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Sermons - July 2024

Sermon 7th July 2024

SUNDAY 7th JULY 2024 11.00 a.m.
MORNING WORSHIP & BAPTISMS
(7th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST)

They said, ‘Where did this man get all this?
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary 
and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon,
and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 
Mark 6

Prompted by the presence of Rupert, on his baptismal Sunday,
Mindful of the symbolic walk, just undertaken down the aisle,
the smiling pews, the introduction to his new family of faith,
we might consider other infant encounters.

I think of my daughter at an early stage on London buses –
a smile from her, usually eliciting a return smile from a stranger.
Inevitably, sometimes, she would look, but the stranger would not look back.
She might try harder – but the mobile phone held a stronger lock.
At the time, as a parent, I would feel bad that the child had to learn that lesson –
not everybody will respond well to her.
Life /the world will get a whole lot more complicated.
But also, the feeling feel that the stranger had missed out;
too preoccupied for the benediction of a child’s curiosity or smile.
Smile or ignore, reciprocate or reject;
the actions or attitudes - the choices - within today’s Gospel.

Homecoming day in Nazareth; day to celebrate,
enjoy the reflected glory of a local hero.
Since Jesus began his travelling ministry things have gone rapidly,
rumours and reputation taking wing.
They have heard of the healings.
He has just raised the synagogue leader’s daughter from apparent death.
Surely, the force is with him.
Initially, all is well. On the Sabbath, in the synagogue of his youth,
people listen attentively and nod their heads in approval.
Nice words for a Nazarite – wise, profound, eloquent and true.

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

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

Which interrogates us:
What things of the sacred do we miss out on,
because we can only imagine, or will only accept,
that God can speak to us in preconceived,
well-worn patterns or personalities?

Retired Church of Scotland minister, Tom Gordon
described attending a service of worship,
where to be honest, he wasn’t expecting much.
I hadn’t been well and was still feeling out of sorts.
I knew that the worship would be OK, enough, at least, to “keep me going.”

A woman stepped to the front of the congregation.
“The second reading,” she said. 
Epistle, Gospel, I thought. Standard stuff. Heard it before. I wonder what version. Sigh … 
“is different from usual,” she continued. 
Interesting. I wonder … “… and we’ve chosen a contemporary lesson.
So, the reading is from The House at Pooh Corner, by A A Milne.”
“Now, I was all ears, fully attentive.
Halfway through, I had a tear in my eye.
It was so lovely, and different, and unexpected, and right,
and it ended with these words:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand.
“I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Tom Gordon concluded: “I don’t know why these words affected me so much.
But they did …. They opened up a new direction for my thoughts,
(which, quite possibly, a familiar Gospel or Epistle reading would have failed to do.)
Truth was revealed in a contemporary lesson.
The Word – God’s Word, if we wish to label it as such –
refused to be confined.

Tales of/from the unexpected?
Elsewhere, much has been written about Taylor Swift, pop mega-star,
and her current Eras concert tour, described by some as a spiritual experience.
Journalist, Sarah Carson: “Seeing Taylor Swift live,
feels like we are singing along to the soundtrack to our lives, not hers.”
Peter Millar, former Warden of Iona Abbey wrote recently
about the significance of figures such as Taylor Swift,
in understanding contemporary spirituality.
“I think it may be true to say that thousands of the young people
who follow her and are moved by her songs
would know very little about traditional faith whether Christian or other.
In Edinburgh, over three days, her singing touched the lives of 165,000 people
from diverse backgrounds.
Compare that with a recent study
indicating that the total membership of the National Church of Scotland was 66,000.”

“These numbers indicate not that God is absent from our world
but that there are many different ways of understanding transcendence.
There are many authentic mentors in our world
and young people like Taylor Swift are among them.
We may not be into pop music in any way
but what is necessary for us all in our times
is to have an exploratory heart and mind
when it comes to matters of faith and institutional religion.”
(Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916-2004), a teacher of meditation and of the traditions of Sufism):
The human spirit lives on creativity and dies in conformity and routine”.

Pooh, Piglet, Taylor Swift –
there may be some eye-brow rolling in the pews this morning –
but what voices do we sideline,
because they don’t fit our image of what God might be saying;
what unlikely candidates do we ignore as messengers of the Divine?

So, things didn’t go well on that day of homecoming;
Jesus responds in two ways.
Firstly, he is amazed at their unbelief.
Clearly, he expected different –
faith, commitment, dedication, sacrifice? He got none of these.
A reminder, not even Jesus can secure all the desired outcomes.
He experiences failure and defeat –
we have perhaps to conclude that may be/will be the lot of his disciples –
then and now.

But Jesus carries on regardless.
Rejection and disbelief in Nazareth don’t cancel/devalue the worth of the gospel.
There are other people in the surrounding villages.
Carrying his disappointment lightly,
equilibrium maintained, confidence unshaken,
He perseveres.
He does not demand ‘honour’, nor wait for it.
He moves on, healing and preaching.
And he commissions others to do the same.
Strangers at home; instead, let them be home among strangers.
He sends them in pairs; telling them to go humbly, as guests, not hosts.

One more unexpected/outside voice:
This week, in the space of a handful of days, this central space, at the heart of our sanctuary, has seen assembled school musicians, a baptism, a bride and groom
and a coffin.
Illustration of how, “All of life” is housed beneath a single broad roof.

Mortality, and our response to it,
was powerfully spoken about in a radio interview this week with Simon Boas.
An Aid Worker, part-time Samaritan, married man,
in September 2023, aged forty six, he was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer.
Over the following year, he knitted together his reflections on life into a book –
A Beginner's Guide to Dying.
The book is due for publication in October.
It will be a posthumous publication.

In response to the question: “How are you?”
Boas’ interview began: “My pain is under control and I'm terribly happy –
it sounds weird to say, but I'm as happy as I've ever been in my life.
The book is called A Beginner's Guide to Dying,
but really what I'm trying to convey
is how enjoying life to the full kind of prepares you for this.

In a week of big politics:
You don't need to have been a politician or a mover and shaker
or an aid worker or anything in life.
All of us make a huge difference.”

He quoted George Eliot's Middlemarch:
The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive:
for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts;
and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been,
is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life,
and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Boas reflected: “All our tombs will be unvisited in a few years –
all our actions will mostly be unremembered –
but the smile you gave the checkout lady
or the kind words you gave to a stranger in the street
could still be rippling forward.

(Perhaps the smile to an infant on a bus)
We all have that opportunity and it's a huge power.
And I want everyone to realise how special and precious they are.”

Sermons - June 2024

Sermon 9th June 2024

MORNING WORSHIP, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 9th JUNE 2024 11.00 a.m.
(ST COLUMBA’S DAY)

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

Groucho Marx famously gave us the line:
“I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member.”

Some decades ago, I attended a speculative job interview –
a prestigious company, with a long history, and wide-ranging business interests in Asia.
As the interview drew to a close, the company director asked:
“Do you have any questions?”
Summoning my most earnest eagerness, and looking him in the eye:
“Well, what sort of person is the company looking for?”
He paused, then after some consideration:
“Um, someone I suppose you could share a Mess with.”

I don’t know whether he was ex-military, but the implication appeared clear:
More important than the specific skills or talents a candidate might, or might not bring,
it was important that they fit in –
unsaid, but implied – necessary to be a “good chap – one of us, one like us.”
There is much one might unpack from that 1980’s vignette –
around entitlements and expectations of gender, social background, ethnicity and institutions.
(Maybe that is for coffee and cake, later.)
But the memory of that encounter surfaced unexpectedly this week,
because this Sunday, we mark and celebrate,
the profession of faith and formal joining of five new, congregational members.

What, do Hannah, Ruaraidh, Patterson, Arthur and Carlos,
think they have just joined? And in a sense, what happens now?
Meanwhile, the rest of us – witnesses today, many of whom are church members,
how might we reflect upon our own loyalties and commitments,
pledged in earlier times?
And those who are not church members –
perhaps just passing through – curious or indifferent - .
What is it that others are drawn towards?
What perhaps are you looking for?

One answer: consider the promises that were taken:
To join regularly with fellow Christians in worship on the Lord’s Day.
To be faithful in reading the Bible and in prayer.
To give a fitting proportion of your time, talents, and money
for the Church’s work in the world?
And, depending on the grace of God,
to profess publicly your loyalty to Jesus Christ,
to serve him in your daily work,
and to walk in his ways all the days of your life.
Good promises to make – a clear set of disciplines;
ways to train and maintain the muscles of faith – keep us spiritually, in shape;
ways to build resilience, for when times get tough,
or the lamp burns low.

These are the guidelines to of faith – tested over time –
not exactly club “rules”, more “best practise.”
But “rules” only convey so much.
They don’t capture the essence/culture of our association.
For that, we might pay attention to today’s Gospel –
but with a warning - it may prove disconcerting.

Nazareth. The prodigal son, Jesus returns home, after inaugurating his ministry.
Judging by the size and frenzy of the crowds pressing around him,
his reputation runs ahead.
Much has happened since the carpenter's son first left home.
Baptism at the hands of his kinsman John;
retreat into the wilderness – 40 days, holy time.
Already, he has driven out unclean spirits, healed the sick,
broken bread with the wrong sort;
chosen his disciples and declared himself the Lord of the Sabbath.

Alarm bells start ringing –
for his family, fearful that disturbing the status quo cannot go unchecked;
the spotlight he has attracted cannot remain benign – they are right.
The family verdict: “He’s lost his mind. He must be rescued.”

More dangerously, the religious authorities;
the scribes/legalists from Jerusalem –
sent to check out what type of trouble the provincial rabbi
may, or may not, be provoking.
Their verdict/accusation: “He is in league with the Devil!”
That is the mother of all cancellations.

Jesus does not take it lying down:
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
If a house is divided against itself, that too will fall.
If Satan is engaged in some kind of civil war – his end has come.”
Do you really think I am defeating the darkness of the world,
at the same time as being the darkness of the world?

He doesn’t stop there:
Jesus compares himself to a burglar breaking into the house of a strong man;
the “house” represents the territory of Satan.
To plunder it, will require strength sufficient, to overcome the householder.
John the Baptist has already predicted the coming of one stronger than himself (Mark 1:7);
while in the synagogue of Capernaum, the cry of the exposed demon:
“Jesus of Nazareth? Are you come to destroy us?” - witnesses to Jesus’ power:
This is not an entirely Sunday School version of Jesus.

While he refutes accusations of being in league with the forces of evil,
Jesus in no way denies or diminishes, their reality.
Instead - he will battle them, and promises to overcome.
Finally, those who accuse Jesus of having an unclean spirit,
he condemns in the strongest of terms.
If we are respectable, law-abiding, religiously orthodox – as I suspect most of us are –
is Jesus really the sort of chap we want to share a Mess with?

At that moment a message comes through.
Your mother and brothers are outside.
Jesus surveys the gathering of walking wounded,
the misfits and the needy; tax gatherers, sex workers, children, “newbie” disciples –
the disparate and the desperate.
They are not interested in dogma or piety;
They just hunger - for acceptance and forgiveness, for healing and love.
And it seems that that in the presence of this one, they have found it.
Jesus sees it and with an inclusive wave of his hand, announces:
This is my family.
When you wake up to what God is doing – what God is asking of you -
Then you are my mother and my brothers.

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

But in this unsettling encounter and seeming rebuff of his own kin
Jesus is establishing in real time,
a sense of widening responsibility and community.
Space and room for all sorts, not just the right sort.
The liberating understanding that his friendship group
is not confined to the respectable and sorted –
but to the flawed and the frail, the genuinely human,
who have made mistakes, and, most likely, will do so again -
lives in a mess, not necessarily in, the Mess.

“Yes, Jesus divides the house, and that process hurts.
But he doesn’t divide it to make us homeless. He divides it to rebuild.”

(Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)
To widen the circle;
reaffirm where we belong, who we belong to;
reimagine, who we are connected to.
And there discover, perhaps to our surprise,
we have found a place in a club that always longed for us to join.

Sermon 16th June 2024

MORNING WORSHIP, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 16
th JUNE 2024 11.00 A.M.
(4
th SUNDAY after PENTECOST)

The kingdom of God is like someone who scatters seed on the ground,
sleeps and rises, night and day; the seed sprouts and grows,
but he does not know how.”
Mark 4:26-27

Tucked away in West London’s, Acton,
hidden behind residential streets,
accessible only by a narrow pathway, lies a hidden gem.
It goes by the name of the St Columba’s Tennis Club.
For members with longer memories,
it holds happy reminiscences of seasonal tennis outings –
part of the complete package of London, Kirk life – spiritual and social -
for young Scots making their way in the Metropolis.

Surrounded on three sides by houses,
the courts are enclosed on the fourth side, by allotments.
As one member explained to me this week –
during the war, the courts, (in those days, grass courts),
were dug up and repurposed for additional growing –
part of the food production efforts necessitated by war.

Allotments, I know are the source of great significance for some church members -
hard graft and authentic satisfaction, a place of peace and perspective.
A contemporary voice, musing on today’s parables,
recalled her father working on summer nights on his allotment.
The steady labour required to raise his neat and proud vegetable patch.
The abundance in August, shared with their neighbours.
Yet the harvest that gave most pleasure, proved most memorable -
what he referred to as, volunteer tomatoes.
Those that had seeded in quite unexpected places, beyond the tidy rows,
unforeseen gifts - just as tasty, a variety of agricultural grace.

The kingdom of God is … like the sower who labours,
rests and rises, night and day; the seed grows, he knows not how.”

In the first of our pair of parables Jesus reminds his listeners:
while farmers can be attentive, conscientious, skilful,
ultimately, the profound mystery of growth remains beyond them.
The farmer trusts a process that is ancient, mysterious, cyclical, and sure;
seeds, soil, sun, shade, clouds and rain.
Yes, he/she participates in the process by planting and harvesting;
pays attention to the seasons, and gets to work when the time is ripe.
But never harbours the illusion that they are in charge;
knows that they operate in a realm of mystery.
Just so, says Jesus, the kingdom of God;
it is ultimately God’s work, God’s growth.
As Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”

There is a meditation attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero,
but which was actually written by an American Roman Catholic bishop
for a memorial mass for priests:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen

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

Many of you will be aware that amongst the most regular users of this building
are the weekly Support Groups – Alcoholics Anonymous and others.
Often a meeting begins with a member of the group reading the Just for Today card,
A series of prompts/resolutions.
It opens: “Just for Today I will try to live through this day only,
and not tackle my whole life problem at once.
I can do things for twelve hours
that would appal me, if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.”
Reminder of the small, immediate next step,
whether it is Day1 or year 35 of recovery.

Or from the realm of the Church’s Benevolence Committee.
An update on a individual who received some financial assistance, to help buy some bedding.
They did get several things for him with the money we sent, <
but the good news is that he got the chance of a job,
so some of the money was used to buy him a safety hat and boots.
He got the job, so is now in process of turning his life around
from just a week or two ago!
Nice to know what a little bit of help does.”

Yet, maybe this planting is meant for less settled gardens,
wilder volunteer tomatoes.
According to some, people of Jesus’ day did not plant mustard seeds –
wouldn’t dream of it.
It was a rapid growing weed that would overwhelm other choice plantings.
So, what is Jesus suggesting,
by comparing the kingdom of God with an invasive weed?
And the flocks of birds?
The image of the burgeoning bush offering shelter to the birds of the air is beautiful –
personally, I love it.
But like sowing mustard seeds, is it another kind of instructive joke?
Birds eat seeds and fruit; cause havoc in cornfields.
They are the reason farmers erect scarecrows.
But Jesus isn't a scarecrow kind of gardener.” Debie Thomas

Is the kingdom of God the place where the unwelcome find a home?
Where the unwanted, untamed – unlike us – are sheltered.
Is the kingdom of God, by its very nature,
a sprawling, spontaneous, un-neat planting of radical inclusion?
And if a congregation – any congregation – is an allotment for God –
can we combine both the hard-worked, well planned rows,
but also notice and delight in the volunteer tomatoes?

Henry Thoreau, he of Walden Pond, who went to live in the woods,
with the determination to live deliberately:
I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me you have a seed there and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

As an American pastor advised some years ago:
Take a look around your congregation and your community
to see where life is springing up.
Get close enough to marvel at what God is already doing without your help.
And then try to catch up to it.
(Janet Hunt)
That will be the beginning of all that comes next.

As the AA, Just for Today card concludes:
Just for today I will be unafraid.
I will enjoy what is beautiful and believe that as I give to the world,
so the world will give to me.”

Prophets of a future not our own. Just for today.

[Now to him who by the power at work within us
is able to accomplish abundantly
far more than all we can ask or imagine,
to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.]

Sermons - May 2024

Sermon 5th May 2024

MORNING WORSHIP, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 5th MAY 2024 11.00 A.M.
(6th SUNDAY OF EASTER)

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded
that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,
for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
Acts 10:44-45

Thursday morning this week; a tube stop in West London, on the District Line.
Boarding and having found a seat, the train Tanoy burst into life.
“Good morning, good morning, wonderful people.
I hope you are having a beautiful day.”

Commuters, momentarily ignoring their phones, looked up;
eyebrows quizzical; hesitant smiles.
A rich, sing-song Caribbean accent continued:
“Whether you are going to work, or a job interview, or going to school,
look out for the pregnant lady, or the elderly, or the visually impaired;
Look out for the mummy with a buggy – or the daddy with a buggy.
Na leave nobody. (No one left behind.)
Have a beautiful day, you’re worth it. Mind the doors.”

Unexpected.

On Wednesday, a sanctuary full of school children, teachers and some parents –
the weekly assembly for Hill House School.
For a change, a guest speaker.
Bob Kikuyu – Global Theology Advisor for Christian Aid.
Bob preached for us a year ago at the start of Christian Aid Week.
Educator and full-time pastor for many years,
working with schools and communities in some of the poorest parts of Nairobi, his home city.
In honesty, I was a little anxious about how things would go.
Five hundred school children – ranging from wriggly five-year-olds,
to trying-ever-so-hard to be bored, thirteen-year-olds – is not an easy gig.

As so often with the Wednesday assembly there was music.
There was also choir in the loft, plus a fanfare from the brass section.
Two eleven-year-old girls played the first movement of a Mozart concerto.
It was pretty special.
When Bob got up to speak, rather wonderfully,
he started by saying how much he appreciated the music,
and how many memories the music brought back to him.
His own children, now young adults:
“But my two sons used to play the trumpet at their school. Thank you to the brass section.
And my daughter – she played the violin.
Thank you for the wonderful playing this morning.
So many memories stirred by your music this morning. Thank you.”

From there, Bob’s theme was about “opportunities.”
He told us how the decision by his own parents to move from rural Kenya to the city,
had increased his own opportunities.
The education he received had been a stepping stone,
for so much else that unfolded in his life.

He also told the story of his father-in-law.
Born into the Masai tribe – traditionally, pastoralists, in rural Kenya.
His father-in-law was born a twin.
Within the culture of his time and place, twins could not be kept together.
One, would have to be sent to a distant relative.
As Bob explained, the twin retained,
would be the child of greatest economic worth.
The family raised cattle – so the child that was best at looking after the cows,
was the most beneficial to keep.

Bob’s father-in-law was hopeless.
Apparently, he lacked the focus and attention required.
Cattle would wander off and end up in neighbouring plantations etc.
So, his father-in-law, as a child was sent away to the city.
He attended school. He got into university. In time he became a government official.
Eventually, he became a government minister.
His responsibility? (Pause.) Minister for Agriculture & Livestock.
Unexpected.
Christian Aid Week Bob explained, was about increasing opportunities,
for those whose opportunities are sometimes so limited – the focus this year, in Burundi..

After the Assembly, one more unexpected note.
I said how glad I was that the music had resonated with Bob,
and that the children had had the opportunity to hear from him –
we never know what horizons or impact his presence might have
on those in the sanctuary that morning.
Then we spoke a little bit about the challenges that face the Church in the developed West –
a contrast to the apparent vibrancy of growing congregations in places elsewhere.
Bob’s reply came as a surprise – and an encouragement.

He told me that when he returns home,
he will tell others about a school where music is created and shared,
and the choice to engage with a local church on a regular basis is made.
And he will tell of people working quietly behind the scenes,
to make things happen for Christian Aid Week.
In his own words: “Stories of hope I will return to Kenya with.”
Unexpected.

One of the Lectionary readings is definitely a Tale of the Unexpected –
though it only gives a peek.
From the Book of Acts, what is sometimes referred to as the Gentile Pentecost:
the fulfilment of Isaiah 49:6, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

The full version occupies both chapters 10 and 11 of the Book of Acts:
According to the scholars: “…the heart of the book of Acts…
the pivot around which turns not only this book, but the entire New Testament Church.”

Worthy therefore of a little attention.

It’s the story of two men - in one sense, only a few miles apart;
in another, a universe between them.
Cornelius, centurion of the Italian Cohort, posted to Caeserea,
the Roman Head Quarters in these territories.
A god-fearer, devout, known for his charitable giving.

Down the coast at Joppa, Peter,
post Easter, post Pentecost, post the martyrdom of Stephen.
Living in these early months and years,
trying to make sense of what he has seen and what he must do with such things.
Driven now beyond Jerusalem by the persecution there,
and moving in an ever-widening world of diverse and competing voices.

Two men, separated by distance, but summoned by the dreams of God.
For Cornelius, the vision is to seek out and invite the unknown Peter,
to hear what he has to say.
For Peter, stranger still – the vision of the great blanket lowered from the heavens,
brimming with the beasts of creation.
A delivered to your door barbecue
that no observant Jew (or Jewish Christian) could possibly stomach.

In the dream, the summons to take and eat;
like all the most important things said to Peter – repeated three times.
Once awake, the vision, the prompting,
somehow relating to the invitation from the unknown Centurion.
What sort of invitation was that?
Come! To the home of a commander,
one of that brutal occupation force who had so recently, so callously
smashed Jesus onto his cross.
Yet Peter went – his explanation:
“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

Cornelius and Peter; Joppa to Caesarea;
the risk to invite, and the risk to respond.
Destination reached, Peter, ever ready to blurt things out introduces himself:
“You know it is unlawful for me, a Jew, to associate with you, a Gentile.”
But (and somewhere the trumpets sound.)
“But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.
So, when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection.
May I ask why you sent for me?”

From there, the conversation and insight flows:
“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism,
but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

And from there springs forth friendship and faith and food.
The latter not mentioned at the time,
but the issue over which the Jerusalem Christians
are ready to haul Peter over the coals, sometime later.
The accusation – You, an insider, are guilty of eating with the outsiders.

You can see why the early Christians of Jerusalem are horrified.
Peter, without consultation, has recklessly ripped up the rule book.
He has dismantled one of the key defining features of who they are as a group.
What right has he to do this?
It is an offence to them and all they honour who have gone before.

Peter doesn’t seek to persuade them with argument
he simply tells them what happened.
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them
just as it had upon us at the beginning.

If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us
when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,
who was I that I could hinder God?”

It took courage for Cornelius to ask;
it took courage for Peter to respond.
But in the willingness of one to cross a border
and in the willingness of another to allow a border to be crossed,
a rock is rolled away and the church door swings open a little wider.

Peter, perhaps to his own surprise,
discovers that that the Gospel is not about preserving a tradition,
even a tradition that has served validly and well.
The Spirit will not be constrained.
And if a tradition or attitude or understanding or person
has become an obstacle to bringing people into relationship with God,
the Spirit will bypass it.

Peter’s surprise is that in the letting go of something precious,
God replaces it with something more profound, more enriching.
Put another way: Peter didn’t sell out - he traded up.

We might ask: Who was the real convert in this story?
The Gentile soldier of an occupying sate?
Or one of Jesus’ inner circle, church leader, established insider,
who discovers an unguessed wideness to God’s mercy?

Story of hope -
for people who think they don’t deserve inclusion;
Tale of the unexpected,
for people who think others don’t deserve to be included.
As an Underground messenger would say:
“Mind the doors. Na leave nobody.

Sermon 12th May 2024

Sermon 19th May 2024

Sermon 26th May 2024

MORNING WORSHIP, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 26th MAY2024 11.00 A.M.
(TRINITY SUNDAY)

“In the year that King Uzziah died,
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;
and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”
Isaiah 6:1

A story for God’s Sunday – or, as we more commonly call it, Trinity Sunday:

St Augustine of Hippo is most famous for his Confessions –
written from the end of the fourth century, thirteen books in Latin;
an autobiographical work outlining his sinful youth and conversion to Christianity.
He also wrote, On the Trinity.
Unlike much of his writing this, wasn’t written as a defence of Christianity,
in the face of heresies,
but out of his own conviction, of the importance of the doctrine.
That uniquely Christian expression of One God: Three Persons –
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

According to legend, one day St Augustine walked along the seashore,
wrestling with ways to logically explain the Trinity.
As his thoughts searched for clarity, he came across a young child –
solitary, on the beach.
As Augustine watched, the child made a hole in the sand,
ran to the sea with a little cup, filled it at water’s edge,
returned to the hole and poured the contents of the cup into the hole.
Augustine watched, as the action was repeated several times.

“What are you doing child?” the philosopher enquired.
“I am emptying the sea into this hole.”
“Do you think you can pour this immense ocean
into this tiny hole, with this tiny cup?”

The child returned the adult gaze:
“And you, do you think that with your small head,
you can comprehend the immensity of God?”

With that - according to legend - the child disappeared.

The American episcopalian priest and writer, Robert Farrar Capon,
vividly echoed the fabled child,
suggesting that when human beings try to describe God,
“We are like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina!”
Maybe humility is the starting point for God’s Sunday;
a recognition we will never have sufficient language or perspective,
to pin down the deity, like a glass-case butterfly, however delicate its design.

So, what do we know/sense – at least, through a glass darkly?
“In the year that King Uzziah died,
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;
and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings:
with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet,
and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called,
and the house filled with smoke. And the prophet said: “Woe is me!”

This is the Almighty – not the all-matey - God.

In the C.S. Lewis classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
Lucy, one of the children who has stepped through the wardrobe,
into the magical kingdom of Narnia, converses with Mr. Beaver,
about Aslan (who will come to represent the Christ figure):

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. “Certainly not.
I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea.
Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts?
Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“Ooh!”
said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man.
Is he – quite safe?
I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs Beaver;
“if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking,
they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?”
said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you?
Who said anything about safe?
‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.
He’s the King, I tell you.”"

Another American writer, Annie Dillard conjures vivid images,
of what church attendance might look like,
if we really grasped the wildness, the un-tamedness of God.
Comparing worshippers to cheerful, brainless tourists on packaged tour of the Absolute? …
Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
(Elders) should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.
For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense,
or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
(Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters
”, pp. 40-41.

Draw us to a place of no return?
God Sunday is reminder of the unpredictable God:
who says “follow me” – follow me into worlds
we would never go to on our own.
who says that to truly find life, we must loose it, for him.
Who asks, out of that smoke-filled, shaking temple,
the question to each new generation: Whom shall I send?

Incomprehensible, unpredictable, unsafe – that’s quite a trinity.
Is that our best for God Sunday?
Perhaps we need ground a little steadier?

The formula of Father, Son and Holy Spirit appears very early in Christian writings –
so, it was important to the first generation. Why?
Because, before the Trinity became a doctrine, it was an experience.

The disciples and their followers did not doubt the existence of God the Creator –
they imbibed that with their mothers’ milk.
Raised on Isaiah or Psalm 29 (set for today)
with its the voice of the Lord thundering over the mighty waters
and splitting the cedars of Lebanon.
The awesome power, the otherness of God was familiar, if fearsome territory.

But then they met and were magnetised by a teacher from Nazareth,
Mary and Joseph’s boy.
Such a life, such a death,
such an intimacy with the One he dared call upon as Father/Abba –
in time, the disciples could only conclude that this was God come down,
God with them, Immanuel;
Could only conclude he was the image of the invisible God, a post card from heaven.

And, as if that were not enough, the further experience,
that though they had seen their friend murdered by state execution,
though they had seen him placed in his tomb
as lifeless and cold as any whose breath is stopped –
in time, and especially after Pentecost
they came to discover that Jesus/God was still alive/more alive
still available to them – in myriad places and surprising circumstances.
That true to his promise, they had not been left as orphans.
Or in Paul’s phraseology: “… children of God, and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Romans 8:17

Trinity: God of Creation, the Ancient of Days,
Jesus their companion, his beautiful, haunting life;
the Spirit, warm among them, leading them in and towards truth.
Before it was a doctrine, Trinity, an experience;
or as my former professor used to say:
The verdict - once all the evidence had been gathered in.”

Trinity Sunday, God’s Sunday reminds us
God will always be bigger, more diverse and more surprising
than we can get our head around.

Yet, the search for God’s truth is on-going.
Yes, it requires modesty in our claims, humility in our seeking.
Yet the search is the thing – the yearning for God, the hankering for home.
Twelve years ago, a wise woman said to me before coming to St Columba’s:
“Everyone at St Columba’s will be homesick for something.”
Perhaps that is why we are drawn back here time and again.

A C19th minister of the Church of Scotland when asked to sum up in a single sentence,
what religion meant to him, gave his own Trinitarian response:
“There is a Father in heaven who loves us;
a Brother Saviour who died for us;
a Spirit who helps us to be good
and a Home where we shall all meet at last.”

Norman MacLeod of the Barony.

Sermons - April 2024

Sermon 7th April 2024

MORNING WORSHIP & BAPTISMS, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 7th APRIL 2024 11.00 A.M. (SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER)

Collect: Almighty and Eternal God,
the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt,
may we, who have not seen, have faith,
and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

This week, in the space of a very few minutes,
I heard two different people describe a glimpse of pure joy – an ecstasy.
The way they described it, it had the feel of a religious moment.
Curious?
I hope it will not be too disappointing to hear, it was football.
Specifically, it was being at this week’s dramatic,
Chelsea v Manchester United, 4-3 thriller, at nearby Stamford Bridge.
For the uninitiated, what made it so glorious for some – gutting for others –
home team Chelsea were losing 3-2 with time almost up.
Some “loyal” fans were already heading for the exit.
Incredibly, in the last two minutes of the game Chelsea not only equalised,
but then scored the winner.
Cue – pandemonium and joy among the home faithful.
One man described: “I was just hugging my mate for about ten seconds –
bouncing up and down. It was ridiculous. It was wonderful.”

Another recounted much the same – only more poignantly this was a father-son combo –
made even more special, because in a difficult relationship over the years,
the father realised how many other potential moments of closeness
had been squandered along the way.
Happily, not on this occasion.

I wasn’t there – and Chelsea are not my team.
So, could I/could you, possibly understand how special that moment had been?
A little, perhaps.
Yet, at one level, to really understand, in some senses - I guess you had to be there.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?
Jesus asked Thomas; then added:
“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

Every year on this Sunday – the second Sunday of Easter,
the Lectionary (the scriptures selected for reading)
give us the story of the disciple Thomas - Thomas the Twin/Doubting Thomas.
Some refer to today as Low Sunday,
and after the fanfares of Easter, it can hold a sense of come-down, anti-climax.
As a visiting Moderator of the General Assembly preached at St Columba’s:
“Coming to Church this Sunday, is a bit like showing up to a party,
after most of the guests have left.
Those who remain, tell you what a great time they’ve had, you’ve missed out by coming late.
Could it really have been that great?”
 “I guess you had to be there?”
“I guess you had to be there” is a primary theme to Thomas’ tale.
But worth remembering, there is more to Thomas than his famous doubting.
Thomas appears three times in John’s Gospel.
Firstly, when Jesus is on his way to raise Lazarus from the dead.
The other disciples urging Jesus not to go,
because his opponents have recently tried to stone him (John 11:8).
Thomas declares that they should go,
that “we might die with him” (John 11:16).

The second time, Jesus, in the hours before his death,
is talking about his Father’s house,in which there are many mansions;
that he is going to prepare a place for them, and that they know the way.
While others keep silent, Thomas bursts out:
“Lord, we do not know where you are going.
How can we know the way?”
(John 14:5).
Without Thomas’ courage to ask the awkward question,
we might never have heard Jesus’ answer:
“I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

Thirdly, the drama of the first week of resurrection.
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 justifiably 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 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, who didn’t yet believe in the resurrection,
intuits that if there is to be a resurrection, it must be linked to the wounds.
It won’t be the real Jesus if the wounds are not there.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, I will not believe.”

This is the embodied Gospel. As the Anglican priest-poet Malcolm Guite writes:
“Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

… … …
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.”

Touch, embrace, anoint:
There is no better reminder of the flesh, than the presence of a baby –
Today, Edward, here for his baptism.
(Others too, who have made that same journey in recent times.)
Any parent of a newborn is utterly familiar with the embodied basics of humanity;
birth itself, hunger and feeding, bathtime, warmth, comfort, distress, touch, sleep, rest.

There is a scriptural suggestion/link between this embodied Gospel,
and our baptismal gathering.
On Good Friday, we read the Passion Story/account, according to John’s Gospel.
Towards the end of that account there is the description of the request
to remove the crucified bodies from their crosses, before the Day of Passover.
Gruesome noting, that the way to speed up the dying –
break the legs of the prisoners - in effect to cause them suffocation.
“But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead,
they did not break his legs.
Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear,
bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
(John 19:33-35)

Edward, as yet knows nothing of this - the blood and the water –
threads so woven into our faith – sacrifice and washing – communion and baptism.
In time, with the help of his parents, godparents, faith community – he may learn more.
The blood and the water:
The love of God poured out for him –
not because he has earnt it, passed an exam, achieved great things.
But because he is his own unique, never-to-be-repeated life.
Precious, fragile, human. Welcomed.

Welcomed into a community of the followers of Jesus –
a community that knew/knows fear and failure, expressed doubt and disbelief.
But from time to time, discovers, that like Thomas,
God can accept honest doubt,
and bless and multiply the witness of a disciple who struggles to trust,
yearns for God but finds the path of faith rocky and hard.
Jesus says: Put your hand into the heart of who I am.
Then carry on/share such things - touch, embrace, anoint.
To follow into the humanity, the whole broken, beautiful mess of it –
To follow: “I guess we have to be there.”

Sermon 14th April 2024

Sermon 21st April 2024

MORNING WORSHIP, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 21st APRIL 2024 11.00 A.M.
(4th SUNDAY OF EASTER)

“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
(In contrast): The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd.”
John 10: various

“Where’s your coat?”
“I don’t need it.”
“I think you do. It looks like it’s going to rain.”
“It won’t.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”

Depending on the level of parental resolve,
a child goes to school either with, or without the contentious coat-in-question.
As was once remarked:
“Why do I have to wear a coat because you’re feeling cold?”
Which makes me think of the quote:
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
That is from the pen of contemporary writer and hill farmer, James Rebanks,
author of, The Shepherd's Life: A People's History of the Lake District.

Rebanks writes with authority, about the toughness, the wildness,
the reality of sheep and shepherding, even in the Lake Districts of today.
That is echoed by Scottish poet, Kenneth Steven, in his piece, entitled, Lamb.
One day, amid wintry conditions on Scotland’s west coast,
he stumbles upon a new-born lamb

“I found a lamb,
tugged by the guyropes of the wind,
trying so hard to get up.

It was no more than a trembling bundle –
a bag of bones and wet wool,
a voice made of crying, like a child’s.

(He reflects):
What a beginning, what a fall,
to be born here on the edge of the world
between the sea and America.”

We know from our Christmas tales – the birth at Bethlehem –
shepherds inhabited the edge of society;
untamed places, beyond the respectable.
Yet the image of a shepherd tending the flock was deeply ingrained
in the religious imaginations of the Israelites;
they had a long history with shepherds.
Rachel was a shepherd.
Moses too, before God commissioned him to lead the Israelites out of slavery;
and of course, King David started out as a shepherd,
famously and unexpectedly called in from the fields,
to partake with his brothers in a royal beauty pageant.
(“You’re hired!”)

The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34:15-16) records the Lord God as declaring:
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the crippled,
and I will strengthen the weak,
and the fat and the strong I will watch over;
I will feed them in justice.”

So, to Jesus’ declaration: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just healed a blind man on the Sabbath,
and the religious elite are less than chuffed.
Moreover, it is the Feast of the Dedication (the holiday we know as Hanukkah),
celebration of the rededication of the Temple,
after the victory of Judas Maccabeus in 2nd century BCE.
Jesus is in the Temple itself – location, par excellence,
that venerates the unique, covenantal relationship with God.

It is apparently, there and then,
that Jesus equates himself with God, the Good Shepherd.
Just when the religious authorities are celebrating the centrality/supremacy of the Temple,
Jesus suggests that God's presence is actually better found elsewhere?
Elsewhere, being the wilderness, where the wolves and thieves roam,
along with hireling shepherds and straying sheep?
In other words, among the outcasts, the irreligious, the ritually unclean,
and the politically suspect?
What, or who am I about? Asks Jesus.
Am I museum curator of the splendid sanctuaries, noble as they are –
or mountain rescue, search-team leader, beyond the corridors of power?
As one contemporary writer questions awkwardly:
“Where is my Temple? Where is my wilderness?
Where are the places I assume God doesn’t dwell?”

“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

When Jesus identifies with the shepherd at the periphery –
he also draws attention to the cost of shepherding.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus says it five times in this passage.
Echoed in John's epistle: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”

Threatened by predators, the shepherd’s life, involved danger.
Jesus spells out the contrast between the committed shepherd
and the hireling shepherd.
The hireling will scarper at the first sign of danger,
the genuine shepherd, like the sentry on duty, stands to.
“Because he's in it for the long haul,
he not only frolics with lambs, but wrestles with wolves.
He not only tends the wounds of his beloved rams and ewes;
he buries them when their time comes.”
Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus

The life that Jesus lived; the life that he gave up, allows John’s Epistle to assess:
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us …”
Then concludes: “We ought to lay down our lives for one another.
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
1 John 3

Where might we be encouraged for truth and action?

Last Sunday we heard a little of the work of ReStart Lives the charity that organises the weekly, Friday Night drop-in meal for sometimes up to a hundred guests –  some homeless, some simply seeking a warm meal and some companionship.

The Newsletter this week also highlights the ongoing work of Glass Door,  the charity that co-ordinates the winter season schedule of Night Shelters –  which thanks to staff and volunteers from within and beyond St Columba’s, has offered food and floor space overnight on Sundays, throughout the winter.
Practical help – offered by ordinary people –  of various traditions of prayer, and none –  finding common cause – giving, yes –  but also, often bearing witness to what they receive.

One example more: This week we received a letter of thanks from Firefly International, the Scottish-based charity working with young people living with the consequences of war –  charity chosen for this year’s Lent Appeal.

The Appeal money will go towards the work of a multi-faith youth project in Bosnia:
In the charity’s letter of thanks:

“We live in terribly dangerous times,
and I am sorry to say that children and young people in the Balkans,
almost completely forgotten these days, face danger too.
Your investment in our peace-keeping work,
led by young people in Brcko for the benefit of their own community,
is not only generous but also thoughtful and insightful.

The money raised via the Appeal will go towards a summer camp, off-site, for the teenagers.
Giving young people the chance to get out of Brcko,
to spend a week together making art and music together,
and simply enjoying each other's company in a beautiful rural setting,
is a great gift to them.
It rewards them for bucking the trend,
in being prepared to meet and socialise with 'the other'.
It reinforces the message that it is safe and normal
for young people from different faith backgrounds
to leave their home and neighbourhood and travel away together,
have fun and build strong bonds of friendship.

Jane Critchley Salmonson, Director, Firefly International

Is it fanciful to think of Balkan teenagers –
Muslim, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, other –
enjoying the freedom of new spaces and experiences –
fanciful to think of them recognising their differences,
but also discovering their commonalities – the ties that bind,
the underlying unities of a single human flock?
Is that too much to hope for, to pray for – to work for?

We began with a desolate lamb struggling to rise, buffeted by the wind,
“…born here on the edge of the world
Between the sea and America.”
But Kenneth Steven’s poem finishes with a promise –
“Lamb, out of this island of stone
yellow is coming, golden promises,
the buttery sunlight of spring.”

That is Easter’s promise – the Good Shepherd always rising, always returning:
To seek the lost,
bring back the strayed,
bind up the wounded,
strengthen the weak,
watch over the flock and feed them in justice.”

Sermon 28th April 2024

Sermons - March 2024

Sermon 3rd March 2024

Sermon 10th March 2024

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 10th MARCH 2024 11.00 A.M.
(4th SUNDAY of LENT)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Noughts and crosses; snakes and ladders:
This morning, Scripture’s mash up offers us – Snakes and Crosses.

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.


Arresting opening lines from D H Lawrence’s poem, Snake.
An encounter, one stifling hot Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The poet/narrator sees the snake emerge from a whole in the garden wall,
trailing its yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down,
and make its way to the water trough:
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Silently.


For the poet, conflicting voices in his head:
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent,
the gold are venomous.


But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink
at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
I felt so honoured.


In the end, as the snake disappears back into the earth,
the poet pitches a clumsy log at the departing reptile;
its reaction: that part of him that was left behind convulsed
in an undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone …


And immediately I regretted it.
what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.


And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Fascination and fear, fear and fascination.
At a recent school fair, seeking parental brownie points with the authorities,
I was temporarily appointed steward for the visiting reptile room.
The news that there were snakes inside, drew both gasps of horror –
but also, the longest queues.
Fascinated or fearful, can we face scriptural serpents elevated today?

From the Book of Numbers the Children of Israel, in the wilderness –
the long walk to freedom from Egyptian captivity.
The harshness of the road, the detours and delays,
lead the people to grumble.
Impatient with their shepherd, Moses, they murmur against God.

According to scripture, just east of Palestine,
God plagues them with “fiery serpents” for their complaining against Him.
Snakes on the PLAIN!
Unsurprisingly, repentance is swift.
“We did wrong; Moses we implore you,
pray to God to remove the serpents from among us.”
(Amen to that.)

Moses does pray. The upshot is unexpected.
A bronze snake is crafted, put on a pole
and raised up in the centre of the camp.
To be “saved” from the real snakes,
they must gaze at an inanimate one –
reminder of the snakes sent, because of their complaint at God,
their lack of trust, in his provision.
This python on a pole, a daily honesty –
to look at one’s failure or sin, in order to be saved from it.
I think of AA’s universal introduction:
“Hello, my name is … and I’m an alcoholic/addict.”

I would much prefer this Old Testament tale,
if having repented and prayed, the result for Moses and his crew,
was the disappearance, once and for all, of these terrifying snakes.
But that doesn’t happen.
Instead of the snakes slithering away, the instruction is clear.
In a snake-bitten world, the serpents stay -
but no one need die.
Israelite salvation will only be found in an ongoing act of faith.
Journey on, trust in God’s provision, persevere.
God has not given up on you.

The Gospel reading references this same tale:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The passage begins in the midst of Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus,
the Pharisee who has come to see Jesus for himself,
but under cover of night – fearful of fellow Pharisees,
hostile to this troublesome rabbi.
Jesus and Nicodemus have been talking,
about being born again/from above,
speaking of how the Spirit blows, where it will.
Into the conversation, Jesus introduces the elevated, bronze serpent –
Makes comparison - the Son of Man/the Human One – Jesus –
Anther raising – both metaphorical, and horrifyingly literal - crucifixion.
Nicodemus surely understood the reference.

As the Israelites looked upon the raised bronze snake and lived,
so those who look upon/trust the raised Son of Man –
Christ on the Cross – death and resurrection –
they will find eternal life.

“Look on me and live.
Turn your gaze, attention, focus to me –
what I am about to do,
what I am about to embody.
And in that strange remedy you will find true living –
In that strange remedy you will discover
God’s love made known,
not for the punishment of a broken world
but for its healing and peace.
“…so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
”,

I am not sure any of us can explain the cross of Christ,
even as it stands at the heart of our faith –
perhaps wiser, to consider it, a seeker/disciple’s, lifetime’s work,
to gaze upon it;
its meaning and relevance shifting with our own passing years.

T help us we might borrow from others who have gazed before us:
Last Sunday in the London Scottish Chapel
our visiting speaker talked to us of the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich: (1342–1416).
From her Revelations of Divine Love.

The love of God most High for our soul is so wonderful
that it surpasses all knowledge.
No created being can fully know
the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness,
of the love that our Maker has for us.
By his Grace and help therefore
Let us in spirit stand in awe and gaze,
eternally marvelling at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded,
incalculable love that God, Who is all goodness, has for us.

Or, perhaps easier to imagine and appropriate this Mothering Sunday,
as the late Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB related:
Once while I was preaching in a parish,
I suddenly caught sight of a young mother with her child,
and you could see the love between them.
I was terribly tempted to say to the congregation,
“Forget what I am saying and look over there,
and you will see what you mean to God.”

Sermon 17th March 2024

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 17
th 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

“I try to write songs that might step up and make some sense of a moment in time.
A good song makes you feel like you’re not alone in the world.”
Words of Welsh, singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph –
whose combination of passionate lyric and social activism,
lead to references as “the Welsh Springsteen.”

One song, entitled Strange Way, begins:
Strange way to start a revolution
There follows, a litany of strange ways - reflections/ironies -
arising from Joseph’s meditation on Jesus on the Cross:

Strange way to see if wood would splinter
Strange way to do performance art
Strange way to say “I'll see you later”
Strange way to leave behind your heart

Strange way to hang around for hours
Strange way to imitate a kite
Strange way to get a view of Auschwitz
Strange way to represent the light

Strange way to reassure your mother
Strange way to finish your world tour
Strange way to pose for countless paintings
Strange way to gather in the poor. 

Between these stanzas, the chorus/refrain:

Strange dissident of meekness
And nurse of tangled souls
And so unlike the holy
To end up full of holes
Strange way.

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.
Whether these Gentiles are sensation-seeking gawkers or genuine seekers,
their arrival, acts as a sign – like the first leaf of spring.
In contrast to the rebuke to his mother at the wedding in Cana –
“My time has not yet come…” (John 2:4)

Now, the time is ripe – in sports parlance, the business end of the match.
Time is nigh – let the message break forth,
from the confines of one particular place and people –
to become a message for all time and every place.

These Greeks are the latest in a long line of seekers –
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
But which Jesus do they want to see?
The storyteller - whose parables made them laugh and made them think?
The miracle worker – turning water to wine, raising Lazarus from the dead?
The political provocateur - who debated Roman taxes, 
And blessed the peace-makers –
yet welcomed both tax gatherers and Roman centurion?
Or the renegade rabbi - who violated purity laws, broke the sabbath,
embraced the sexually suspicious, ate with ethnic outsiders,
and profaned Israel's most sacred space, the Temple?

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Jesus knew, many might be seeking him,
knew also, these seekers already had a particular Jesus in mind.
(Which Jesus are we after? Which Jesus are we prepared to see?)

According to the Gospel, Jeus neither says yes/no to the request of the Greeks.
Instead, he responds with a meditation on his death:
A tiny parable - understandable to any culture and any age.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies,
it remains only a single seed.
But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

The seed requires its earthing - a burial of darkness, obscurity and change.
That is the only way the seed can eventually burst from its tomb,
Something unimaginably beautiful –
a lily of the field, a bushel of corn –
a tree, in the branches of which, the birds of the air find shelter.

“I will be that grain of wheat” Jesus predicts: 
Then admits the cost and the fear: “Now my soul is troubled.” 
As a church member reflected this week: “Easter is brutal.”
(Easter, in the sense of the whole Passion story – the events and cruelties of Holy Week.)

Undoubtedly grotesque, Golgotha (the place of the skull) is also a gathering place;
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
I have come this far. Now, the last, hardest yards.
The road required – to be endured, completed, seen through - all the way
.
For only in the seed’s relinquished life, harvest.
Only in the crime and the agony, the communion and the glory.
Only by the Cross, the love that will not let us go.
(It is most assuredly a strange way.)

“We want to see Jesus.”
As the shadow of Holy Week approaches,
I wonder if we really do – at least the Jesus of the Cross.
If we are impatient for resurrection –
eager to fast forward/skip the dying,
we are in the biblical tradition of discipleship.
Jesus had plenty of crowds, fewer followers.
By the end, that was down to a handful of women keeping a distanced vigil –
As one preacher drily observed: “… when they saw where Jesus was going,”
the disciples “remembered they had something else to do!” B Brown Taylor.
Or as another commentator admitted discomfort,
with the vulnerable, broken Jesus of Good Friday:
“I want a muscular, superhero Jesus. 
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.”
Debie Thomas

There is no shame in recognising that human preference
for clarity, for security and safety.
But ultimately, superhero Jesus would have little to say to the hour of need;
times of tribulation, either personal, or in the lives of loved ones.
George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community declared
of Jesus on the cross:
“Never has there been a greater discrepancy,
between what a man deserved, and what he got.”
Jesus on the cross takes the Oscar for undeserved suffering.
But the consequence – when we find ourselves in a pit -
deserved or not –
when we think we are forgotten by God –
there, of all people, we find/see Christ himself.
He knows that place of fear and despair,
because he has walked that path before us –
and promises to walk it with us, now.
Because he once asked and answered his own question:
“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.”

Strange dissident of meekness, nurse of tangled souls
Martyn Joseph’s sings: So unlike the holy, to end up full of holes.
It concludes, both with the longing that Jesus’ way could be different,
but also recognition, that in that “strange way” lies its mystery and power:

The world is too much with us
Could we not now just elope?

Strange way to hold us closer
Strange way to give us hope
Strange way.

Sermon 24th March 2024

Sermon 31st March Easter Sunday 2024

Sermons - February 2024

Sermon 4th February 2024

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 04 FEB 2018

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

On any given Sunday, we gather in the name of Jesus Christ,
in an attempt to draw close to God –
to praise, to seek forgiveness, to ask for strength, to say thank you.
On any given Sunday,
depending on stage of life and circumstance,
we gather with vastly different moods and motivations;
joyful baptismal families, the occasional accidental tourist,
the casualty from other church families
the member who has been here sixty years.
Some not sure why they’re here,
others keenly aware of life’s frailties, their own or their loved ones.

How can that diversity of spirit - readiness and unreadiness,
fear and confidence, faith and doubt, be addressed?
The tried and tested way is to look to the lectern,
to let the eagle take flight, to let the scriptures speak.

The gospel fragment read today is exactly that – a fragment – part of a wider passage.
Specifically, Mark’s gospel that starts at a gallop.
No genealogies, no birth backstories, just:
“The beginning of the good news/the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark 1:1

Euangelion, the word we translate as gospel,
literally means “a bit of good news.”
In the ancient world it was official designation,
of an important public announcement,
a significant event, of public interest.
e.g. The emperor’s son had got engaged, a princess had given birth,
the army had won a victory, a city on the border had been captured.
(A euangelion was a kind of press release from Buckingham Palace or Downing Street)
Something had happened to be glad about; but stronger –
something had happened which was likely
to alter the climate, transform the landscape,
change the politics and the possibilities.

For a Greek-speaking subject of the Roman empire,
living somewhere round the eastern Mediterranean,
this would be the association/understanding you would bring to:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
This would be your scene-setter to a collection of writings
from a small, perhaps eccentric religious sect, calling themselves The Way.
From the outset, their document warns,
this is a book about regime change;
a new reign has been inaugurated:

After John had been handed over for imprisonment,
Jesus went into Galilee announcing the official proclamation about God.
The time has arrived, he said, the rule of God has come close,
so change your minds. Trust this proclamation.
” Mark 1:14)
What follows is a series of snapshots of the Jesus
who both inaugurates the good news, and personifies it.

And so to Capernaum – the place, where the adult Jesus chose to live.
A fishing centre on the shores of Lake Genneserat,
the lake of the harp (so called for its shape) – the Sea of Galilee as we know it.

Leaving the synagogue, with worship over – dramatic speaking, dramatic healing –
Jesus and friends move to the hospitality of the brothers, Peter and Andrew.
Away from the company, quarantined, Peter’s mother-in-law, is laid low.
Jesus attends her.
A bedside, no watching crowd; undivided attention, gentleness of touch, trust – ingredients of healing.

Jesus raises her up – a woman ritually unclean,
a refugee among her own kin,
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.
She becomes Jesus’ first servant.
In time, her service will stand in contrast to the disciples,
who vie for places of honour, rather than reaching for basin and towel,
their master’s signature gesture.

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.
This too will be characteristic of Jesus’ days.

Then after the tumult, their 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.
Jesus prays in the time of dark.
We should not underestimate either the conflict or the cost of prayer, for Jesus.
But prayer is part of him.
He must draw from its well,
to replenish perspective and wisdom, courage and love.

Jesus knows that prayer will never do our work for us;
what it will do is strengthen us for our tasks which must be done.
” William Barclay
Or as the Danish proverb puts it bluntly:
Pray to God, but continue to row to shore.

Respite is brief; the disciples are demanding.
They clamor for an immediate messiah - immediately.
Once 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.”

As would-be disciples what does this day in the life of Jesus, illustrate/illuminate?
Whether new parents at the start of Elle’s baptised life,
or those whose baptisms were long decades ago.
Well, we might be reminded that faith is affirmed and nurtured,
as much in the home,
as it is in the formal sacred space, synagogue or church.
Or consider Jesus’ integrity of word and action –
preaching and healing, service and solitude.
It certainly speaks of the wellspring of prayer,
from which best action emerges.

All true – perhaps uncontentious.
But what about the elephant in the sanctuary.
Why is there healing for some, but apparently not for others?
Why are some dealt such difficult cards, while others appear to be life’s lottery winners?
There is not a week goes by in parish life
that someone in the church family is up against it –
an anxiety or illness, a diagnosis or a death.
We don’t get an answer to the Why? Question.
And what answer would really satisfy/explain away the painfulness of some situations?
The fourth-century monastic, Saint Anthony the Great (251–356).
offered the ruthlessly realistic consolation.
Expect trials until your last breath.

Perhaps our only, our best answer
is to track back to our opening acknowledgement –
that in drawing close to the scriptures, the Word of God, the good news,
we might find our source of strength and consolation.

So, I finish with the experience of Jurgen Moltmann,
leading Protestant theologian of the second half of the C20th.
In 1945 he was a prisoner of war in Scotland.
He and his fellow prisoners had just been shown photographs
of the horrors of the camps of Belsen and Buchenwald,
forced to confront the nightmare realisation,
that they had been fighting for a regime
responsible for unimagined atrocity.
At the time, Moltmann had little Christian background and no theological education.
An army chaplain distributed copies of the Bible to the POW’s:
In Moltmann’s own words:

I read Mark’s Gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion;
when I heard Jesus’ death cry:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I felt growing within me the conviction:
this is someone who understands you completely,
who is with you in your cry to God
and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now …
I summoned up the courage to live again.

(From Meeting God in Mark, Rowan Williams, pp4)

Echo of those prophet words, Isaiah’s promise:
Be assured, your way is not hidden from God.
God grows neither weary nor tired,
God’s empathy and understanding are unbounded.
Yes, even the vigorous shall stumble, the young grow weary,
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
The beginning and continuing, Good News.

Sermon 11th February 2024

Sermon 18th February 2024

Sermon 25th February 2024

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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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