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Sermons - April 2024

Sermon 7th April 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirdly, the drama of the first week of resurrection.
The first day – empty tombs and familiar strangers in the garden;
Mary, called by name, bearing, breaking news to the disciples.
Then on the evening of that first day
behind closed doors, dreading fates, comparable to that of their Master;
Jesus comes to that justifiably frightened company.
Into their confusion - suddenly, jaw-droppingly, quietly – he is there.

And his first words? After death. After resurrection.
Neither stony silence; nor anger that they went AWOL on the eve of battle.
Instead, “Peace be with you.”
A bridge - from guilt to mercy, despair to hope, fear to courage.
Peace be with you – greeting and gift, restoration and command.

Re-formed, the disciples are swiftly commissioned:
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
“A boat is safe in the harbour, but that’s not what boats are for.”

Readied for sending, they are resourced.
“When he had said this he breathed on them saying,
Receive the Holy Spirit.”

For John, resurrection is also Pentecost; new life and immediate Spirit.
So, the Church is midwifed into being,
delivered and welcomed into the light
by the forgiveness and breath of the resurrected Jesus.

Famously, like a father caught in traffic, Thomas is late for the birth; misses it.
He hears about these extraordinary things
but demands more than make believe, to make believe.
Thomas, who didn’t yet believe in the resurrection,
intuits that if there is to be a resurrection, it must be linked to the wounds.
It won’t be the real Jesus if the wounds are not there.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, I will not believe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 21st April 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where might we be encouraged for truth and action?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Critchley Salmonson, Director, Firefly International

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

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

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

Sermons - March 2024

Sermon 3rd March 2024

Sermon 10th March 2024

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 17th March 2024

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 17
th MARCH 2021, FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 
John 12:24

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

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

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

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

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

Between these stanzas, the chorus/refrain:

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

Today is Passion Sunday; the circling aircraft of Lent begins its descent to Holy Week.
The crowds gather for the Passover Festival in Jerusalem;
Jesus too, with his disciples.

A group of foreigners, Greeks, request to see Jesus.
Much of the non-Jewish world spoke Greek,
so, it is convenient shorthand for folk beyond Israel’s borders.
Whether these Gentiles are sensation-seeking gawkers or genuine seekers,
their arrival, acts as a sign – like the first leaf of spring.
In contrast to the rebuke to his mother at the wedding in Cana –
“My time has not yet come…” (John 2:4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We want to see Jesus.”
As the shadow of Holy Week approaches,
I wonder if we really do – at least the Jesus of the Cross.
If we are impatient for resurrection –
eager to fast forward/skip the dying,
we are in the biblical tradition of discipleship.
Jesus had plenty of crowds, fewer followers.
By the end, that was down to a handful of women keeping a distanced vigil –
As one preacher drily observed: “… when they saw where Jesus was going,”
the disciples “remembered they had something else to do!” B Brown Taylor.
Or as another commentator admitted discomfort,
with the vulnerable, broken Jesus of Good Friday:
“I want a muscular, superhero Jesus. 
I want the dramatic rescue, the quick save. 
I don’t want to learn the discipline of waiting at the tomb,
in the shadowed place,
in the realm where my questions far outnumber the answers.”
Debie Thomas

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

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

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

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

Sermons - February 2024

Sermon 4th February 2024

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 04 FEB 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus raises her up – a woman ritually unclean,
a refugee among her own kin,
restored, on the sabbath day.
For the sake of humanity, more than one law is transgressed.

In turn, her response:
…the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
This too on the sabbath: she makes her choice, judging the consequences,
declaring by her actions that the act of serving,
trumps the sacredness of the sabbath.
She becomes Jesus’ first servant.
In time, her service will stand in contrast to the disciples,
who vie for places of honour, rather than reaching for basin and towel,
their master’s signature gesture.

After sunset, the ending of the sabbath, the crowds gather.
Many who are sick, in body or mind,
come to the rabbi who spoke with authority,
in whose presence healing happens.
This too will be characteristic of Jesus’ days.

Then after the tumult, their exhilaration and exhaustion –
a few snatched hours of sleep.
But long before the cockerel summons the dawn,
then when it is very dark,
the search for solitude – a deserted place, prayer.
Jesus prays in the time of dark.
We should not underestimate either the conflict or the cost of prayer, for Jesus.
But prayer is part of him.
He must draw from its well,
to replenish perspective and wisdom, courage and love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 11th February 2024

Sermon 18th February 2024

Sermon 25th February 2024

Sermons - January 2024

Sermon 7th January 2024

Sermon 14th January 2024

ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 14th JANUARY 2024 11.00 A.M.
(2nd SUNDAY after EPIPHANY)

“Go, lie down, and if he calls, say:
Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.
” I Samuel 3

“Moments matter, attendance counts.”
An e-mail received this week, came from the head teacher of daughter Olivia’s school.
Sent out to all parents, in response to recent news stories.
Stories that commented/lamented a recent poll which revealed
that 28% of parents no longer think it is essential
for a child to attend school every day, following the pandemic.
The head teacher, along with all head teachers, had received an email
from the Department of Education asking for support
in the national drive for attendance – its theme/motto,
“Moments matter, attendance counts.”
(Dictionary definition: To attend – to be present at.)

Nighttime: a boy on his sleeping mat at Shiloh,
illuminated/shadowed by the flicker of the lamp;
Daytime: a man, beneath a tree, dappled by its branches.
Both awake – just about; both awaiting – maybe; both expectant – not massively.
And us, in pew/on-line – wandering thoughts or wondering thoughts,
present or distracted – perhaps a little of both?

Scripture’s wireless broadcasts from two sources - boy-Samuel and adult-Nathanael –
tuning in, what signal strength do we receive?

From the youthful Samuel:
The longed-for, special child, Hannah’s first-born –
miracle baby, because up to the point of his birth,
everyone thought she was barren (no suggestion of a father’s role/health);
until the day she went to the temple in Shiloh and prayed for a child.
She would do anything to conceived, including give the baby back to God.
The old temple priest Eli heard her prayer, blessed it,
and true to her word she brought the baby Samuel back to Eli as soon as he was weaned.
So, Samuel grew up in the temple serving Eli –
by now elderly and losing his sight –
helping the old man with his priestly duties.

(Revd Barbara Brown Taylor) imagines some of the realities;
no clean lines and calm spaces:
“A place where stubborn animals were brought up to the altar to be killed.
A place of blood, where burning incense did battle with the smell but could not beat it.
Maybe Samuel tended the cauldron where the sacrificial meat was boiled,
or helped Eli locate the portion he was allowed to eat as the temple priest.
At night lying down by the ark of God,
the legendary throne of the invisible king Yahweh
that Israel carried into battle at the head of her armies.
Reputed to contain all the sacred relics of the nation's past:
a container of manna, Aaron's budded rod, the tablets of the covenant.
“Sleeping next to it had to be like sleeping in a graveyard, or under a volcano.”

(Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings, Voices in the Night.)

Yet, all this proximity to the rhythms and rituals of worship,
End with the verdict: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord,
and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

(“There is more to knowing God, it seems, than being in church.” Barbara Brown Taylor.)

So, the nighttime drama plays out.
God calls. Samuel hears. Goes to Eli: “You called for me?”
“No.”
A second time: “You called for me?”
“No.”
A third time – then for Eli, the penny drops.
Frail and badly compromised the old priest may be,
but he has the accumulated wisdom to pass on the advice:
“Go, lie down, and if he calls, say:
Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Words that will change Samuel’s life – the lives of Eli and his sons also.
Eventually, it is the uncompromisingness of what Samuel reports,
that convinces Eli the calling is authentic.
On account of Eli’s sons’ misdoings,
and Eli’s own abdication of responsibility towards them,
(failure to call out their corruption),
the boy the priest relied on to be his eyes,
shows him the vision of his own destruction.
Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
“Moments matter, attendance counts.”

“In the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets
at many times and in various ways,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his son.”
Hebrews 1:1.

“This son” heads to Galilee, finds Philip, invites him to “follow me.”
Philip accepts the call, then hastens off to find his friend, Nathanael -
seated under a fig tree. The detail is deliberate.
The prophet Micah’s beautiful vision:
“…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;”

The scholars see the tree as a sign of the presence of God.
and the term “under the fig tree” as an ancient Jewish idiom,
that means. studying the messianic prophecies.
Nathanael knows those prophecies; Bethlehem will be the Messiah’s birthplace.
Nazareth, on the other hand - a village of 200-400,
dependent upon the city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee.
lends no special status to its inhabitants.
Nathanael is skeptical; “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Preconceived ideas constrain imagination.
But true to Jesus’ original, Philip simply tells his doubtful friend: “Come and see."

When encounter follows, Jesus looks passed Nathanael’s prickly exterior.
Instead, names the quality he wants to bless.
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
A salutation that a devout son of Israel would admire.

Taken aback, suspicious: “How do you know me?”
“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Echo of Psalm 139: O Lord, You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.

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

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

Echo of outcast Jacob, fleeing the wrath of Esau, the brother he has tricked.
In despair, in the desert, lying down, exhausted, alone –
his head upon a stone; that holds the mystery of an altar.
O God of Bethel - the great dream of healing - a ladder, stretching from heaven to earth;
a ceaseless traffic of angels, ascending and descending;
Jacob’s dawn verdict: “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Genesis 28:16.17
Now a new promise from Jesus: “You will see heaven opened,
and the angels of God, ascending and descending, upon the Son of Man.”

Samuel and Nathanael – one heading the advice to listen,
the other accepting an invitation to come and see.
In differing ways, beating out the Scripture’s morse code –
“Moments matter, attendance counts.”

Two fragments to finish: an American poet, and a Glaswegian delivery driver.
In her poem Praying, Mary Oliver suggests that when we quiet ourselves and pay attention, we create a vital space her advice:

“… just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but a doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Or in the words of front door encounter, receiving a delivery –
The driver’s accent definitely, north of the border:
A brief interchange.
Glasgow roots – thirty five years in London.
He eventually asking – “Any plans for Sunday?”
Explanation – words to be found for our morning worship.
A pause. A thought.
“Stir them up!”
A raised/clenched fist and a departing smile.

“Speak Lord, for your servants are listening.”
For “moments matter and attendance counts.”

Sermon 21st January 2024

Sermon 28th January 2024

HOLY COMMUNION, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 28th JANUARY 2024, 11.00 A.M.
(FOURTH SUNDAY after EPIPHANY)

“On the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astounded at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
Mark 1:21-24

Occasionally, conversation with members of a certain generation,
turns to talk of school and memories of school disciple.
Not unusual to hear reminiscences of caning,
tales of the tawse, the leather strap across the hand;
dictionary defined as - “an implement for educational discipline, principally in Scotland” -

From south of the border, a story is told of a C19th Eton headmaster.
A leading educational figure of his day, infamous for his legendary beatings.
Numerous and vigorous strokes of the cane
to correct breaches of school rules, great and small.
Returning to his study one early evening,
he found eight pupils lined up at his door.
The hour being what it was, he knew they must be there for some misdemeanour,
and were awaiting the usual punishment.
One by one he called them in.
One by one he thrashed them.
As the last disconsolate figure winced towards the door, the Headmaster enquired:
“Thomkinson, remind me why I called you to my study.”
“We are your confirmation class Sir.”

Absurd/apocryphal tale – most probably.
But a window perhaps onto the question of authority –
its nature, exercise and recognition,
about which the Gospel reading also has something to say.

In recent Sundays Mark chapter 1 has tumbled forth in breathless burst.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Jesus comes from Nazareth;
joins the great line of humanity, wades into the waters.
John baptises his kinsman.
The heavens open, a dove descends.
This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. (Voice from heaven.)
Straightway, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.
He is tempted; angels attend him.
John is arrested.
Jesus heads for Galilee, slipway from private to public life.
Announces: Now is the time. The kingdom of God has drawn near.
Then at lakeside calls to the fisher-brothers:
“Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of folk.
There are other nets for mending.”

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

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

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

Jesus rebukes/commands: “Be silent and come out of him!”

A battle is played out; the convulsions are messy and scary –
I can only imagine there were people there who felt ill at ease,
embarrassed by such goings-on – in the synagogue, on the sabbath.
But one power is overcome by another.
A first sign of much that will follow.
Jesus is against that which diminishes and destroys people's lives.
The community gathered for worship
becomes the stage for a first declaration and deliverance.
Once more, amazement – such command, such authority,
Who is this Jesus?
Speculation mounts; fame spreads.

Today in church – a military presence –
marking the 80th anniversary of the London Scottish Regiment’s, Pte George Mitchell’s
winning of the Victoria Cross, the British Army’s highest award for gallantry.
In the Services community “authority” or rank is easily understood and widely recognised.
A glance at shoulder, collar tag, upper arm, a medal ribbon –
instant judgements about where that person stands in the food chain.
Sgt Maj’s coming – everybody stubs out their cigarette.
General’s on his way – everybody’s straightening ties and fidgeting with buttons.
His Majesty’s in bound – anything that doesn’t walk, gets painted.
Recognitions of certain authorities.

As chaplain to one of Scotland’s historic regiments, the Kings Own Scottish Borderers,
I once witnessed an insightful episode.
A World War II veteran of the regiment was invited to speak
to the currently serving soldiers at the weekly Kirk Muster.
When I was posted to the KOSB, I was warned that
I must never refer to them as the Kosbies.
It would be a dead giveaway that you weren’t part of the Regiment –
a sure social suicide. Always refer to the KOSB.
When their frail veteran walked onto the parade ground, his opening words.
“Good morning Kosbies.”
There was an audible intake of breath throughout the ranks.
He went onto to speak of his experiences in Holland and Germany in 1944-45.
Later in the day after much discussion, one of the Sergeants concluded:
“If he fought at Arnhem, I guess he can call the battalion whatever he wants.”
Speaking with authority.

From that same era, a powerful moment witnessed during a weekend
with the Corrymeela Community of Northern Ireland –
a body dedicated to peace-making across sectarian divides.
At a church cente in West Belfast, virtually on that city’s dividing line
our group were addressed by two women.
The first introduced herself:
“I’m a catholic, protestants killed my husband.”
The second: “I’m a protestant, catholics killed my husband.”
When they spoke, you could hear a pin drop.
Speaking with authority.

Each of us can probably bring to mind individuals who when they spoke
conveyed a sense of authority – not necessarily from the badges of rank
or markings of high office –
but in whose words, or actions,
there was an authenticity/integrity that you sensed/recognised.
A teacher, a colleague, a family or church member.
Maybe you don’t exactly remember what they said,
but as the messenger they were also the essence of the message.

Last night at a splendid Burns Supper we were reminded of the reverse of that.
The ploughman poet famously lambasting the hypocrisy
of parts of the church in Holy Wullie’s Prayer.
The kirk elder who fails miserably to live up to the standards
he so keenly imposes on others.
Jesus had some choice words for religious authorities of his day:
Pomp and circumstance that signified nothing;
hypocrisy of the pious charade;
the willingness to impose heavy burdens on others,
the reluctance to alleviate them.

Those words would emerge and be recorded, later and elsewhere.
“Jesus speech”, that would offer profound guidance, encouragement, warning –
foundation stones of our faith.
But of this Mark (at his point) says nothing:
Rather he conveys that Jesus’ authority lies in the combination of what is said and done –
the practice of the preaching. The walking of the talk.

In time all the Gospels will flesh this out.
Words - about forgiveness – but also, the forgiving of Peter who denied him;
About justice – but also, overturning of money-lender tables
in a Temple that exploited the vulnerable.
About servanthood – but also, the washing of his friends’ feet.
About suffering – but also, tears for his dead friend Lazarus,
and for his beloved Jerusalem.
About sacrifice – but also, the rendezvous kept at a place called Calvary.

Jesus, the living Word.
Supremely, honoured, remembered, re-enacted, in what we do next.
The breaking and sharing of bread. Communion. Holy.
Elders serving. All of us grateful for its giftedness.
A desire that all are fed –
not just bread and wine –
but peace and hope.
Rations for the onward journey.
Praise for its provider.
Reflection of its Author.
The authority of love.

Sermons - December 2023

Sermon 3rd December 2023

ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 3rd DECEMBER 2023 11.00 A.M.
(1st SUNDAY OF ADVENT)

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.”
Isaiah 64

“Therefore, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come …”
Mark 13: 35

On this day of celebration - baptism – Leo and Nathaniel
Profession of Faith - Iain and Sebastian
Christmas Crackers Lunch and attendant festivities,
what are we to make of our menacing-sounding scriptures (read by Rona Black)?
We might have hoped today for something encouraging –
angels in our midst, entertained unawares, a Good Samaritan, care of the young.
Something familiar – a bit of love - God, neighbour, self.
You’d hope.
Instead, because today is Advent Sunday,
the lectionary chef serves dishes, passionate with lament,
and spicy with warning.

“We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Isaiah 64
“Therefore, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”
Hark the glad sound of mournful church bells?
Ask not for whom they toll…

Many of you may know/remember the debonair actor, David Niven –
a host of films and a celebrity lifestyle,
based on the persona of the suavest of suave, English gentleman.
Before the silver screen he commissioned as an officer into the Highland Light Infantry.
One military Christmas Niven was on duty, on Boxing Day at the Citadel, Dover.
He and one other junior officer, Captain Trubshawe,
had been left in charge over the seasonal stand down.
The few men in camp had celebrated Christmas day in some style,
and all things were now moving peacefully, if gingerly, the next day.

Suddenly, the Mess Steward appeared, looking panicky,
announcing the arrival of visitors.
Behind him, was a real, live, Major General.
Lean and formidable, the very senior officer walked in briskly, looking purposeful.

With the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant away on leave,
it fell to the remaining two junior officers to show the General round the barracks.
Having only just arrived from Malta, their knowledge was, at best, sketchy.
The General was underwhelmed.
Things improved a little, as the barracks’ bush telegraph
summoned work parties to be conspicuously busy.
It was not great, but disaster appeared to have been avoided, until…

On the point of departure, the General barked: “What’s in there?”
indicating a large building with red double doors,
and Fire House written above them.
“The fire engine, sir,” replied Trubshawe, confidently.
“Get it out,” ordered the General.
“Yes, sir.”
Trubshawe resembled a man hit with a halibut.
“Mr Niven, get the engine out please.”
“Very good, sir…. Sergeant Innes – get the engine out.”
“Sir! – Corporal McGuire, the engin’ – get it oot.”
The buck accelerated away down the rank ladder.
The cry of: “The engine – get it out” echoed round the Citadel.
The General tapped his swagger stick ominously.
“What sort of engine is it?” he asked with ominous calm.
“Oh” answered Trubshawe, “it’s a beauty.”
“Get it out” snarled the General.

Finally, a soldier bearing a huge key doubled across the Square.
Niven could not believe his ears when he heard his friend say:
“Many’s the night, General, when this trusty engine has been called out
to help the honest burghers of Dover.”
“Get it out!”

At last, with the flourish of a guide at Hampton Court
opening the door of Henry VIII’s bed-chamber,
Trubshawe threw open the double doors.

Inside, distant against the far wall - two women’s bicycles, a dead Christmas tree,
and a bucket of hard and cracked whitewash from a bygone cricket season.
The General turned and stalked to his car without a word.
Niven concluded the reminiscence:
In the next few months, a tremendous upheaval took place in the battalion…”

“Therefore, keep awake - Indeed. But awake/ready, for what?
Advent, the season of waiting and anticipation has been described as,
an “abrupt disruption in our ‘ordinary time’.”
Today on the Sunday of the Church’s New Year,
the Biblical writers dust off the scrolls, to deliver their disruption:
(Isaiah): O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

In other words, what has happened to God?
God used to perform the mighty deeds of deliverance –
leading captive Hebrews out of Egypt into the Promised Land?
Evidencing unambiguous and visible power.
What now? Some faded heavyweight champion,
a shambling shadow of former glories?
Why do you now hide yourself from us?

While Isaiah laments God’s hiddenness,
the Gospel writer (Mark) paints the drama,
of what un-hiddeness might look/feel like:
“In those days … the sun will be darkened; the moon will not give its light,
the stars will be falling from heaven,
the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then (then) they will see the Son of Man (the Human One)
coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
Mark 13:
In other words: Stand by!
Amid signs of catastrophe, prepare for the Big Reveal –
sounding like the ultimate cosmic audit.
Apocalypse means revelation, an unveiling.
The Gospel revelation predicts a divine stock-take;
an end-of-time appraisal of the staff – humankind, us.
Are the barracks ready for inspection?

Our cautionary tale - unready subalterns and the absent Fire Engine –
suggest a necessary discipline to our Advent anticipation –
patient watching, faithful waiting.
Not time wasted, or bored indifference, or spiritless inertia –
more like a goal-keeper, Mary Earps,
lining up her defence for a free-kick –
intent, on her toes, vigilant, undistracted,
scanning the game for its clues.
We too, goal-keeper-waiting,
not just for Christmas – its stories and celebrations -
but for signs of God’s coming, God’s presence and movement,
in our day and age, our now and not elsewhere.

Like sleep, waiting can’t be rushed.
Necessary things – things worth waiting for –
often require time and fertility of darkness – think seeds in winter soil.
But the promise: “Worth the wait.”
“We wait to find out who we are.
perhaps to discover we were waiting for something we didn’t know about.” (Doney & Wroe)
“Yet, we are the clay, and you are our potter;
Now consider, (Lord & Father) we are all your people.”

We wait, perhaps to understand what we’re here for and what we can do.
Or, as another prophet (Micah) encapsulated:
: “To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”

Sermon 10th December 2023

ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 10th DECEMBER 2023 11.00 A.M.
(2nd SUNDAY OF ADVENT)

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist,
and he ate locusts and wild honey.
Mark 1

They say: “Clothes maketh the man – or woman?
You look a million dollars? “Suits you Sir!”
Red dress or black? – Red? – You mean you don’t like the black!?

A poem by the late Anglican priest, David Scott, entitled Nun on a Platform:

She seems in place here,
as much as in the convent,
self-contained, neat.
You could hardly call it luggage.

No frantic balancing of cups
but like a swan, which also
has no hands for magazines,
she stands complete.

No intermediate, half unsureness,
no drawing kids back from the edge,
or disappointment over missing,
or expectation of arrival

of a train, lean her,
like the rest of us, out of true.
We are all some distance from our roots
on this platform, but she seems at home,

as her Sisters will be
in the over large garden
reaching for tall fruits,
their thoughts ripening for pardon.

Seeing a nun on a platform
gives the day a jolt,
like an act of kindness,
or a pain that halts.

The poet observes/perceives a powerful integrity –
outer clothing and inner being.
More than just uniform – the way the anonymous nun holds herself,
self-contained, a serenity,
an enviable completeness.
As in place on the platform as in the convent.
We are all some distance for our roots on this platform, but she seems at home.

To glimpse her, is to be reminded of more distant horizons –
something of the beyond in our midst –
gives the day a jolt.

Another day, another set of distinctive clothing
and, potentially, an almighty jolt.
John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Camel hair and leather belt – a wardrobe of austerity;
echoing Israel’s mightiest prophet, Elijah.
Tradition held that before the messiah cold appear,
he would be preceded by Elijah.
Rations – locusts and wild honey – diet of the poorest.
No time for celebrity chefs and the comforts of scatter cushions;
Like that stationary nun, John personifies his message.
Out on the periphery, at wilderness edge,
away from the corridors of power, religious or political;
undiluted urgency, stripped of pretence, unprotected;
clothes making the man – he stands, a living declaration:
“Repent. Be forgiven. Prepare.”

Borrowed words, words with an echo:
originally spoken in the worst of times.
Jerusalem in ruins; Babylon the world’s super-power.
Following deportation in 587 BCE, the children of Israel in exile there.
Far from home, many believe God has abandoned them:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…

From bleakness, the forgottenness of a defeated people,
rises the voice of the anonymous prophet (“Second Isaiah.”)
Comfort, O comfort my people -
from the Latin cum fortis, “with strength.”
To the exile, the weary or despairing,
to the fearful, the dying or the bereaved - Comfort.

“Lift up your voice with strength, do not fear; “Here is your God!”
If we read on: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Isaiah 40:31

This is the passage that John the Baptist references –
Isaiah’s hope, in the midst of despair.
“A voice cries; in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

God is about to show us a new thing.
But, just to be clear: I am not that new thing – simply, witness to it.

The One who comes after me is more powerful than me –
How much more? “I am not fit to untie his sandal.”
Unfit, even to undertake the role of the lowest servant – that’s the comparison.

John did not know it at the time, but – in one of the beautiful continuities,
that link Advent to Easter -
the One, whose sandal strap John felt unworthy to untie,
would one day kneel before his own disciples, undo their sandal straps,
and wash their feet - his almost final, startling action;
the servant towel - “clothes” that make the man,
and reveal the heart of the Divine.

A voice cries out: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

What levelling up, what redistribution of heights,
might be required for the glory of the Lord to be revealed?
What landscaping/re-landscaping of society
might be appropriate for all people to see together?
One church in Northwest England offers food for thought.

“It's not an art exhibition, it’s a disruption.”
Words of Reverend Leah Vasey Saunders, Vicar of Lancaster Priory.
In 2020, Lancaster Priory became one focal point for local Black Lives Matter protests.
Several plaques and gravestones at the Priory and nearby St John’s,
commemorate merchants and captains involved in the slave trade.
In 2020, one memorial was sprayed with the words ‘Slave Trader.’

This began a process of bringing to light the crimes against humanity,
that were perpetrated as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
by individuals associated with Lancaster Priory.
Lancaster was the fourth largest slavery port in the United Kingdom –
Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, top three?
Yet very little of the town’s history was known/recognised.

Facing the Past, was/is an arts and research programme,
designed to reveal and redress these omissions.
Although much is known about Lancaster’s slave traders,
the opposite is true of the enslaved Africans who were brought to the area.
In time research revealed the presence of 76 Black Africans
entered into the church registers.
Registers for St Mary’s Parish, which includes the Priory and St John’s,
feature 76 entries for people of African or mixed African heritage between 1755-1837.
These include 58 baptisms, 13 burials and five marriages.
“These lives are not remembered, their stories not told,
and their names not written in stone.”
(Church website)
One of those individuals was Sophia Fileen,
baptised in Lancaster Priory on 15 February 1799,
recorded as ‘a negro aged 11 years of Lancaster’.

Lancaster Priory has had a longstanding partnership with EducAid, working in Sierra Leone. The Facing the Past team asked a group of school pupils there
to step across the centuries and continents, to imagine Sophia’s life.
Working with movement practitioners,
the girls responded to Sophia as a real person, not a victim,
as a young girl with agency, strength, beauty and joy.
The installation of the three, dancing figures in Lancaster Priory
is a result of this co-created work.

Vicar of Lancaster: “We continue to respond to the disruptive act of protest in our churchyard by seeking to disrupt the inside of the church,
making space for Black history and presence and encouraging dialogue,
to enable us to develop future resources to face the past truthfully.”

As the Bishop of Burnley commented on radio this week:
The launch of the three dancing Sophias, coincides with the launch of Advent.
Both are “disruptions” – jolts to the day.
As the Bishop continued: “We need disruptors,
not those whose actions are deliberately destructive,
or seek attention only for themselves,
but those who disrupt for a greater good.”

Voices advocating at COP 28 or COVID enquiry?
Voices asking awkward questions in Parliament, town hall, or Kirk Session?
Artists, activists, ordinary folk – prepared to disrupt because, not indifferent, they care?

Three years ago, at the end of a torrid COVID year,
a Thought for the Day broadcaster asked the question (Chine McDonald)
“What lessons have 2020 taught us?
Which lives matter; the importance of connectedness to community;
an appreciation of nature; a spotlight on UK poverty;
the importance of key workers; a reassessment of work/life balance.”

To recall those insights is always timely – but perhaps particularly in this season –
honouring John a disruptor – but, awaiting once more, THE Disruptor.
The One who would subvert the status quo –
overturning tables and upsetting traditions –
personifying a bias for the lost, the lonely and the least.
The refugee, who offers us home.
The judge, who holds the world to account.
The shepherd who feeds his flock.
Gathering the lambs in his arms, carrying them in his bosom,
and gently leading the mother sheep.
From despair to hope.
Comfort my people.
This is the One who comes again.
Prepare his way.
Follow his way.

Sermon 24th December 2023

MORNING WORSHIP
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 24th DECEMBER 2023, 11.00am, ADVENT IV

Elizabeth to Mary: “And why has this happened to me,
that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting,
the child in my womb leapt for joy.”
[And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’]
Luke 1

Two lives transformed, the cousins Elizabeth and Mary.
According to Luke, their tales run almost in parallel,
their similarities and their differences there to enlighten us.

The two women share a common religious culture and an extended family tie.
But their pregnancies attract different responses.
Elderly Elizabeth discovers the gift of new life, long after hope has departed.
Her husband, the priest Zechariah, is visited while on duty, in the Temple’s, Holy of Holies.
He responds to the angel’s announcement of impending fatherhood:
“How will I know that this is so?
For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”

His scepticism is met by his being struck mute,
“… because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time –
so, you will be unable to speak until the days these things occur.”

Zechariah gains a pregnancy of silence,
the enforced nine months of pondering, eventually ended by the all-round surprising:
“My son’s name is John!”
Public affirmation, that late to the party, maybe –
but he has finally tuned into the God-placed possibilities set before him.

Some months after the Temple angel, another messenger,
another surprising pregnancy.
This time a young girl, unmarried – circumstances ripe for discredit and wagging tongues.
In a land occupied by foreign soldiers a hint of coercion, or collaboration (?)
In contrast to the religious professional, the woman of little status,
questions – but then, assents.
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me, according to your word.”
A “Yes” that, in the poet’s phrase, brings “the world to its knees.”
(David Scott)

After Mary’s yes there is a precious, but often overlooked, gospel episode.
Any woman who feels the stirrings of a new life within,
surely faces a confusing mix of delight and trepidation, astonishment and fear.
Circumstances call for trustworthy and wise companions;
either those travelling the same road, or those who have travelled it before.

Mary turns to Elizabeth; elder than she, but also caught up in the miracle of new life.
When the young woman crosses her cousin’s threshold in hill town Judea,
she is welcomed without condition or restraint.
The world needs its Elizabeths – those who move past judgement and shaming,
to offer God’s blessing.
Those who can see beyond fault lines, to see God’s hand at work.

As the gospel portrays it; Elizabeth imparts a wonderful confirmation.
For at the sound of Mary’s voice,
the child in Elizabeth’s womb, that future wild, baptising prophet,
thumps his mother’s tummy with a boxer’s punch;
a recognition, a leap of joy.
Mother-to-be, declares to mother-to-be:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Addressing the teenager as the mother of my Lord,
and knowing something of her husband, Zechariah’s, response to his angel,
she concludes: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Blessed for believing: God believing in Mary, Mary believing in God.

Did Zechariah, the old priest watch from another room –
puzzled, wondering, what had he missed?
Visited by an angel he had expected things on his terms;
some certainty and control.
Now he watches these two women blossoming –
swelling with strange pregnancies, yet strangely joyful.

Luke conveys that though the women are individually addressed – each their own story -
they do not now travel or wait alone.
They are given each other, and in their three-month co-habitation
they recognise and affirm the unlikely gift that has been given to them.
Elizabeth helps Mary to become the mother of God.
Mary’s helps Elizabeth to become the mother of her son’s prophet, John the Baptist.
Called individually, it is in companionship, that the purposes of God mature.

Henri Nouwen (Dutch priest, principal spiritual voices of late C20th)
“The story of the Visitation teaches me the meaning of friendship and community.
How can I ever let God’s grace fully work in my life
unless I live in a community of people
who can affirm it, deepen it, and strengthen it?
We cannot live this new life alone.
God does not want to isolate us by his grace.
On the contrary he wants us to form new friendships and a new community –
holy places where his grace can grow to fullness and bear fruit.”

Road To Daybreak, pp101

“Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” declares Elizabeth,
To which Mary responds with a prophecy of a radical new order:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
… he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Famed, for saying yes, Mary also offers a defiant, no.
No, to an inequality that leaves the few bored with excess,
while the many scrape to get by.
No, to indifference; the “that’s just the way it is.”
Her talk of bringing down, and rising up,
points not to a reversal of roles –
so that it’s just a different set of people on the chairs when the music stops –
Mary’s Magnificat – her freedom song - envisions God’s justice –
a circle where all have a place at the table.
A reimagining/re-configuration that requires a double shift –
the empowerment of the formerly oppressed,
and the relinquishing of power and privilege, previously held.

I would like to finish with sharing something of an account I received this week,
that speaks of companionship and community,
among those who in the eyes of the world, would be considered the very least.
My friend, a resident of a large American city,
spends some time with a small Christian community that ministers
to the homeless and vulnerably housed of one neighbourhood.
Some weeks ago, unprovoked, one of the homeless guests – Jason –
was shot outside the community building.
He died, cradled in the arms of the pastor.

This week my friend attended a celebration of Jason's life.
“It was bitterly cold, and the air was damp
when I passed through the gates into the community’s courtyard,
quietly exchanging greetings to a few subdued members of the community
who were finishing their breakfast.

The small basement hall was packed when I entered.
The pastor had just started the service,
leading the congregation in the singing of a community classic,
We're talkin' 'bout a revolution - yeah! A revolution of love.
As we sang in response, we just about managed to punctuate the “yeah!”
with a punch to the air, but it was more lacklustre than usual, lacking energy.

Then a scripture reading, remembrances, another song - and tears.
“Make me a channel of your peace.,
Where there is hatred, let me bring your love.”

The pattern continued, and with each story and memory,
a growing wellspring/ripple of love.
Stories from Jason's friends, his pastors,
the charitable medical team who looked after his health,
people who drifted away from the community –
and who had been asked to leave it for a while.
“The news of Jason's death brought me back here. I realise this is home.”
“Jason made me feel special. He knew my father was ill and lived in Chicago.
He knew his name. He would ask me about my dad.”
“Jason knew how to RECEIVE love... we all need to be better at receiving love.”

In the midst of stories, a smart phone was held aloft at the front of the congregation.
It was Jason's mother, Catriona, calling.
A remarkably strong voice thanking the community for loving her son,
The pastor for cradling him as he died.
And then talking about the man who had murdered her son:
“I understand he had mental illness... he needed help,
but there was no help for him...
we all need to address that - we need to be COLLECTIVE.”

Then the mother's voice broke down,
but she had summoned the congregation to community;
to seek solutions and not to blame, to seek reconciliation.
And then the community's response.
It started with one voice calling out to the phone:
“I love you, Mom.”
(A reassuring familiarity from a man to a woman he had never met).
Then a tidal wave of love, shouts and cries of: “We LOVE you, Mom!",
“We LOVE you, Catriona!”

Then the Eucharist/communion and the Peace,
shared with whoever was seated/standing next to you;
broad smiles and a feeling of connection.”

My friend reflected: “I think the Community is an act of rebellion.
Today, it rebelled against the fear of street violence,
it rebelled against retribution,
it rebelled against the voices that think it would be safer for the community to close its doors. And it did what it is called to do,
it lifted up the most marginalized and spoke of them by name,
and gave their lives meaning.
Most of all, today's service was an act of defiance:
that love and not death shall have the last word.
And I would like to believe that to be true.”

“Blessed be those who believe there will be a fulfilment of what is spoken by the Lord.” Amen.

Sermon 25th December 2023

Sermon 31st December 2023

Sermons - November 2023

Sermon 5th November 2023

Sermon 12th November 2023

Sermon 19th November 2023

HOLY COMMUNION, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 19th NOVEMBER 2023

Let us pray 

Lord, help us to enfold our words in silence and to enter the silence which enfolds Your living  Word that we may learn the wisdom born out of the silence of the womb even Jesus Christ, that  Word made flesh - Amen 

St. Matthew 6;28b 

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow … 

Last Sunday, I conducted the Remembrance Day service at Cellardyke. This included marking  the Memorial Stone. The kirk was full. Amongst the congregation, there were representatives  of the armed and emergency services. 

There were a lot of young people too – parents and young children, the Sea Queen and her  attendants, the scouts and cubs on parade, the two captains from the Wade Academy who read  the lessons. 

Afterwards, I spoke to a member of the congregation and said how impressed I was that the  children were so well-behaved observing the silence and respecting the act of worship. ‘They  were well warned!’ came her cynical reply.  

This was probably true but I do not believe for a moment that this is what commanded their stillness and attentiveness for it doesn’t happen always when young people are in attendance  on other occasions. 

No matter where it happens, the Act of Remembrance is literally awesome. It commands our  attention not because it is about war or peace but because it is about service and sacrifice, the  sacrifice of life itself. 

‘Greater love hath no man than this …’ says Jesus. And what is our natural response to this? It is  awe. We are awestruck by the courage, the heroism, the self-sacrifice. This is what gathers us all  up into a profound and collective silence! 

In all the political controversies of the previous week, our nation was united for two minutes on  Remembrance Sunday. And this two minutes was not full of political opinion, inter-racial  division, religious bigotry but silence! 

Right at the heart of this two minutes is something which defies all our attempts to put into  words. It’s love, a quality of love inspired by Christ crucified on the cross! It is a love born out of  silence and silence is its awesome home.  

I think some would say that for a Church of Scotland congregation to initiate a ‘Festival of  Silence’ is counter-cultural. Afterall, the distinguishing feature of our Kirk is the centrality of the  Word and the importance of preaching. 

Despite all our words, there is a lot of silence enfolding the Kirk. In the first of its defining  Declaratory Articles, we read that the Church of Scotland ‘receives the Word of God which is  contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as its supreme rule of faith and life’. 

The Kirk is saying that there is not necessarily a one to one correspondence between the words  contained in the Bible and the Word of God. In this it refuses to define precisely the relationship  between the two, preferring to enfold its understanding of the Word of God at that point in a  profound silence.

In the fifth of its defining articles it writes about our Confession of Faith and how it relates to its  office-bearers famously declaring that they have ‘liberty of opinion in points which do not enter  into the substance of the Faith’. But it is careful not to define with any more clarity what it  means by ‘the substance of the Faith’. 

Once again, silence prevails. Instead of more words no further attempt is made to pin down the  substance of the Faith. What exactly must an office-bearer believe? It is not defined precisely.  What exactly is the Word of God? It is not defined with any precision.  

Instead, silence prevails and inspires respect for the other in the primacy of love. Just as the  nation’s two minutes silence unites people of differing political and religious opinion, so these  silences in the Kirk prioritise not the words which may seriously divide but the love which is born  out of the eternal silence of God. 

It may be unfair of me to say that silence must be a more elusive commodity in the great city of  London than it is in the ancient university town of St. Andrews where we live or even on the  shores of Loch Fyne where I was brought up. So the provision of carefully curated opportunities  to experience silence is to be commended. 

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus enfolded himself in silence. His words were born out of the  silence of God and he discerned this Word of God by regularly withdrawing from the crowd.  ‘Now during these days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray and he spent the night in prayer  to God.’ says St. Luke. (6;12) 

Out of an experience of prayer, the disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. And here in St.  Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches them about coping with worry and securing their well-being by  encouraging them to return to nature and the silence enfolding the lilies of the field. ‘Consider  the lilies of the field, how they grow …’ he says. 

He doesn’t lead us to some ancient text from the Torah nor the prophets but to the natural  world. It opens us up to the possibility of discovering God. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God  and the firmament sheweth his handywork.’ sings the Psalmist. 

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul articulates a natural theology. ‘Ever since the creation of the  world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and  seen through the things he has made.’  

As children growing up in Ardrishaig, we were mesmerised by Mr Carr who lived in a nearby  tenement flat with his French wife. Often we would see him feeding the birds at the edge of a  bush-lined path leading up to his flat. 

He didn’t scatter breadcrumbs or bird seed on the ground. He took some food out of an old  tobacco tin, placed it in his hand and waited until the birds flew down, sat on his fingers and  broke their fast. 

He was a man of deep silence. I never heard him say a word. But the memory of his patient  engagement with the natural world was awesome and intrinsically inspiring to a child.  

In his sermon, Jesus invites us to consider the lilies of the field. According to my Chambers  Dictionary, ‘to consider’ means ‘to look at attentively or carefully’. In particular, Jesus wants to  draw our attention to two things – their silent beauty and contentment. 

They have done nothing to earn their beauty. They simply grow in the grace of God.

Their eloquent silence articulates the secret of contentment. They are not busy striving to be  something else. Their contentment is the more surprising because their existence is transient.  Here today, gone tomorrow. 

In her startling essay on education, Simone Weil, twentieth century teacher of mathematics and  philosophy, begins, ‘The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer  consists of attention.’ The one is a preparation for the other. Both have their home in silence. 

She makes an extraordinary connection between school studies like Latin or geometry and  prayer. What leads the student from the one to the other is the development of attentiveness  which she sees as crucial to academic study. Education is not about passing exams but  increasing attentiveness.  

She goes on to argue that remaining attentive to the academic task in hand will reward a  student on the spiritual plane whether they are successful in the solution of their geometrical  problem or not. The insights gained from the attentive struggle will redound in mysterious ways.  It is born out of silence. 

And here Jesus does not simply direct our attention to the lilies of the field but to the mystery  inherent in their growth. He doesn’t say, ‘Consider the lilies of the field!’ simpliciter. But,  ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow!’ 

In the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly, the farmer plants the seed and then he leaves it to  grow. How does this happen? Jesus says of the farmer, ‘He knows not how.’ It is a mystery which  belongs only to God. 

For his part, the farmer is called to exercise a ministry of patience or long-suffering. The waiting  is full of silence. The mystery of growth takes time to unfold. It takes courage and strength to  wait in this silent uncertainty. 

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul challenges the divisions within the church so much  so that when they come to eat the Lord’s Supper ‘each of you goes ahead with your own supper  and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk’. (11;21) 

The mystery of the Lord’s Supper is being disturbed by divisive words. It happened at the  Reformation. Some said that the bread and the wine were ‘naked and bare signs’. Symbols!  Others said that they were transformed into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.  Transubstantiation! 

Our Kirk said neither of these things choosing to enfold the Sacrament in a mysterious silence.  In our Scots Confession, approved by the Scots Parliament of 1560, it says that our union with  the body and blood of Christ: 

‘… is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are  visible, carnal and earthly and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus ..’ 

Our communion is beyond a defining set of words and is enfolded in a silence where faith can  grow and in the understanding that in some mysterious way the bread and the wine become  what Jesus says they are, his body and his blood. 

Here St. Paul quotes Jesus as saying, ‘For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you  proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ ‘To proclaim’ is to announce or preach. It is something  done with words.

But the command is simply to eat the bread and drink the cup. They are silent activities. In this  silent feast, there is a proclamation not enfolded in defining and divisive words but in a  mysterious silence created by the Holy Spirit. 

The Kirk’s proclamation is born out of our obedience to the command, ‘Do this in remembrance  of me.’ And it’s enfolded in a silence which challenges those who would seek to define our  ministry too tightly in human words. 

Do you remember what happens after the Last Supper? Jesus goes out into the Garden of  Gethsemane to pray. ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and stay awake with me.’  he says to his friends. But they don’t. They align themselves with God. They do not respond to  his agonising prayer.  

Jesus is enfolded in silence – the silence of sleep and the silence of an absent God. Where has  God gone? Why doesn’t God answer the prayer of one who so eloquently ministered in his  name - healing the sick, raising the dead, embracing outcast and sinner? 

Experiencing the silence of God has a profound effect upon Jesus. It actually changes his  prayer. He no longer asks, ‘Let this cup pass from me.’ But, ‘Your will be done.’ The powerful  silence of God encourages him to hand himself over to the very One who has abandoned him  in the silence of his prayerful struggle. 

Here Jesus places his trust not in the presence of God but in the absence of God, not in the  affirmation of his enduring love but in the loneliness of one who has clearly been abandoned.  Like the Sacrament and our Kirk’s constitution, silence is the creative gift of the Holy Spirit which  wrought for us our whole salvation. 

So ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ and learn the lessons revealed within its  silent growth and form. For hidden in this English word ‘consider’ there is a Latin word. You can  see it in its latter part. ‘Sider’ is Latin for ‘star’ or 'heavenly body'. 

‘To consider’ is to look attentively at something as one would look at the stars. ‘The heavens are  telling the glory of God …’ This leads us to consider any education or activity as a preparation  for the spiritual life through the nurture of attentiveness, being present to the task, the person,  the galaxies of stars! 

So ‘Consider the lilies of the field …’ And not just the lilies but look attentively at everything as if  you were looking into the heavens and at this intersection between earth and heaven  discover God’s secret enfolded there in silence, revealing something beautiful and unexpected  shining out at you like a new star!

Sermon 26th November 2023

HOLY COMMUNION, ST. COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 26th NOVEMBER 2023 11.00 A.M.
(CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY)

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink …
Matthew 25

Today, the Church year gives us Royal Sunday.
The feast of Christ the King was first marked in 1925,
just a few years after the end of the First World War,
to counter a tide of rising totalitarianism.
Pope Pius XI instituted it, in the hope that a world ravaged by war,
might find in Jesus’s humble kingship, an alternative
to empire, nationalism, consumerism, and secularism.

Since Royal/Christ the King Sunday, 2022,
we have had a real time coronation,
food for thought about kings and crowns.
What images/memories do you retain from that day in May – its parade and pageantry?
How do you feel about worshipping a King?
Is King Jesus a helpful image, or leave you a little uneasy?

In C16th Scotland, the reformer Andrew Melville offered a bracing reminder,
declaring to King James VI: “Sirrah, ye are God's silly vassal;
there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland:
there is King James, the head of the commonwealth;
and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church,
whose subject James the Sixth is,
and of whose kingdom he is not a king, not a lord, not a head, but a member.”

Perhaps less politically explosive, that sentiment was echoed by Elvis:
“There’s only one King – and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Kingship may not be the image of choice for our own age,
but the language of kingship is deeply embedded in the gospel story.
Wise men from the East enquire:
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
Mary prophesies how her child will:
“… bring down rulers from their thrones,”
Jesus’ first adult, public words:
“… the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Kingship is even more woven into the tapestry of Easter.
Palm Sunday, the highly symbolic, provocative entry into Jerusalem:
“See, your king is coming to you, gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Later, Jesus dragged before the Roman governor, for three reasons:
“We found this fellow subverting the nation,
opposing payment of taxes to Caesar,
and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.”

Pilate faces an angry mob outside the praetorium,
then grills Jesus alone back inside. “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replies.
“My kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!”
“Yes, you are right in saying that I am a king.”

When Pilate weighs up the innocence of the man before him,
against the political cost of maintaining that innocence, he folds.
He declares the man innocent,
but then lets his soldiers flog and humiliate the prisoner
with purple robes and a crown of thorns.
Their fake and exaggerated obeisance, a reminder - to victim and onlookers –
of who wields the real power.
“Shall I crucify your king?”
“We have no king but Caesar!”

Just in case anyone is missing the point,
or is feeling the stirrings of rebellion against an occupying power,
fastened to the cross above Jesus’ tortured head, a parchment,
an additional mockery of a subjugated people:
“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
In Aramaic, Latin, and Greek – let the world understand.

There is objection: “Don't write - The king of the Jews -
but this man said/claimed, to be king of the Jews.”
“I have written what I have written.”

In time, believers will come to think of Jeus, not simply
as the king of the Jews, but “the king of kings” (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 19:16),
the “king of the ages” (Revelation 19:3),
and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).

So, if the biblical account asks us to proclaim Jesus as king –
What type of king is he?
From today’s scriptures – old and new – he is a king both of mercy and judgement.
Calling to account as well as protecting the people.
That is neatly conveyed by the thought:
The shepherd is a king, and the king is a shepherd.

Ezekiel calls out the "shepherds" of Israel who serve themselves
and ignore the weak, the injured, the sick, the stray, and the lost.
Pushed and shoved their way among the flock.
Consequently, the sheep became prey to hostile predators.
God himself will therefore defend the weak and the lost,
and but also judge the sleek and the strong.
Echo into this week's gospel
about a king who sits on his throne judging “all the nations”, separating sheep and goats.
Matthew alone records the parable/vision of the Last Judgement,
placing it along with several other stories connected to the end of times.
Urgent stories told, as his own death approaches.
Last words summarise what is passionately important;
what you want to hand on, to survive once we have gone.
For Jesus: understand that God’s judgement rests,
not on the orthodoxies of our beliefs,
but the willingness to ease the burdens of others.

The good deeds – food, shelter, care – are not revolutionary;
Rather, a regular and recognisable part of Jewish teaching -
responsibilities attached to the nation’s religious calling.
What is radical, is the claim – if you do these things (feed, water, clothe, tend, visit)
to the least of any of these, my brothers and sisters –
you do it to me.
To Christ.

Again: apparently, the judgement is not between those who believe
and those who do not believe:
The criteria is, between those who care and those who do not care.
How we treat each other is the barometer of our faith.
James Forbes, the former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City:
“Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

Soon, we will enter into Advent, a season of waiting, longing, and listening.
Soon we will hear the first cries of a vulnerable baby
who redefines our notions of kingship, authority, and power.
“But on this Sunday, here and now,
we are asked to see Jesus in places we’d rather not look;
asked to remember that every encounter we have with “the least of these”
is an actual encounter with Jesus.
“It’s not a metaphor. It’s not wordplay. It’s not optional.
(D Clendenin)
The person huddled beneath the blanket is our king. Let's see him.”
Or as the homeless shelter prayer for volunteers asks:
“Lord, help us to see you coming through the line tonight.”

Opening Hours

The office is open from
9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m,
Monday to Friday.

There is a 24-hour answering machine service.

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Find us

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

St. Columba's
Pont Street
London SW1X 0BD
+44 (0)20-7584-2321
office@stcolumbas.org.uk

Getting here by tube

Knightsbridge Station

Take the Harrods exit if open (front car if coming from the East, rear car if coming from the West). Come up the stairs to street level, carry on keeping Harrods on your right. Turn right into Basil Street. Carry straight on into Walton Place with St Saviour’s Church on your left. At the traffic lights, St Columba’s is to your left across the street. If the Harrods exit is closed, take the Sloane Street exit, turn right into Basil Street. Carry straight on past Harrods with the shop on your right, into Walton Place as before.

South Kensington Station

Come up the stairs out of the station and turn left into the shopping arcade. Turn left again into Pelham Street. At the traffic lights at the end of Pelham Street cross Brompton Road, turn left then immediately right into the narrow street of Draycott Avenue. After just a few yards turn left into Walton Street. Carry on walking up Walton Street until the traffic lights at the corner of Pont Street. Turn right and after a few steps you will be at St Columba’s!

Sloane Square Station

Cross over the square into Sloane Street. Walk along Sloane Street until the traffic lights at the corner of Pont Street. Turn left into Pont Street. St Columba’s will then be in sight.

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