed,
though the scenario is one the Church of Scotland is increasingly called to consider.

My friend’s church has just learnt that due to a variety of circumstances,
particularly financial, it can no longer continue.
Its guardians/trustees have taken the decision that it must close.
My friend, a very committed member of that community, wrote:
“I understand the decision, but it is hard and a bleak note
to start our Lenten journey.
The next few weeks will be hard
as we deal with our anxieties, doubts, second thoughts, mourning.
But also looking forward to new life.
But then Lent is the appropriate season for this journey.”

Profoundly, (to my mind) he makes a connection
between the congregational situation he and others are facing
and the experience of accompanying a family member
through terminal cancer, some years ago –
in his words, the “imperfect metaphor” of his loved one’s last days.

After months of surgery, chemotherapy, chemo-induced delusions,
the emergency room and more surgery, it was time for palliative care.
Three months in the hospice, pain free
and with time to prepare for death with dignity.
Incredibly hard for the family, but so much better than what had gone before.
Precious time, particularly a final Christmas day in the hospice,
perfect in its own way.
And a final picture: the gift of a wink from the patient’s bed,
to my friend as he took his leave for the last time.

His letter this week concluded:
“I know that a lot is going to rest on my shoulders,
and I know my patience will be tested as I cope with my anxieties and doubts.
But it is my desire that these last months will be marked by grace and dignity.”

Lent offers the annual opportunity,
to refocus/concentrate on what is important in life – whether growing or letting go;
consent, to be stripped of what distracts us,
reawakened, to the blessing of the present moment;
intentional, about our turn to God.

A time of testing, but also of trust;
wilderness and wonder, wild beasts and angels.
To trace the rainbow through the rain, (George Matheson)
to behold the heavens opening, at the baptism of the Beloved;
that we might understand more deeply,
the Father who sent the Son,
and the Son who serves the Father.

Sermon 28th February 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 28th FEBRUARY 2021, 11.00am, 2 nd SUNDAY OF LENT

Jesus said: “If you want to follow me – learn to deny yourself and take up your cross.
If you choose to keep your life safe, you will lose it;
But if you let go of life, you will discover real living. Mark 8:34-35

At this week’s zoom coffee morning we heard two church members (Jeni and Ian Rutherford) talk about their time living and working in Jerusalem.
They conveyed strongly, how the places that are mostly known from the pages of scripture, take on a whole new immediacy when encountered in the flesh.
Stories and locations come off the page, come alive;
the height of a mountain, the source of a river, the proximity of the sea or the desert,
the carved stone, night-time stars;
stories and locations fished out of antiquity,
or alternatively, we become more immersed in their reality.

North of the Sea of Galilee, at the source of the River Jordan
lies the city of Caesarea Philippi.
In Jesus’ day, site of Roman temples, dedicated to emperor gods;
home too, to local cultic religions.
A city reeking of politics and religion, imposing grandeur;
claiming the powers of heaven and earth.

It is there – deliberately perhaps – that Jesus asks the haunting question:
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter, the Rock, in a moment of impetuous magnificence declares:
“You are the Christ.”

Then just as swiftly, Jesus begins to teach the disciples:
“The Son of Man must undergo suffering, be rejected, be killed
and after three days rise again.”
Peter says “Christ”; Jesus responds “Cross.”
“Madness” Peter blurts back.

We shouldn’t be surprised.
The disciples’ great hope, cultivated over the three years of following,
the liberator from so many oppressions -
they had seen his signs, heard him proclaim a coming kingdom coming.
Was the would-be champion to surrender without a fight -
submit to the death of a common criminal?
How dare he choose a path contrary to his followers’ expectations?
“There must be a better way Rabbi – more fitting for a messiah, more royal -
less… defeated?”

Reasonable advice, sound strategy - a loyal protection?
Perhaps, an element also of self-protection.
Many of us prefer success, status, popularity;
we incline to saving our skins.

For Jesus however, Peter’s persuadings bear a terrible echo
of those temptations of the wilderness (our Lenten starting point.)
“If you are the Real Thing...
Make the stones be bread. Leap from the Temple heights. Bow the knee in worship.”
Now, Peter’s temptation: “Be messiah; but go easy on risk.”

Jesus has raised the stakes; there is more to being a disciple
than watching him heal or hearing him teach;
being a disciple means crossing the bridge from spectator to participant.
Jesus spells it out:
“If any want to become my followers
let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.
It is in the letting go of life,
that you will truly discover it.”
It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to end well.
C1st Palestine knew exactly what taking up the cross meant.
Romans raised crosses like billboard notices,
Ruthless power and the consequences to any who opposed it.
In 6AD/CE 2,000 Galilean insurrectionists crucified.
Had the child Jesus witnessed such things?

Peter, while having some initial, God-given insight,
is still blind to the real meaning of his own words.
It is no coincidence that the whole section from Mark 8:22 – 10:52
which includes Jesus’ prediction of the cross, three times,
is framed by two stories where blind men are given their sight (8:22-26; 10:46-52).
Jesus’ words about his death and about discipleship
are bookended by reflections on blindness and sight;
implications of the blindness of his opponents,
but also, the limited sight of his followers.

The rebuke is instant and stinging –
evidence maybe of how hard is Jesus’ internal struggle.
“Get behind me/depart from me Satan!
The Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan,
which doesn’t mean “devil” at all; simply, “the accuser” or “the adversary.”
Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is evil incarnate,
but he is being an adversary, an obstruction to what Jesus must become.

In this week’s film meditation from Rev Christopher Rowe,
minister of Colston Milton, Glasgow, two, slow opening shots show:
First, an abandoned sofa in the street, with the voiced over question:
“What stuff do you have to get rid of?
What items have had their day?
What ways of being have not served you well, and now it’s time to leave behind?
Then, lingering at a bus stop shelter:
In which direction are you heading?”

In Lent, we might consider what are the obstructions to us
becoming more fully the people, the community, the congregations
that God longs for us to be?
(Next Wednesday, the topic for the 10th Anniversary of Happy Hour –
Does the Church of Scotland need to reform post Covid-19?)
Our adversary may not be a person; it may be our own doubt or fear,
pride or addiction, resentment or anger, our complacency or insecurity;
adversaries preventing us from taking up our cross,
from following, from the abundant life Jesus promises.

(Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Feb 2021)
How shall I die, in order to live?
How shall I lose, in order to save?
Maybe by accepting — against all the lies of my culture —
that I will die and trusting in Jesus’s assurance that I will also rise again.
Maybe by learning what Peter has to learn –
that the path to victory begins with surrender,
that Jesus’s heroism is steeped in humility.

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

Sermons - January 2021

Sermon 3rd January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 3rd JANUARY 2021, 11am, 2nd SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

“Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them,
and give them gladness for sorrow.” Jeremiah 31:13

Early January is traditionally the season of the summer holiday, TV advertisement.
As the temperature drops, the tinsel is packed away
and your football team is unlikely to get promoted….
what better time to be persuaded that some sunshine and sangria
is exactly what you need?
This year, one particular advert stopped me in my tracks –
a sentence to make any advertising executive adjust his/her fee upwards.

It opens with a somewhat wild, bearded, bare-chested, middle-aged man –
a yoga-type guru.
He stands, half crouching, half dancing at the end of a wooden pier,
that stretches out into sunlit waters.
Wordlessly, in slow motion, he opens his arms in invitation.
A craggy voice-over begins:

That was some year. O, boy!
The sun came out and we were stuck inside – Lock down loco.
Working from home became sleeping at the office.
Shaking hands became – well, odd.

As the words unfold, the picture cuts to a side on view:
a chubby youngster in board shots, is running down a beach, also in slow motion.
Behind him, into shot, come other runners.
A young black man, a middle-aged, bikinied Mum.
More and more. All shapes and sizes, old and young.
(While we might choose to upgrade our own self-image,
the spread of humanity/the spread of girth,
allows us to feel invited to this human race,
galloping its way across the sun-kissed sands.

Voice-over: We stood outside and clapped for our carers.
We followed Government guidelines: Eat in. Eat out. Stay in. Breathe out.
We fought for toilet rolls and sanitized our hands enough to last a lifetime.
Our wedding got cancelled; our graduation was postponed;
and we’re just the lucky ones.

Finally, the cavalcade of runners, wheels into the sparkling shallows of the ocean,
arms aloft, athletes breaking the winning tape.
Silently, shouting, praising, exulting, leaping and laughing;
an uninhibited, dance of delight;
communal, joyous, liberated.

Voice-over: We got angry, we got sad, we cried.
We picked ourselves up and started again,
knowing the sun is always shining somewhere.
And at some point, someday,
you’ll be on your dream holiday, thinking:
Is it too early for a drink? No, no it isn’t.
Remember everything is better on the beach. And it’s ready when you are.

Yes – the travel company is called, On the beach
and yes, other travel companies are available.

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together;
a great company, they shall return here. Jeremiah 31:8

From out of Babylonian exile,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Powerful words of restoration, to the exiled remnant of Israel.
Imprisoned himself, though not deported -
spoken in the poetry of prophecy,
Jeremiah declares a daring hope, even at low/lowest ebb.
Spoken at a time when their glory days are gone,
their most prominent citizens led into Babylonian exile.
Humbled for a season, advised to settle,
pray and work for the welfare of that city
i.e. their foreign captors - and wait.

Now, a trumpet call; unapologetic hope.
The time is coming when the people themselves,
scattered far and wide, will be gathered by God
for a great, emotional return home.
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back…
Not a triumphant army, but a human river,
all ages and abilities, both sobbing and singing.

“Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.” Jeremiah 31:13

How do these words feel this New Year?
A Hogmanay when I am sure, you either received, or perhaps sent the message:
“Good riddance 2020 - wishing you all much happier times in 2021,
and hoping we can all be together soon.”

Former Dean of Westminster, Michael Mayne,
after six busy years in the parish of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge,
contracted a viral disease that left him totally without energy,
unable to concentrate and housebound for a year.
Only after two years, was he diagnosed with ME
(unhelpfully referred to at the time as, Yuppie flu.)

During his long convalescence Mayne wrote a short book, A Year Lost and Found,
in which he tried to describe as honestly as possible
what it felt like to be knocked flat and left struggling in the dark.
The response to the book took him by storm.
Not only did it sell, but he received a huge correspondence
and many requests for people to come and talk with him.
By describing, not hiding, his own humanity
Mayne was able to help others authenticate and assist, what they were going through.

Mayne acknowledged that in a pastoral or counselling role
one must maintain a degree of professional distance,
one foot remaining on the riverbank,
rather than two folks floundering in the water.
But, he also highlighted another rediscovery/truth –
In his words: that people are not problems to be solved,
but mysteries to be loved.
Entering, experiencing, sharing his own shadowlands (of sickness, pain or loss,)
Mayne unearthed a deepened compassion.
And others, searching for help or healing,
recognised intuitively, a kindred spirit.

Out of the whole experience – illness, book writing and response to his words –
Mayne was keen to identify what he had learnt.
not just what was lost, but also, what was found.
Summarising, he listed:
The need for inner space.
The need for positive thinking.
The learning to depend on others.
Perhaps for us, before we settle for good riddance 2020
That nothing is irredeemable.
(Because the theme of death and resurrection runs through all our stories,
nothing need ever be wasted, good can arise/emerge from bad.)
And the reminder, as we look forward to 2021:
The discovery of the God who shares our flesh and blood;
(vulnerable, entering into our questions;
bewilderingly, suffering within and alongside us:.
Last/unquenchable/ultimate Word of love.)
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5

So, the promise: Somewhere the sun is always shining:
I will turn their mourning into joy and give them gladness for sorrow.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.

Sermon 10th January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 10th JANUARY 2021, 11am, EPIPHANY

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:11

What can I give him?
Poor as I am
If I were a shepherd
I would give a lamb

Familiar? Perhaps, the loveliest, most haunting moment
of all of our Christmas services this year;
Christmas Eve, the choir’s singing of In the bleak midwinter,
to a new setting by Cornishwoman, Becky McGlade.

If I were a wise man
I would do my part
But what I can I give him…?

In his poem, The Stars, Scots poet, Kenneth Steven,
describes a childhood of smudged sight –
from the age of five, glasses that were never quite clean;
the stars above, white and indistinct, vague pearls in a distant heaven.
But, on his fifteenth birthday, a moment of epiphany,
after his parents gave him contact lenses:

Driving home with them that night I suddenly caught sight of something,
got out by the edge of the field and looked,
amazed and disbelieving as if Christ himself had healed my eyes,
for the stars were crackling and sparking
like new-cut diamonds on the velvet of a jeweller’s window,
so near and clear I could have stretched and held them,
carried them home in my own pocket.
That was the gift my parents gave me on my birthday –
the stars.

Gifts: From poetry to music – in particular, jazz – maybe an acquired taste.
In 1961, the famous jazz musician, Dave Brubeck,
recorded in a New York studio, a short piece.
It burst into being the day Brubeck’s wife gave birth to their sixth child.
Having visited mother and child in the Connecticut hospital,
later the same day, arriving at the studio
he told the members of his Quartet the good news.
Brubeck went directly to the piano and started playing -
notes announcing the child’s birth.
Three kings of 1960’s jazz,
Paul Desmond, (saxophone) Eugene Wright (bass) and Joe Morello (drums)
responded with joy; on saxophone, bass and drums.
The tune leapt into life, was spontaneously recorded and named:
“Charles Matthew Hallelujah”.
When the child’s mother, Iola, was introduced to the piece, her verdict:
“It sounded like each member of the band
was presenting my new born with a gift.”

“Nations shall come to your light… They shall bring gold and frankincense
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Isaiah 60:3, 6

This morning’s passage from Isaiah is an oracle of outrageous gift giving.
Trains of camels from Midian, Ephah and Sheba, bearing bounty;
a tribute of generosity and submission, from foreign powers,
to the God, and God’s people, who reside in Israel.
For as long as anyone can remember, Israel has paid imperial tribute to others
Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians – always a draining away.
Now, the process is reversed - an inversion of geopolitics (Brueggemann) –
No longer, oppressive power’s knee upon Israel’s neck,
but the liberty and provision, the dignity and embrace, of God’s care.
Gifts re-establishing Israel’s identity – aa belonging to God.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come…
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Then, from Matthew, an Epiphany echo:
For the wealth of the nations, brought to downtrodden Israel;
Matthew’s, Magi gifts, to a humble cattle-shed.

Pilgrims they were, from unknown countries,
searching for one who knows the world;
lost are their names, and strange their journeys,
famed is their zeal to find the child:

Guests of their God, they opened treasures,
incense and gold and solemn myrrh;
welcoming one too young to question
how came these gifts, and what they were.
[From: Wise men, they came to look for wisdom, CH4 328]

Gifts: Gold and frankincense from former enemies to Judah;
Gold, frankincense and solemn myrrh, wise men to Bethlehem;
And from us? What gifts can/will, we give him?

Speaking on the radio this week, John Bell, of the Iona Community,
spoke of the Community’s practice to make an annual review of one’s personal finances.
In this traditionally private sphere,
Community members agree to be accountable to each other.
Members commit to give 10% in annual offerings,
but also, scrutinise, how the other 90% is spent.
They observe, that biblically, use of personal wealth is linked to the common good;
and the scriptures have plenty to say to those who grow rich
but become indifferent to the plight of the poor.

Bell recently discovered that he had more money than he had imagined.
Like some, he hasn’t spent in the usual way –
no eating out, no concerts, no holidays etc.
But, as he began to congratulate himself,
he recognised that his unintentional saving plan,
arrived at the moment when many others are close to the edge –
the stories from the midwinter update from GlassDoor/requests to the St Columba’s benevolence Committee,
illustrative of some people’s, desperate circumstances.

So, he asks: What do I do with this surplus?
Keep it; splash out, when the opportunity arises?
Or, exercise generosity, not as an expression of guilt,
but an expression of gratitude.
Bell admits he is chastened by the gospel encounter of the young man
who asked Jesus’ help to improve his spiritual life.
(“What must I do to inherit eternal life?)
Jesus didn’t recommend prayer;
rather he counselled the dispersal of his excessive wealth.
Bell concludes: “For those of us who have more than we need,
generosity is always an option.”

What can I give him? Let me finish with one other gift idea.
Recently, retired Church of Scotland minister, Revd David Scott, reflected:
‘What was the most surprising Christmas present I received this year?
It was, he said, a video of a children’s Nativity Play,
by the children in his first charge, Forth: St. Paul’s, in Lanark.

Some sixteen children played the parts of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and kings.
This year’s play was written by a woman, who was writing imaginative Nativity Plays
when Scott became minister there, almost forty years ago.
The children were filmed in costume in their own houses – then edited into one.

Peering into the parish he had known so well, glimpsing domestic settings,
certain things struck the retired minister;
the confidence of the children, their acting and their dancing:
fragments of the gospel taken home, embedded in ordinary family life;
connections made, between ancient story and contemporary celebration.

Rev Scott concluded: The most moving aspect, however,
was the discovery that the actors in this this year’s Nativity Play
were grandchildren of young people
who had participated enthusiastically,
in the time of his own ministry ‘so long ago’.
“Unexpectedly, (I saw it as) confirmation of the value of our kirk’s work
which sometimes is difficult to see and certainly to measure.” (Blog on the Learig, Jan 21)
The continuities and consolations of faith, its perseverance and passing on.
These too, real gifts – even if unseen or impossible to measure.

As a church friend reminded me, in this week of declared, Major Incident:
“We may not know whether we ourselves are waving or drowning,
but words of encouragement that we can pass on to others
who we know are struggling,
are small miracles of hope which buoy us up.”

If I were a wise man
I would do my part
But what I can I give him

“…each member of the band presenting God’s newborn with a gift.”

Give him my heart. (Christina Rossetti)

Sermon 17th January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 17th JANUARY 2021, 11am, EPIPHANY

Nathanael said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.” John 1:46

You don’t have to be a poet to identify with this scenario –
especially in days of home-schooling or, working at home.
Scottish poet, Stewart Conn recounts a family moment:
Outside, snow has fallen; inside, his children are raring to make snowmen.
Upstairs, the poet is at his desk, wrestling words onto the page – it is his living, after all..

Come on Daddy, come now, I hear them shout
as I put the finishing touches to this and that
in the safe confines of my study:
Hurry, Daddy, before it’s too late, we’re ready!
They are so right. Now is the time.
It won’t wait, on that you can bet your bottom
dollar. So rouse yourself, get the drift
before you’re muffled and left
for useless. Let’s build a snowman, then
a snow-woman to keep him company. When
that’s finished, and with what’s left over,
a giant snowball that will last for ever,
only hurry, Daddy. As soon as this poem
is finished, I promise, I’ll come –
essential first, to pin down what is felt.
Meanwhile, the snow begins to melt.

An invitation missed?
Another Dad, another moment - a happier outcome.
Revd David Runcorn, describes himself as having been
an accordionist, vicar, fast bowler and hermit.
His daily routine is to pray before the rest of the family wake up.
One morning he heard a knock on the door of the shed that is his hermitage.
His son Joshua stood there in the dark, shivering,
smiling, but searching his father’s face, a little uncertain of his welcome.
Father and son cuddled for warmth in the soft candlelight,
quietly looking at the icons, which accompany/adorn his prayer space.
One of them is the well-known icon of the Holy Trinity by Andre Rublev.

Three figures (technically, Old Testament messengers at the oaks of Mamre)
But understood by many as Father, Son and Holy Spirit
sit on three sides of a table.
What draws the observer in, is the sense of deep reverence and awareness of each other.
The Son and the Spirit incline their heads towards the Father.
The Father inclines towards the Son and the Spirit;
a beautiful, silent flow of attentiveness.
And, as if vacant for the onlooker, the table has a space,
incomplete, until the place is filled.
.
Joshua and his Dad begin to talk about it.
“Do you think they know we are watching?”
“What do you think they might say to us?” asks the child.
“Come on Josh, come on Daddy” the father suggests:
“join us, we’re waiting for you. We can’t really start without you!”
The child’s face breaks into a broad grin at the thought.
Suddenly, they are both giggling, imagining joining the company.
“I’ll have sausages, beans and chips” declares Joshua, joyfully.
[An alternative holy trinity.]
(Choice, Desire & the Will of God, D Runcorn, p7-8}

Voices of invitation lie at the heart and start of John’s Gospel.
Come and see – Jesus’ words to Andrew and his friend
when they enquire where he is staying.
Come and see, echoed by Philip to Nathanael
when one friend seeks to share Jesus with another.
Come and see – the beginning of a long and deepening friendship,
a life-changing journey.

In today’s gospel: Jesus goes to Galilee, finds Philip, invites him to “follow me.”
Philip accepts the call, then hastens off to find his friend, Nathanael.
sitting under a fig tree. The detail is deliberate.
The scriptures are seeded with significant timbers.
Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, Elijah’s wilderness tree,
Jonah, stewing in the shade opposite Nineveh,
Zaccheus, clambering into the branches, the better to see Jesus.
The prophet Micah’s beautiful vision:
“…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;”

The scholars see the tree as a sign of the presence of God.
and the term “under the fig tree” as an ancient Jewish idiom
that means. studying the messianic prophecies.
Nathanael knows those prophecies; Bethlehem will be the Messiah’s birthplace.
Nazareth, on the other hand - a village of 200-400,
dependent upon the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee.
lends no special status to its inhabitants.
So, at minimum, Nathanael is sceptical;
at worst, outright hostile: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Preconception, prejudice, won’t permit surprise.
True to Jesus’ original, Philip simply tells his doubtful friend: “Come and see."

When encounter follows, Jesus looks passed Nathanael’s prickly exterior.
Jesus isn’t in the business of put downs or point-scoring;
doesn’t demand fear or shame, as some sort of entry tax to his company.
Instead, Jesus names the quality he wants to bless.
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
A salutation that a devout son of Israel would admire.
“Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Psalm 32:2

Taken aback, suspicious: “How do you know me?”
“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Echo perhaps of Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
Echo of Micah: they shall all sit under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;”

Moment of dramatic Epiphany: like Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi,
Nathanael declares,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
The title that would eventually be nailed to Jesus’ cross.

Jesus responds “O Nathanael, I’ll show you things greater than this.
You are impressed because I recognise the dreams you dream, the tree you chose for shade.
But I will give you glimpses of heaven upon earth
and earth’s gateway to heaven.”

Words, resonating from the scrolls of Genesis: the outcast Jacob,
fleeing the wrath of Esau, the brother he has tricked.
In despair, in the desert, lying down, exhausted, alone –
his head upon a stone; that holds the mystery of an altar.
The great dream of healing - a ladder, stretching from heaven to earth;
a ceaseless traffic of angels, ascending and descending;
earth to heaven and heaven to earth – a thin place,
veil between God and God’s creation, gossamer thin.
At dawn, Jacob’s verdict: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:16.17

Upon these foundations, Jesus fashions a new promise:
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened
and the angels of God, ascending and descending, upon the Son of Man.”
Jacob and the dreaming stone became Bethel, the house of God;
now Jesus, the stone the builders will reject, becomes new gateway to the Divine.
This is Nathanael’s epiphany. Invited – he comes; seen/recognised – he sees.

I have wrestled this week with images from the riots
at the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
The sight of the Confederate flag,
symbol of the slave-owning southern states in America’s Civil War,
marched through the corridors of power in 2021 –
I can only imagine the fear that must raise in the minds of many.
Clearly, that country, so influential beyond its borders,
waits in anxiety for its Presidential Inauguration Day.
And to/in our own places of unrest and division - how do we respond?
Do we fall back on original Nathanael – convinced “nothing good”
can come from the arguments or hostilities that divide us?
Do we lock down, defend and maintain our blind spots,
our cherished prejudices/ entitlements?
Or, can we countenance that maybe,
time is up on some of our original and old certainties -
about each other, about the world, about God?

Is it possible for us, as people of faith, to see our present moment as Jesus sees it?
If, instead of hostility, we named the qualities we wanted to bless,
would we rediscover people as people –
more beautifully real than the labels we too easily place upon them?

I do not know exactly what that path looks like, or where it leads.
In honesty, it looks and feels frightening.
But it is the path, the way that promises greater things than these.
Traffic of angels, heaven breaking into earth
and Christ central to it all – cradle to cross, cross and beyond.

Can we explain it? Not really.
All we can do is come and see. Many good things can come out of Nazareth.

Sermon 24th January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 24th JANUARY 2021, 11am, 3rd SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him. Mark 1:17-18

Along a shoreline, by sighing shallows, glittering in the morning sun,
a small group of men sit together.
Weathered faces, callused hands, weaving the intricate patterns of their ancient craft,
handed down the generations, mending, for tomorrow’s labour.
Work and conversation woven together – a joke, a curse, an old story,
a spit upon the politics of the day – Rome’s continuing iron fist.
Regulating their lives - Caesar “owning” their waters and taxing their catch.
And a puppet king, who had just arrested the people’s prophet, John.
(That was sure to end badly.)

Then suddenly, on their shoreline, across that small stretch of water,
words that would change their lives.
“Friends, what are you waiting for?
Leave what you are doing – there are other nets for mending.
Come, be fishers of men.”

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.”
Mark’s version of events offers a heady cocktail of urgency and spontaneity.
“Jesus came!”
And his words, “Follow me” elicit a response, “immediately.”
There is no suggestion of previous encounter or careful consideration of character.
Mark treasures the mystery and immediacy of their response.
The invitation to follow; the RSVP, by return of post, without delay.

It is dramatic – maybe speaks to our desire for the big screen, movie moment;
the single, certain, moment of clarity/destiny.
Cards on the table, colours to the mast:
This is where I stand, – I can do no other.
Enticing, enviable? Rip off the apron, switch off the computer,
leave behind the weight of familial or professional responsibilities – all for Jesus!
Become an action hero.
Some do and have done so. History has its examples.

But for others, maybe us (?), the very drama of the tale is off-putting,
leaving us with a sense of inadequacy/disappointment at ourselves.
We try to be faithful, but we are not disciple warriors like these founding fathers.
We never made that big, seismic decision
to boldly go where no disciple had gone before…

We are left with the question:
Can we be genuine followers, without the dramatic?
Can we be genuine followers, if in one sense we never really leave home?
Well, consider the reading again and listen to its sound –
is there a familiar rhythm or melody?

Language that Mark uses:
To the leper, “Be made clean”– and immediately he was clean. (Mark 1:41)
To the paralysed man, “Stand up, take your mat and go home”
and the man stood up and immediately took his mat and went home. (Mark 2:11)
To the blind man, “Go, your faith has made you well”
and immediately he regained his sight. (Mark 10:52)
To the fisher boys: “Follow me” - and immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As the American, Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor observes:
The lakeside call of Andrew, Peter, James and John
is not a hero story, but a miracle story.
Not so much about disciples, as about God.
Not so much about what they were leaving behind,
as what they were entering into.

When the fab four give their immediate, wholehearted yes,
it might make our hearts sink – I could never do that.
They are the saints - a different breed.
But - they are exactly the same people who will doubt, deny and abandon Jesus
in the chapters to come.
Again, this is not so much a story about us and our would-be worthiness;
(our own will/willingness will only get us so far.)
It is about God.
As Jesus said: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”
Ultimately, it is God who enables us, and others, to follow.

Where might that summons lead, what form might following take?
“Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” is such a familiar phrase,
that we tend to think there is only one model, and only one priority.
True discipleship is leaving behind and heading off into the sunset
for a lifetime of catching others.
Consciously or not, I think that model, if allowed to be monopolistic,
leaves us anxious and miserable –
a guarantee of un-attracting the very ones we would like to reach out to.

Remember, when Jesus said, leave your nets, follow me,
he was addressing fishermen.
“Come and become fishers of people” is language
that spoke to that particular time and place.
They knew water and the fragile, sometimes dangerous work of harvesting the depths.
While that encounter is wonderfully vivid and holds a special gospel place,
let us imagine what other invitations Jesus might have, still might voice:

To the engineer/architect/council planner/the Night Shelter volunteer:
“Follow me, house/shelter my people.”
To the artist, poet or writer:
“Follow me, recognise and reveal the colours of the kingdom.”
To the home-bound, by choice or circumstance – parent, carer or shielding one:
“Follow me, raise and nurture, watch over and pray for my loved ones.”
To the dancer and athlete:
“Follow me and let your God-given bodies do the talking.”
To the farmer and the chef:
“Follow me and feed my sheep.”
To the physician/the Relate counsellor/the church friend, the good neighbour:
“Follow me, offer time, attention and respect – the balm of your listening.”

Jesus promises abundant life
and one sure way that God speaks to us
is through the things that most give us life.
That is the gospel’s most convincing pathway.
We are not called to catch, by trapping or bullying others to our point of view.
It is God who captures the imagination.
Our call is to reflect in the water/flow of our lives,
the beauty of who Christ is. The rest is up to God. (Debie Thomas)

Our shorelines, our stretches of water – each different.
But, the calling voice, just the same:
“Follow me…” God is a beckoning word.
Geographies and roles to which we are summoned,
Endless, age-inclusive, evolving over a lifetime;
Perhaps requiring passports;
alternatively, an enduring stability - loyalty to a particular place or people.
But the promise: It is God’s call, and particularly in these testing times,
it is God who enables us to follow.

“Follow me and I will make you…”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Sermon 31st January 2021

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 31st JANUARY 2021, 4th AFTER EPIPHANY

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority,
and not as the scribes.” Mark 1:21-22

Amazement is our theme today: so, a writer this week asked the question:
When were you last brought to your knees by a sacred moment?
(Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

This week: A photographer came to St Columba’s.
In conversation, she described a recent visit to St James’ Park:
She spoke of a lady bending down, talking to a swan;
a grandfather and grandchild, covered in pigeons and parakeets, while feeding the birds.
“Perhaps it was the novelty of being out and about –
but everything was so…real, so amazing.”

Echo of the poet’s lines, which we prayed:
All my life: The bride married to amazement;
the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms;
Not simply visiting the world. (Mary Oliver, When Death Comes)

Other voices this week from our church family, inadvertently drawing attention to the sacred moments around us – sometimes, easily overlooked:
“…looking out the window to marvel at the gently falling snow
admiring the wondrous beauty of the silent woods around us.”
Nursery teacher grateful for her “small people”:
“They’re a complete joy, and I can forget all about the virus for a few hours each morning.
It’s lovely to be in a 3-year-old bubble!”

Yet acutely conscious of many who find these days hard:
Experiencing a “soggy shapelessness” – difficult to know what day it is –
alternatively, frantic hecticness – shared, by report, by home-schooling royals.
There are surely moments for everyone feeling weary, anxious, dejected or bored;
too worried about the future to live attentively to the present.
“I’m not in the best of moods – I’m just so fed up of this.”

The gospel read today recognises/admits the captivity of being overwhelmed
while offering the release of amazement.
It is actually a story of the collision between the two;
that which gives life its flight of freedom
and that which chains it to the ground.

Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum.
[You can visit its likely site today, close to the Sea of Galilee.]
He teaches. Mark does not elaborate what was said.
He speaks differently to what they are used to.
With authority.
They are astounded.

Into the assembly stumbles a ravaged and disconcerting presence.
The man with the unclean spirit.
Scholars might debate the nature of the man’s affliction,
but the power over him/the cruelty of his situation, is easily imagined.
No voice of his own, no control over his body,
Anonymous, crazed and shunned.

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Then the unclean spirit’s haunting question –
a mix of fear, animosity and despair:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?”
Jesus rebukes/commands: “Be silent and come out of him!”

A battle is played out; the convulsions are messy and scary –
I can only imagine there were people there who felt ill at ease,
embarrassed by such goings-on.
But one power is overcome by another.
Once more, amazement – such command, such authority,
What is its origin? Who is this Jesus?
The speculations mount up; his fame increases.

Out of that encounter another searchlight question:
“Jesus, what have you to do with us?”

In a couple of weeks, the subject of our Zoom Coffee Morning will be icons.
Pictures, largely from the orthodox Christian tradition, of scriptural figures or later saints,
and used as vehicles for prayer.
Visual meditations that draw the pray-er inwards.

I was shown a painting this week created in time of pandemic.
This contemporary picture bears the title: Icons for our Epoch
It perhaps comes as little surprise, that it depicts masked medical and key workers.

Our headlines are laden with vaccines –
be it vaccine approval or availability, vaccine hesitancy or vaccine hoarding.
Like the gospel, the topic seesaws between delighting and depressing.
But words that have resonated this week are the observation:
“None of us are safe until all of us are safe.”

This week also marked Holocaust Memorial Day.
The day marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz,
the Nazi concentration camp, where over one million Jews perished,
part of the six million Jews, slaughtered by the Nazis;
(among them the Church of Scotland worker, Jane Haining,
of whom we heard in October’s Caledonian Lecture.)
The day, with its invitation to light an evening candle
as a conscious reminder of that inconceivable inhumanity –
And of more recent genocides – Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur.
Seventy-six years on, the survivors grow fewer and fewer –
yet their frail voices carry a terrible authority, because they were there.

There are the well-known words of the German pastor, Martin Niemoeller,
who protested Hitler's anti-Semitic measures, was eventually arrested,
and then imprisoned for eight years at Sachsenhausen and Dachau (1937–1945).

First they came for the Communists,
- but I was not a communist, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
- but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews,
- but I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out for me.

When, from the lips of the tormented soul in the synagogue,
we hear an accusatory, agonised:
“What have you to do with us Jesus?”
Can we imagine Jesus’ answer?
“Everything. I have everything to do with you.”
And can we respond to such an answer?
Make it real in our own daily living – our service, our sharing, our sacrifice?

We started with a photographer in a London park;
Let me finish with a vicar in a London park.
One more sacred moment from the week:
Revd Lucy Winkett, vicar of St James’ Piccadilly,
described this week taking a walk in a park,
the day after our brief London snow.
She passed the mostly melted remains of various snowmen/women.

On one, the twig that had served as the snowperson’s mouth, remained in place.
She saw the twig, taken from a fallen park branch, as a smile.
She carried it away with her – retaining it like a medieval relic;
a reminder, in her words, of the Christ life –
haunted by grief and shot through with miracle.
The carried twig – a sign of creativity,
“connecting me with people who imagined it as something else entirely.
… a sign of resilience, faith, solidarity and hope.” (T4tD, Radio 4, Jan 2021)

May the sacred moments of life continue to amaze us. Amen.

Sermons - December 2020

Sermon 6th December 2020, 2nd Advent

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 6th DECEMBER 2020, 2nd ADVENT

“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:4-5

Out of the bleakness, the forgottenness of a defeated people
rises the voice of the anonymous prophet (“Second Isaiah.”)
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…
Words from - and for - the worst of times.
Jerusalem lies in ruins. Babylon is the super-power.
Following deportation in 587 BCE, the children of Israel are in exile there.
Far from home, many must believe God has abandoned them:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.

From the Latin cum fortis, “with strength.”
Comfort, O comfort my people -
To the exile, the weary, the despairing,
to the fearful, the dying and the bereaved - Comfort.

Then: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 

The wilderness - where Moses encountered God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-3).
where the Israelites journeyed forty years after their Egyptian exodus,
where gospel writer, Mark will place first John the Baptist
and then Jesus’ temptations,
his place of retreat and the feeding of five thousand.
Wilderness, place of truth – sometimes harsh –
place of discovery and perspective. - reality check:

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
…The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Reality checks about our own mortality – about our own sinfulness –
are medicines we are reluctant to swallow –
but both prophets, Isaiah and John, prescribe them – for our health.
Similarly, the wilderness isn’t a destination we choose,
but many will know something of it –
from illness, our own or others, from hardship,
redundancy or divorce, by bereavements of many kinds.
The British artist, Tracy Emin,
in advance of her new show at London’s, Royal Academy,
spoke of the harrowing experience of facing death.
Diagnosed with a virulent cancer this year,
she has had major surgery, is now described as “miracle woman”
and talks about her overwhelming sense of relief.

“To know that I could have been dead this Christmas.
People could have been coming to this exhibition and I was dead.
People would have said: “That’s so Tracy!”

“I feel like I’ve been forgiven, or like a big giant curse has been lifted off me.
I feel like this is the real true beginning.”
[Born again?]

New perspective, on our own lives, or the lives of others:
This week, the Moderator of the General Assembly, Rev Dr Martin Fair,
speaking about his parish church’s work with drug addicts,
described a young woman addicted to heroin.
The chaos of her life emerged from a desperate tale
of sexual abuse over a number of years by a family member.
Dr Fair, examining our tendency to judge, asked,:
Who couldn’t say we, would make some of the same choices,
if we had been born into those circumstances?
Memorably, his words: “No primary school child sets out to be a heroin addict.” 

If the Moderator’s example is the micro,
this week too. the bigger picture/the macro
from Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer:
Delivering the uncomfortable verdict that the UK has suffered a much-increased death rate, during the current pandemic, due to poor public health –
in large part, due to health inequalities.

The week passed, included World Aids Day, December 1st.
In a year that has made us aware of what a virus can do,
Christian Aid reminds us since the late 1980s
another virus has caused over 33 million deaths worldwide
and today over 38 million people are infected by HIV.

“Like Covid-19, HIV does not discriminate according to economic status,
ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation or status.
But both have a direct disproportionate effect on people of colour,
the poor and the vulnerable in communities.
This is directly linked to unequal social structures that result in poverty,
lack of access to treatment and often unfair laws and policies
which in turn lead to stigma and discrimination.”

Thirty years on from the beginning of the HIV pandemic
The world can celebrate that 25 million people are receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART),
which allows them to live long, healthy lives and with no risk of transmitting HIV to others.
But there are still 13 million people around the world, including 1.8 million children,
who do not have access to these vital drugs.
The vast majority of the people affected live in low and middle-income countries.
Access to HIV treatment is key in the global effort to end AIDS as a public health threat,
but this year, with all efforts turned to Covid-19,
it is predicted that the fight to end HIV and AIDS has been set back 10 years.

“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;”
“No one standing on a mountaintop wants the mountain to be flattened.”
Where is God levelling the ground we stand on?
Can we participate in God’s dream of a reimagined landscape,
“where the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together.”

A Thought for the Day broadcaster asked this week (Chine McDonald)
“What lessons have 2020 taught us?
Which lives matter; the importance of connectedness to community;
an appreciation of nature; a spotlight on UK poverty;
the importance of key workers; a reassessment of work/life balance. 

This Advent, at the end of a very trying year, we hear the prophet declare,
‘The word of our God will stand forever.’
See, the Lord God comes…He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Out of despair, hope. 

Isaiah’s passage ends upbeat and surprising.
For those who are being comforted
are actually called to become messengers too!
“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

Those who are comforted, called to comfort others.
Those who receive comfort, pass it on.
Give and receive; receive and give. Mutual dependence.
(Not necessarily in the same boat, but in the same storm.)

Tracy Emin discovered: “When you come face to face with your own mortality,
and then in a sense, get a reprieve,
you never take anything for granted again,
you will try to do your best in life.”…
Her perspective: “We’re on the cusp of something and there’s no messing around.”

As we wait for new heavens and a new earth,
let the spirit level the way,
and lay the foundations, where righteousness is at home (II Peter:3:13)

Sermon 13th December 2020, 3rd Advent

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 13th DECEMBER 2020, 3rd ADVENT

The priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem asked John:
“Who are you?” What do you say about yourself?” John 1:1-2

“Seven of us, in two rooms. Polygraph House, near Euston –
Railway company accommodation.
You needed to be employed by the company to stay in the accommodation.
When Dad stopped working for the company, Mum changed jobs
and started as a cleaner at the Railway Head Quarters,
in order to keep a roof over our heads.
We shared a bathroom with two other families in the block.
Saturday’s were bath night - hot water carried upstairs into a tin bath –
all of us children in, one after the other, neighbour’s children too.”
Reminiscences shared this week, at a north London crematorium.
“It was a great place to live. There were always parties,
Mum the first one up to dance.
And singalongs; her favourites, Matt Munro or “I belong to Glasgow.”
We were poor, but we were rich.”

“Who are you?” What do you say about yourself?”
If you guessed/detected that the deceased was a Scot, you would be correct.
Tuesday’s funeral, part of a pattern at St Columba’s (& St Andrew’s, Newcastle.)
A Scot, decades before, leaves his/her homeland, makes a life south of the border.
No discernible church connection, but at death,
the funeral director rings up: “The family have asked for a Scottish minister.”
At the last, a lifetime after leaving the country of birth,
the request, that either for the deceased, or the next of kin, seems important.
Another London crematorium:
“Dad may have roamed far and wide – but he belonged to Scotland.”

Not just Scots of course.
Consider the double burial of the composer Chopin.
His body buried in Paris, with a container of Polish soil he had kept for years,
sprinkled over his coffin. His heart brought back to his native Poland, in a jar of cognac
and enshrined in the pillar of a Warsaw church. (the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.)
As the poet says about exiles: The places we love, we never leave.

In a recent episode of Radio 4’s, “Something Understood” – its theme:
“Finding your voice in a foreign land” a Serbian author, with immaculate spoken English spoke about moving to the UK and living in the capital; her observation:
“Like many Londoners, we are from somewhere else.”
Questions of identity: “Who are you?” What do you say about yourself?”
Identities – partial or ultimate?
Yesterday, we had a winter wedding at St Columba’s.
The aisle lit by candles; the pew ends decked with mistletoe.
A bishop too; Jamaican-born, Bishop Rose Hudson-Willkin,
the Church of England’s first black, female bishop.
(Former Chaplain to the Houses of Parliament.)

She was great – her sermon began by asking members of the congregation
what their favourite love songs were – and I mean, really asking.
Then when an example was given – she sang the opening lines.
(I definitely have to up my game, come the next wedding!)
She was very warm; strong and direct too.

For the service she was resplendent in her episcopal robes.
Full white cape, trimmed with what looked like a red tartan;
including the bottom rim of her mitre (bishop’s hat.)
After service I asked her: “Do your robes have a particular significance?”

“Yes, they do actually. The tartan is made out of calico.
Historically, calico was the cheapest material available in Jamaica.
It was the material of the slaves.
And the tartan – well, there were Scots in Jamaica – slave owners.
So, I wanted my robes to remind me of some of those things.”

A reminder that no nation, no nationality, however proud,
will emerge unscathed, “scot-free” if one looks honestly, or fully at its history.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Equality and Diversity Forum
commissioned new pieces of traditional music
to acknowledge Glasgow’s role in the slave trade of the late 1700s.
(The new music was performed and recorded during Black History Month (October) 2017.)
One of the works, by Bernadette Kellermann is called, “Unsettled”,
a title that worked at various levels –
millions transported from their homelands – unsettled
others/perhaps us (?), reluctant to dwell overly on difficult truths – unsettled.

“Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
are large questions, asking us to interrogate what we hold dear,
what we trust, what we love - and why. (Debie Thomas)
They are the questions addressed to the kinsman of Jesus, John the Baptist.

John’s Gospel treats John the Baptist differently to Matthew, Mark and Luke.
In the Fourth Gospel, the author does not describe John’s ministry or message.
It is not directly state that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
John’s work is downplayed; Jesus’ is elevated.
[Some scholars suspect that John (the gospel writer) is writing
against followers of John the Baptist who were still preaching “their man”
seventy years after his death.]
Maybe: but lies in words given to John: (John 3: 30, cf 1: 8-9).
“He (Christ) must become greater; I must become less.”

Despite the crowds that flock to him, John doesn’t claim an identity
that doesn’t belong to him. He is messenger, not messiah.
Defining himself as a “voice in the wilderness,”
He declares: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Quoting the prophet Isaiah 40:3 – (familiar from our reading last week.)
Words emerging out of the time of exile and captivity
for the children of Israel, in Babylon;
clarion call that begins, Comfort O comfort my people.
All four gospel writers make the connection: Isaiah to John – John to Jesus – Jesus to us?
Something wonderful is on its way.
Aware of his limitations; “I baptise with water” (John says)
“Among you stands one whom you do not know,
the one who is coming after me;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

This stirring up, this promise of change, is what attracts the crowds,
and in their wake, the religious authorities, with their questions;
just as later, they would question Jesus.
“Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”

Part of the DNA of John’s gospel are seven great I AM sayings of Jesus:
I am the Good Shepherd, I am the True Vine, the Living Bread…
In contrast, John delivers the I AM NOT – Elijah, the prophet, the Messiah.
Insistent: This is not about me. Look beyond me. There lies the key.
John is the witness – not the light;
But testifying to the light,
that others, might find the light.

John’s making space for Jesus is not a denial of John's gifts and abilities.
It is difficult to envisage anyone more invested/committed
to giving everything he has to give, to what he believes.
Of course, to follow/to attempt to follow the Christian life
may very well include certain sacrifices – that is the nature of love –
but it also surely means living out, as fully as possible,
the gifts, the opportunities, the passions which have been God-given –
in the arts or the sciences, in the professions or in the neighbourhood –
homemaker or volunteer, public voice or parent.
Summoning our best; giving our best – always aware of Christ –
our companion and compass, our light and guide.

John looked back, referencing/echoing the mighty vision of Isaiah,
whose wondrous cadences we heard this morning:
“Good news to the oppressed, bandaging the broken-hearted,
liberty to the captives, and release to imprisoned;”
for those who have loved and lost;
“a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
repair the ruined cities, raise up the former devastations.

Knowing something of former devastations,
Desmond Tutu wrote about both community and witness
(Crying in the Wilderness; 1990, pp 6-7)
“In the early church people were not so much attracted by the preaching,
but by the fact that they saw Christians as a community,
living a new life as if what God had done was important,
and had made a difference.
… … whether poor or rich, male or female, free or slave, young or old –
all quite unbelievably loved and cared for each other.
It was the lifestyle of the Christians that was witnessing.”

Who do you/who do we say we are?
Approaching our hundredth year, (in our congregation today)
or on our baptismal day (Charlie – in our congregation today),
by the grace of God, may part of that answer be:
we are witnesses, a community of witnesses
to Christ, the light coming into the world.

Sermon 20th December 2020, 4th Advent

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 20th DECEMBER 2020, 4th ADVENT
SERVICE OF LESSONS & CAROLS: REFLECTION

Last Sunday we were enlivened by the presence downstairs of our young people –
some Christmas craft, some catch-up with church friends, not met with for months
and some singing. The evidence is joyfully available on our website. (Check it out.)

In normal times, we would be deep in Nativity play territory – school or church:
parents and child, angels and shepherds, livestock, and travellers from the East.
Each of us, could roll an internal, highlight reel.
Memories - from childhood – our own, or offspring.
Moments of wonder and high comedy;
moments of beauty and, sometimes, precious sentimentality.

These pageants, beautiful of their kind,
nourishing to the spirit, particularly perhaps, as the years go by –
are in the DNA of our celebrations –
but do they do justice to the real protagonists
in a production we might call The (Real) Crown?
In particular – on this fourth Sunday of Advent (last before Christmas) –
do they capture the spirit of Mary, mother of Jesus – traditionally the focus this Sunday?

The most famous woman in the Bible; yet in most Christmas nativities –
Mary barely gets a line.
Protestants, Presbyterians, have traditionally been wary of too much Mary.
[“We may not know much about Mary,
but we know we do not have anything to do with her.”
Beverley Gaventa, New Testament Professor, Baylor University, Presbyterian elder.]

According to Luke, however, she has a whole lot more to say.
Like her kinswoman, Elizabeth, she says yes.
Their positive responses to impending new birth are intertwined.
Elizabeth, way beyond the child-bearing age; Mary youthful and unmarried.
Renowned, for the visit of the angel Gabriel,
breaking news of a child to be born, conception of the Holy Spirit,
we tend to think of Mary as submissive.
Artists depict the moment of her yes, with beauty and tranquillity:
“Let it be, according to thy word.”

But consider more of what we know. In original language, her name is Miriam/Mariam.
Popular C1st, Jewish name – not because it was the mother of Jesus,
but because it was the sister of Moses –
whose quick-wittedness saved her baby brother among the bulrushes;
who banged a tambourine and sang a victory song,
when the Israelites arrived on the safe side of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21);
capable of questioning Moses’ authority; joining her brother Aaron to ask:
“Has the Lord spoken, only through Moses?
Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2)
Mariam is a name with a history; a character that is more than just a yes-woman.
Our Mary/Mariam is also more than, one-dimensional.
Following his intentional disappearance in Jerusalem, aged twelve,
at the time of festival: discovered in the Temple:
“Child, why have you treated us like this?
Look your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
“Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”
Care for the grown man, who is too busy to care for himself.
And a stand-off at a wedding in Cana: “Jesus, they have no wine.”
She will love Jesus, but she will not be frightened of him.

Back at the start of things, news of her pregnancy having landed,
Mary visits/runs away to (?) her also pregnant cousin, Elizabeth,
mother-to-be, of John the Baptist.
At the encounter of the two women, Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb –
a kick of approval from the one-day prophet in the wilderness.
“Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb” declares Elizabeth/Elisheva.
“That’s when prophet Mariam, lets rip,
on the far side of her own Red Sea.” (B Brown Taylor)

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
… he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Famed, for saying yes, Mariam also defiantly says, no.
No, to all that negates the life of the world, and its people.
No, to the pride that divides nations and populations into us and them;
No, to an inequality that leaves the few bored with excess,
while the many scrape to get by.
[The presence and need for charities, such as Borderline,
reminder of current and continuing realities.]
No, to indifference;
no, to that’s just the way it is, the way it has always been.
Mariam’s Magnificat – her freedom song - calls us to care;
to play our roles, however small,
in the ongoing Nativity play of the kingdom of God.

What would it take for us to take seriously Mariam’s words:
“All generations will call me blessed.”
American, Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor once preached that she has a dream:
The Dream: To get the Magnificat into the Nativity play
And to seal its presence by giving Mariam-Mary a tambourine!
Then, perhaps, we wouldn’t overlook or over-romanticise her, confine her to a corner.
And maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t be surprised,
that her child, raised on the lullaby of her special song,
would make that song his own.
Scattering the proud, raising the downtrodden;
breaking convention, bearing insult, shifting the status quo;
declaring yes to life and no to all that oppresses it.
His mother’s child –subversive to the world and submissive to God.

Sermon 24th December 2020, Watchnight Service

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
WATCHNIGHT SERVICE 24 DEC 2020, 6pm

A gentle, smile-inducing contemporary poem,
combines Palestine and pandemics -
shepherds, angels, regulations and royalty:

Up on the midnight hill
in the sharp watching weather,
the music was a shock –
lovely, of course, but all the same,
frightening – though the flock
just lay spellbound, quite still
when the angel came.
Don’t be scared, he told us, just go
then – Wait a minute. Should you be
here all together?
I said, We’re in a bubble. We
live and work up here. What about you?
He looked offended. We’re angels, you know.
The rules are different. I’m sent
to tell you of the Holy Birth!

And so to Bethlehem we went:
stood at the stable door, looked through
at the Family, mother and child –
the Saviour of the earth!
– and Joseph, too. The Lady smiled.
Then social distance was no more a thing,
for we had knelt before the infant King.
(Quoted from Blog on the Learig website, Dec 2020)

In this year of social distance, how close do we approach the child born tonight?
If we took the knee at manger side, what would we behold?
In a new poem, Nativity, Scottish writer, Kenneth Steven,
sets the scene away from its accustomed Christmas card neatness.

When the miracle happened it was not
with bright light or fire –
but a farm door with the thick smell of sheep
and wind tugging at the shutters.

There was no sign the world had changed for ever
or that God had taken place;
just a child crying softly in a corner,
and the door open, for those who came to find.
Nativity, Kenneth Steven

Perhaps, tonight, you hear in those words, an unintended cruelty –
promise of an open door – when our own sanctuary is locked on grounds of safety.
As church friends have told me this week –
closed doors have felt like a physical blow and left one, too sad to sing.
But, the fact that you have taken time and trouble to join this evening,
by telephone or internet, speaks of the desire within us, not to be defeated;
still to seek the stable’s open door.

And if we look, what are the signs that God has taken/is taking place?

I think of the interactive art installation set up by an Edinburgh church this Advent.
Hundreds of stretched bungee ropes,
attached to the outside of the church and expanding,
weaving their way outwards – floodlit in the evening.
Entitled Deeply Woven, it carries no formal explanation,
But its creators hope it will make people stop and think about connections
and counter feelings of isolation and disconnection exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions.

To find the signs of God taking place
God in our own worlds, this Christmas Eve,
we might examine our own deeply woven connections –
both what we hold dear, and what causes us pain.
God taking place, in the hurt of what we know we are missing,
the cherished rituals that give us meaning and warmth;
moments of isolation, loneliness or concern - for ourselves and others;
the desire to find the old normality,
the deep sense that things should be other than this.

But if we sense God in those shadowed things,
God is also taking place in things/plans/life adapted -
the myriad ways that something will be salvaged,
because a neighbour will deliver a spot of Christmas lunch,
or a phone call will be made, a gift will cheer or make one laugh.
God taking place, in the duties undertaken this night
by health professional, emergency or Armed Service,
charities and carers (professional and amateur.)
God taking place, in the epiphanies of what we truly cherish –
individuals, institutions – imperfect, but precious.

And for us, who choose to look in at that open door,
God taking place, in that child of Bethlehem;
Not just the child, but the man he would grow into.
Each of us gazing at the manger,
but seeing, being born to, the full meaning of Christ’s birth;
which is his birth, life, death and resurrection.

There was no sign the world had changed for ever or that God had taken place;
just a child crying softly in a corner, and the door open, for those who came to find.
In the words of the carol we will sing tomorrow:
He has opened heaven's door, and we are blest forevermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this! (Good Christian friends, rejoice)

Sermon 25th December 2020, Christmas Morning

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
CHRISTMAS MORNING, 11am
25th DECEMBER 2020

Under Tier 4 regulations, the Bethlehem Arms are shut;
shepherds are furloughed; Wise Men face a travel ban.
And Mary & Joseph?
Unable to take part in the New Parents webinar –
Because - no Zoom at the Inn.
Christmas 2020? Really?

In 1957 Theodor “Dr Seuss” Geisel wrote the children’s book – How the Grinch Stole Christmas:
A comic, rhyming critique of Christmas commercialisation;
a shout out, plea for the true meaning of Christmas.

The Whos inhabit the fictitious town of Whoville:
They love and celebrate Christmas with all the trimmings –
trees, lights, stockings, feasts and singing.
The Grinch hates Christmas:
“Don’t ask why – perhaps his heart was two sizes too small?”

One Christmas Eve he decides it is time to do something awful.
In the wee small hours, he slides into Whoville and steals Christmas
house to house, stuffing sacks with wrapped presents,
ransacking fridges and the feasts therein,
even stuffing decorated trees up and out the chimney.
Till the only thing left - a trail of crumbs from the snacks, laid out for Santa.

The thief retires to his hilltop lair, Mt Crumpit
and prepares to toss the whole lot into the abyss.
Momentarily he pauses – to listen for the wailing of the town
as they wake up to their loss.
Yet, he is bamboozled to hear the unexpected –
“But the sound wasn’t sad
Why, this sounded merry!
It couldn’t be so!
But it WAS merry! Very!

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

For the Grinch it is a moment of epiphany:
“It came without ribbons, it came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes, or bags.
Maybe Christmas (he thought) doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more.”

In this strange year that concluded for some with the chant, Stop the steal,
Is Christmas 2020 stolen?
Is Covid-19, our contemporary Grinch
constraining households, making us anxious and fearful;
church behind closed doors – all of which undeniably hurts.
Question: If the Grinch has visited us, broken-in; what, if anything, remains?
And do we still have a song to sing?

A church friend sent me this week, words from another faith tradition:
“A remote Christmas is not what anyone wanted.
As a Muslim, I’ve already gone through a remote Ramadan, and two remote Eids.
I know it’s tough.
Although nothing can compare to an in-person iftar or Eid,
(where you feel united with friends and strangers alike,)
doing it on Zoom has forced me to think about what really unites us –
a shared spiritual and emotional experience,
not just a shared carpet. (Adeem Younis is founder and trustee of Penny Appeal)

[Part of a prayer written by Christian Aid Scotland]
Even if we cannot gather in person: Emmanuel, God with us
Even if some Christmas traditions have had to go: Emmanuel, God with us
Even if we might not get to hug family and friends
Even if we cannot sing carols beside each other
Even if Christmas cheer is harder this year
Emmanuel, God with us

As Christians, Christmas is neither cancelled/nor stolen.
On the contrary; stepping away from some of the familiar stuff
may open the door to a deeper appreciation of what/why we celebrate.
Yes, the pandemic has definitely stolen some of the Christmas tinsel -
rituals, gatherings, loved ones - with their attendant blessings.
But it has not/cannot, steal Christ.
For the things we have lost awhile, are only pointers –
road signs to a deeper hope and more enduring love.
God with us, forever – in shadow, and in glory.

If we acknowledge what we miss, maybe we discover what we value.
A Grinch-like epiphany of what really counts:
Health. Friendship. The recovery of others. Love, truth, beauty.
Seldom the things that can be bought or sold.

Christmas is not stolen – because you can’t steal the birth of Jesus
or the meaning of his life, death and resurrection.
Bethlehem is just the opening chapter for the story-teller,
who would one day, speak of his loving father, his Abba coming, as a thief in the night;
and would finally meet his own death, in the company of two thieves.

Because we hold precious that whole life,
Christmas is, and always will be our un-stolen treasure. Thanks be to God.

Sermon 27th December 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 27th DECEMBER 2020, 11am

Two parents, brimful of the birth of their first born,
thread their way through the alleys of Jerusalem,
headed for the Temple, as custom demands.

They cannot help but be over-awed.
The Temple’s main concourse, some eight city-blocks long,
its peak, taller than a Gothic Cathedral, already forty years in the constructing.
Priests hurry past, pilgrims jabber in every language beneath the heavens,
stone masons clatter, merchants haggle,
doves scatter and settle amidst the colonnades.

Protectively, Joseph steers his child and its mother through the crowds,
innocent to the knowledge of what this high and sacred place
would come to mean to their tiny child.
A place that would haunt their lives –
both House of the Father, and den of thieves.

The rituals accomplished, (presentation of the first born, purification for the mother)
the new parents make a sacrificial offering –
two pigeons, “the offering of the poor.”
Reminder of their child’s unfancied origins.
Perhaps with relief, they turn to begin the journey home.

But before they can depart,
the seemingly unremarkable couple and child are recognised.
And though it is the grandest of stages,
something about what happens next is intensely private, almost unseen.
Amidst the shouting and bargaining, the psalm-singing and jostling,
a stranger approaches.

We think of Simeon as old, near death; the text does not specify –
only that he was righteous and devout,
eagerly awaiting the consolation of Israel.
A witness of integrity.
An old man perhaps, carrying a vast hope.

Without explanation he takes the child into his arms;
delivers his hymn of recognition, his prayer of prophecy:
Lord, now let your servant go peacefully.
For as you promised, my eyes have seen the salvation
that you have prepared before the nations;
a light for the Gentiles and for the glory of Israel.

Then, almost as soon as it started, the moment is over.
Simeon hands back the child to his parents,
their smiles caught somewhere between delight and confusion.

As the mother cradles her child,
Simeon sees something in her and in her baby –
an intuition, a chill unsummoned, but clear as day.
As yet, a long way off,
as yet but seeds in the palm of a tiny hand –
but a harvest to come, costly and bloody,
wounded hands and broken hearts.

So, the parents receive the stranger’s strange blessing:
This will be a remarkable child,
destined to make some fall and some rise.
His life will show people in their true colours.
Some will love him; others will hate.

Simeon perceives Jesus is the long expected one,
but also that he is not going to be, what was expected.
His salvation will not necessarily unite the nation, or humanity;
in his wake, division and discord,
because not everyone will be able to accept
the priorities his life demands, or the discomforts it entails.

Fall and rise of many.
We normally talk of the rise and fall of public/celebrity/sporting figures.
We build up, sometimes it seems, in order to enjoy their fall.
But the gospel speaks of fall and rise: echo of that other verse (?)
“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

And as for you Mary – your child’s life will touch yours,
like a dagger to the heart.
It is the first, unmistakeable shadow of the Cross,
echo of the Wise men’s third gift – myrrh, spice for burial.
It is an early hint of what this life will demand and cost.
It is a reminder that all our loves,
carry within them, seeds of joy and seeds of sorrow.
“All love comes with risk.”  The deeper the love,
the more painful its related hurts, more profound its eventual griefs,
but more enduring its joys.
A heart-shaped life offers no escape from this.
[Ask Mary, ask her son.]

Anna, a prophet who worships God 24/7, is also led by God to this baby.
She also sees God’s promises fulfilled,
and shares her excitement with others.
Her witness adds weight to Simeon’s words.
Her praise offered to God for the birth of the child
and his life to come, is her testimony.

The passage concludes with the family’s return home to Nazareth in Galilee.
They leave behind the formality and status of Jerusalem
for an area seen as distant,
but actually en route for much of the wider world.
Jesus’ upbringing is telescoped in the sentence,
“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favour of God was upon him.”

Often, we hear this story in early February:
the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
the festival of Candlemas.
‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’
Seen as a final farewell to Christmas, and a turning towards the cross.

Whenever we choose to tell it, however we choose to react to it,
it is a human story, set amid the realities of politics, religion, poverty and family.
It is the story of a baby being blessed, recognisable to all people –
meant, for all people.

[Coronavirus is limiting the contact new parents and babies can have with others –
those who can help or simply share blessings –
and is making celebrations and rituals for important life events harder.
So, we may hear the story with a mixture of joy and sadness.]

But, however we hear it, it is a reminder
of how all infants wield a kind of power,
and this child in particular.
As the Reformer, Martin Luther declared:
“God became small for us in Christ;
he showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won.”

Opening Hours

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

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

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