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Sermons - November 2021

Sermon 7th November 2021

Sermon 14th November 2021


“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely
so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen
or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.
them to your children and to their children after them.”
Deuteronomy 4:9

If at some stage today you travel on the London Underground, you may see a current advertisement, on the other side of the track. It shows a familiar, steep underground escalator. The escalator is “peopled”/populated, but not with the usual descending, or ascending figures – commuters, shoppers, family outings etc – instead, the figures lie prone, curled, heaped, and overlapping - apparently sleeping, or at least trying to.

The advert reads: “It happened to people like you on a day like today.
… See how the war affected all walks of life.”

There to promote the new Second World War and Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum London:

The striking image is a contemporary recreation of an original photo
of civilians sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz.

I saw the advert in the Knightsbridge tube; a stone’s throw from St Columba’s – whose destruction by enemy action in 1941, we heard earlier, concluding:
“It (fire) slowly but surely enveloped the roof and when falling material set fire to the pitch pine pews below, there was no chance of saving the building.”
(Rev Dr Scott, minister of St Columba’s, Church Magazine May 1941)

Entertaining a ten-year-old in the recent half term, we visited British Museum and Madame Tussauds. Both famous locations record being damaged in the war years.
“It happened to people like you on a day like today.”

At this morning’s congregational service of Remembrance our wreathes were laid by a World War II RAF veteran (a sprightly, 100-year- old), accompanied by a currently serving, RAF Warrant Officer; two other wreathes were laid by one of our Sunday School children and her Mum.

Noel Coward, the flamboyant, witty English playwright and actor, witnessed to the aerial war, affecting military and civilian, in his wartime poem about Allied aircrews:
Lie in the Dark and Listen.

Lie in the dark and listen.
It’s clear tonight so they’re flying high,
Hundreds of them, thousands perhaps,
Riding the icy, moonlit sky.
Men, machinery, bombs and maps,
Altimeters, guns and charts,
Coffee, sandwiches, fleece-lined boots,
Bones and muscles and minds and hearts,
English saplings with English roots
Deep in the earth they’ve left below.
Lie in the dark and let them go;
Lie in the dark and listen.

The poem’s final verse takes a swipe at those who profiteer from the conflict, preserving their own safety, with the airmen fly their missions towards mainland Europe:
“Safe in your warm civilian beds,
Count your profits and count your sheep
Life is passing above your heads,
Just turn over and try to sleep.
Lie in the dark and let them go
There’s one debt you’ll forever owe,
Lie in the dark and listen.”

These fragments are prompted by the 80th anniversary of the destruction of St Columba’s by enemy action, At the time, the Church Magazine (May 1941), carried the headline:
“The church building was destroyed by enemy action in a recent air raid.
God willing, another building shall arise after the war.
Meanwhile, in spite of war, the church lives on.”

Accordingly, this year is also the 65th anniversary of the dedication of the London Scottish Regimental Chapel - 25th March 1956; the ceremony attended by the Queen Mother.

At a national level, 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the Remembrance Poppy. The British Legion was formed on 15 May 1921, bringing together four national organisations of ex-Servicemen that had established themselves after the First World War: Field Marshal Earl Haig, Honorary Colonel of the London Scottish Regiment and an elder of St Columba’s served as the President of The Royal British Legion until his death in 1928.

Inspired by the poem of Lt Col John McCrae, the World War I, Canadian medic, of Scottish parentage,
In Flanders fields the poppies blow…
an American academic named Moina Michael adopted the poppy in memory of those who had fallen in the war. She campaigned for it to become an official symbol of Remembrance across the United States and worked with others who were trying to do the same in Canada, Australia, and the UK.

Also involved, Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin In England 1921, she planned to sell the poppies in London.
There she met Earl Haig, the Legion’s founder, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy as the emblem in the United Kingdom. The Royal British Legion, ordered nine million poppies and sold them on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately, raising over £106,000 to help veterans with housing and jobs; a considerable sum at the time.

In time Major George Howson set up the Poppy Factory to employ disabled ex-servicemen. Today, the factory and warehouse in Aylesford produces millions of poppies each year. North of the border, Earl Haig's wife Dorothy established the 'Lady Haig Poppy Factory' in Edinburgh in 1926 to produce poppies exclusively for Scotland. (Four petals and no leaf, unlike poppies in the rest of the UK)

Much of this is familiar – I am sure there is more you could share. Earlier, after we heard the description of the destruction of the original St Columba’s, we heard the words of scripture:
“… do not forget the things your eyes have seen
or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.
Tell them to your children and to their children after them.”
Deuteronomy 4:9

In other words: Tell the stories, pass them on. Remember.
Not as nostalgia, but to inform our present day, with all its difficulties –
tell them, even while acknowledging our current day Armed Forces face some very public criticism for a variety, if proven, of breaches of codes of conduct and laws of war. Let our remembering be an honest remembering.

Finally, as we have dwelt this year on a city under aerial siege, I finish with another account of London in its time of war,
from Robert Lind’s essay, The Darkness:

“It is the moon that makes London by night beautiful in wartime.
It is the moon that makes the North side of Trafalgar Square
white with romance, like a Moorish city
and makes the South Kensington Museum itself appear
as if it had been built to music.
London under the moon is a city of wonder,
a city of fair streets and fair citizens.”

This afternoon, gathered as Regimental family, military and civilian, let us remember how the war affected all walks of life, call to mind the debt we will forever owe, and maybe pursue our vocation, to be fair citizens in a fair city, people like us, on a day like today.

Sermon 21st November at 11am

St Columba’s, Pont Street, Sunday 21 November 2021
Healing of Blind Bartimaeus, Mark 10:46-52

In November 2007, my wife and I went with a party of about 20 people from different churches in Scotland on a visit, or I might say a pilgrimage, to the Holy Land.

Some of you will have visited the Holy Land, and you will have reacted to it in different ways. But no one, no Christian certainly, could be unmoved to be so close to, indeed in the very places where Jesus lived and ministered as recorded in the familiar stories in the gospels.

For example, there is the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem. In the basement of that church there is a silver star set in the stone floor, marking the place where Jesus is said to have been born. Or take the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, it is claimed, Jesus was crucified, and buried, and raised to life again. You can stoop down and go into the little chamber that was his grave.

But one particular visit that made an impression on me was to Jericho.

Jericho is about twelve miles from Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in the area run by the Palestinian Authority. We had a good time exploring the extraordinary archaeological ruins that have been uncovered there. Jericho is thought to be the oldest city in the world, going back about 11,000 years. You can see in the ruins layer upon layer of history, including what some archaeologists will tell you is evidence of ancient, fallen city walls. So we think of that very dramatic Bible story of Joshua and the Israelites marching round Jericho for seven days, blowing trumpets and shouting until the walls fell down, and the city was captured.

And it’s the city of Jericho that is the site of one of Jesus’ most remarkable healing miracles, the restoring of sight to the blind bigger, Bartimaeus, which is our text this morning. All three of what we call the “synoptic” gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, contain this story, so, clearly, the gospel writers thought it very significant. In the gospel we’re looking at, in Mark, it has something of an eyewitness account, with a number of details that suggest it was recorded by someone who was actually there. Most likely is Peter, Jesus’ close friend and disciple, whom we know is the source of much of what Mark wrote.

Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, for the last week of Jesus’ life, and the climax of his earthly ministry with his crucifixion and resurrection. There is a great crowd with them, following Jesus, listening to his teaching, and, no doubt , hoping to see one of his miracles.

Jesus and the crowd are leaving the city when they pass a blind man begging. Unusually, on this occasion we are told his name, it is Bartimaeus, which means son of Timaeus. One commentator that I read suggested that we know of Bartimaeus because he probably later rose to prominence in the early Church. Those who would later read the gospel, would know who this man was, and to whom the story refers.

That’s as may be. Here he is, a blind man begging, and when he hears the commotion of a great crowd passing by, and asks them what’s happening, he’s told it’s Jesus of Nazareth. He knew about Jesus of Nazareth. Something of Jesus’ reputation, and certainly his reputation as a healer, had been made known to him, so he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

(Interestingly, these words are a foretaste of what has been called the simplest and greatest Christian prayer, honestly and sincerely prayed by many Christians: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!” If you ever wonder what you might pray, that’s not a bad prayer to start with!)

Immediately, those around him try and silence him, they tell him to be quiet, they rebuke him. But he persists, he won’t be silenced, and he shouts out even more loudly.

So, Jesus stops, and calls the man to him. He says to Bartimaeus — and it’s a most remarkable and wonderful question — “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replies, “Teacher, let me see again.” Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” We are told that immediately he regained his sight, it was restored to him, and he could see. And, joyfully, he joins with those following Jesus on the way.

Let me say just three things about this story, and each one from the point of view of Bartimaeus.

First, Bartimaeus clearly knows his need. He is blind, he can’t see, he can’t live anything like a normal life, looking after himself, and perhaps his family, and earning his living. He can’t do the things that other people took for granted. He has to beg, wholly dependent on the goodwill and the generosity of others.

In Oxford, one of the things that the Covid 19 pandemic did was to force the City Council to take the homeless and rough sleepers off the City streets, and house them in hotels and university hostels. We had one such hostel very near where we live in Oxford. It was extremely well-managed, and we were so pleased that such a vulnerable and needy group of people were treated with the respect and dignity of good accommodation, and giving them the necessary support to help them back to independent living. Sadly, just in these past few weeks, the numbers of homeless people begging on Oxford streets has again become all too apparent. I don’t know what London’s experience has been? I do know that this congregation has a fine record of service to such people. I applaud you as you continue in this good work.

Blind Bartimaeus clearly knew his need, and he cries out to Jesus for help.

Someone has commented about the story that it is, and I quote, “An eternal picture of the man in need.” In the Scriptures, when we read of blindness, it often points us to something much deeper than simply physical or bodily blindness. It points us to what we must call spiritual blindness, spiritual need. In so many ways we simply don’t see, or don’t recognise, or don’t acknowledge deep spiritual truth, and our deep spiritual need. We are blind! We are in need! We must cry out, like blind Bartimaeus, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Surely, none of us here this morning I can deny that we live in a broken, and a sinful, world. There is so much injustice, and greed, and corruption, and violence, and so many suffer in misery, in poverty, and in want. And if we look in at ourselves — and I confess that this applies to me — we know that we share in the sin that so spoils our lovely and beautiful world. There is a war on, against evil, and the powers of darkness. This is the plain teaching of the Bible. And so we turn to Jesus, who calls us, and who says, “What do you want me to do for you?” And our answer is, “We want to see!”

My friends, and when we are honest with ourselves, and realistic about the world in which we are living, we know it needs to be rescued, to be saved, and we need to be forgiven and renewed. That’s precisely what is offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ, and what he achieves for us through his cross and resurrection. The world doesn’t have to be like this, there is the promise that in Christ we will be “new creatures”, and a “new creation”, for “the old has gone and the new has come,” as St Paul puts it. That is, I believe, what this story of the healing of Bartimaeus teaches us, and to which it points us.

Now let me turn to my second point about Bartimaeus: he persisted. Bartimaeus persisted, he wouldn’t be put off, he wouldn’t be silenced, we’re told “He cried out even more loudly.” He continues to shout out about his need for help, until Jesus stops and calls him, and heals him.

Persistence I truly believe is a particular Christian virtue, and one that we particularly need at this time. There is much to discourage us and to dismay us. We know of the challenges and the real problems facing the Church of Scotland, and the Church more widely, certainly in the West. Answers aren’t necessarily clear or easy, but we are called as followers of Jesus to persist, in worship, in Bible reading, in prayer, in giving, in our fellowship together as we support and help one another, and as we reach out to our community and to our world. The Gospel message is uniquely what the world needs to hear, and to see, and in this good work we persist. We will not give up, whatever happens!

I wonder if there is someone in the church this morning who is tempted to give up? If so, say to you, my friend, my brother or sister: don’t give up, don’t lose heart, persist, keep going, in your Christian life, in following Jesus, in loving and serving others in his name. If we’re honest, we’re all of us challenged, and we struggle, and we don’t always know what to do, or say, but let’s see in the healing of blind Bartimaeus the call to persist, and keep going.

And my third point about Bartimaeus is that he follows Jesus. Now healed, and his sight restored, he joins the crowd, and follows Jesus along the way. Bartimaeus had experienced the power of Jesus to heal, he knew what it was to be the object of Jesus’ love and compassion, in Jesus his need to see had been met. Of course he follows Jesus!

Let me put it like this. I believe that our Christian faith begins with a personal encounter with Jesus. I know that’s very easy to say, and I know that it’s not easy to describe, this encounter, this meeting Jesus, this experience of him. The four Gospels all have accounts of Jesus meeting people, encountering them, with the result that their lives are transformed, they are converted, they commit to following Jesus as his disciples.

For us, that may have been our experience as a child. In the family, from parents, grandparents, or other family members, we were introduced to Jesus. Or perhaps at school with a Christian teacher, or someone in our church or Sunday School. Maybe our encounter came later, through a Christian friend or neighbour, in an office, or factory, or shop, or wherever. We know it changed and transformed us. So it remains our source of peace, and of blessing, and of hope for this life and the life to come, and a great motive to go out and share with others that they may come to know Jesus for themselves.

So to summarise: in the healing of blind Bartimaeus we see his need, his persistence in calling to Jesus, knowing that only he can meet that need, and then, healed, he follows Jesus on the way.

For a long time I have been struggling with the challenge of how we communicate, how we transmit, our Christian faith to the generation to come. We know our churches have so often few children and young people. What do we say to them, and how do we bring them to encounter Christ for themselves? We are thinking today in the service particularly of the kingship of Jesus Christ. How do we bring children and young people to accept him as their King, and commit themselves to serve in his Kingdom?

No easy answers. But at its very simplest and clearest, I want to say, guided by the Holy Spirit, that the Good News of Jesus is true, and it works. It’s true, and it works.

In our postmodern world of uncertainty, of “fake” news, of false reporting, of widespread deception in public and private life, and so many people not knowing what to believe, we can tell our children that this is something that is true. And it works!

Try it, and see for yourself. Find your needs met and life transformed in Jesus Christ, just as Bartimaeus did at Jericho when he met Jesus so long ago.

Andrew Anderson, Oxford, November 2021.

Sermon 21st November at 5pm

Sermon 28th November at 11am


‘Be on guard, so that your hearts are not weighed down
with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life,
and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.
For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength
to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
Luke 21:

Each year, the month of November offers intimations of mortality.
In the wider church calendar, there are the markings of All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (2nd November.) Remembrance Sunday quickly follows,
and for us at St Columba’s we also hold our annual Bereavement Service,
inviting back the families and friends of those whose funerals/memorials
have been conducted by St Columba’s clergy, over the last seven years.

At a recent memorial service, the church absolutely full on a Wednesday evening,
there were warm tributes about the deceased –
from early years to prominent professional life.
Perhaps most memorable, and moving, was the tribute given by his three grown up children.
It took the form of a recitation - not exactly a poem –
but built round the call and response; the question: How long is a day?
The repeated response: Long enough to….
Original and affectionate, tinged with the eye-rolling frustration of family
who knew they are not recalling a saint, but someone who had shaped,
and will continue to shape their now adult lives.

How long is a day?

Long enough never to turn down an adventure
And to bring everyone along with you for the fun.

Long enough to make another friend around the world
And always get in touch and visit when you can.

Long enough to fall asleep to the 10 o’clock news
And long enough to wake at 10:15 and finish off your chores.

Long enough to always find something else to do before saying goodbye –
And ask the difficult questions just as we need to leave.

Long enough to know how to talk sense
But always long enough to have some nonsense up your sleeve.

Long enough to spot another bird and learn its name
To give the smallest things their due.

Long enough to take the long-term view
But also long enough to fill the next minute.

Be on guard… that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.
In the gospel, set for this first Sunday of Advent,
Jesus grabs his listeners by the collar with vivid imagery and fierce warning;
time of upheaval and confusion: roaring seas, distress among nations,
people fainting in fear.

Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Luke Chapter 21 begins with him watching the people make their offerings into the treasury. He draws attention to the widow’s contribution.
Then when the disciples are admiring the grandeur of the building
he launches into the warning that it will all be raised to the ground.
It would of course be sacked by the Romans in 70 AD.

But at the same time, he paints the picture – the promise,
of “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.”
I am still with you; the fear and the confusion
is neither the last word, nor the winning word.
Do not despair; do not be afraid;
do not turn away. Do not hide.
Why? Because it’s only when we embrace reality - that we experience the nearness of God.
The Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker.
The season rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer.
We begin, not with swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, shepherds in dressing gowns (marvellous as those things will be) —
but with the world as it really is, here and now.
“Gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.” Debie Thomas

“Be on guard,” he warns his disciples. “Be alert.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Look.
“Advent begins in the dark. It is not a season for the faint of heart.”
(Fleming Rutledge)
Jesus says, read the signs of the times, understand them,
just as you would understand summer is on the way,
when you see the fig tree sprout its leaves.
What do we understand if/when we read the signs of the times?
Rising sea levels, the extreme weather events, the forest fires?
Or images of refugees on the waters or rough sleepers on our streets?

In her weekly round up to the elders, Charlotte Bradford our Session Clerk
reminds us that December 1st is World AIDS Day, marked every year since 1988;
raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV –
opportunity too, to remember those who lost their lives to the disease.
2021 marks 40 years since the first cases of HIV.
Worldwide more than 30 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses
and a similar number of people are living with HIV:
it continues to be one of the most important global public health issues.

Each World AIDS Day has a theme, and for 2021 it is End Inequalities. End AIDS.
The situation in the UK has improved substantially in recent years,
but this is not the case around the world.
This World AIDS Day, the focus is on reaching those who have been left behind.

Do not be frightened to look – redemption may emerge from startling places.
A friend wrote to me this week of a project he is involved with
providing legal representation to children in foster care,
who are involved in school disciplinary tribunals.

Last month he and a colleague held a series of focus groups of foster children.
Initially the participants were quiet or hesitant;
My friend’s colleague encouraged him to resist any prompting
and to "embrace the silence".
In time, out of the silence, the voices emerged:
angry, defiant, pained, and sad - voices that carried the experience of being ignored,
talked at, talked down to, talked over,
by teachers and social workers who should have been there to help and to listen.

My friend reflected: “Perhaps we should all embrace the silence this Advent?
Hopefully in the silence we will hear the voices of others, and also our own;
I know that during this ongoing pandemic,
I am stifling my own internal chatter of anxiety, worry and loss.”

Advent reminds us that necessary things —
things worth waiting for — happen in the dark.
Spring's seeds require winter soil;
God's Spirit hovers over dark water, preparing to create worlds;
The Bethlehem child grows in the hidden womb.

Advent asks us to sit with the hear and now,
because the here and now is the place where God is,
however distant or silent God may feel.
Do not fear when the seas roar and the earth be shaken.
Hope fiercely and live truthfully.
Deep in the gathering dark, something tender continues to grow.
Yearn for it, imagine it, wait for it, notice it.
Something beautiful is waiting to be born.

Sermon 28th November at 5pm

Sermons - October 2021

Sermon 3rd October 2021

Sermon 10th October 2021

Sunday 10 October 2021

Job 23: 1 - 9, 16 - 17

The slapstick humour of Jim Carrey might not appeal to everyone but the 2003 film "Bruce Almighty" in which he stars with Jennifer Anniston and Morgan Freeman says some interesting things which seem relevant this morning. In it Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a "human interest" television journalist who is discontented with almost everything in his life. At the end of the worst possible day when everything has gone wrong on live television, Bruce angrily ridicules and rages against God, and God responds. God appears in human form, endows Bruce with divine powers and challenges Bruce to take on God's work to see if he can do any better. The film is a comedy, but it highlights some basic human reactions to God which are as old as life itself. Many of us rage against God when things go wrong in our own lives and question his existence in the face of natural disasters. Any natural disaster seems to act as a clarion call for derision of the idea that there might be an omnipotent God, for how could a God of love allow such suffering ?

These are just some of the themes explored in the Old Testament book of Job which presents us with a God-fearing and righteous man who finds his whole life in ruins : his cattle, sheep, and camels have been stolen and his servants have been killed; his sons' and daughters' lives have been lost to a tornado and Job himself has been afflicted with terrible sores. Beyond these disasters, however, Jobs' torment is compounded by the way in which his only remaining friends are convinced that he must have done something to deserve his misfortune. I would encourage you to read the entire book of Job, perhaps in a modern paraphrase such as The Living Bible or The Message.

Job's laments and protests occupy much of the book. He cannot accept that he deserves this fate and yet he cannot believe that God is unjust. So he wrestles with his friends and with God, choosing to believe that he would be acquitted if only God would meet with him. But up in heaven, Satan claims that Job only worships God when he is healthy and wealthy. Without all that, Satan tells God, you'll find that Job will reject you as soon as things go wrong, just like every other human being, for human beings are a bad lot. God takes upSatan's challenge but maintains his confidence in Job as a good person, one who will remain faithful whatever happens. God permits Satan to do anything he likes to Job, except to his life.

So things start to go wrong for Job. He's struck down by terrible sores all over his body, every member of his family dies as do all his cattle. He's stripped of everything and ends up sick and alone, with all his wealth gone.But he still has friends and they proceed to do their best to help Job, but they don't show much sensitivity. Again, these friends (known as Job's comforters) are a wonderfully true portrait of people we all know.

Eliphaz believes that the innocent never suffer permanently. Since he believes that Job is basically a good person he thinks that Job's suffering will soon be over and tells him so. He says that even the most innocent of human beings must expect to suffer and since all fall short of God's perfection, all deserve to suffer. I'm afraid he isn't much help to Job in his sorry state.

The second of Job's comforters, Bildad is shocked by the way in which Job's family has been wiped out and presumes that to suffer such a fate they must have been very wicked indeed. He believes in the doctrine of retribution by an angry and just God. But he also sees that Job is still alive and therefore thinks that there must be some hope for Job. Again, he brings no comfort whatsoever to Job.

Zophar is the third friend who is even more hardline than either of the other two. In his mind there is no question. Job is suffering therefore he must be guilty. Job is guilty, his suffering is proof of that and even worse, since Job refuses to acknowledge his sin he is a far worse sinner than anyone could have imagined, as far as Zophar is concerned, Job is doomed and rightly so. Like the other two, he pleads with Job to repent of his sins and be healed by God...

But Job clings stubbornly to his belief that he has lived a good life and that therefore there must be another explanation for his suffering. In our Old Testament lesson this morning, Job rails against God and demands to meet with God face to face so that he can demand answers from God. But God can't be found.

"If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right , but I cannot see him", says Job, bitterly (Job 23: 8 - 9)

God refuses to respond to a summons by Job, although Job feels that he desperately and urgently needs God and is surrounded by darkness in which there is no glimmer of light. This is the fifth time that Job has asked to meet with God. On the one hand, Job is confident that if only he can meet with God and plead his case, he will be vindicated because he is a righteous man. On the other hand, he can't find God. God apparently refuses to meet with him, and he has no idea what God might have in store for him. Perhaps his troubles will get even worse, if that were possible. So while longing to meet with God, Job is also in awe of God and fearful of God's power.

It does so often seem that those who most long to have an experience of God are denied. They hear of other people's wonderful spiritual experiences and pray for something similar so that they too might discover the reality of God, but it doesn't happen for them in that way. They are conscious only of the silence of God and his apparent absence.

The good news in the story of Job is that in God's good time, God did respond to Job. God didn't entirely accede to Job's request to meet him face to face, possibly because that would have destroyed Job, but God did respond to him. And this is also our experience today. In God's good time God does respond to us but it may not be in the way we expect. Like Job, we need to remain upright and honest with our integrity intact no matter what happens. And we need to learn how to discern God in life all around us, giving time and space to God if we wish to meet with him.

When disaster strikes in our own lives it can be easy either to blame ourselves or to blame God. Job offers a third path, which is to live with the questions themselves and keep on asking until, perhaps, in Rainer Maria Rilke's words, "we might live into the answers".

Sermon 17th October 2021

Sermon 24th October 2021

Sermon 31st October 2021

Sunday October 31st 2021

Ruth 1: 1 - 18

Then kneeling down to Heaven's Eternal King,
the saint, the husband and the father prays:
Hope "springs exulting on triumphant wing".
That thus they all shall meet in future days,
There, ever bask in uncreated rays,
No more to sigh or shed the bitter tear,
Together hymning their Creator's praise,
In such society, yet more dear,
While circling Time moves round in an eternal sphere.

Like Robert Burns' poem "The Cottar's Saturday Night" with its beautiful description of uncomplicated faith, the story of Ruth and Naomi is a simple tale of tenderness and pity, its tone one of broad sympathies and wide charity. Its setting is a peaceful countryside: its characters are honest peasants, hard working, neighbourly and contented. There is an air of genuine piety, honourable conduct and true love pervading the whole story, making it one of the most attractive tales in any literature and certainly a welcome interlude at this point in the Bible after the blood and thunder of the Book of Judges.

The family home was Bethlehem - located about 5 or 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem means "House of Bread" and it was probably named this because a lot of grain was grown in the fields around this village and it was stored there. Everyone knew that if they needed grain for bread, they should go to the "House of Bread", Bethlehem. As Christians we should remember that Jesus, "The Bread of Life", was also born in Bethlehem.

The little family, Naomi, her husband Elimelech and two sons Mahlon and Chilion, had to leave Bethlehem because of famine. The House of Bread was empty so they went to the country of Moab, modern day Jordan. It usually received plenty of rain so it had crops and we can understand why this family and doubtless many others made the journey east.

Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow. That would have been difficult enough in her own country but she was a foreigner in a foreign country, making life even more difficult. However, at least she still had her two sons, both by now married to Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. Sadly, the two sons of the family were to die fairly soon after their father, which is not surprising since their Hebrew names mean "sickness" and "consumption". Their mother Naomi was now left with two daughters-in-law, both natives of Moab, but while she naturally wanted to return to her own country and assumed that Orpah and Ruth would stay behind and marry Moabite husbands, one of them, Ruth chose to throw in her lot with her mother-in-law and to forsake her own land and her own religion. Infact as we read this morning Ruth responds to Naomi with some of the most beautiful words of love and loyalty in the whole of Scripture -

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge , I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die -
there will I be buried.
(Ruth 1: 16 - 17)

We can see that Ruth was committing everything to Naomi, and more importantly to God. It was total commitment . It involved every aspect of her life - where she would go, where she would live, who her people would be, her faith, and even where she would be buried. Ruth backed all this with a solemn declaration"May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" (v. 17).

This is how serious she was about staying with Naomi. Her mind was made up! So was her heart.

Ruth exemplifies for us the love of God and neighbour. She pledged her whole life not just to Naomi but also to God. "Your God shall be my God", she said.
When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to come with her, she stopped trying to change her mind and the two women travelled alone to Bethlehem.

Now Old Testament scholars... Are divided as to exactly when the Book of Ruth was written but if Ruth was the grandmother of King David which we're told at the conclusion of the story we will assume that it was written around 1200 BC. It must have been shocking to the earliest readers of Ruth's story to think that the grandmother of the great King David was a foreign refugee but for us over 3000 years later that thought brings the story right up to date.

We're going to hear a great deal about climate change over next week as political leaders meet in Glasgow for COP 26, one of the most important international gatherings to take place in the UK since the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, not far from here in Westminster Central Hall in 1946. Climate change is a matter of urgency because for millions of people around the world this is not theoretical, nor is it about warmer weather or wetter summers. For millions of people around the world climate change means famine and the need to move far from home if they are to be able to feed their families and to survive and like Ruth and Naomi, the most vulnerable are people women and children travelling alone. Refugees in search of food and shelter. I would encourage you to go on reading the story of Ruth and Naomi beyond the passage which was our Old Testament lesson this morning.

When they eventually reached Naomi's old home at Bethlehem poverty compelled Ruth to glean from the fields what the humane law of Deuteronomy prescribed should be left for widows and the needy. (Deut. 24: 19). Do we show such generosity to the poorest and most vulnerable today?

We can understand why the poet Keats could speak of "the sad heart of Ruth when sick for home she stood in tears amid the alien corn". ("Ode to a nightingale").

However the story of Ruth has a happy ending. It was while working in the fields that she met her future husband Boaz and they went on to become the parents of Jesse and grandparents of David. A reminder to us, if any were needed, that God can use the most unlikely people as part of his great plan.

Sermons - September 2021

Sermon 5th September 2021

Sunday 5th of September 2021

Mark 7 :24-37 
The Ugliest Word

A little girl in a Sunday School class was drawing using every one of her crayons. The teacher asked her what she was drawing. The little girl replied, ‘I am drawing a picture of God.’ The teacher replied, ‘But, Susie, nobody knows what God looks like’. To which the little girl replied without stopping her drawing, ‘ They will when I am finished’. So how do we really know what God is like?

You will not be surprised to hear that I believe if we want to know what God is like, then the best place to start is with the Bible and, in particular, the Gospel narratives. Some may recall how tight lipped, restrained and reticent with words Jesus was. He was a professional preacher, a teacher and so we might expect that the collected record of his works would be huge, like some of the teaching of his distinguished rabbinic predecessors. Instead, all we have is tiny, rather thin pamphlets, called the Gospels.

Whatever Jesus did, he did not nag people into the Kingdom of Heaven. His most powerful messages were not sermons, but conversations, or actions. He illuminated or illustrated the nature of God in the signs of care, the words of comfort and compassion, actions of love and grace which he extended to those who were on the edges and in the centre of society.

The setting of the incidents in the Gospel reading today may be important. In Mark’s Gospel geography appears to be significant and part of the message. These healing miracles do not take place in the area of Jesus’ home, but in an area and district very definitely ‘outside the fold’.

It may be crucial that Mark sets the incidents in the midst of alien territory. Mark appears to have been writing to the Church at Rome in particular. It was a gathering of Christians in a very different ethos from that of Judaism. Rome was an environment where Gentiles and Jews may have had serious tensions.

These two stories are clearly provocative and controversial. The first incident some find disturbing as it seems to suggest Jesus was extremely resistant to the request of the Syrophoenician woman. It appears, on first reading and hearing, that Jesus rejects her request. If Jesus had a public relations expert on his team, this incident would have been toned down or removed. Yet it is through the provocative dialogue with of Jesus that the wonderful mercy of God is revealed.

In Mark’s Gospel we only hear the voice of a woman twice. Once at the tomb asking, ‘Who will roll the stone away for us?’. The other is here when a mother is fighting for her daughter.

Perhaps we might need to think about this incident alongside a number of the conversations recorded in all the Gospel narratives. Hid discussions with his mother at the wedding Cana of Galilee, with the woman at the well in Samaria, with Nicodemus at night, his dialogues and arguments the disciples, the Rich Young Ruler, and the dispute with Simon the Pharisee. All reveal the wish of Jesus to disturb or reveal something which might shatter the normal assumptions of those who engaged with him.

Here he engages with a woman who does not share his religious or ethnic identity, to converse and reflect. As a result her faith shines through and, despite being an outsider, Jesus asserts that she is included in the compassion of God. She demonstrates her faith and Jesus declares clearly that she is encompassed and enfolded in the grace of God. Her demonstrable faith has enabled her to engage with the grace of God and, by long distance, her request is answered positively and her daughter is healed. In this account we learn that God’s action and caring concern comes in surprising and mysterious ways to people we might not expect. A message we may all need to remember.

The second narrative is distinctly different, though it still takes place in what would be ‘foreign territory’. Here Jesus uses personal touch, and physical means to cure the man who is inarticulate and deaf. The method Jesus used was not unknown in the Ancient Middle East for cures or comfort of the suffering. It even generated a pattern of using such physical actions in the service of baptism before the Reformation.

The physicality of the incident may , however, be more important as it clearly states Jesus touched the man. Touch is a very powerful symbolic gesture. We know this from our own time , through the care of babies who may die without human touch, in the AIDS crisis and the fact that touch was so sadly missed and had dramatic consequences for so many millions in the Covid pandemic due to the infectious nature of the virus.

What we may not realise in the familiarity of the use of touch and its importance to us, is the shocking impact this would have in the minds of the contemporaries of Jesus. There and then, the disabled of any kind or less physically able were labelled by society as ‘unclean’. To touch them, as Jesus often did, would be to become ritually unclean and unfit for worship. He broke with religious tradition in entering into physical contact with this outsider and suffering individual. By so doing, Jesus made himself vulnerable and open to accusations of impurity and failing to fulfil the ethical code of his religion.

The two incidents picture graphically the nature of God. They declare clearly what qualities God possesses supremely. In love, God reaches out to heal and restore us. God’s love is expansive, abundant, full of grace. Jesus demonstrates that God blurs boundaries and embraces enemies.

The Bible says ’Love the stranger’ 36 times. The longer and more often I read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and Mark, I become more conscious of the inclusive nature of the Gospel message of Jesus. Again and again we are being told by Jesus of God’s nature of inclusion. Embrace the outsider, include them.

A little known New Zealand art house film was made on a small budget, called Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It is the story of a Maori foster child who is placed with an unconventional couple living on the edge of New Zealand’s bush country.

The movie opens with a police car arriving at a ramshackle farm. In the car are a policeman, a child welfare officer and a pudgy thirteen year old, whose name is Ricky Baker. We are told that his is ‘a bit of a handful’. He lies, steals, throw rocks, defaces property, burns things, paints graffiti, and that is what they know about him.

As Ricky gets out of the car, the fears of the audience are heightened. Then suddenly we hear Bella Faulkner, the farmer’s wife squeal with delight. ‘Here I come!’, she shouts. And round the corner comes a large farm woman.

The welfare officer says, ‘Mrs Faulkner, this is Ricky Baker’.

‘Ricky Baker’, the woman repeats. She utters the words Ricky Baker as if they were the most beautiful words in the world that could be said. As if Ricky Baker was the best person ever to step out of a car. ‘Ricky Baker’ she says, ‘Yes, Here you are!’ and with that she encircles the awkward boy in an enormous hug.

Her acceptance , her inclusion, her generosity of spirit, despite all the evidence that might make her hesitate, overcomes and cancels any resistance.

Carl Sandberg, the poet was once asked ‘What is the ugliest word in the English language?’

He replied, ‘The ugliest word in the English language …’ and then he paused for a long time so that the importance of what he had to say was communicated, ‘The ugliest word is the word in the English language is the word… ‘exclusive’’.

Marks and Spencer in its advertising campaign some time ago got it right, They commended their wares as :

‘Exclusively…for everyone’, just like God’s grace.

Jesus demonstrates here that for God

No one is

Too far gone
Too low, too abased, marginalised, too far beyond the boundaries
Too bad to be removed from the unconditional love of God.
There are no barriers, boundaries, regardless of race, nationality or gender
In God’s view no one is stigmatised, branded as unacceptable.
There is no partiality with God. No preference for the rich or the powerful, the insiders and those who have apparently the influence, the means of determining the future and unfettered direct access to the ears and mind of God.
Due to the faithfulness of God
There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’,

There is only us.

The message is clear :
You are welcome
You are loved
You belong
You have a place.
God does not do it our way.
God thinks, plans and acts differently.
We enjoy blessings and privileges that we have not earned.

We are not saved by our virtues, we are saved by Jesus .
We are not saved by our good deeds; we are saved by faith.
We are not saved by sacrifices, by religious rituals, or by keeping the rules and regulations punctiliously, we are saved by mercy.
We are to be free from our reliance on our own virtues rather than the saving power of God.
CS Lewis is probably was right when he says there are three surprises awaiting us in heaven.

‘First the people who are there whom we never expected to be there.
Then the people who are absent whom we always expected to be there.
Then the greatest surprise of all, the fact that we are there’.

God is God of inclusive grace – the picture Jesus paints of God.
What does God look like?
A welcoming gracious loving generous inviting God ready, willing, able and anxious to include us.
Are we prepared to accept God’s invitation?

Sermon 12th September 2021


Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Mark 8:29

Emerging from the new school year this week
I heard of a memorable, mini-encounter this week.
A primary school child returned home after Day 1 of school.
His parents asked what his new teacher was like.
“I have the coolest teacher in the world!” A highly promising verdict:
“Yeah. She has blue hair…and tattoos, loads of them!”
I suspect there was a slight narrowing of parental eyes. … “Really.”
On one arm she the tattoo of an astronaut.
“When we asked why you has an astronaut tattooed on her arm, she told us:
Because when I was young, I really wanted to become an astronaut.
But now, I am a teacher making astronauts of the future!”
The coolest teacher in the world?

Identity, and the implications of identity, lie at the heart of today’s gospel -
North of the Sea of Galilee, at the source of the River Jordan
lies the city of Caesarea Philippi.
In Jesus’ day, site of Roman temples, dedicated to emperor gods;
home too, to local cultic religions.
A city reeking of imposing grandeur, politics and religion,
claiming the powers of heaven and earth.
It is there – deliberately perhaps – that Jesus asks:
“Who do people say that I am – what’s the word on the street?”

The disciples are not short of answers: “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.”
I guess those were the polite answers; they might equally have answered:
“People say you are the illegitimate son of Mary,
a heretic to your religion, or a traitor to your nation;
a fraud, a drunkard or a demon.
Oh, and there’s plenty don’t care who you are.”

Jesus neither affirms nor denies their answers.
He listens; allows the disciples to offer up what they think they know about him,
based on other people’s speculations and assumptions.
[This is how faith evolves. We name what we’ve heard, examine what we’ve inherited.
the “certainties” others have handed on. (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Sep 2021)]

After all the answers, voiced or not, Jesus’ haunting follow-up:
“But who do you say that I am? What do I mean to you?”
Perhaps there is an awkward/embarrassed silence,
as Jesus waits to hear what his friends truly think.
Perhaps there would be the same, if we were asked the same.

Do they really know me? Trust me? Love me?
Peter, the Rock, in a moment of impetuous magnificence declares:
“You are the Christ.”
Then just as swiftly, Jesus begins to teach the disciples:
“The Son of Man must undergo suffering, be rejected, be killed
and after three days rise again.”
Peter says “Christ”; Jesus responds “Cross.”
“Madness” Peter blurts back.

We shouldn’t be surprised.
The disciples’ great hope, cultivated over the three years of following,
the liberator from so many oppressions -
they had seen his signs, heard him proclaim a coming kingdom.
Was their champion to surrender without a fight -
submit to the death of a common criminal?
How dare he trample on his followers’ dreams and expectations?
“This is not what we signed up for.
There must be a better way Rabbi – more messiah - less… defeated?”

Peter’s persuadings bear a terrible echo for Jesus; the temptations of the wilderness:
“If you are the Son of God, the Real Thing...
Make stones be bread. Leap from the Temple heights. Bow the knee in worship.”
Now, Peter’s temptation: “Be messiah; but with the power that keeps you (and us) safe.”

Peter is famously rebuked: “Get behind me Satan” – the word meaning accuser/adversary.
It is not an accusation of evil incarnate, but a recognition that at this moment
Peter is less foundation stone, more roadblock – a hindrance to Jesus’ chosen way.
Peter nails the title, but not the meaning;
ironic, given the centrality of nails to the fullest revelation of Jesus’ identity –
the Cross and the scars of resurrection.

Then, addressing not just the disciples but also the crowds,
Jesus declares: “If any want to become my followers
let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.
To be a disciple you must cross the bridge –
from interested to invested, from spectator to participant.
“It is in the letting go of life, that you will truly discover it.”

There is no sugar-coating; C1st Palestine knew exactly what taking up the cross meant.
Imperial Rome raised crosses like billboard notices.
In 6AD/CE 2,000 Galilean insurrectionists were crucified;
Jesus, perhaps a child witness to such obscenities.

So, we might ask: What is the life that needs to be lost, to be saved?

9/11 Anniversary: Franciscan priest, Father Michael Judge –
Chaplain to local Fire Department in Lower Manhattan.
The first recorded casualty: Victim 0001.
Went to minister to the injured and the dying.
[In character – once when a disturbed neighbour took his own family hostage with a gun,
Fr Michael climbed in through the window,
to negotiate that they should go and have a coffee and discuss things.]
Iconic image: The firemen took time to carry him to a church
and laid him before the altar. Then returned to the mayhem.

Revd Johnston McKay, Church of Scotland minister and broadcaster
visited and reported from New York in the following days.
In his book: Glimpses of Hope: God Beyond Ground Zero,
he described visiting the historic St Paul’s Chapel.
In close proximity to the Twin Towers, the church survived,
and morphed organically, into an all-purpose centre for the relief effort.
(Not dissimilar to the St James Centre and the Al Manaar mosque
at the time of the Grenfell Fire.)

On the day Revd McKay visited, the eucharist was celebrated at the altar,
but everything else continued;
in the side aisle men slept,
sausages and scrambled eggs were being served at the back of church.
In George Washington’s pew, feet were being washed,
and on walkie-talkies (with the volume turned down reverentially low)
contact continued between the respite volunteers in the chapel
the rescuers still with work to do at Ground Zero.
And the priest spoke the words of institution:
“This is my body. This is my blood.”

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

Sermon 19th September 2021

Sermon 26th September 2021


John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,
and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’
But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him…” Mark 9:37-8

This morning, two tests for your powers of observation
for those worshipping person at St Columba’s.
One: Did you notice a restored flagpole on the tower,
the Saltire once more waving a benediction down Pont Street?
Two: Anything different about the doors to the sanctuary?
Their solid wood and glass have required an overhaul of the closing mechanisms.
A wonderfully, specialised craftsman restored them,
so that now, instead of an unguarded, heavy, swoosh-in-the-face,
the doors are easy to open, slow to close.
Easy to open; slow to close.
A metaphor/comment perhaps on today’s gospel (?)

Thirty years ago, a conversation short in length, but long in significance.
In the hills to the northwest of the Sea of Galilee,
there is a tiny monastic community perched on a hillside
above the Arab village of Deir Hanna.
The community was founded by two monks, an American and a Dutchman.
When I met him, Father Yacov must have been in his 70’s/80’s –
it was kind of impossible to tell.
With a definite twinkle he told me:
“I have a very good doctor. When I am poorly, he prescribes me a bottle of beer.
When I am very poorly, he prescribes me two bottles of beer!”

Part of Yacov’s remarkable story was how he and his accomplices
had first been drawn to that place and then established it.
The monastery’s few buildings are small, simple wooden huts.
At the community’s heart is an extraordinary cave/grotto chapel.
which over time the monks carved out from the hillside rock.
To enter the chapel, you descend a few stairs into its chamber.
The monks’ daily routine starts with prayers long before dawn;
the chapel lit by oil lamps.
This leads into a daily communion – by which time the sun rises, its light flooding in.

As a travelling student, training for the ministry, with many unanswered questions –
it was difficult not to be impressed by the warmth of Father Yacov’s welcome,
his generosity of spirit, prayerfulness, humour his faithfulness.
Surely, here were impeccable Christian credentials – a voice worth listening to.

On my last morning at Deir Hanna Yacov accompanied me down the hill
to the village bus stop. I asked him about how it felt to be this tiny Christian presence
amongst the majority Jewish and Muslim population.
In the village, Yacov was greeted warmly and widely;
I also knew that groups of young Israeli Defence Force soldiers
sometimes stopped to visit the monastery – receiving the same welcome that I had.
Pretty much the last words that Yacov said that day:
“I believe in the uniqueness of Christ.
But the older I get, the more convinced I am that God can use anyone.”
(Easy to open, slow to close.)

Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem for what will prove to be showdown
with the religious authorities and the powers of empire.
Time is running out.
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,
and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Somewhere along the line, the Twelve have begun to presume
that they alone are the managers of the mission of Jesus – the sole, soul guardians.
Someone outside the group, untrained in their ways,
their procedures, their hierarchies;
someone different, unpredictable – surely that shouldn’t be encouraged?
Ironic that the disciples’ desire to stop the “outside” healer
follows hard on the footsteps of their own failure
to cure a young child who is convulsed by seizures.

Jesus’s response? “Do not stop him …Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Apparently, preserving the power of his own group is not a Jesus priority.
If good is done by others – affirm it.
Followers of Christ do not hold a monopoly on acts of healing, or service or care.
Don’t waste time comparing yourself to others.
Don’t impose regulations that I have never required.
Instead, see where God is at work – look with unprejudiced eyes,
and prepare to be surprised.
Yesterday afternoon, arriving for the wedding of a church member, I was surprised to find the Upper Hall, overflowing with donations for Afghan refugees.
In time to be distributed to a local hotel currently housing some 800 new arrivals.
The work overseen by young volunteers.

Then, perhaps because time is running out, perhaps because this really matters,
Jesus, grabs his listeners by the collar and shakes:
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones –
be it child or widow, orphan, any of life’s casualties or bruised reeds –
if by your actions or attitudes,
it becomes more difficult for them to experience the love of God…Heaven help you!
A millstone round the neck and the ocean depths would be preferable.
Better to hack off precious limbs and go lame,
than to look perfect, but not understand the grievous nature
of arrogance or entitlement, ignorance or judgementalism.

Don’t be responsible for snuffing out the flame of another’s fragile faith.
Jesus doesn't speak literally, but reaches for the hyperbole,
so that we do not miss the point.
Consider, prioritise, care for the “little ones.”
In the kingdom community, Jesus says, there is a special place
for the weak, the vulnerable, the sinner, the struggler, the disregarded.
God forbid that our actions/attitudes ignore or exclude them.
(Easy to open, slow to close.)

On Tuesday we held a very small, family funeral in the London Scottish Regimental Chapel for artist and friend to St Columba’s of Gael Gorvy-Robertson.
Her connections to this place will be familiar to some,
but in the light of today’s gospel, worthy to retell, a little.

In 2001 the images of 9/11’s collapsing horror were replayed endlessly.
The world reacted with: Shock. Disbelief. Sorrow. Anger. Fear. Revenge.
Gael did something different – believing there to be an alternative offering she could make;
images of strong, peaceful buildings that enrich and enhance life;
images that might initiate connection.

Identifying a synagogue, a mosque, a Roman Catholic church and a Presbyterian Church of Scotland all in relative proximity in this part of London,
she asked each community if she could spend time in the four buildings
and see what emerged from her contemplations.
In time, she produced 28 photos, seven from each venue.
None of the pictures showed people.
Her images were characterised by stillness, light and dark, space and solidity,
emptiness and presence, a sense of unseen community. (A calendar of shadows.)
They conveyed connections between the external, physical, seen world of buildings
and the private, internal world of the spirit.
If you knew the building you might recognise it.
If you weren’t familiar, you might be struck by their commonalities.

In time, the exhibition was mounted in each of the four buildings.
If you saw it in your home building it helped you see and appreciate with fresh eyes.
If you visited the exhibition in an away building,
you crossed a new threshold, perhaps for the first time.
Breathing Spaces, was (and remains) something beautiful and creative,
at a time when those things were in short supply.
The foreword to the accompanying book noted,
in a time of heightened suspicion, people of different faiths were drawn into encounter:
“Gael’s calm offering and loving gift was like an ancient whisper
and as courageous as any gesture of halt.”

Gael, I trust, would approve of our restored door closers –
As current/temporary stewards of these doors
may we live out Jesus’ command:
Salt to our surroundings, at peace with one another.
Easy to open, slow to shut.

Sermons - August 2021

Sermon 1st August 2021

Sermon 8th August 2021

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


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


“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.”

Sermon 29th August 2021

Sunday 29th August 2021

The faults, failings, and hypocrisy of religious folk have long provided a rich seam of material for satirists and comedians.
Robert Burns' poem "Holy Willie's Prayer" is well loved partly because we read it with a glimmer of recognition. As so often with satire we laugh nervously because there is something there we recognise.
Holy Willie's prayer is said to have been written about a certain Willie Fraser who was an elder in the Parish Church of Mauchline in Ayrshire.
Although Burns has Holy Willie say

"Yet I am here a chosen sample,
to show thy grace is great and ample;
I'm here a pillar o' Thy temple,
strong as a rock,
a guide, a buckler, and example,
To a' thy flock"

the poet goes on to show that Holy Willie was himself a notorious sinner who spied on people and reported them to the minister if he thought they were doing wrong.
The poem is a satire of self - righteousness. Burns was not anti-religion. The poem is strictly a condemnation of religious hypocrisy and self - righteousness.

Much closer to our own time and place Barbara Pym wrote gently satirical novels such as "Excellent Women", based on life in the various London parishes with which she was associated in the post war years. A devout Christian herself she had a sharp eye for the foibles and occasional hypocrisy of those she met, not least the clergy!

"You hypocrite!" - is the accusation we all dread, but have probably faced at some time or another. It is an easy insult for atheists to throw at Christians: it is usually followed by "Religion only causes wars" - how often has that been said to you? I'm afraid that what I find especially irritating when cornered at a party or on some other social occasion by an atheist who wants to tell me that is that they all seem to think its wonderfully original and they are the first person to tell me so.
I must confess that nowadays I'm not always meek and mild and my answer is usually "Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all atheists and responsible for more bloodshed than any religious believer in history".

Despite all that, the fact remains that as Christians we have a high calling in the pattern of Christ, but must confess we continually fail to live up to it and actually practice what we preach.
Jesus often clashed with the Pharisees on this: what we say versus what we do. Indeed some would that Jesus had harsher words for those guilty of hypocrisy than any other sin: think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and those who walked by on the other side or how Jesus rescued the woman condemned for adultery saying "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone".

And we often think that the Pharisees were all talk and no action, but is this fair?
In our gospel lesson this morning it is Jesus who accuses the overtly religious of his day of hypocrisy - not for failing to observe their religious traditions, but for overdoing it to a ridiculous degree and thereby missing the point. Their strict practices are derided by Jesus as external human traditions standing in opposition to the commands of God, which instead make demands on the heart.

The encounter with the Pharisees comes in the wake of the feeding of the 5000. The crowd is still buzzing with the fall-out from that, the disciples are still trying to come to terms with what happened on the hillside and the boat in the storm - and now Pharisees and some Scribes accuse Jesus' disciples of eating with unwashed hands.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that it is what is inside the heart that is important. He says that they honour God with their lips but not their hearts. It is not what goes into a person's body that defiles a person, but rather the words and actions that can come from inside.
Washing our hands is a lesson we are taught as very small children and has become an even more important part of our lives since the pandemic. We have been encouraged to sing a song or a verse of a hymn to ensure we wash for a full 20 seconds. But are we sometimes more dedicated to the idea of the ritual than its practice - just as the Pharisees were to their rituals? Things become rituals very quickly, and we cease to notice what we are doing. That is certainly true in church... "We've always done it that way" may mean "That's what the last minister liked to do".

Inevitably what began as a dispute with the Pharisees drew an audience and Jesus addressed the crowd (v.14 - 15) "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile".
It seems that he wants to challenge the authority of the Pharisees to interpret the Law so the stakes are high. What he says seems obvious to us: what you eat does not defile you, it's what you say and what you do that does that, how you treat people.

The fact of the matter is, however, that we all extend, distort and subvert the commandments of God, to some degree because, despite being so straightforward, they are so very challenging to honour. They are no less than the whole-hearted love of God with heart, mind, soul and strength - and the genuine and sacrificial love of the most difficult neighbour. Far easier to busy yourself with ritual washing than to grapple with what that means each day.
In both Greek and Hewbrew thought, the heart is the seat of thought and action; so what enters the heart will determine what you think is right, and how you live in the light of it.

We know that one of the great debates in the early church was whether or not Christians were required to observe Jewish dietary laws. Mark's is thought by most New Testament scholars to be the oldest of the 4 gospels and possibly based on the preaching of St. Peter so his Gentile readers would have immediately understood the significance of this passage and what Jesus was saying ...

The choices we make and the words we speak reflect what is important to us, the values that we hold. How do the choices we make reflect the values we hold? Who and what influences those values? Today as we go from this place and return to our everyday lives, let us think about the things that make a healthy, supportive community, and what we need to live as disciples.

Let us pray in the words of the collect for the day:

"Almighty and ever-living God,
you are the author and giver of all good things.
Graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness,
and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen".

Sermons - July 2021

Sermon 4th July 2021, 6th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

SUNDAY 4th JULY 2021, 11.00am,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 11th July 2021, 7th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

SUNDAY 11th JULY 2021, 11.00am,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 18th July 2021, 8th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

SUNDAY 18th JULY 2021, 11.00am,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 25th July, 9th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons - June 2021



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To whom do I belong and who belongs to me?

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Mary Oliver’s lovely poem Wild Geese concludes:
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

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

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


Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, Mark 4:35-41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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