Sermons - August 2021
Sermon 1st August 2021
Sermon 8th August 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 8th AUGUST 2021, 11am
St. John 6: 35, 41 – 51
It’s a great privilege to preaching on this Sunday when we celebrate three baptisms and welcome three new members into the family of the church. I still have gifts given to me at my baptism … a few years ago… a silver “Christening Mug” from my grandfather and a silver knife, fork and spoon from my Godmother, silver being a traditional christening or baptismal gift in Scotland. But of course the greatest gift is given by the parents who have chosen to bring their children for baptism for as we heard earlier in the service “In this sacrament, the love of God is offered to each one of us. Though we cannot understand or explain it, we are called to accept that love with the openness and trust of child.
When Jesus was on earth, some people realised what a huge and wonderful gift God had given them. But others were antagonistic and hostile, and in effect threw the gift back in God’s face.
It started in Nazareth, Jesus’ home town. There were all sorts of murmurings against Jesus and he was discounted because of his family ties. “Isn’t this the guy we grew up with? So how can he be anything special? Get him out of here!”. So Jesus was unable to perform many miracles at home in Nazareth because of the attitude of those who knew him so well, or so they thought.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we can see the discontent spreading. At this point Jesus is far to the south of Nazareth, near Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He’d just taken the five loaves and two fish, blessed and broken them and distributed them to the hungry crowds. And in the end, from that meagre gift 5000 people had eaten their fill. Now Jesus was using that incident to illustrate some theological teaching.
Manna was the bread sent down from heaven by God when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness approximately 1500 years earlier. This was at the time of the Exodus when Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt towards the promised land. Some of that precious manna was believed to have been hidden by the prophet Jeremiah and it was expected to reappear miraculously at Passover, in the last days (2 Maccabees 2: 5 – 80).
Jesus began to tie this idea of the hidden manna to himself. “I am the bread of life”, he said. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v.35). In other words, “I am the manna sent by God to nourish his people today”.
Some people simply didn’t know what to do with such a gift. Exactly the same complaints as were heard in Nazareth were voiced again. “Who is this guy?” they muttered to one another. “He’s the village carpenter from Nazareth. We know his parents, old Joseph and Mary. How can he possibly claim to have come down from heaven?! ...”
Jesus comes out and speaks in public as plainly as John ever records in his Gospel: he is the bread of life and coming to him will ensure that no-one hungers or thirsts on the journey of following him in the world. But such plain speaking is also off-putting , and the crowds complain against him – just as did their ancestors in the desert. They claim to know who Jesus is, he is not the bread of heaven, he is Joseph’s son, a boy whose mother and father they know … so he can’t be anyone special.
How quick we are to judge a person’s value by where they come from or what they do. Of course, if the crowd really knew their history, they would have known that it was full of people snatched from obscurity, from ordinary lives, and given life-changing and live -giving roles in the story of salvation, for example Moses, Ruth and David as well as many other significant figures in the Old Testament.
But the crowd seemed to forget that and so the gift was no use to them. They couldn’t see it’s value, and they didn’t want to know. And all this strange talk about eating flesh would, perhaps understandably, be abhorrent to orthodox Jews.
Jesus was being discounted because of his family ties. Although we are told that he honoured Mary and Joseph, we also know that his identity, though shaped by them, was not determined by them. It was his identity as the son of his heavenly Father, that provided his security, “… the one who is from God; he has seen the Father” (v. 46).
To those of us who hear the words “This is the body of Christ” every time we attend Communion, there’s nothing unusual at all. But those who’ve not been brought up with a church background those words can still be a barrier even today. One meets people who can’t cope with Christianity because to them it smacks of cannibalism.
They’re unable to appreciate the gift and so they reject it, not realising that they’re rejecting the one thing they need above all else but Christ invites us to believe or to trust him and to accept the gift he offers.
The bread and wine are signs of God’s love, blessed by God, so that whenever we take Holy Communion we receive Christ into the depths of our being. When parents bring their children for baptism it is the beginning of their Christian journey and we are looking forward to the day when the children will come of their own free will and participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper.
“Very truly, I tell you,” says Jesus, “whoever believes in me has eternal life” (v.47). The phrase translated “eternal life” also means “life with God”. All that is necessary for life with God here and now and in the future is to trust in the words of Jesus and receive him as the bread of life.
What a present, what a gift! What should we do with it? I would suggest accept it and take hold of it with both hands.
Sermon 15th August 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 15th AUGUST 2021
Ephesians 5: 15 – 20
For the last two years the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has met online, and I suspect that in the future more church meetings will be held on “Teams” or “Zoom”. I don’t think I’m contravening the Official Secrets Act when I say that the Committee on Chaplains to HM Forces which meets twice yearly in January and September have already decided that in future, we will hold our January meetings online. This is practical, after all not everyone would find it easy to travel to Edinburgh in the middle of winter, it is good for the budget and good for the planet. However, I hope that if the Covid situation permits the General Assembly will eventually return to something like its traditional format. Not everyone is tech savvy and some people who might find the courage to speak up in the Assembly would find it difficult to do so online and also, to be honest, I’m one of those strange people who actually enjoys the traditional ceremonial attached to the Assembly including the state trumpeters and worship in the assembly hall with unaccompanied psalm singing.
It has to be said that ministers also enjoy the Assembly because it gives us the opportunity to catch up with old friends, people from our college days, former parishioners, and others. I also enjoy meeting the delegates from churches overseas, however I suspect that at the end of the week some commissioners, ministers and elders are glad to get home and back to some normal, non-church conversation.
There can sometimes be something very stifling about spending time exclusively with other Christians. Christians are so often concerned to do the right thing and to act in the right way that they don’t always come across as being quite real. This may be true of followers of other faiths as well, but it might be less true of those who have no religious affiliation. I remember that when I applied to train for ministry and attended selection school, I told the psychiatrist who interviewed me that I needed my atheist friends to keep me sane.
This is a challenge for Christians. On the one hand, Jesus tells us to be real and deplores those whom he considers to be hypocrites, on the other hand Paul spends a lot of time telling us how we should behave. The instructions given in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians from which we read this morning sound like hard going and not at all fun, the sort of guidelines that the Victorians were fond of issuing especially to young men about to embark on adult life…
The verses from Ephesians 5: 15 – 20 which we have just read can sound very negative and devoid of fun. We’re told to very careful in our way of life. We must be wise and make the most of our time. We’re warned against alcohol and told instead to be filled with the spirit, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. And we’re told to spend the whole of our time giving thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For some this passage reinforces those images conjured up by Victorian hymn writers of life after death spent sitting singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and that does not appeal.
But as we know from watching television news or just opening a newspaper, there is an awful lot of evil in the world, and we certainly would not want to promote that evil. A well-known diet plan calls forbidden foods “Syns” which rather implies that sins are simply a treat, the occasional overindulgence of food or drink, rather reinforcing the message that sin is just a bit of fun to be enjoyed, rather than symptoms of a relationship gone wrong.
How do Christians strike the balance between being kill-joys, and indulging in horrible sins which militate against God and a genuine healthy spirituality? And how can Christians promote Christianity without being entirely negative and turning people against God by their obvious disapproval of what other people regard as enjoyment?
Jesus answered this question when he encouraged his followers not to put on airs and graces or to wear a Christian façade but to constantly work at being themselves. I’m reminded of Hymn 533 in CH4 “Will you come and follow me” by John Bell and the late Graham Maule; in v.4 we sing “Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?” Those of us, and I suspect that’s most of us, who have grown up trying to conform to what other people require of us often no longer know what we’re like deep inside, the person we hide. Then we’re startled when we do something seemingly out of character but actually, we’re all acting in character, but it’s a part of our character which hasn’t been very deeply probed.
And for Christians all of this is compounded because we know exactly how we ought to behave but wee are afraid that if we let go and embrace our inner selves, we will let down both God and the Christian faith we represent.
But this is one of the risks of the Christian life. We need to trust Jesus when he says that he loves us exactly as we are. We need to know that even when we feel embarrassed or ashamed of our behaviour, Jesus never feels that way about us. And we need to forgive ourselves for our faults, just as Jesus forgives us.
Once we’re able to face all that about ourselves, then we can cease to worry about what other people think about us and begin to become the people God calls us to be. And with that comes real freedom, freedom to behave as we wish, to have fun and to enjoy life.
The strait -laced disapproval disappears. The kill-joy attitude disappears. Christian joy and happiness engulf our being without us having to do anything about it. We find ourselves overflowing with Christian love.
We’ll be free to drink but we won’t fall into drunkenness or debauchery, we’ll be filled with the spirit. We’ll sing and make a melody to the Lord in our hearts, and we won’t be able to stop giving thanks to God for everything, through Jesus Christ.
And suddenly everything will fall into place. Suddenly we’ll discover that with Christ, we’re living not as Unwise people but as wise, making the most of our time, just as St. Paul said we should.
Sermon 22nd August 2021
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 22nd AUGUST 2021, 13th SUNDAY after PENTECOST
“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So, Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’
Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ John 6:
With the Tokyo Olympics recently concluded, and the Paralympics imminent,
what images spring, like a gymnast-vault, to your mind’s eye?
Skateboarding, the newest event,
or British diver, Tom Daley, knitting a cardigan poolside, in order to relax?
Yet, it is probably athletics that remains the classic image of any Games.
Which discipline/event is the most truly, representative Olympian?
The highest leap or the longest throw?
The explosive, 100 metre sprint, the world’s fastest?
Or is it the whippet-thin, grimacing, marathon runner
who completes the 26 miles in the ultimate test of endurance?
From such musings comes the wisdom, oft quoted/dispensed:
“Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Our congregation, in pew, or listening from afar,
may, or may not, have its Olympians,
but it certainly represents both those at start line
and those considerably further down the track.
We have a couple who will be married at St Columba’s this week
and we have a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary –
a wedding that also took place in this church.
We have someone who begins studies/training towards Church of Scotland ministry
next month and, as William wrote in this week’s e-newsletter,
this weekend marks the thirty first anniversary of his ordination.
In any regular weekly congregation, there are those cradling babies or chasing after toddlers – and there are grandparents, and indeed great grandparents,
who gaze and remember earlier times. The full range of life and its humanity.
If one asked the Olympian, or the golden couple or the experienced minister
What it has been like?
My guess is that they might report: It has been hard, but it has been worth it.
The sweeps of life – the marathon, not the sprint –
a skill or craft fashioned over many years,
a vocation or loyalty to a cause or community,
the parenting of a child, or any enduring relationship –
can bring immense richness to life, source for great gratitude,
but they come with a cost – they take, to coin a phrase – blood, sweat and tears.
It is in the honest recognition of blood, sweat and tears that resonate in today’s readings;
the metaphor of the full armour of God,
required for the struggle for faith, love and justice in an often hostile world.
And in the vignette of Jesus watching the departure of the crowds who once celebrated him,
leaving now, only the twelve. (Ephesians 6 and John 6.)
Why the evaporation of previous effervescence?
Jesus’ claim: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me,
and I in them. This is the difficult teaching.
The flesh talk is of course part of the bread talk.
If today’s gospel sounds familiar, it may be because the Revised Common Lectionary
serves up five weeks of bread, slice after slice, from John Chapter 6 (the Eucharistic discourse)
– today is loaf end.
It began with the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand –
a story that appears six times across the four gospels;
clearly, the event meant a lot to the early church.
For the author of John’s Gospel, this “sign” is a launch pad for a series of meditations
on Christ’s identity, via the metaphor of bread. “I am the bread of life.”
C21st Christians hear these words, and mostly likely think automatically of communion –
the bread broken at Last/Lord’s Supper.
But for the original listeners, Jesus’ words about bread come down from heaven
are all about Moses and the miraculous, life-sustaining manna in the wilderness –
that which kept the children of Israel alive, amid their forty-year, refugee plight.
To claim that Jesus himself was now new manna,
his bake, more potent than that which gave their ancestors not only life,
but their very sense of beloved chosenness –
was always likely to stick in the throat.
Even more so when he spells out:
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you.”
Graphic and shocking; drinking blood of any kind was forbidden,
never mind the idea of eating human flesh.
Jesus is not advocating cannibalism,
but his metaphor is making a claim about where life’s true richness and meaning is found.
It resides in his, the Christ-life.; this is the heart of the matter.
So, comes the point of decision.
Perhaps around a campfire, flickering light and shadow,
after a fractious day at the synagogue; a day of doubting voices and departing friends;
Jesus asks Peter; “Do you also wish to leave?”
“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
It is a beautiful moment of solidarity –
a band of brothers (and sisters), smaller now, but tighter.
“We’ve made our choice – some might say we’ve burnt our boats.
We are yours – because with you… how can we say?
With you we are alive, more alive than we thought possible.
We know now its not the easy way – your way.
But no other way will do. We follow.”
Peter’s words are not as emphatic as that other famous confession;
the question and answer at Caesarea Philippi:
“Who do you say that I am? “You are the Christ!”
But his lower key moment says something very precious about the experience of faith.
For the disciples there is a dawning realisation that to journey with Jesus
is to embrace risk and leave behind old certainties.
It will prove a bridge too far for some.
“Enough. I’m out.”
But on this occasion the Rock won’t budge, makes a choice – why?
Your words are life: some hungers can only be met in you.
Where else can we go?
Despite the difficulties, drawn to Jesus –
the choice, not to abandon, but to abide.
This week I was very happy to receive a slim volume entitled Memories of Iona.
Its author recalling seventy years of annual visits to that west coast Scottish island.
It recalls the fact that every time we cross the St Columba’s threshold
we pass the block of Iona marble quarried from the seashore of the isle
so closely associated with Columba.
Island locals may describe things differently,
but for many visitors Iona is a place of pilgrimage – a thin/spiritual place.
(In the poet’s phrase – where is no time, or more time.)
Pilgrimage is partly the seeking of an answer to the question: “Where else can we go?”
This week, it is difficult not to hear that question – “Where else can I go?”-
in the desperation of crowds round the airport at Kabul;
[or the search for safe passage across waters that divide nations
or in the picking through homes destroyed by fire, flood or earthquake.]
Can thoughts of serene Iona speak to that?
Well, as another minister reminded this week:
Iona is home to famous Celtic Crosses, outdoor witnesses to the Gospel,
marking places of communal worship,
from the arrival of Columba from Ireland in 563CE
But three centuries after Columba, the community was decimated by the Vikings.
In the late eighth century, the Vikings began a series of raids on the island.
In 806, 68 monks were slaughtered in Martyr’s Bay.
Eventually, the remaining monks left with the relics of St. Columba
and the beginnings of what became known as the ‘Book of Kells’, their illuminated Gospels.
Three centuries after that, the Benedictines came and founded the abbey.
Three centuries later, the Reformation decimated this.
Three and a half centuries later, the Iona Community rebuilt it.
Perhaps the history of Iona sheds some light on the realities of faith
and the perspectives of time.
The road of Christ is hard, he never promised it would be otherwise.
The choice to follow is not a one off – it is renewed in each generation,
and in each generation it is renewed each day, through the varying seasons of our lives.
At the ordination service of Allan Wright yesterday at St Andrew’s, Newcastle,
part of the speech given by the outgoing Moderator, Very Revd Dr Martin Fair
was shared in the sermon.
It was something of a rallying call to all who seek to follow Christ:
Based on the Nazareth Manifesto – Jesus’ reading from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue:
“good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind” –
The outgoing Moderator declared:
“Until the last food bank in Scotland is closed - because there is no longer any need –
We (the Church) have got work to do.
For as long as there are lost souls sleeping rough in shop doorways
or families in damp, substandard bread breakfast style accommodation –
there is work for us to do.
For as long as we continue to pollute our rivers, poison our air
and fill holes in the ground with our waste –
there is work for us to do.
Until every person in Scotland –
and in all those places where the Church of Scotland is present –
is treated according to who they are
and not by the colour of their skin and not by the place where they worship
and not by the language they speak – there is work for us to do.
For as long as people - predominately young women - are trafficked into Scotland
to work as sex slaves and in the off-the-books economy - there is work for us to do.
And for as long as women - of any age and from anywhere –
don’t feel safe walking home at night - there’s work for us to do.”
The list goes on. But you get the point….
Yes, the road is hard, its end far out of sight.
But the promise is there is no finer route to follow,
no better a collection of companions.
For ultimately it is the journey with Christ –
“Do you also want to go away?”
By the grace of God, may we find our answer:
“No, we choose to stay – for you have the words –
you are the Word – of eternal life.”