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Sermons - December 2020

Sermon 6th December 2020, 2nd Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 13th December 2020, 3rd Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 20th December 2020, 4th Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 24th December 2020, Watchnight Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 25th December 2020, Christmas Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 27th December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall and rise of many.
We normally talk of the rise and fall of public/celebrity/sporting figures.
We build up, sometimes it seems, in order to enjoy their fall.
But the gospel speaks of fall and rise: echo of that other verse (?)
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons - November 2020

Sermon 1st November 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 05 NOV 2017

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, 
from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, 
standing before the throne and before the Lamb, Revelation 7

“Hallow” in Old English, means “holy” or “sacred.”
Last night, Hallows' Eve/Halloween – “the evening of holy persons.”
Today, All Hallows/All Saints Day.

What are we to make of it, this 1st of November, 2020 -  
in a year of unimagined things, 
in the week of a Presidential election, 
with implications well beyond the borders of the USA; 
in days before a second national lock down, due to continuing pandemic?
And in our own church tradition, 
which runs shy of over reliance on saints;
is All Saints Day simply the disregarded, elder brother 
of a more playful, trick or treating, Halloween sibling?

Earlier this year the Italian conductor and composer, Ennio Morricone died.
He created in many styles, but is perhaps most widely known for his film scores – 
the haunting music for The Mission, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, for example.
On radio, last week, I heard two musicians discussing his film score for Cinema Paradiso
Set in post-World War II, Sicily, 
it is the story of the friendship between Salvatore, 
the mischievous, intelligent son of a war widow. 
And middle-aged, Alfredo, the projectionist at the local, movie house, the Cinema Paradiso.

Initially hostile, the projectionist begins to teach the child 
how to work the film equipment, loading and changing reels.
Over time, sharing his deep love for the flickering black and white images 
on the silver screen.
During the shows, the audience can be heard booing 
when there are missing sections, causing the films to suddenly jump, 
bypassing a critical romantic kiss or embrace. 
The local priest, who previews the films, orders these sections censored, 
and the deleted scenes are piled on the projection room floor.

In time, Alfredo encourages the adult Salvatore to leave his small town and pursue his passion for film making.
He does – staying away for thirty years 
and only returning to attend the funeral of his mentor and friend.

The two musicians, listening to the film’s main score, 
discussed why they loved the film: 
because it illustrates what is handed on between generations.
In real life, the film score was co-written by Morricone and his son, Andrea.
Apparently, Morricone Senior had tried to dissuade his son from being a musician, 
fearing that it was much too fickle a career to rely on.
After Cinema Paradiso, Morricone Senior revised his opinion. 
No, you should go into music.
Passion. Passed down and passed on.

In our faith, All Saints Day is a day to remember what is passed down and passed on.
It is a day both to look back and to look forward.
Maybe not as dramatic as the film influence – Alfredo:
but most of us will recall others who have shaped our lives, and continue to do so.

Revd Tom Gordon: quoting from The Ecumenical Institute had this idea: 
In our heads, in that inner part of your being, 
there is a table, big or small. 
Round that table sit people who matter to us, who influence us, 
relationships that have shaped us. 
They may be alive or dead, 
they may be intimate contacts or people we have never met.
They may be literary/cinematic figures.
The table need not be constrained – it can, perhaps should be, 
a stimulating community, full of life and colour.

But because they matter to us, they are part of us – our communion of saints. 
“Everyone has a table. Everyone has their saints. 
Everyone has their time of communion. Everyone is influenced.” 

In November our focus shifts to those who have gone before us.
Remembrance Sunday; our Annual Bereavement Service.
Those who are living, pass from this life, 
yet they retain their place at the table, 
their influence does not diminish. 
As a friend was advised when his own father died: 
“Your father’s influence will perhaps be greater on your life, now that he is gone. 
Greater than it was when he was alive.”

And, as another friend was advised on the death of a family member:
“Yes, your loved one is gone. 
But in ways, you might not have guessed, you will get to know her differently.”
A new understanding of relationship with us - 
and the love and vitality that goes with it. 

"Christian faith does not assume a life (or world) of continuous security and familiarity.
 It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, interruptions and leavings. 
But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings – 
the leavings open a door to arrivals 
that could not have been experienced otherwise.” (Walter Bruggemann tbc)

As we remember and honour those who have gone before us, 
we celebrate the communion between past, present, and future.  
We draw comfort, resilience, and hope from the fact 
that countless others have travelled similar roads – 
mourned, hungered, thirsted, and grieved – 
found strength, rejoiced, celebrated;
lived bravely and beautifully. 
“The saints provide a glimpse of God’s already, 
in the midst of our not-yet.” Tim Beach-Verhey 

The question is therefore, ‘Who are the people round my table?’ 
Who/what matters? Who/what remains when inevitably death comes? 
There is also the disconcerting, but challenging thought,
That we might figure round the table of others – 
a name on the team sheet of their saints.

That imbues a sense of responsibility, rather than arrogance.
Gospel reminds us: Practise what you preach – 
integrity of word and action – in the professions or public service, 
in family life and friendships, in community and congregation – 
we know it when we see it.

[You have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. 
God is the father of all.
Let there be one Life-Leader for you - Christ.

Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. 
Puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. 
But be content to be yourself - your life will count for plenty.” (The Message, Peterson)]

As a child I used to catch glimpses of the former Archbishop Michael Ramsay – 
Ancient and white haired – he was exactly as I imagined the Almighty to be:
Ramsay once advised:
It is only a humble person (priest) who is authoritatively a man/woman of God, 
one who makes God real to his fellows. 
May it one day be said of you, 
not necessarily that you talked about God cleverly, 
but that you made God real to people.”  (Quoted in Barefoot Disciple p38, S Cherry)

Let us finish with some last words from Ennio Morricone, who wrote his own obituary.
“I, Ennio Morricone, have died.
I’m announcing my death to all my friends that have always been close to me 
and to those who I haven’t seen for a while.
I salute them with great affection. Impossible to name all of them.

There is only one reason that pushes me to send my farewell
to all of you in this way, and for which I’ve decided to have a private funeral: 
I do not want to disturb.

I hope they (my children) will understand how much I’ve loved them.
Last, but not least, Maria to whom I renew the extraordinary love 
that has kept us together and that I really regret leaving.
I send my most painful farewell to her.” 

Like Cinema Paradiso, his words are painful, poignant, beautiful –
it is not difficult to imagine that those addressed by Morricone 
will keep him at their respective tables for time immemorial. 
Just as we do with those precious to us.

All Saints Day and the accompanying, Communion of Saints, 
holds both sides of the bereavement coin –
the pain of the loss, undoubtedly,
but also a continued connectedness with the departed.

If that is true, we can pray, later this morning:
We thank thee for the dear and faithful dead, 
those who make the distant heavens a home for us, 
whose truth and beauty are even now in our hearts.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord. 
And let perpetual shine upon them. 

And as we set foot into the new week – most likely with some trepidation,
we are reminded that we are always at a crossroads, 
between past and future.
“What we will be, has not yet been revealed.
But beloved, we are God’s children now.”  I John 3:2

God’s loyalty is to the future.
So, guided by the vision and promise:
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal… 
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; 
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, 
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, 
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7

Sermon 8th November 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 8th NOVEMBER 2020, 10.45am, REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY

In 1928, after lying in state in the original St Columba’s church building, 
allowing thousands of mourners, many of them veterans, 
to pass his coffin and offer their respects, 
church elder, Field Marshal Douglas Haig was carried from this place - 
there is old Pathe film footage – 
so, commencing the long public journey –
from Westminster Abbey, to St Giles, Edinburgh, 
before eventual resting place in the ruined beauty of Dryburgh Abbey, 
by the banks of the Tweed.

Amid, the massive ceremony of it all, 
the Field Marshal’s coffin would have passed one landmark he knew particularly well – the grave of the Unknown Warrior, 
laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, on Armistice Day, November 11th, 
two years after the end of World War I – one hundred years ago, this Wednesday.

In 1916, Army Padre/Chaplain David Railton, serving on the Western Front 
was moved by the sight of a wooden cross inscribed “An Unknown British Soldier.”

In August 1920, Railton wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, 
to propose the idea of a national monument for an unknown, but representative warrior.
Railton was acutely conscious of the many troops who had died 
and whose whereabouts were simply unknown – the Missing.

Dean Ryle was inspired and approached both King George V 
and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George. 
The King was sceptical but Lloyd-George was enthusiastic 
and succeeded in winning him over. 
In mid-October a government committee was formed to plan the scheme 
and orders were issued to the Army commander in France 
to select a body for return to the United Kingdom for burial on Armistice day, 
just three weeks later.

Four/six bodies (depending on accounts) were selected; 
chosen because there was no way of identifying their rank or regiment.
After dark the presiding officer was led into the hut where the bodies were on covered stretchers.
Possibly, blindfolded, the senior officer indicated his choice.

The unchosen bodies were re-buried 
and the chosen one transferred to a coffin made from Hampton Court oak, 
mounted with a sword from King George V’s private collection.
On the coffin, the inscription: 
“A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country.”

The next day the coffin was given a guard of honour by the French 
until being embarked on HMS Verdun, a British battleship, from Boulogne to Dover.
Then train to Victoria, where it rested on the night of the 10th.

Enormous crowds gathered to street-line the funeral procession on the 11th. 
The coffin was covered with the union flag 
that Padre Railton had used throughout the war, 
sometimes as shroud, sometimes as communion cloth.
“It was” he said, “literally tinged with the life blood of fellow Britons.”

The funeral cortege halted at the now permanent Cenotaph. 
There was an unveiling by the King; at 1100hrs, a two-minute silence, 
Then on to nearby Westminster Abbey.
At the Abbey, in the congregation were nearly 1,000 bereaved mothers or widows.  
Within that company, place of honour was given to those women 
who had lost both husband and children.
The Government had been forced to revise initial plans. 
First lists appeared to too obviously favour fashionable society. 
Public outcry demanded priority for bereaved families.

The coffin passed through a guard of honour consisting of ninety-six personnel, 
decorated for gallantry, seventy-four of whom were Victoria Cross winners.
At the conclusion of the service, once the Abbey doors were closed, 
the grave was filled in, with earth from the main French battlefields 
and in time covered with a stone of black Belgian marble.

No-one was exactly sure how the public would respond to this new memorial.
In the event, they flocked to it. 
An estimated 1,250,000 people visited the Abbey in the first week.
Mountains of flowers and wreathes were laid at the Cenotaph.
Clearly, it was a much needed, public expression of a private sorrow;
Giving permission and focus for lament.
The unknownness of the Warrior guaranteed his democracy; 
an everyman - for every parent, every spouse, every child or friend.

Former Dean of Westminster, Michael Mayne – 
“In honouring this one anonymous man 
and placing him in this most public part of the Abbey on Remembrance Day 1920 
they were making the strongest possible statement about human value; 
about the worth of every single human.”
Each of us ordinary, at the same time, extraordinary.
Unknown. But precious.

What other unknowns might we find precious this Remembrance Sunday?
(Well, recognising today’s presence of an Air Vice Marshal)
In World War II, approximately 400-500 men from the Caribbean 
flew as Air Crew in the Royal Air Force – not something widely recognised or understood.
Of these, approximately 70 were commissioned as Officers, and 103 decorated for gallantry. 

I declare an interest - one of those who served, was my late Uncle-in-law (Clem Brutus).
Another was Guyanese actor, musician, writer and poet, Cy Grant.
Son of a Moravian minister and a music teacher mother,
in 1941, Grant joined the Royal Air Force, 
which had extended recruitment to non-white candidates 
following heavy losses in the early years of the Second World War. 
He was commissioned as an officer after training in England as a navigator. 
He joined 103 Squadron, flying out of Lincolnshire as part of a Lancaster crew.

In 1943, on the return leg of a bombing mission into Germany, 
his plane was shot-down over Holland:
“Suddenly I was falling in space and it was like a dream world.  
I remember being buffeted by the wind and being jolted as the parachute opened.   
You could hear dogs barking and then the next sensation was a huge shadow 
looming up in front of you, and that was the earth.”

He was taken in by a Dutch farmer’s, pregnant wife;
sixty-five years, returning to Holland, he met the daughter. 
When the local police officer handed him over to German forces.
Grant briefly considered evasion:
“At that moment that it occurred to me that escape would be pretty futile.  
Here I was with my blue RAF uniform, and a black man.  
You couldn’t stand out more obviously than that.”

He was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III camp, east of Berlin; 
made famous by two prisoner escapes, engineered by tunnelling 
and later depicted in the movies, The Wooden Horse (1950) and The Great Escape (1963).

After the war, Grant qualified as a barrister at Law, 
but felt that racism in the legal profession 
denied him the opportunity to practice in Britain in the 1940s. 
So, he went on to become an actor on stage and in film, 
as well as a singer and cabaret artist.
He was the first West Indian to be regularly seen on British Television, 
singing the daily news on BBC’s “Tonight” programme in the 1950′s.
He also sang "Feeling Good" for the first time on stage; 
a song that was later made famous by Nina Simone.
He founded the first black arts centre.

Unknown? Probably. Precious? I think so.
In recounting his wartime experience, Grant himself mused on the question:
“What would have happened if my parachute hadn’t opened?”
Remembrance can, perhaps should, always ask awkward questions.
W H Auden’s, Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier (English)
To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?
What would those who died prematurely have wanted to do?
How do we value the opportunities that they gave up?
Remembrance’s annual question: How do we live with the days given to us?

In the Gospel, via the ready or not, here I come, bridesmaids’ tale – 
Jesus delivers the punchline: 
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 23:13 

It is a reminder that we have all the time in the world – 
nothing more and nothing less.
Wonderful possibility, but sands of time, too.
The opportunity to mend a friendship or forgive a debt, 
To cherish a loved one or take a chance,
to re-examine a prejudice, or let go a bitterness,
to break a habit, to confront an injustice, 
to sing in faith and pray in depth - 
these beautiful, fundamental things, will not always be there.
Both the gospel and Remembrance warn us: 
Do not presume that tomorrow belongs to us.  
People of faith, or not, 
they urge us to do the right thing, the necessary thing, 
the sacred thing, the Christ-like thing, now.

On this unimagined Remembrance weekend – 
our Armed Forces currently deployed on pandemic duties;
With the absolutely characteristic humour of the serving soldier,
I was told that the news of being billeted temporarily in a Liverpool holiday camp 
was greeted with:
“I’d rather go to Afghanistan than Pontins!”

At a time when the world is restless and fearful in the face of so many unknowns,
I finish with words from a wartime diary, 
written in 1942, by a veteran of Crete, North Africa, Italy and Normandy.

“War is like a fever; a violent disease which has to run its course.
Physicians can prescribe, nurses watch and toil, 
and in their devoted ceaseless labours 
future life and death may, and does, depend. 

But nothing they can do can alter the violence of the disease, 
its fluctuations, its recurring crises. 
They have to be borne patiently and treated as they arise. 
Anxiety on the part of onlookers when things go wrong – 
as go wrong they will – can do no good; 
in certain circumstances it can do great harm. 

The only proper course is to do all we humanely can, 
and remain calm and cheerful.
This is the proper course (for fever) and also in war.”  p202, Hilyard Diaries  

Keep awake therefore,
for though we know neither the day nor the hour,
let us live as known, and precious
in the sight of our loving God and Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Sermon 15th November 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2020

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;
so, I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
Here you have what is yours.” Matthew 25:24b-25

How prepared are we to change our minds? A little – not at all?
Where lie our strong opinions?
About US Presidents, about Brexit; Scottish Independence or Scottish goalkeepers?
Climate change action, a friendship or betrayal, Black Lives Matter,
Prison reform, or Government Guidelines in time of pandemic?
Might we, or will we never, change our minds on such things?

An American friend, a Biden voter, in the light of recent results wrote this week:
“Feeling hopeful. And cautious.
70 million people voted for the current President. 48% of all voters.
I think it's time for me to learn how to reach out and listen better.
They have a story to tell that I just don't understand - yet.”

The gospel read today by Jo is perhaps a story that I don’t understand yet
or more accurately, that due to the insights of others,
I am beginning to understand differently.

Sometimes referred to as the parable of the talents;
It is often the catalyst to consider how we use/don’t use – share/don’t share
our God given talents – whether that be our ability to study at school,
mentor young people, practice law, cook meals, kick a football, care for the dying
or read the workings of the human heart.
Talk of talents often goes hand in hand with talk of stewardship –
time, talents and money. Fair enough.
Three years ago, (the last time we read this passage)
that was the interpretation on the Sunday morning menu.

“How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from.” B Brown Taylor
If the parable is really about stewardship,
what else do we imbibe along the way?
That God is best pictured, as greedy estate owner,
“reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter.”
Is the kingdom of God really a place,
where those who have plenty, receive still more,
while those who have close to nothing, lose even the little they have?

What if more familiar, more comfortable reading
is obscuring a more challenging truth?
One commentator reported reading the parable to her teenage son this week,
fully expecting him to hate it.
His reaction astonished her. “That’s a great passage!” he said.
“It sums up everything Christianity is about. I love it!”
Baffled, the theologian asked him, what exactly he "loved."
“Isn’t it obvious? I love how the third slave is the hero of the story!”

The scholars tell us, in Jesus’s day, “talents” were not coins/forms of cash;
they were hefty precious metals (usually gold or silver)
weighing somewhere between 80 and 130 pounds.
A single talent was worth approximately 15-20 years of an ordinary labourer’s wages –
an unthinkable, lottery-jackpot-sum, only the wealthiest elite might possess.
Much of that elite wealth had been accumulated by money lent to the farming poor
at exorbitant interest,
followed by systematic stripping debtors of their land.

The three slaves in the story are the wealthy master’s “retainers” or household bureaucrats —
the middle-men who oversee the land and the workers,
running the day to day business while the master is away.
Their status, wealth, and well-being are inextricably tied to the master’s.
The more money they make for him,
the better and more comfortable their own lives – that’s their bottom line.

Two of the slaves do exactly that.
They take their masters riches, built on the existing system and double them.
Who knows what the collateral damage is, or who bears the real costs;
But that is not the concern of these stewards.
When the master returns, he is delighted.
He invites the two enterprising slaves to enter into his “joy” -
the joy of further wealth, further safety – for some.
Don’t worry about the disparity.

Then, the third slave: The third slave in the story opts out.
He sees his master’s character - greedy and corrupt.
He will be complicit, no more.
Riskily, he speaks out: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter seed;
So, I was afraid, (afraid of what this life was doing?)
and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
Now, here – have back what is yours.”

The master does not dispute the slave’s assessment of his harshness.
“You’re right, my way or the highway!
Therefore, you should have at least, invested with the bankers and gained interest.”
And there is a moment of truth/an epiphany.
From his own lips, this successful owner advocates what is forbidden by the law.
(Exodus 22 and Leviticus 25).
Jesus’ audience would know that –
would have understood that this wealthy icon, was not the parable’s hero –
but unmasked as its villain.
The truth is out: The parable master does not care how the slaves make more money for him.
He wants more; he doesn’t care who knows it.
The parable is an echo of all those prophets, who in Israel’s history
harangued the political and religious elite for feathering their own nests,
while the poor suffered through a system, stacked against them.

The resistance? Knowing full well what it will cost him,
the slave buries the heavy talent in the earth.
He hides it – literally, taking it out of circulation,
thereby diminishing the system, that diminishes the poor.
“The slave is more than a quiet hero; he is a whistle-blower.” (Herzog)
At great cost to himself, he names the exploitation —
the same exploitation he colluded in and benefited from, for years.
Now he awakes, he changes his mind, he acts,
offering his stubborn ounces against the tide.

The parable concludes with the gathered wrath of an indignant leader,
whose grip is threatened,
Casting the slave into outer darkness.
the owner ruthlessly increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
The parable offers no fairy-tale ending –
but then it is told by one who, short days later,
would also be “cast into the outer darkness” -
crucified on the rubbish heaps beyond the city walls.
[Another buried talent.]

How prepared are we to change our minds? A little – not at all?
A story I just don't understand - yet.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died last week, once explained
that to overcome periods of adversity, requires us to have:
“a special kind of thought… the ability to see things differently,
to alter perspectives… to see the things, you have seen all along, but never noticed.”

Last Sunday, immediately after the end of our Remembrance Sunday service,
An encounter took place on our church steps that continues to live with me.
Outside our locked doors, I chatted to the Regimental Colonel of the London Scottish Regiment. Taken together, we were both male, white and between us bore military medals, a smart suit, poppies and robes of religion.
On Remembrance Sunday we could not have looked more
the common and accepted face of Remembrance.

From around the corner we were approached by a black man.
Though cleanly dressed, he had the slightly wild intensity
of one who might be living on the streets.
Initially, he wanted to enter the church to pray.
I explained that that wasn’t possible, due to our current restrictions.

Fixing on the medals and the poppies,
there followed a passionately delivered, if difficult to follow,
volley of critique – of war, of imperialism, of slavery and of race.
There was little in one sense that could be responded to.
A moment later he said, “I have a message for you. I have a book. Wait there I’ll get it.”
He disappeared around the corner, while the two of us waited, a little open-mouthed.
Swiftly he returned.
And thrust it into my hand.
Its title: “How to be a Fascist.”
And then he was gone.

What histories, legacies, and communities have we/do we side-line
What existing complicities are we being asked to surrender?
Are we being called to be unfaithful,
to ways of life that are comfortable for us,
but death dealing for others.?

“How you hear a parable has a lot to do with where you are hearing it from.”
Wrestling such change in ourselves and others may not win us favour or friends;
Bill Arlow, priest in Northern Ireland, an unsung hero of the peace process.
Back in 1988, when the end of the Troubles was not in sight:
“Better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed,
than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail.”
(Quoted by Sam Wells, T4tD, Nov 2020)

 

Sermon 22nd November 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
22nd November 2020

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40

If you follow, or enjoy, a bit of TV hype,
you may know that recently the new series of The Crown has been released.
Tracing the fortunes of the British royal family,
it is part historical, part soap-opera; 100% sumptuous backdrops.
Whether you love or loathe its representation of the principal characters
may depend on how you view royalty generally.

This week, at home, we had a further glimpse of screen royalty,
when we dusted off the DVD of My Fair Lady.
Audrey Hepburn, the beautiful, if unlikely, Covent Garden flower girl,
“raised from the gutter” by the bullying, linguistic professor,
(Rex Harrison’s), Henry Higgins.
The story’s irony is that as Eliza passes the test
of being presented at the Embassy Ball, in the presence of royalty,
the rumour is gossiped round the chandelier-ed ballroom:
the mystery lady is a fraud –
but, not that she is an East End flower girl assuming airs and graces,
but actually, a Hungarian princess, trying to be English!
(Wonderful tunes; a perhaps dated world view.)

Today, the Church year gives us our own 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.
[Writing in the Encyclical that established the feast:
“…as long as individuals and states refuse to submit to the rule of our Saviour,
there will be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.”]

At the end of the Church year, on Royal Sunday,
one might anticipate a big closing number;
a mighty finale, to send us out humming gospel chorus.
Jesus walking upon the waters or calming the storm;
Jesus transfigured on the mountain, walking with Moses and Elijah;
Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave.

Instead, as one commentator wrote this week: We get homeless Jesus.
Hungry Jesus, naked Jesus, sick Jesus, imprisoned Jesus.
(Debie Thomas, Journey With Jesus, Nov 2020)
“Royalty that stoops.” (Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge.)

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.

A senior officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary once spoke about
visiting families of those bereaved by the troubles in Northern Ireland:
His advice: “People do not care how much you know,
until they know how much you care.”

Sheep and goats; all day grazing together, virtually indistinguishable;
at evening time, identified, according to type.
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.

In My Fair Lady, the mother of the abrasive Professor Higgins asks Eliza:
“However did you learn good manners with my son around?”
Eliza answers that it was only because of the genial Colonel Pickering
who always acted towards her as something better than a common flower girl.
“You see, Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up,
the difference between a lady and a flower girl
is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”

Lat week, in the light of another parable – The Talents –
we pondered the thought, how we hear a parable,
depends on where you hear it from.
In today’s case – Are we being called to care
or are we crying out for care?

I was very taken recently with words from a volunteer,
involved with the work of the Night Shelters.
I know this person to be incredibly faithful;
quietly, week by week undertaking a very unglamorous, unseen task,
that is essential to the provision of hot evening meals to the guests
that gather at churches across west London – St Columba’s one of many
The volunteer made no mention of that contribution;
rather commented how it felt to be invited to stay on and have a meal alongside the guests.
“It was nice just to sit; for once to be served. It was special.”

Marcus Rashford, the England and Manchester United footballer
has done much recently to raise the profile of food poverty –
particularly round the provision of free school meals in holiday time.
His response emerges from lived experience.

Growing up in a community where, if his mother was working,
his teacher would drop him off at the end of the street for his brothers to pick up,
or where the next-door neighbour’s door was always open,
or where other members of the community would drive him to football training,
he knows the power of community.
“They never made him feel asking for help was the wrong thing to do.”
(The Guardian 21 Nov 20)

High profile or anonymous, we need others, as others need us.
“Christians are always both recipients of the gospel and witnesses to it.
Each of us is both unbeliever and believer,
both commanded to care and in need of care,
(both judged by the Son of Man and identified with him in our weakness,
both under judgement for our failures to pursue justice and saved by grace,)
both a goat and a sheep. Mark Douglas p.336

Sometimes, indifference or cruelty becomes normalised
because of its prevalence exemplified by others.
(Bullying in the workplace, racism in institutions,
prejudice in employment, cruelty in war zones.)

But if that is true, so too, its counter: contagious compassion.
folk encouraged by the actions of others.
Our actions change others - for good or ill -
not just those we might help,
but those who witness our reaching out or holding back.
We forget how significant we can be in influencing each other
and the communities we serve.

That is at the heart of Jesus’ observation, command and promise –
that when we care for each other, we care for Christ.
The performance of care – audience or actor, given or received –
is the stage upon which we discover Christ,
flower girl or princess, viscount or volunteer,
celebrity centre forward or school yard defender.
The performance of care - both in ourselves and others –
he stage where we hear the invitation:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Sermon 29th November 2020 Advent I

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2020, ADVENT I

Therefore, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. Mark 13:35-7

“Please come help us Supernanny – we desperately need your help.”
For the unfamiliar, this is the mantra, implored
at the outset of weekly episodes of Supernanny.
For the uninitiated, Supernanny is the originally British reality television show
where professional nanny, Jo Frost
devotes an episode to helping a family
where the parents are struggling with child-rearing.
Strictly opposed to smacking, she is a warrior for “the naughty step.”

In the series made for America, she arrives in a London, black cab,
having watched film footage of all that is going wrong.
After scenes of epic chaos and despair –
tantrums, late nights, sibling fighting, screaming abuse –
the parents face the camera and offer the “prayer.”
“Please come help us Supernanny – we desperately need your help.”

It is an Advent-type prayer.
We dwell in a broken world, fearful of chaos, surrounded by suffering;
We long for harmony, among the nations and amid our homes.
We need God to show up.
We need God to stay.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel – we desperately need your help!

The prayer resources offered this week is the poem,
by the Church of Wales priest, R S Thomas. Entitled, The Coming it begins:
And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.

… … …
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

“Let me go there”, says the son – to that “small globe.” To us.
That is the heart of our faith.
That the God who is the source of life,
who holds it all, in ways beyond describing,
comes to us in the intimacy and beauty of the life of Christ.

So, each Advent, we begin again to prepare for that thing
which has already happened and we trust will happen again.
As the gospel indicates, we do not know the exact timing,
all we can do is be in a state of readiness.

Vigil is a rich/good word for this season –
suggesting waiting, watchfulness and worship.
Active waiting before God, for God –
an engaged surrender, a devotional presence,
prepared and preparing.

If Advent is Christians’ season of particular waiting,
perhaps this year it chimes/coincides with a national mood.
There is so much waiting at present:
for an end to lockdown, for a vaccine,
for a return to our normal, social lives.
All the other non-COVID-19 waitings:
for a job offer or an operation,
for a school place or the return of a loved one for the holidays,
a change in the weather or in politics,
waiting for love or waiting for divorce,
waiting for death and waiting for peace.

In reality, there has always been the waiting –
the Psalmist, more than once, cries out:
How long, O Lord?”
Just that this year, with its ground-hog days,
the usual distractions are not there
to conceal our sometime, hollowness.
Friends have spoken to me this week
both about the strain they see in marriages/relationships,
(not pandemic’s fault – but impacted the squeeze of its press.)
Also - how people’s priorities are changing.
Much of that will only become clearer in the fulness of time.
Meantime, we can say authoritatively,
waiting is part of life, part of faith;
even if by and large, we don’t wait well.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider the suggestion,
waiting is a muscle – requiring to be exercised, strengthened and toned.
Waiting, a necessary part, of a spiritual workout.
Something requiring time and application;
the space and condition in which the things that are genuinely important can grow/emerge.
In Advent, we are invited to recognise the “not yet”
while anticipating, the yet to come.
Invited to stop rushing, and see as sacred what is yet in process, unformed/unfinished.

Very often, the lectionary serves up the thunder of apocalypse at the start of Advent –
the Son of man returning, trailing clouds of glory,
emerging at the moment of dire crisis –
darkened sun, stars falling from the sky.
Vivid, somewhat frightening images.

Apocalypse means revelation, an unveiling.
As Paul puts it in this week's reading from 1st Corinthians,
we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus’ end time words can be understood, not as a conclusion, but as a warning.
As the Theology of Hope, theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us
“the world is not yet finished.”
We are to participate in the kingdom work of “building back with justice”,
living out, ‘day-to-day love” in hope that another world is possible.
Reformation’s Martin Luther:
“If I knew the world were coming to an end tomorrow,
I would still go out and plant my apple trees today.”

This week there is the opportunity to join a virtual coffee morning
with the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland,
Rev Dr Martin Fair.
Last week I heard him in conversation with Rev Sally Foster-Fulton of Christian Aid.
Christian Aid’s wonderful catchphrase: “We believe in life before death.”

When asked what Christian Aid hoped for this Advent:
“Bring people at the margins to the centre – give them their room.”
Foster-Fulton spoke of the locust infestation in East Africa, which in normal times would be making headline news – huge areas of vital food wiped out in visits of fleeting destruction.
In the context of the climate crisis,
the point made is that the consumerism, capitalism, our obsession with stuff
looks a bit like those locusts.

When asked what Advent meant to her, she answered:
“Advent not just yearning – it is expecting change.”
She drew attention to the hymn: Come thou long expected Jesus.
“And what would the coming kingdom look like?
“An upside down turning – not just a little bit left over
but a proper sharing of all this stuff.”

George MacLeod of the Iona Community, writing in the mid C20th:
“What we should be doing is to build more beautiful societies
for Jesus to come to.
A more beautiful Glasgow, with fewer slums.
A more beautiful Africa, with fewer shanty towns.
So that, if He came, we would feel less ashamed
of our failure in fellowship.”

So, Advent asks us to:
Watch and wait – like those who long for first light;
watch and wait – space-clearing, patient, anticipating –
watch and wait – hopeful, making beautiful,
expectant of the good to come.

In a year that has encompassed a great deal of American politics,
and a week of America’s Thanksgiving Day (November 26th) –
and on a Sunday of the first Advent candle,
a last word, from across the Atlantic.

In colonial New England, the story goes,
a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness in the middle of the day,
by a sudden eclipse.
Many present, panicked; others moved to adjourn.
In the darkness, one voice, however, spoke up:
“Mr Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn,
we shall appear to be fools.
If it is the end of the world,
I should choose to be found doing my duty.
I move you Sir, that candles be brought.”

Sermons - October 2020

Sermon 4th October 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 04 OCTOBER 2020, 11am

Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 
‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 
So, they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Matthew 21:37-39

Vineyards and violence, scapegoats and sacrifice, 
respect, reverence, or rebellion – 
just some of the themes in this morning’s scriptures.

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: 
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” Isaiah 5:1
Given, gifted - all that vineyard needed to flourish: Yet?
The anguished question: 
“What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? 
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” 
(bitter and inedible.)
“I will make this vineyard a ruin of thorns and briars.”  

What is this love song from the prophet Isaiah?
“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, 
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; 
vineyard owner) the Lord, expected justice, but saw bloodshed; 
righteousness, but heard a cry! Isaiah 5:7

Matthew’s parable (Matt 21:33-43) lives out of Isaiah’s text.
Following on from last week’s reading, it is still the Monday 
of what we now call Holy Week.  
The day before – Palm Sunday - Jesus has entered Jerusalem, 
mounted on the donkey/colt of prophecy. Behold your King comes.
For the moment, adored by the crowds.
Entering the Temple, he has caused pandemonium,
overturning the money-changers tables – 
incensed at the institutionalised machinery 
that exploits access to his Father’s house of prayer. 

The next day, early in the morning, 
returning to the city after a night’s rest, on the road he is hungry.
He spots a fig tree by the road, but upon inspection finds nothing but leaves.
“May you never bear fruit again!” 
Immediately the tree withered. Signs and warnings.
Back in the Temple, the religious establishment, 
angry at this disturber of the status quo,
ready to reach a verdict of condemnation, they interrogate:
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus will not be drawn; instead offers the parable 
of the vineyard owning father and two sons.

Both sons invited to labour for their father in the vineyard;
One, saying no – but then going to work;
The other, saying yes – but actually never going.
As the penny drops, Jesus tells the religious leaders:
“Truly I tell you, you are like that yes saying son, who doesn’t labour in the vineyard;
the tax collectors and the prostitutes 
are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” 
Each dispute cranks up the desire of the opponents of Jesus to seek his death,
 just as earlier authorities rejected the prophets. 

Jesus is unrelenting: “Listen to another parable…” 
A landowner, like the one in Isaiah, creates a fine vineyard – 
protective hedge, watchtower, and winepress.
Then, the owner hands it over to the care of tenants.
But somewhere along the way, the tenants forget their place – 
They make a land grab, believing the vineyard is now their private property,
a gated community, they the key-holders.
Woe betide any messengers sent by the owner 
to remind the usurpers, of the original lease.

Matthew writes for an early Jewish-Christian community.
The mistreatment of the vineyard owner’s messengers is easily intelligible;
prophets of Israel’s history – the unsettling voices calling for justice, 
advocating dignity and protection, often for the most vulnerable – 
the widow, the orphan, the stranger in a foreign land.

Finally, the owner sends his son, 
perhaps, naively thinking that he will fare better, 
the evil tenants kill him, too, 
to finally seize the inheritance.
Jesus asks: “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
From their own lips the chief priests and elders judge: 
“a wretched death for wretched tenants….and other tenants to tend the vineyard.”
Apparently they are still unaware that they are applying the guilty verdict upon themselves.
Then Jesus asks: “Have you never read in the scriptures: 
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 

Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you 
and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, 
they realized that he was speaking about them.
They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, 
because they regarded him as a prophet.
Vineyards and violence, scapegoats and sacrifice, reverence or rebellion.
Finally comes the son…
If the earlier messengers were the prophets, 
we understand the last to be Christ – 
Seized, thrown out of the vineyard, and killed.
What strikes me about the son is his walk towards the danger – 
like the emergency services personnel who rush towards the incident, not flee from it.

In an obituary yesterday for the last surviving member of the Parachute Regiment 
(Colonel John Waddy, The Times 03 Oct 20) who fought at the battle of Arnhem in 1944, reference was made to how, as a young officer he looked out of the plane door 
as they flew over the drop zone.
Under intense fire, he saw the plane nearest to his own, hit and crash into the ground, moments before his own platoon required to jump.
As he recounted: “I looked at my men, who were seated each side of the aircraft. 
In the din, they hadn’t noticed what had just happened. I said nothing.”
Moments later they all went out the door (jumped into the fire zone.).
And I think of such choices, because of the story we will hear more fully next week 

in the Caledonian Lecture hosted at St Columba’s on Wednesday evening.
It is the story of Jane Haining, the Church of Scotland missionary 
who served in a mission school in Budapest in the 1930’s & 40’s; her charges were both Christian and Jewish schoolgirls. Over time she was known for her strict, devoted, love for them, regardless of their faith background. As the threat to the Jewish children grew Jane’s own choices shaped her final outcome.

In 1939 when war was declared, Haining was in the United Kingdom on leave.
Despite the Church of Scotland’s urging her not to return to Hungary, 
she chose to go back.
“If these girls needed me in days of sunshine, 
they will need me much more in days of darkness.” 

Haining worked at the mission with colleagues until in 1944 she was reported to the authorities, arrested and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, where she died.
One of her former student’s told Mary Miller, our speaker on Wednesday the following:
In 1944, following the Nazi occupation of Hungary, 
it was made compulsory for anyone Jewish to wear a yellow star on their clothes. 
“Miss Haining sobbed, she walked with red eyes among us. 
I heard later that she had tried to refuse ‘to mark those children
who were to be sent to the slaughterhouse because of their religion’.  
The Germans’ reply was that if the order was disobeyed, 
they would close the entire boarding house.

It was not Miss Haining herself who suggested it, 
but it was acting in her spirit and personality that, irrespective of their religion, 
every single boarder in the Girls’ Home sewed a yellow star on their uniform. 
And that was how we left our building for our daily walk to Heroes’ Square and back, 
Jewish and Christian, hand in hand, as equals.”

Jane Haining is the sole Scot commemorated as Righteous Among the Nations: 
her name engraved on the Honour Wall of the Garden of the Righteous 
at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (the Holocaust museum.)
Finally comes the son – the corner stone rejected.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.

Sermon 11th October 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 11 OCTOBER 2020

“But when the king came in to see the guests,
he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,
and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’
And he was speechless. Matthew 22:11-12

Weddings, places of hospitality and dress codes
all make headlines these days.
In Scotland, those affected by the closure of bars and restaurants
tipped piles of unused ice into the streets - symbol of protest and dissatisfaction.
In two weekends time, there will be a wedding at St Columba’s
with a maximum fifteen guests – reduced from an earlier thirty.
And, whether in sanctuary or supermarket, today, masks required,
we search each other’s eyes hungrily, for smiles and recognition.

Weddings, places of hospitality and dress codes run through today’s gospel:
Look, I have prepared my dinner, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.

In recent weeks, we have followed a series of readings from Matthew’s Gospel (Chapters 21 & 22.) The theme has been Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities of the day.
Entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday,
causing pandemonium in the Temple by overturning the money-changers tables,
cursing the roadside fig tree for not producing its fruit,
then a series of clashes with the priests and Pharisees –
(the father who asks two sons to work in his vineyard;
the hired hands in the fields, arriving early or late,
the tale of the wicked tenants who destroy the heir to the vineyard)
parables with themes of rejection and missed opportunities.
It is the road to Calvary.

Then, the parable of the wedding guests: traditionally understood in this way:
The king represents God, the son/bridegroom is Jesus,
the wedding feast is the Messianic banquet,
(On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…” Isaiah 25:6)
the rejected slaves, are the Old Testament prophets,
and the A-list guests who refuse to attend the wedding
are the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day.
The B-listers who come in off the streets to fill the banquet hall are us, the gentiles.

But there are problems:
The potential for anti-Semitism, and a type of Christian triumphalism.
(Anyone who heard the Caledonian Lecture this week on Jane Haining
will appreciate the dark consequences of such views.)

But there is also the problem of God
“If someone were to make it into a movie, the genre would be horror.”
(Debie Thomas, Journey With Jesus)

The story king is petty, vengeful, and hotheaded;
burning an entire city to the ground, to appease his wounded ego;
forcing people into his house, to celebrate his son, ready to or not,
and casting a guest into “outer darkness” for not observing the dress code.
As a young person, hearing this story said this week:
“Is that it? That’s not a very good story.”

The Gospel of Luke carries the same parable – almost.
It is worth noting the differences.
Luke also relates the invitation to a feast.
As with Matthew, the A-listers make their excuses.
Once their no-show is evident, the host commands the servants
to trawl the highways and byways to fill the hall
with surprised and surprising guests.
It is a beautiful, if disconcerting picture,
of the generosity and inclusiveness of God,
even while rebuking those who decline the invitation.

In both versions whether the invitation is ignored or ignites,
the king’s desire is to fill his banqueting hall with honoured guests.
Yet Matthew’s tale reads more uncomfortably.
For a start it is violent.
The invited guests, not content to decline the invitation –
put the messengers to the sword.
In turn, the King whose invitation has been scorned makes a bloody retribution.

Then, for Matthew, there is the additional character of the wedding guest;
a second parable - the Badly Dressed Guest.
who finds his way into the banquet, but is then seized, bound and ejected
for failing to dress in the garments suitable for such a feast.
The party crasher – exposed.

In Matthew, both parables end in catastrophe;
to those who refused his invitation, the king "sent his army and burned their city."
Those who dressed inappropriately were
"tied hand and foot and thrown outside into the darkness."
The language is meant to shock us into our spiritual senses.

The traditional understanding?
A lack of a wedding robe reflects an inner apathy toward being a guest at the banquet.
At baptism, welcomed into the family of faith,
we symbolically put on the fresh garment of Christ:
To be clothed, as Paul puts it: with heartfelt compassion, generosity,
humility, gentleness and patience: and above all to put on love.
Do we manage that?
Is a little spiritual dry cleaning in order, or a complete wardrobe makeover?
If we accept the invitation to the banquet
we cannot carry on as if it wasn’t God’s wedding banquet;
with privilege comes responsibility.

There is another, untraditional reading of this parable.
What if God/Christ is not the king but the wedding guest,
inappropriately dressed, bound hand and foot and cast out?
The Son of Man with no wear to lay his head, the suffering servant, acquainted with sorrow.
The one guest who decides not to “wear the robe” of coerced celebration,
whose silent resistance leaves the king himself “speechless,”
bringing the sham feast to a thundering halt?
The one brave guest who chooses arrest - the outer darkness of Gethsemane and the cross –
rather than accept the authority of a violent, loveless sovereign?
(Again, the story of Jane Haining comes to mind.)

Today marks the start of Prisons Week: annual week of prayer for those in prison,
their families, Prison Staff and victims of crime.
This year London Prisons Mission draws attention to women released from prison:
Nearly six out of ten women leaving prison have nowhere safe to go.
Many women are released with just £46, a plastic bag, nowhere to live
and threat of recall if they miss their probation appointment.
In so many ways the consequences are catastrophic
for the women concerned, their families and for society.
Between 2019 and 2020, 65% of those released from prison without settled accommodation had reoffended according to an HMI Probation report.
Lack of secure housing is a significant barrier to successful rehabilitation.
This makes securing employment, maintaining positive mental health
and preventing a return to harmful behaviour such as substance abuse practically unachievable.

Simeon Sturney, Through The Gate Chaplain HMP & YOI Bronzefield, author of
One Mile to Make a Difference: Journeying with Former Prisoners on Their Road to True Freedom describes how he makes himself available to all women
at the time of their release from HMP Bronzefield, UK’s largest female prison.
It is a very vulnerable moment.
With so little to go to, there is high chance that the women
will fall into familiar and dangerous patterns.
Sturney makes a point to really listen and respect what the women say at this moment;
sometimes, carrying a case to the local train station,
to convey that the released woman is worth every minute of Sturney’s time.
“At the end of our engagement when I’ve walked with someone to the station,
I’ll wave her off on the train.
It’s then that she’ll thank me for helping her
and very often tell me what a difference I have made to her release.
I’m of the opinion that if the first hour goes well
there is a chance the second and third will also go well
and that she might get to her appointments that day.”

Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop for Women’s Prisons
Writing in the London Prisons Week material prepared for this week (and available)
“I hope that the information in these pages will inspire us to pray for all individuals in prison
as well as their families, prison staff and all who work in the criminal justice system,
and to pray for new and deeper encounters with Jesus Christ.”

(Revd Neil Campbell, Chaplain at HMP Dumfries reminds us -
We do not pray from a position of strength….
not the innocent praying for the guilty or the right praying for the wrong
but people praying for people…)

Bishop Treweek concludes: “I also pray that we might be prompted to reflect
on how we can use our voice and resources in response to what we read.
May we discover that the struggles faced by individuals in the criminal justice system
are ‘our’ problem and not simply the problem of ‘others.’

Sermon 18th October 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 18 OCTOBER 2020

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21

On the evenings when my wife Liz is out, or otherwise occupied
and my daughter is both in bed, and asleep,
a guilty pleasure is to head for the sports documentaries on Netflix.
They never make the cut for family viewing time,
out-voted by Strictly Come Dancing, and the like

One of “my” series is a fly on the wall look at Sunderland AFC – (a football team) -
the first team I was ever taken to see, live.
And so, fifty years on, still my team.
Even a passing acquaintance with the fortunes of football
will understand that being Sunderland fan
is not for those who rely on the adrenalin of winning of regular trophies.
(Comparisons with following the Scotland rugby team might be made?)

The documentary about the football club highlights,
how in an area of economic hardship,
the club exerts such a hold on people’s mood and morale,
for the uber-fans it is part, or even core to their identity.
The programme is titled: “Sunderland till I die.”

Where do our loyalties lie?
Football club or family, employer or employee,
individual talent or collective enterprise,
neighbour or nation, club or congregation?
Perhaps no single or simple answer to that.

The current pandemic, the regionalisation of the response to Covid,
everyone is facing decisions about how best and most appropriately to respond –
to conform, or not, to evolving government guidelines.
Loyalties are being asked, tested and challenged
in ways that are previously unimagined, not easy to navigate.

Where do our loyalties, where do our responsibilities lie?
In the 1930’s, a young man called Bernard Ferguson
Commissioned, pre-WWII, into the Black Watch Regiment.
His battalion were posted to Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow.

One Friday, as a junior officer (duty subaltern),
Ferguson was tasked to fetch the Company’s pay roll from the local bank –
the era of payment in cash only.
He and another young officer duly drove to the bank,
filled a tartan shopping bag with the men’s wages and returned to camp.
The bag contained £200-300, mostly in ten-shilling notes.

On the parade square the Colour Sergeant had set up a table
and was preparing to pay the men.
As Ferguson stepped from the car, and reached for the bag,
it toppled from his grasp.
Seemingly in slow motion the bag yawned open
and its contents cascaded forth.
Suddenly, the air was swirling-full of banknotes –
a stiff Glasgow breeze lifting the week’s wages high into the air
and distributing it randomly across the barracks.

Out of every block the soldiers (“Jocks”) poured forth
harvesting this unexpected bonanza.
The appalled Lieutenant Ferguson went into report the disaster to his Company Commander. Rapidly he calculated the implications –
approximately a year of his own wages, plus a year’s private allowance.
The Company commander simply said: “I wish you luck.”

But then something extraordinary happened.
A butcher’s lad on his bicycle brought £12 and 10 shillings in crumpled notes
and deposited them at the Colour Sergeant’s desk.
Followed, by soldier after soldier,
each handing over smoothed out handfuls.
Soldiers, not just from Ferguson’s own company, but from across the Battalion.

Some two hours later, the Colour Sergeant stood up and saluted the Company Commander.
“Every penny accounted for, Sir.”
Writing years later, Ferguson knew many of these soldiers earnt a pittance,
in many cases raising a family.
They came that day to receive their very basic pay parade wage.
Of the episode he concluded:
“There was, and is, no possible comment for me to make.”
(The Trumpet in the Hall, pp21 B Ferguson)

Where do our loyalties lie?
On a windswept Maryhill parade ground, a good day for proven loyalties;
a good way for proving loyalties.

Another public space; another scrutiny of loyalties.
The courtyard of Jerusalem’s Temple, days before Good Friday.
A hitherto unlikely alliance of Jesus’ enemies, Pharisees and Herodians,
setting a question, silk-gloved, to conceal its venom.
“Teacher, we know that you tell the truth.
You teach the truth about God’s will for people,
without worrying about what others think,
because you pay no attention to anyone’s status.
So, what is your opinion?
Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman emperor or not?”

Though they are standing at the heart of the Jewish religious world,
the wider reality is that they live in the shadow of Rome’s eagle,
they are an occupied state.
One clear and galling demonstration of Roman power –
the collection of the tribute/poll tax –
a single coin, one denarius from each adult, each year.
Most likely the coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius
who ruled Rome during those years (AD 14–37).
The coin would have deified Tiberius as a "son of the divine Augustus."
The other honouring him as the "Pontifex Maximus"
or "chief priest" of Roman polytheism —
a double symbol - absolute religious and civil authority for the Emperor,
reminder of subjugated status.

Hence the virus in the question: To pay or not to pay?
If Jesus declared, Lawful. Pay up, he is compromised - collaborator, a Quisling -
condoning both foreign power and the emperor’s divine status,
the double currency of oppression and blasphemy.

For the inquisitors however, the real beauty was that if Jesus declared, Unlawful. Do not pay.
He condemned himself, encouraging civil disobedience to a lawful authority.
And everyone knew how Rome dealt with sedition.
Hence the gleeful spite of anticipation: Answer A or Answer B;
one will take you down, the other will string you up.

“Hypocrites – mask wearers! Show me the coin used for the tax.”
Apparently Jesus doesn’t carry it, whereas his accusers do.
The ground begins to shift; the cage door eases open.

“Whose image is this?”
“The Emperor’s.”
“Well then, give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor
and give to God what belongs to God.”
Answer C, a new invention – with which the dove flies free.

Jesus does not legislate a regulation about a specific tax.
He doesn’t say that there are two distinct realms,
the religious and the secular, and that they are somehow separate.
Rather, he asks us to examine our consciences
both about daily priorities and ultimate allegiances.
Jesus does not deny that there are obligations and duties toward public authorities.
We are connected to those who govern and the policies they foster.
We are engaged in society.
[But then consider the much harder question:
What belongs to God? What kind of tribute do we owe to God?]
Of course, we hold loyalties to a family, a regiment, a church, a nation –
indeed these are often sources of our best living.
But according to Jesus they are not the final word.
Jesus reminds us that we carry another passport, another citizenship;
made in the image of God.
Accordingly, the claims of God outrank the pretensions of Caesar.

We started with a tale of loyalty; finish with another. (Canada Day/Thanksgiving)
In Margaret Craven’s beautiful novel, ‘I Heard the Owl Call my Name’,
A young priest, Mark Brian, is sent by his bishop to minister to a native village
in the wilds of British Columbia.
There he discovers that his vicarage is falling down. There is no plumbing.
The roof leaks. The walls are damp. The floor sags under his weight.
And when he tries to open a window, the whole sill comes loose in his hands!
It was hardly the welcome he hopes for.

At first, he thinks he will have to go around his parish
begging the locals to donate this and that and help him build a new house.
But he decides against it. He has come to give, and not to beg!

Instead, he enters into the life of the tribe.
He shares their hunting and fishing, their festivals and funerals,
their joys and their sorrows.
After a particularly tragic funeral, the Tribal Chief comes to see him.
‘Mark,’ he says, ‘the men have asked me to tell you,
that when you are ready to build a new vicarage, they will help you.
It would be wise to get it up before the rains come.’

After waiting for so long, what has happened?
It is Mark’s bishop who answers the question.
‘You suffered with them,’ the Bishop writes,
‘and now you are theirs and nothing will ever be the same again!’

Where do our loyalties lie? How is that proved?
In the faithful following – as best we can –
the One who, for love, suffered with us.
The One, who at the last sunset we might salute, with the words addressed to a commander:
“Every penny accounted for, Sir.”

Sermon 25th October 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 25 OCTOBER 2020, 11am

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.”
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.
Matthew 22:37-40

In the unpredictable nature of family TV viewing –
a new candidate has been elected premier in recent weeks.
Escape to the Country.
It is one of those property shows that allow one to oh and ah
over picturesque cottages, well-tended gardens and breath-taking views.
The format is tired and tested.
Each week a couple, or a family, explain how the time now feels right to uproot,
usually from somewhere urban, and find that elusive rural idyll.
Each week the chosen seekers are shown three properties in the area of their choice.
A reminder of so many beautiful parts of the United Kingdom.

The host-presenter asks them to specify what they want.
How many bedrooms, proximity to shops/schools, privacy or sea view etc.
What is striking, is the regularity/commonality of their motivation for moving -
the expressed belief/confidence that escaping to the country
will bring a sense of community.
Often, it seems that the escapees are leaving behind locations
where they have established neighbours and networks.
Anyone with minimal experience of village or island life
will know that the aches and pains of humanity
do not magically disappear, upon entry into a non-built up zone.
So, part of me fears a little, for the optimistic seekers,
even as I oh and ah along with them.

Timely therefore, to receive a message from church friends this week.
They reported, they had just finished reading a book entitled,
“Close to where the Heart Gives Out” by Malcolm Alexander.
A family doctor in Glasgow, who decided early on
there was more to his profession than writing and rewriting prescriptions.
So, when he saw the advertisement for an Island Doctor on Eday, in the Orkneys,
he jumped at the opportunity.
His wife, also a doctor and four young sons soon set off on the adventure of a life time.
They knew it would be different but did not reckon on all the experiences ahead.
He turned his knowledge and hand to veterinary problems
and when the minister went on sick leave indefinitely, he found himself in the pulpit!

My friends’ message ended with the words of the author’s closing acknowledgement.
“The people of EDAY, will never know how much they changed me,
allowing me to understand what really matters in life.
This book is my way of saying thank you to them
for showing me the only important thing in life is how we treat each other.
This is what our survival, our happiness, depends on and nothing more.'

A sense of community – how we treat each other – what really matters in life –
the heart of the matter?
“You shall love the Lord your God – and your neighbour as yourself.”

The atmosphere is antagonistic.
A series of challenges, stumbling blocks and disputes:
Teacher, to whom should we pay taxes – to the emperor or not?
If a widow has married each of seven brothers in her lifetime –
whose wife shall she be in heaven?
Now, Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?

The religious establishment is out to entrap the man from Nazareth.
They summon a lawyer, a professionally trained theologian to test Jesus,
hopefully to unearth a weakness,
expose an error, upon which they can fall like vultures.

Which is the first or greatest commandment?
Quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4,5:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.”

In other words, God is intimately interested in every aspect of our lives –
our work, our play, our prayer; our time, talents and touch;
interested in our friendships and finances,
our loves and our enmities, our dreams and decisions,
our arguments, achievements and failures.
You shall love the Lord your God with all of it,
the whole messy goulash of contradictions
that constitute most of our lives:
Love God with all of it,
because God loves us for all of it.

Jesus then takes the command from Leviticus 19:18:
“You shall not take vengeance
or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord.”
And places it on an equal footing with the Deuteronomy quotation.

Like oxen in the field, yoked together,
love of God and love of neighbour,
engine and balance, for all that follows.
Unshackle one from the other - and the plough will veer off course.

Love of God without love of neighbour
risks aloofness, hypocrisy, judgementalism.
(a religious man, in the worst sense of that word)

James’ epistle challenges its readers:
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,
and one of you says to them:
Go in peace: keep warm and eat your fill,
and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
James2:15-17

Yet, love of neighbour, divorced from love of God
cuts us off from the source;
the source that enables us to keep loving in the first place.

Yesterday – very happily we held the first wedding back at St Columba’s
since the beginning of lock down in March.
Small in number, it felt unexpectedly special.
With many of the usual embellishments that accompany a traditional wedding, removed,
it was perhaps easier to glimpse the profundity of the couple’s commitment to each other.

We tend to think of love as a feeling/emotion;
love as romance; falling in love.
We are reluctant to think of love as a discipline/practice,
a concerted and continuing effort.
Jesus speaking of love as “greatest and first commandment.”

Actually, yesterday’s wedding couple chose a companion
that highlighted realism over romance:
[Excerpt from A Gift from the Sea, A. M. Lindbergh
“When you love someone, you do not love them all the time,
in exactly the same way, from moment to moment.
It is impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to.
And yet this is exactly what most of us demand.
We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships.
We leap at the flow of the tide
and resist in terror its ebb.
We are afraid it will never return.”

Anyone familiar with long term relationships, married or not, with God or neighbour,
will know it is never the finished article, always a work in progress.
As our Orkney friend, Andrea Price used to remind us – We are saints in training!

“You shall love the Lord your God – and your neighbour as yourself.”
Love of God with love of neighbour.
The motion is a grand circle – each reinforces and revives the other.
Love of God makes possible, and deepens love of neighbour;
love of neighbour puts flesh and bones on love of God.

Teresa of Avila, the C16th Spanish nun and mystic
left the oft-quoted meditation:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

A final fragment, also from Spain:
The new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell,
undertook the camino/pilgrimage to Spain’s, Santiago di Compostela.
He recorded his journey in a collection of stories and poems, entitled Striking Out.

In one, he recorded a day in the second week,
when he was feeling very tired and not at all sure he would be able to complete the journey.
Morale was definitely low.
Arriving in Aviles, he discovered that he had missed a phone call from his son.
“There was something so heartening and beautiful
about someone I love trying to contact me.
For the first time on the walk I wept – out of tiredness, exhaustion and joy.
(I wept. Because you are.)

To know that you are loved, and to have love for one another;
to feel that love reach out;
there is nothing better, nothing more joyful,
and nothing that could be given in exchange.
It really did feel like stones being rolled away.”

“You shall love the Lord your God – and your neighbour as yourself.”
On this hangs all the law and the prophets.
Love – bottom line and commandment;
heart of the matter and matter of the heart.

Sermons - September 2020

Sermon 6th September 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 06 SEPTEMBER 2020,11am

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Matthew 18:18

In the autumn of 2018, we undertook a congregational consultation
to ask our church members about the life of St Columba’s –
what was appreciated and helpful, what irked or could be improved.
The exercise was entitled, Listening to the Future:
Once the findings were gathered, the Kirk Session (our ordained elders) convened
to ponder and plan.
The day began with to a story, borrowed from another community of faith.
It is a story of missed messages and fallings out.
Of things held dear and hurts received, even if unintended.
In the light of the Gospel (Matthew 18) and Jesus’ advice for fractious times
It is worth a re-listen:

A young clergy couple begin a joint ministry to two congregations
in the mountain of Eastern Tennessee.
Eager but inexperienced, they learned a lot about themselves,
their congregations and mountain culture.
They learned that many decisions in their churches
were not made when the church council met
but occurred down the road at the gas station restaurant
where the farmers gathered for a cup of coffee after the morning chores.

One of the churches had had no Sunday School for over 20 years.
There were no families with young children in the church;
though there were young families in the area.
The Pastor, assisted by one other, began to try to change the situation.
It took a while and all the creativity and energy they could muster –
but after two years there was a nursery,
three age-level classes and a youth group
made up of young people from neighbouring churches.
The church became known as a place offering something for young families.
They even installed swings next to the picnic area,
which was actually used only once a year for a BBQ at the annual Homecoming weekend.

Two weeks after the swings were installed,
the pastor arrived to find all was not quite right…
Four freshly dug holes were all that remained, by the picnic area,
where the swings had been installed.
Now round the back of the church,
the same swing set had been moved and concreted in to its new location.
It took a few days to discover what had happened
but in a small town, no one had secrets.

Mary Jo James, the long-time church treasurer,
had hired some men to move the swings in the middle of the night –
instructing them: “Dig those holes deep and fill them with concrete!”

The parents in the church were pretty mad:
“What kind of church is this? Don’t you want us here?”
Other church members were puzzled and similarly outraged.
They voted to restore the swing to its location by the picnic area
and did so without delay.
The Pastor was instructed to visit Mary Jo James –
[this excited him as much as the prospect of a visit to the dentist for root canal work.]
He liked Mary Jo, appreciating her faithful worker as treasurer
and knew that she had previously shared her appreciation for the new members.
The Pastor had no idea what was going on.

As he walked towards her house the curtains twitched.
Before he could knock, the door opened she was at the door,
holding the carefully recorded financial accounts.
“I quit!” she declared, before handing over the books.
“I’m quitting the church too. No point coming in – I ain’t changing my mind!”
She shut the door leaving the Pastor on the porch
weighed down with a pile of heavy ledgers.

It took several weeks to piece together what had happened, and why?
Mary Jo had married late in life – marrying the widower, Jimmy James,
Also, from the church.
They didn’t have children, but she described it as the happiest years of her life.
When Mary Jo’s husband died, Mary Jo gave money to the church
for a covered picnic area in honour of her husband.
“Jimmy never much cared for plaques, saying who gave money for such-and-such.
I don’t want any plaques in the picnic area.
We’ll know in our hearts who we are remembering. Jimmy always did like a good BBQ.”

The problem was, as the years passed and new members joined,
many people did not remember.
They had no idea that when they placed the swings next to the picnic area,
it would bother Mary Jo so much.
Even her closest friends did not know how she felt.

We don’t have the full resolution to the story,
but as the Pastor himself wrote a book, The Four Tasks of Practical Theology –
we can presume they found their way to a good result.

We might consider that t story, not because it portrays characters or episodes
resembling St Columba’s or St Andrew’s, Newcastle –
but because it recognises conflict, and illustrates the importance of understanding
both our own stories and motivations, and those of others.

There is a misguided assumption that because we are Christians,
because we belong to a congregation, we will all be nice –
nice people, nice to each other – nice.
In contrast, Jesus, took it for granted
that we would argue, disagree, offend, sulk,
wound, and sometimes, walk away.
After all, he had first-hand experience of ambitious, arguing disciples,
self-serving and scarpering;
he comprehended how the human heart works –
both for great good and terrible harm.

So, today, Matthew’s gospel – written for the early Jewish-Christian community –
wrestling with what it is/what it takes, to foster and sustain community –
(on the one hand0 holding to inherited wisdoms and traditions,
(on the other) welcoming those, for whom such traditions meant little or nothing –
to this fractious constituency, Matthew summons Jesus words:
recognising, resolving, reconciling conflict.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Not whether there will be fallings-out;
but how to react/behave, when the toys get thrown out the pram.

Three Plans/Strategies:
Plan A: “If another member of the church sins against you,
go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.
If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Honest conversation; discretely undertaken – one to one, face to face.
Attempt a genuine resolution, not a fiction of harmony;
avoid the of sullen, unaddressed resentment.
Mindful, that we might be on either side of this scenario –
not just the party that was offended, seeking reconciliation;
sometimes the original offender.
Can we lower our defences sufficiently to hear hard truths, that we have hurt or harmed?

Plan B: “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you,
so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

If one-on-one won’t suffice, enlist others.
Not to spread gossip or gang up; not to escalate conflict -
but to ensure truth is articulated, guarded, honoured and remembered.
Jesus’ words echo Deuteronomy 19:15, the law concerning witnesses:
Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.

Plan C: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;
and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,
let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Sometimes, Jesus says, all efforts at reconciliation will fail,
and a member of the community will be lost.
Some things cannot be mended – or at least, are beyond our ability to do so.
It is to be lamented.
Dismissal or departure is not a victory – not an occasion for gloating –
it is a fracturing of the body of Christ.

Plan C may appear to grant permission to shun/ cancel out
those with whom we hold irreconcilable difference?
“…let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Yet, Jesus never regarded a Gentile or tax collector
as someone beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

[Think of that illustrious Gospel “tax collector/sinner” roll call: 
Zacchaeus, falling out of his tree, invited to play host;
the Roman centurion - officer of occupying empire - and his servant – the greatest faith;
or the crazed Gadarene among the tombs, tormented by interior demons;
women – the Samaritan at the well, bantering over buckets;
the Syrophoenician, pleading crumbs from the master’s table, for her sick daughter. ]

“Outsiders”; yet chosen by Jesus;
recipients of his love and compassion, healing and hope.
Jesus doesn’t airbrush people he doesn’t like,
or whose values and beliefs don’t match his own. 
He loves them as creatively and authentically as he can.

In Matthew, this section follows the parable of the lost sheep
and precedes Peter’s question about how often one should forgive –
“not seven times, but seventy.”
A faithful community is always seeking to restore the lost.

According to Jesus, even dispute is holy ground.
Never underestimating the difficulty of reconciliation;
acknowledging that in our own strength, it is not always possible;
it’s in our interconnectedness,
our struggles to reconcile and be reconciled,
that God promises to be with us. 
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  
Insider/outsider - the quality of our relationships matter –
from here to eternity.

Sermon 13th September 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 13th SEPTEMBER 2020

Then his lord summoned him and said to him,
“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.”
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”
Matthew 18:32-3

Earlier this week, the Bishop of Manchester, speaking on the radio,
recalled being put on the spot, by an American TV journalist,
two days after the bombing of the Manchester Arena, Ariana Grande concert,
“As a Christian, have you forgiven the bombers yet?”
“Not yet” he replied, “I am too angry.”

As the Public Enquiry into the Manchester bombing opened this week,
The Bishop admitted he is still angry.
Though his anger now is focused, not so much on the young bomber himself –
vulnerable and groomed –
but on the shadowy figures who foment the messages of hate
that distil the destruction.
Still angry – even though he, the Bishop, was not injured;
even though he did not lose anyone close to him
and even though it is not his faith that is vilified
by association with such a monstrous act.
Still angry – forgiveness is complicated.

Disciple Peter asks forgiveness’ most famous question:
Jesus, how often must one forgive – as many as seven times?
Peter, who knew what it was to make mistakes,
Would, one day, receive the thrice-repeated blessing of forgiveness
at a lakeside, resurrection breakfast.
Here, he may have felt he was going the extra mile;
seven times – the number of perfection – remarkably generous –
surely that would make the Teacher smile?
Instead, with a story, the parable of the two debts
Jesus explodes such arithmetic.

Part I: The king is overhauling the accounts.
Before him staggers the servant with the absurd debt.
Ten thousand bags of gold – billions.
How the debt was incurred, we know not.
Could it ever, realistically be repaid? Never.
Yet, the entreaties of the servant, shift the king’s original intention.
Instead of prison bars, debt relief.

Part II: Inexplicably free, straightway, the forgiven servant
stumbles across a debtor of his own; one hundred silver pieces.
“By heaven, you will pay, or else woe betide you!”
“Have mercy, have patience, I’ll repay – give me a chance.”
The very same plea, with which the first debtor had implored the king
“Not a chance. Away with him!”

But there are witnesses.
Those who saw the unpayable debt forgiven
and the minor debt, “un-mercied.”
That cannot be right. Second time around the king agrees.
“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

From generosity comes reciprocity; pay forgiveness forward.
Those who follow me, says Jesus should be a uniquely forgiving people,
more concerned with the plank in their own eye,
than the speck in their neighbours!
A forgiving people, because we are a forgiven people.
Hard – yes, indeed – like the Bishop says: Still angry.
But not optional; forgiveness, foundational,
a crucial part of participating in God’s beloved community.

Why such insistence on forgiveness?
Because un-forgiveness is a cancer in any community,
let alone in the body of Christ.
In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes:
“Withholding forgiveness, is like drinking rat poison,
then waiting for the rat to die.”
A Prisoner of War once asked his friend:
“Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that.”
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?"

Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber compares forgiveness
to a set of bolt-cutters, snapping the chains that bind us:
“Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter.
Free people aren’t controlled by the past.
Free people laugh more than others.
Free people see beauty where others do not.
Free people are not easily offended.
Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid.
Free people are not chained to resentments.”

How often must I forgive?
“I am still angry.”
Are the two necessarily in contradiction?
As one commentator pointed out this week:
“Righteous anger is very much what Jesus did.
Yes, Jesus forgave; but he also raged.” Debie Thomas, Journey With Jesus
Turning over of the Temple money-changer tables;
paint-stripping words for the religious hypocrites who oppressed the poor;
disciples rebuked, for blocking the way to little children, into his presence.
A time for building and a time for pulling down;
to insist on change, to say, "Enough is enough”
to take sin, in its many forms, as seriously as Jesus did.
Forgiveness, not a sweeping under the carpet,
not avoidance of conflict,
not an instant, easy or costless healing or restoration;
forgiveness, not as an end,
but the beginning of the hard and future work of the kingdom.

“How often should I forgive?” “I am still angry.”
Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Forgiven, we are called to be forgiving.
It is not easy.
And it is certainly not for us to judge how far, or how much someone else can forgive.
I have always found helpful, the idea that forgiveness is
not a virtue to be practiced but a gift to be prayed for.

In August we marked VJ75 (Victory over Japan);
heard tales from the few remaining veterans
who were imprisoned by the Japanese in appalling conditions.
In 2002, the Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW) Association
Held their final service and laid up the Association standards.
The chaplain that day recognised, in the words of veterans,
that the Japanese knew what they were doing,
so, there were some who still could not prayer for their forgiveness:

“Just as you find it hard, some impossible, to forgive those who tortured you,
so, the Japanese have found it hard to seek remorse and repentance.
It may not be possible in this life
to get this sorted out any more than it has been.
So today, the laying up of the Association’s standard
is a way of handing it all over to God
with thanksgiving for what has been achieved
and acceptance that we can’t do everything.”

Sermon 20th September 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 20 SEPTEMBER 2020

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:16

Two zoologists at Emory University, decided to study the evolution of fairness.
Is it nature or nurture? They designed an experiment using capuchin monkeys.
Pairs of monkeys were placed in adjacent cages where they could see each other,
and trained to take turns giving small granite rocks to their human handler.
Each time a monkey relinquished a rock,
she would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward.
Capuchins love cucumbers,
so both monkeys found this arrangement satisfactory,
and handed over their rocks with enthusiasm.

But then, the handler changed things up.
After a few fair and even exchanges,
the handler rewarded the first monkey with a chunk of cucumber as usual,
but gave the second monkey a grape —
apparently, grapes are caviar in the monkey world.

Seeing that the game had changed for the better,
the first monkey perked up, and very eagerly handed over another rock,
expecting, of course, to receive a grape, too.
But no — the handler gave her another piece of cucumber.
To make things worse, the handler then gave the second monkey another grape for free!

The results were striking. The first monkey just about lost her mind.
Not only did she refuse to eat the cucumber;
she hurled it at the handler’s face.
She then proceeded to bang against the bars of the cage,
throw her remaining rocks in every direction,
and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion.
The scientists concluded: fairness is a concept deeply rooted in our being.

“Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Yes, I am envious because you are generous.
Equal pay for unequal work is NOT fair.
Excusing sloth and sloppiness is NOT fair.
Think Protestant work ethic; American Dream; Be all you can be;
that’s how the world works. That’s how fairness works.
Then like the titanic we sail onto the iceberg of this parable.

The owner of the vineyard himself makes the trip to the marketplace
to hire the labourers.
First at the start of the day, then at regular intervals, (6,9,12,3…)
even until one hour before last light.

Nothing too radical so far.
Then he instructs his manager:
Time to pay the men (as the law of Leviticus instructed.)
Only - pay the latecomers first; pay the early birds last.
Oh, one other thing: Pay those latecomers a full day’s wage.
That passed down the line pretty sharp.
The weary first-selected, perked up: An hour’s work - a day’s wage?
Then we should be in for a roll-over jackpot – maybe a twelve denarii-working day
(grapes instead of cucumbers!)
They rubbed their hands.

It was not to be.
And depending where you are in the line, reactions vary mightily.
At one end, elated latecomers; at the other, bitter full-shift men.
The grumbling rises – Why should they be valued the same as us?
Where’s the justice in that?
We took the heat of the day and did the lion’s share;
how come these others get the same as us?
(Perhaps muttering beneath their breath – “We are better than them.”.)

Have I paid you less than we agreed at the hiring time? asks the landowner.
No, but…
Take what belongs to you and go;
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.
It’s mine to give after all.
Or are you envious because I am generous?

“The parable is a little like cod liver oil.
You know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you,
but that does not make it any easier to swallow.” Barbara Brown Taylor

If we find this tale bewildering, abrasive, even offensive,
Jesus surely intended it that way.
It’s not “economic” sense – that is not its aim.
It is not fair in the sense that we have been raised with that word.
Again, that is not its aim.
Rather, taking a scene and scenario, utterly familiar to his hearers,
Jesus holds up to the light, something of His Father - of God.
The vineyard owner, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, takes the expected norms,
and like moneychangers’ tables, unceremoniously upends them.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Isaiah 55:8
The landowner’s reckoning is dictated not by good works received,
but by his generosity.

At day’s end, what concerns the landowner is not who deserves what,
but that every worker ends the day
with the dignity and security of a living wage.
The capacity to go home and feed a family
sufficient security and peace of mind to sleep well;
hope and a sense of accomplishment, belonging, and dignity.
Wondrous generosity towards all in the marketplace, especially the least;
simultaneously, calling out our sometimes-stunted attitudes towards grace for others.

Perhaps the parable’s key - Where are we in the line?
At the rear, with a sense of raucous joy –
stunned and grateful that against all the odds,
we were invited to the party?
Or frostily at the front,
nursing a grumbling a sense of injustice,
even though we have received exactly what we were promised?
The parable is a warning for deserving folk
who have forgotten how to delight in the vineyard;
like the elder son in the Prodigal Son parable,
unwilling to join the party thrown by the Father for the younger brother
who was lost but is now found.

“Are you envious because I am generous?”
“Yes!”
“Is that where you want to stay?”
“No – not really.”
“Well then, there’s a ceilidh after work –
let me introduce you to some of your brothers and sisters.
Come. We need longer tables, not higher walls.”

Sermon 27th September 2020

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

“Which of the two did the will of his father?” Matthew 21:31

At the end of that great weekend TV, British institution – Match of the Day
there is a regular, short, humourous section: Two Good, Two Bad –
trailed by a representative halo and devil’s horns.
Trawling from the footage of the recent fixtures
the pundits chuckle over two examples of something very positive –
a sublime bit of skill or an act of sportsmanship.
In contrast – Two Bad – an error, usually of slapstick nature –
a referee falling over, a spectator asleep in the crowd.
Today, Jesus’ parable: One good; one bad.
“Which of the two did the will of his father?”

It is the Monday of what we now call Holy Week.
The day before – Palm Sunday - Jesus has entered Jerusalem,
mounted on the donkey/colt of prophecy. Behold your King comes.
For the moment, adored by the crowds.
Entering the Temple, he has caused pandemonium,
overturning the money-changers tables –
incensed at the institutionalised machinery
that exploits access to his Father’s house of prayer.

The next day, early in the morning,
returning to the city after a night’s rest, on the road he is hungry.
He spots a fig tree by the road, but upon inspection finds nothing but leaves.
“May you never bear fruit again!”
Immediately the tree withered. Signs and warnings.

You can imagine the religious establishment’s reaction to all this holy trouble.
This is where we joined the gospel this morning.
Just who does he think he is?
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

“I will answer that, if you will answer one question for me.
Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The temple men confer: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us,
‘Why then did you not believe him?’
But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ the crowd will be all over us – they loved him as a prophet.”
Verdict: “We do not know.”
Off the record, they thought they knew exactly what the answer was.
“Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

There could have been a parting of the ways, then and there –
though only temporarily, for surely by now Jesus has a target on his back.
It is he who keeps the conversation running:
“What do you think?
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said,
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
Son no 1 answers: “Yeah, I don’t think so.”
but later, changes his mind, goes and sets to work in his father’s vineyard.
The father approaches the second son in similar fashion.
‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’
“I’m on it! No worries, happy to help, I’ll be with you in a moment…”
But he did not go.
“Which of the two did the will of his father?”
It’s a no-brainer. “The first” we all reply – temple priest and C21st disciple.

But then the kicker. Jesus switches One Good; One Bad
from innocuous morality story to spotlight on his interrogators:
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes
are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.
For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him,
but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him;
and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

“Beware chief priests and elders, you are like the second son in the story.
You talk the talk, fluent in worthy words,
but when John came and offered you the good news of the kingdom,
did you repent, did you act?
Meanwhile, the people whom you shame and condemn –
the tax collectors and the prostitutes?
They - they are like the first son in the story.
Offered the gift of repentance and salvation, they responded —
they weren’t pious, they just understood they were broken.
They were humble enough, desperate enough, to swim towards the life raft.
Starving, they could see they were being offered the bread of life.

You saw it, chief priests and elders – the crowds going out to John –
you even questioned him about it.
He told you he was just the messenger.
But even then, you wouldn’t let his words in,
wouldn’t change your minds,
because you had God fixed.
So, my friends, it is the tax collectors and prostitutes –
the ones at the edge, the little ones –
who find their way into the kingdom of God before you.

Which son did the will of the father?
And which son/which daughter am I?
In honesty, probably both.
Sometimes living up to, living out the words of faith;
sometimes not, looking away, walking by.
Two Good; Two Bad – not necessarily in such neat proportion.

Jesus calls out religion that stops at empty words.
Calls out: “All forms of Christianity that flicker to life on Sunday morning,
but then fade out between Monday and Saturday.” (Debie Thomas) Ouch!

But remember hard words from Jesus are always and only because he wants more for us.
Because to live compassionately,
to come out from behind barricades of moral certainty,
to refuse to look down on others,
or regard ourselves as unconnected to others –
to shrug free such shackles is to embark on freedom
and discover life’s truest meaning, and deepest satisfactions.

Where is the vineyard today?
It is the anxious neighbour or isolated family member in time of pandemic;
a chat, a prayer, a food shop, a birthday card.
It is the recently bereaved – a letter, a call, a remembering –
even when what we have to offer seems so inadequate or small.
It is the volunteering at the Night Shelter/ReStart –
this winter, their pattern, necessarily different due to Covid,
but even more essential.
It is the appeals of harvest – food stuff for the food bank of the Upper Room
Or donation to Christian Aid’s global neighbours’ appeal.
It is potentially changing our minds in the light of new awareness about history and culture.
It is about heeding the calls to be stewards of creation not exploiters –
realising when and what represents enough.

The vineyard has multiple locations and multiple invitations.
But through all its seasons it retains, at its heart,
the meal for the vineyard labourers –
one we will share in this sanctuary and perhaps in watching homes.

Bread, given thanks for, then broken and shared – wine poured out.
Actions speaking louder than words -
Christ’s obedience, even unto death - ultimate integrity.
Real values in a single gesture;
memorial of love’s greatest gesture.
Pathway and fuel for the journey.

Sermons - August 2020

Sermon 2nd August 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 02 AUGUST 2020

Thirty-three years ago, I began my first job in London.
As it happened, the office was one block from where St Columba’s stands.
At the time I would have considered them two different universes.
My job title: Advertising Agency Account Executive.
Those in the know understood: tea boy and photocopier.

Sales promotion was the name of the game.
Competitions, coupons, point of purchase displays, prizes, product samples;
These were the tools of the trade.
This somewhat came back this week with the news that Buy one! Get one free!
is a casualty of the government’s initiative to counter obesity,
in the light of increased susceptibility towards Covid-19.

Meanwhile Isaiah proclaim to the exiles of Babylon:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
you that have no money, come,
buy wine and milk without money and without price.

There is plenty of giveaway in the Gospel too. –
Jesus’ words to the disciples: “You give them something to eat.”
Five loaves and two fishe, the introductory offer.

Giving and receiving; receiving and giving.

In Philip’s Birthday, American poet Mary Oliver describes
The gift of something close to her heart, its unexpected reciprocity:

I gave,
To a friend that I care for deeply,
Something that I loved.
It was only a small

Extremely shapely bone
That come from the ear
Of a whale.
It hurt a little

To give it away.
The next morning
I went out, as usual,
At sunrise

And there, in the harbour,
Was a swan.
I don’t know
What he or she was doing there,

But the beauty of it
Was gift.
Do you see what I mean?
You give, and you are given.

At a funeral some weeks ago a family member composed a poem for his late mother.
It sketched out a life and its various parts; she had many different facets.The poet mused:

What remains as she departs?
Her generosity was such
That what she shared with us
Lives past her going
(A Woman of Parts: In memory of Elizabeth Gordon, by her son Andy Gordon)

You give, and you are given.
A generosity that lives past one’s going.
[Even if it hurts a little to give it away:]

The great gospel giveaway emerges from appalling events;
Just as the prophet’s promise (Isaiah) is those in exile.
Gruesome news of a cruel death, John the Baptist –
Jesus had lost his kinsman, his own baptiser;
the prophet-preparer of his way.
Chilling reminder of the cost of truth-telling,
and the ruthlessness of those gathering against him.
Shocked or numb: sick at heart, or scared;
Jesus withdraws across the water to a lonely place, apart;
his desire, to be alone.

But the crowds - the sick, the sad –
hunger for many things – not just bread.
There they wait, refugees from a hurting world.
And grief-struck though he was, it moves him.
(The literal translation, it tore his gut.)
Jesus has compassion on them.

Elsewhere, many times; compassion – a golden, gospel thread:
for the scared father of a sick son, for a blind man, and the widow of Nain.
In the parables; the master who forgave the debt of his slave,
the horizon-scanning father of the prodigal son,
the good Samaritan - all “had compassion.”

So rather than seek quiet anchorage,
Jesus steps ashore into the midst of their need.
Spends himself - another day –
Precious, exhausting; healing and blessing.

The light waxes and wanes.
The disciples, like political handlers, suggest the show is over for the day.
Time to disperse, people! Jesus looks around.
Perhaps it is the forlornness of this unpromising place;
echo of an earlier wilderness:
Recollects the Psalmist’s question:
Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Ps 78:19

Hold together; don’t drift away.
“They needn’t go; you give them something to eat.”
“Master…? There must be five thousand mouths out there (that’s just the men)
and we got five loaves - and a couple of fish.
We got pretty much nothing.”
“Well, bring me your pretty much nothing.”

So, in cool of the day, an open air banquet of kinds.
Loaves and fishes – inadequate, but a beginning.
Received, raised in honour, in name of the Great Provider.
Blessed, broken and shared –
that same ritual, sealed forever in an Upper Room.
Late in the day – mercy takes the form of bread;
compassion to communion; scarcity to abundance.
deepening like evening shadows

You give them something to eat.
On the day that Mother Teresa was made a saint, the Vatican held a pizza party for 1500 homeless people. For a moment at least, guests, not beggars.
That meal, that moment opening a window.
Pope Francis saying of such transformative gestures:
“We may not conjure up solutions but we can initiate processes.”

Closer to home, we can happily report that the Friday Night drop in
organised by ReStart
has begun again at St Columba’s –
and that has meant a lot – to guest and volunteer alike.
But in the same week news from Glass Door, who co-ordinate our winter Night Shelter, reiterating the difficulties that Covid is placing upon them
as they/we plan for the next winter season.
And the prediction that given what they are seeing in terms of job losses
and the likely economic situation next winter,
there is likely to be more need than ever for safe shelter and a hot meal.

Another brutal cost/fall out of pandemic; the rise in domestic violence.
More than 40,000 calls and contacts to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline
during the first three months of lockdown,
most by women seeking help.
In June, calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual,
According to Refuge, the charity which runs the helpline.
And as restrictions ease, a surge in women seeking places to escape their abusers.

At the start of this week, looking at the Isaiah reading,
I was struck by the observation that the prophet’s words
are the promise that the exiles will survive
and that returning to Jerusalem they will have a covenant with God
as loyal and lasting, as the one forged between God and King David.
The humiliated, the insignificant will survive – and more –
They will become a light to the nations.

A couple of days later, radio’s Soul Survivor:
Donna Summer’s, I Will Survive. Karaoke classic.
[Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive
I've got all my life to live
And I've got all my love to give and I'll survive
I will survive]

Reminiscence of a family holiday.
It starts with the memory of a Big Suitcase.
Shopping and packing in anticipation of a first overseas family holiday.
Mother, and three children. Son and twin, seven-year-old daughters.
The reminiscences are from one of those girls, now a mother herself.

Everything about the holiday – wonderful.
Airport wonder; hotel with a pool; kids club and disco every night.
The two seven year olds from day 1 getting up to karaoke and dance
their own version of I Will Survive
in lime green and orange skirts.
No real reason for the choice of song – just one they’d heard and imbibed.
By the end of the week,
confident that they were pretty much professional entertainers.

At the time they the children knew their parents had divorced.
That was sad – but it was the way things were.
Only later in life did the reasons behind the separation become clear.
Their father was an alcoholic and violent with it.
Their mother worked multiple part time jobs to raise the children.
Clothing, feeding, keeping safe; even saving to go on a special family holiday.

The daughter, with the perspective of the adult,
now aware of what her mother had been though.
“I can only imagine how proud she was, how relieved she was,
to be sitting in that hotel bar, sipping a cocktail
and watching her girls prance around on the stage.”
And the song, we unwittingly chose: I will survive – so meaningful to her.

A concluding: “She never runs out of love.
Her ability to still be able to love so fully, never stops amazing me.”

Family few or five thousand;
guiding principal on the journey from lamenting what we don’t have
to what on earth are going to do with all these left overs?
Giving that becomes receiving; generosity that lasts, beyond the giving;
“Bead and fishes love - never enough, until we start giving it away.”

Sermon 9th August 2020

ST COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 09 AUGUST 2020, 11am

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to Peter, 

"You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." 
Matthew 14:31-33

In 2017 there was a chaotic finale to the Academy Awards, Oscars' ceremony. 
The prize for Best Picture was announced – “And the winner is, (the musical) La La Land.
Cast members came forward to joyfully receive acclaim. 
But, hesitation, then, consternation; 
suddenly it was announced that Moonlight was the winner - 
"And, no ladies and gentlemen, this is not a joke."
Unprecedented. Confusion, Embarrassment. Organiser heads would subsequently roll.
But Moonlight emerged triumphant.

Moonlight is the story of an African American child growing up in Miami.
The principal character, Chiron is played by three actors - 
child, teenager and young adult.
Raised - barely - by a heroin addicted mother, the boy is gay and withdrawn.
Poverty and personhood - his road is unremittingly tough.

Key to the story, is the single relationship where the boy, Chiron 
is shown a degree of care and affection. 
The irony: the one adult figure he can trust, as a child, is Juan, a local drug dealer.

The scene for which the movie is perhaps best remembered takes place 
Away from the grim housing projects, at the beach. 
Chiron cannot swim, has never been in the sea. 
Juan encourages him in, and teaches him the rudiments of swimming.
The camera follows the pair into the waves.
Juan begins by getting the child to lie on his back, 
one hand under him, one hand gently cradling the boy's head above the water.
"Let your head rest in my hands. Relax. I got you. 
I promise you, I'm not going to let you go."
It is tender, beautiful to watch. 
Also, unexpected, confusing our preconceptions about the adult, drug dealing character.
Shown attention, Chiron trusts and floats – begins to be a swimmer.
As audience, we perceive this moment is more than just a swimming lesson,
As the boy lies back, relaxes, buoyant in the up and down motion of the ocean, 
delighting in the new experience of being in the sea, Juan smiles:
"That right there - you're in the middle of the world."

Another sea, another moment, another turning point.
The Sea of Galilee, the Lake of the Harp, a body of water surrounded by hills, 
prone to sudden, violent windstorms.
The Matthew is the only author to record Peter’s wave walking,
all gospel writers share an ancient understanding of the sea 
as an abode of demonic forces, the place on earth where chaos reigns; 
to walk upon it, to calm its fury, a true sign.

After a day with the crowds, ending with the feeding of multitudes 
from the loaves and fishes, 
Jesus tells the disciples to go on ahead and cross the lake. 
Jesus himself disperses the crowds and heads for the solitude of the hills 
that he had postponed throughout the day.
Night-time; wind and waves intensify, 
and the disciples, still far from land, struggle against the turbulent water.
Fear overwhelms them – those in peril on the sea.

Jesus comes to them on the waters; they do not recognise him.
Terrified: “It is a ghost!”
“No” responds their Teacher, “it’s me; I got you. Do not be afraid.”

Perhaps that should have been enough. But the men in the boat were only human.
None more so than Peter:
Peter – impetuous, passionate - often saying what others are thinking.: 

“Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  
We tend to hear this as exemplar of Peter’s impetuous, worthy faith – 
“Jesus, I’ll be with you, even in the storm!”
Actually, isn’t there the echo of an earlier, less noble question:
“If you are the Son of God…”
The voice of the Tempter in the forty-day wilderness,
soon after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
“If you are the Son of God, turn the stones to bread,
 jump into the arms of angels, 
take the knee, in return for the riches of the world….”
Now Peter: “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  

Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter steps boldly (recklessly?) out of the boat.
For one luminous moment Peter walks; then realizes what he’s doing.
Like a skimming stone’s fading velocity, stutters and sinks.
“Lord, save me!”  
“Immediately,” Jesus reaches out his hand, catches and delivers.
“I got you. I promise you, I'm not going to let you go.”

“Nowhere in the Gospels are we called to prove our faith (or test God’s character) 
by taking pointless risks that threaten our lives.  
Whether we’re talking about respecting the power of the sea during a vicious storm, 
or heeding expert medical advice during a global pandemic, 
the same caution applies.  
Recklessness is not faith. Stupidity is not courage.”   Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus

So, Peter’s test fails.  
Jesus doesn’t calm the sea for Peter’s convenience.  
Peter can't manipulate Jesus into Making Faith Easy.  
But, while the madness of the waves is unabated, 
the wildness of the sea is no proof of God’s absence.

Our gospel story is less about Peter’s sinking attempts to come to Jesus,
More about Jesus coming, always coming, towards the disciples,
exactly when they feel overwhelmed and frightened.
Of course, they were fearful, just as we are fearful of many things:
Covid-19, failing economies, 
social isolation, political brokenness.
ruptured relationships, sick children,
grinding jobs, no job, addiction, mental health:
tsunamis, real or imagined, that we could name.

To each of our fears, Jesus’ words:
“Do not be afraid. It is me. Coming to you. With you. For you.
Do not be afraid to let go and let God take care of you?
I got you. I promise I won't let you go.”

Neither our fearfulness nor our faithlessness 
will alter Christ’s course to us upon the waters. 
In words of Julian of Norwich:
He did not say: 
You shall not be tempest-tossed, 
you shall not be weary, 
you shall not be discomforted. 
But He said, you shall not be overcome. Julian of Norwich

Exhausted, hauled back into the boat,
the storm calms to awesome silence;
All in the boat, together worship:
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”
“That right there - you're in the middle of the world.”

Sermon 16th August 2020

ST COLUMBA'S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 30 AUGUST 2020 (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Two texts:

Exodus 3:5, Then the LORD said to Moses, “Come no closer! Remove the
sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy
ground.”

St Matthew 16:23, But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me,
Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on
divine things but on human things.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be
acceptable in Thy sight, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

The Nominating Committee for a new minister had been going over
Curriculum Vitae after Curriculum Vitae in the hope of finding the perfect
minister. None so far. Tired of the whole process, they were about to call it a
night when they came upon this letter of introduction from a candidate:

To the Nominating Committee: It is my understanding that you are in the
process of searching for a new minister, and I would like to apply for the
position. I wish I could say that I am a terrific preacher, but I can't -
actually, I stutter when I speak. I wish I could say that I have an impressive educational
background, but I can't - no fantastic college or university qualifications,
but I do have good experience from the school of "Hard Knocks." I wish I could say
I bring a wealth of experience to the job, but I can't - I have never been a
minister before (unless you count the flock of sheep I have been
shepherding). I wish I could say I have wonderful pastoral skills, but I can't -
sometimes I lose my temper and have even been known to get violent when
upset. Once I even killed somebody, but, gracious people that you are, I am
certain you will not hold that against me. I know churches these days want
young ministers to attract young members, and I wish I could say that I am
young, but I can't - actually, I am almost 80...but I still FEEL young. With all
that which might go against me, why am I applying for your position? Simple.
One afternoon recently, the voice of God spoke to me and said I had been
chosen to lead. I admit, I was a bit reluctant at first, but... here I am. I
look forward to hearing from you and to leading you into an exciting new future.

Yours sincerely,

As you can imagine, the Nominating Committee members looked at one
another in disbelief. The chairperson asked, "Well, what do you think?" The
rest of the committee was aghast. A stuttering, uneducated, inexperienced,
arrogant, old, obviously neurotic, ex-murderer as their minister? Somebody

must be crazy! The chairperson eyed them all, before she added, "The letter
is signed, 'Moses.'"

You knew that, didn't you? The Moses saga is one of the most familiar in all of
scripture. From our earliest Sunday School days we remember the story of
his birth into a nation of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, how the mean old Pharaoh
had issued a population-control decree saying that Hebrew baby boys should
be put to death, the floating basket in the bull-rushes to hide our infant
hero.

Finally, Pharaoh's daughter to the rescue with Moses being brought into the
palace as an adopted member of the royal family.

We also remember that Moses was not allowed to forget his heritage. A
clever bit of deception by his big sister Miriam had allowed him to be wet-
nursed by his own mother with Pharaoh's money paying for the privilege.

But, today, we turn to this unusual story that is the focus of this morning's
Old Testament lesson. The Burning Bush, a symbol adopted by Presbyterians
around the world to show how God can and does turn the ordinary into the
EXTRAordinary, the transforming power that comes when the natural meets
the SUPERnatural. The bush was probably an ordinary bramble bush, the
most usual kind of vegetation in that part of the world. The fire would not have
been that remarkable because spontaneous combustion is not unheard of in
a dry, hot, desert country. But a fire that burns but does not consume? Hmm.
Moses comes over to investigate. Suddenly, he hears his name: "Moses,
Moses!" The voice is coming from the bush.

Moses leans in, his head cocked to one side in wonder. "Here I am."

The voice again. "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for
the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

The place on which you are standing is holy ground. We’ll return to these
words later.

Words, however, create worlds for us. I think it was the German philosopher
Martin Heidegger who once said that “Language languages.” In others
words, language or words and imagination conjure up for us other worlds or
perspectives that help us to see things either differently or in a new light.

Last words are final. From faith-filled to despairing, and from the sublime to
the ridiculous - the last words of many famous people have been written
down. I suspect this was done because it is expected that these last
utterances will say something about how that person lived and what they
want to say to those they leave behind.

Some last words are funny. Some are serious. Some are poignant.
Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and writer, allegedly said with his usual
flamboyance, “either that wallpaper goes, or I do!”

Humphrey Bogart, the American actor, is reported to have said in regret, “I
should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”

Whereas, perhaps more poignantly, George Best, the Northern Irish
footballer, left a handwritten note on a card by his hospital bedside, “Don’t
die like I did.”

And, most impressively, for me, and I hope it’s true, according to Steve Jobs’
sister, Mona, the Apple founder’s last words as he was slipping from this
world to the next, were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Throughout the four gospels we have an extensive collection of Jesus’ last
words. I’m not talking about the so-called last words from the cross, but rather
the teachings, in those parts of the gospels where Jesus is trying to prepare
the disciples for his departure. They are words which call upon those
listening, and other later followers (including you and me), to pick up where
he left off and to try and live as he lived.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke these words to
his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.

This command of Jesus is often quoted and referred to, but I would contend
that perhaps it is often misunderstood. For example, someone is diagnosed
with a chronic illness or a disability develops and then they sometimes say, “I
guess this is the cross I must bear!” The popular assumption is that cross-
bearing refers to something over which they have no choice so they need to
bear it with courage and strength.

NO, that is not what I believe the passage is speaking of. These unfortunate
situations can be categorised in other ways, and no one would surely say that
having to live with such a “burden” (if I may call it that) is a good thing,
but this
passage is not about these kind of things, about which we can do nothing.

This passage is about choices. In some ways, ALL of today’s passages are
about choices. We are called to choose to pick up a cross; we are called to
choose the way of the cross; we are called to choose the way of Jesus; we
are called to choose to answer the call to faithfulness.

In Jesus’ day the cross was a symbol of death, specifically a symbol of
execution by the state. For Jesus’ followers to live the kind of life he was

talking about was to risk death and persecution. But, we must remember that
before the cross was the way Jesus died; it was the way Jesus lived,
choosing to take up the cross that that enables others to live, risking death
and persecution, misunderstanding and social ostracism; to go against what
many would consider the “status quo”.

I once had the good fortune to catch, on a flight back to London from Tel Aviv,
the American film based on the book called “The Help”. In this hilariously
funny and yet serious period drama, Skeeter Phalen, a young white woman
who had just graduated from university and wanted to be a writer, and two
African-American women Abeline Clark and Minny Jackson, took on the age
old segregationist traditions of the deep south of the USA in the 1960's and
sought to write a compassionate and realistic expose from the point of view of
the women who worked in white households, raised white children and were
treated as third class non-citizens and non-persons. They were able to enlist
the stories of a number of other women and it became a publishing sensation.
Skeeter shared the royalties with all of the women who had helped to make
this book a reality (and, indeed, it was such a success that it was turned into
a film).

Skeeter’s book rocked the boat, she took great risks but her book was part of
the tide that was sweeping across America; a tide that would eventually
change their nation through what we now describe as the civil rights
movement. It challenged the rich white southerners who did not want their
world challenged, let alone changed. They did not understand that gaining
status from putting someone else down is simply wrong.

Of course, this one book did not win the war against segregation in the South;
it may not even have won one battle, but it was one step on the long road to
justice for the African-American population. A journey that continues in the
Black Lives Matter movement. Each act of faith and courage puts one more
chink in the racist armour which segregationists have used to protect
themselves for generations.

Skeeter took up her cross and brought out the truth of what so many people
were living and brought true justice that much closer.

During these strange times, in the midst of a global pandemic, I believe that
we are re-discovering what it means to be church. Whilst I would not want to
discourage church attendance, normally - I believe corporate worship is a
vital part of the Christian life – I would also say that our whole lives must be
lived in the light of our faith - our lives beyond Sundays – our lives in the
world of our work and our leisure must be lived in a way that does not
contradict what we claim to believe. Believe me when I say that actions
always speak louder than words.

There are so many examples that I could cite of those whose faith was lived
out in actions - but we don’t have to be a Mother Teresa, or a Jean Vanier, or
a Desmond Tutu, to be someone whose faith is lived out daily.

In our giving to the homeless. In our donations to food banks. In our
campaigning for justice and our lobbying of politicians. In our care of the
environment and our personal change in behaviour to bring about climate
change. In our getting alongside those on the margins of life. In our
challenging of misogyny and sexism and racism, in the church and in the
world. In our care for self and others, for friends and neighbours and loved
ones. In our graciousness and in our generosity, especially our generosity of
spirit. We are standing on holy ground.

Clearly it is not easy - crosses are heavy - they hurt the shoulders - the crowd
sometimes ridicules the one carrying the cross. But this is a choice we make.

In our desire to show God’s love, which is in the process of changing our
lives, we need to keep our focus sharp and our resolve strong. We need to
make decisions about life, not just fall into a certain kind of action because
it is easier, or cheaper, or more popular. And we need to allow that passion to
burn within us so that, like Moses, we discover God’s extraordinariness in the
ordinary experience of our human lives.

Dear friends, will you be drawing a picture or an icon or a logo, this week, of
yourself and will you be choosing some words and, if so, what you do you
want people to see, what do you want people to say?!

As St Paul wrote, Let your love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what
is good. Here, we find ourselves, standing on holy ground. Amen.

 

Sermons - July 2020

Sermon 5th July 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 05 JULY 2020

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

A church friend compiled a list this week, entitled:
What have I learned during the lockdown?
There’s a lot of chores, not even started.
*Shouting at the TV when the daily Downing Street briefings are on
is not good for one’s health
*Every time someone is interviewed on TV,
I spend an inordinate amount of time examining their book shelves
and commenting about their book selection.
*Reading stories to your grandchildren, via FaceTime is good fun
and gives hard-pressed parents a break.
*The planet is benefiting from silence and decreased activity.

Another church friend’s, lock down reflection this week:
“I have more time than usual, but manage to do less,
now that I am here all day and every day
without demands to get out and do something.”

Hard pressed parents or self-isolators –
there is more than one way to feel weary,
more than one set of burdens to carry.
Some, juggling the demands of young family and elderly parents.
Some, working harder now than pre-pandemic;
(Recall, the NHS worker - weeping in her car,
pleading for the supermarket hoarders to stop it, and give others a chance.)
Others, wrestling enforced idleness or lost employment.

Or the unseen burdens that are carried:
Awaiting a medical appointment, diagnosis or treatment –
for oneself, or loved ones.
Or the longing for justice, delayed or denied:
(The Civil Rights campaigner: “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Or the hard road of grief – the sharpness of its immediate impact,
Softened, but never fully dissipated by time.
[Slow realisation that one must live on, without that other.)

A recognition that card carrying, faith credentials are no guarantee of immunity:
A friend who is the Mother Superior of an enclosed/contemplative order of Anglican nuns –
Related, that such are the hectic demands of community -
with the majority of the sisters, elderly and increasingly frail –
leave little time, space or energy for her own prayer life.
[ The Franciscan Thursday prayer at Alnmouth:
“Pray for those who are too tired to pray
and those who know not yet how to pray.”]

As the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it sonorously:
“Hear what comfortable words our saviour Christ saith
unto all that truly turn to him:
“Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

It is a life raft invitation, a beautiful promise,
amid chill and choppy waters:
But it is not a standalone verse – it has both a preceding context
and a follow on demand.

Matthew 11 begins: Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples,
he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.
When John the Baptist heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing,
he sent word by his[b] disciples and said to him,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Then Jesus asked the crowds about John:
A reed shaken by the wind? Someone dressed in soft robes?
A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet;
the one about whom it is written, the messenger sent to prepare the way.
If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
Let anyone with ears listen!

That is how we arrive at today’s gospel:
‘To what will I compare this generation?
It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”;
the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say,
“Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

That lovely gospel promise of rest is made in time of rejection,
of little visible success and of potential despair.
Jesus had preached in the Galilean lakeside towns Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum
and it had gone badly.

That is the point at which Jesus says:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent
and have revealed them to infants…”
Infants – not necessarily the very young, but the little people.
It is an address to the ones who are open to him,
the wounded hearted and the seekers,
the not too proud, those who know they have reached their limits;
the burden carriers.
To these, the invitation; to these the promise:
“Come to me, all you who are weary, and are heavy laden,”
I will give you rest.”
Be sure of it. Have faith in it. Take courage from it.

But, that rest depends on a participation we may be reluctant to give.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me …
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

(We love the verse about rest; not so keen on the message of yoking.
“It tells us that burdens are shared,
that we are not responsible just for ourselves, but for one another;
our work lets others rest; our rest makes others work.” Diane Roth, Christian Century

[Returning to our church friend:]
“I have more time than usual, but manage to do less – Why?
I think I am needing to be involved with the world again.”

Being involved with the world again might take many forms – headlining or unseen.
Not many of us are the Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford –
harnessing media attention for the campaign to combat food poverty during school holidays. For most of us, life operates on a smaller scale.

From St Andrew’s, Newcastle this week the report – a lovely spark of reconnecting:
“A small group spent Tuesday morning trying to tame the Church garden
and cleaning the building.
We were blessed with good weather which was very helpful
in allowing the whole building to be thoroughly aired whilst we were outside.
We hope to continue with this on Tuesday next.”

This afternoon there is the scheduled Clap for the NHS, marking the organisation’s 72nd birthday.That same organisation suggests five factors towards good mental health:
Connect with other people;
Be physically active;
Learn new skills;
Give to others;
Pay attention to the present moment (mindfulness.)

Even with continuing restrictions for many in our congregations
there are ways to contribute and connect;
ways to lighten one’s own burdens and help others carry theirs.
None of us would underestimate how good it is to receive a message
or small gesture of kindness from another –
be it friend, family, church member or stranger.

For American friends this weekend marks Independence Day.
Think of the words of Emma Lazarus, at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

This same weekend the Moderator of the General Assembly of Scotland
calls on all congregations to be mindful of the Remembering Srbrenica campaign –
it is twenty-five years on from what unfolded across the Balkans
and the massacre of Muslims at Srbrenica in particular.

“Even now, there are divisive voices in our communities,
doing their best to emphasise difference
and to exploit what’s going on in the world for their own ends.
These voices must not prevail –
which will require all people of goodwill to do more than be idle bystanders.”

A contemporary writer: “A wise person once told me if you don’t challenge lies and obfuscation, call out prejudice and racism,
you’re not a journalist, you’re a microphone stand.”

Reaching out, speaking out; big picture, or small detail;
To be involved with the world again;
We are called to let the yoke rest upon us,
that together we meet the task.
to learn from the one who is gentle, humble in heart,
in whom we find our rest.

As another enclosed, woman of prayer, medieval, Julian of Norwich declared:
“Jesus did not say: “Thou shalt not be tempested,
thou shalt not be travailed,
thou shalt not be dis-eased”;
but he said, “Thou shalt not be overcome.”

Sermon 12th July 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 12 JULY 2020

And Jesus told them many things in parables. Matthew 13:3

This week’s E-Newsletter carries the link to a recent newspaper article;
about former St Columba’s minister, the Very Reverend Fraser McLuskey.
So many times, I have heard people remember him fondly –
Part of childhood church, conducting a wedding or baptism; comforting in time of sorrow.
The article pays tribute to his relatively short, but undeniably intense period
as a wartime, British Army chaplain/padre –
specifically, time serving with the fledgling Special Air Service/SAS Regiment.
In 1944 jumping in, behind enemy lines, to accompany his soldiers –
The Parachute Padre.

At times, during those operations in France, the chaplain, unarmed,
would wait with the medical officer at the Aid Post, as the fighting unfolded.
At times he helped out, including when Sergeant-Major Reg Seekings was hit in the head. McLuskey said: “I cannot forget the first and last surgical operation at which I assisted, however inexpertly. The bullet lodged deeply at the base of his skull and could not be removed,
but Reg, as one would expect, took it in his powerful stride
and in no time at all resumed normal operations.”

Our church newsletter, with the link to this article, went out on Friday.
The same day we received a message from a St Columban, residing in Muscat, in the Oman:
“I’ve just read the article about Fraser McLuskey
and thought I would tell you the following story, related to the article.
I was getting married on 19th November, 1983 at St Columba’s.
I was at the church, and there was a bit of a delay
as my fiancé was held up by traffic for the England-Scotland rugby match at Twickenham.
(Three of us): My best man, the minister (Fraser), and I were sitting in the vestry
when there was a knock on the door.
Three men came in and the first said, “Do you remember me, Padre?”
“I’m afraid I don’t” replied Fraser.
The three introduced themselves and chatted about the war.
(It was the SAS reunion that weekend).

After they left, Fraser said: “The last time I saw one of those men
was when I helped operate to remove a piece of shrapnel in his head”.
Our correspondent closed: I assume this must have been the same man
mentioned in The Daily Mail story.”
(Footnote: The bride did finally arrive at the Church)

The fascination of stories – connecting past, present and future (?)
Certain places – accumulate and honouring life stories,
like slow building coral reefs.
At the same time, recognition that no two people hear/respond to
the same story in identical fashion.
Parachute Padres and wedding day encounters will trigger alternatives:
Some will think about a much-admired padre and minister;
others, about their own military service:
Some may recall awaiting their own wedding day:
And others, simply will not connect with that particular tale at all.

I think it is fair to say, humans are a story-telling species;
Bedtime fairy tales, playground gossip, sporting anecdote,
Journalist enquiry, national histories, therapist’s chair, funeral tribute.
It is no surprise that faith comes and is conveyed in the passing of stories.
Scripture’s overarching epic: “The Good Book.”
A sixty-six-book blockbuster, of a God who creates, loves
and stays faithful to the world, and all that is in it.
For would-be disciples, its most important chapters, entitled Christ.
Weaving together the story of the life Jesus lived, and the stories Jesus told.
Parables – engaging/sparking imagination, cajoling conscience,
expanding horizons, issuing warning, and summoning to serve.

A man went out to sow….
The contemporary Irish poet Liam Ó Comáin, in his poem, The Sower,
Meditates on the sight of an early morning hand sower
broadcasting the seeds in pre-industrial fashion.

A solitary figure silhouetted by the rising
Sun while grasping from a slung sack,
Dispersing back and forth in the
Manner of previous sowers.
...
A sower
But you are also an icon
Or an image of he or she
Who provides.

As I observed I imagined the giver
Of life scattering seeds of love into
Our hearts to grow and flourish
In order to share the means of
Reaping a harvest beyond
Our mortal time.

Seeds of love – for a harvest beyond our mortal time.
This parable – prodigal sower and different soils
commissions us to be disciple-sowers
and reminds us that we will not always meet grand success.
There will be the reality of failures and their reasons –
stony ground, shallow ground, choking ground.
The shortcomings are well rehearsed –
Easy to identify in ourselves, and others.
But the tale does not end with inhospitable ground;
bushels of abundance are where this parable leads.
The tale ends with a miracle, a riotous pay-off, a hundredfold harvest.
(Sevenfold, the scholars say, would have been a good outcome.)
That is some seed. The parable awakens us to the precious dynamite in our hands;
These seeds may look tiny, dead;
they may fall in places where they come to nothing.
In the attempt to emulate/to follow/to share Christ/to sow for love,
there will always be setbacks.
Jesus predicts, “Some of your work will be in vain, no visible harvest. But sow anyway.”
“The wisdom of letting go of the end result.” (David Donald Scott)

[Archbishop Oscar Romero:
“We plant the seeds that will one day grow.
We may never see the end results.
We are ministers not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”]

Ultimately, the harvest belongs to God. (Isaiah 55)
“My word shall not return to me empty.
But it shall accomplish that which I purpose
and succeed in the things for which I sent it.”

Let me conclude with one more woven tale; a story about a story-teller.
I offer it, not because it scores a neat, theological bullseye,
but because it incorporates both the sorrow and the beauty of the world,
so feels worth the telling.

Some weeks ago, the office received the request for a Church of Scotland minister
to conduct the burial of a Scotsman, with no recorded next of kin.
I was told to expect just the undertakers to be present.

It transpired that the man was a member of St Columba’s.
On further enquiry, a little emerged about him –
Ex-RAF, a civil servant, an attendant at the British Museum,
a member of a St Columba’s lunch team, and Crown Court ramblers.
Not much; but I was glad that I could stand at a graveside, with at least those fragments.

On Friday morning the sun shone.
On arrival, I found undertakers, plus three others.
A Greek couple who had lived in the same block of flats
and a member of a local food bank, formed in response to the current pandemic.

In the few minutes before the burial, they told me what they knew,
and perhaps more importantly,
how much this almost anonymous man had meant to them.
He was full of stories. He loved his cigarettes.
He had apparently had a great influence on a teenage helper at the food bank –
a young Etonian pupil.

They also told me of the terrible squalor of his living conditions.
There was anger at how someone who had served his country
could have fallen so far off his country’s Rada.
As one of the mourners remarked:
“David was not the only case that the Food Bank has found.
With no next of kin, it is a deep reminder of the closeness we all have to loneliness.”

On a day that both stands as accusation
and as a reminder of what can be so very good in people,
we prayed our thanks:
For the little that is known;
and the all that is known unto God alone.

In the ancient ritual we cast earth onto the coffin – dust to dust;
David’s friend of his last weeks, threw in two packs of his preferred brand of cigarettes;
his neighbours, white roses.
It was very small, but not without dignity.
Beyond the trees traffic carried on.
This is our life; these are some of its stories.

But, as the poet observed, and imagined:
“…the giver of life scattering seeds of love
to reap a harvest beyond our mortal time.” Liam O Comain

Sermon 19th July 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUN 19 JULY 2020

But the Master replied, “Do not gather the weeds, for if you did you would uproot the wheat.
Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”
Matthew 13:28-30

If you were questioned: How good is your judgement?
Would you understand being asked:
What is my ability to make wise decisions; how well-informed am I;
what level of experience do I bring to this situation?
Or, would you hear: What is the effect/impact of your judgement?
How good is it – and good for who?

A new friend, a South Korean woman, spoke this week
of an encounter at the start of her children’s new school.
In the corridor, outside the classroom a well-intentioned teacher,
was talking to another parent. That other parent was Chinese.
There was an awkward moment as the three converged –
British teacher, Chinese and South Korean mothers.
Nothing was said directly, but the teacher’s reaction indicated
that somehow the two would automatically know each other.
After all “they looked the same.”
As the new mother said: “Do people know how far apart, our countries actually are?

How good is our judgement?
I learnt this week of the death of someone who twenty-five years ago
gave a talk in a small, town hall in North Carolina
that I still think a lot about today.
Reverend Buddy Olney was a minister of Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) –
both serving congregations and a university chaplain.
He was committed to issues of peace and justice his entire ministry –
the civil rights movement, the Vietnam era peace movement.
He was arrested in Washington, DC while protesting apartheid,
travelled to the West Bank in Israel,
and took faculty and students to Nicaragua to protest the “Contra War.”.
The evening I heard him speak, he spoke candidly about racism, his own and his nation’s.

From one of his visits to Israel and Palestine, he recounted an episode.
He wanted to visit an Arab friend in Ramallah.
He secured the documentation to enable the visit.
At the border crossing checkpoint, after searching his car and checking his paperwork
an Israeli captain advised: “If you have any trouble, tell them you are an Arab –
you look like an Arab.”
Olney made the journey and visited with his friend and family.
When it came for departure the friend escorted the American,
stopping two blocks away from the military checkpoint.
Saying farewell the Palestinian advised:
“If the soldiers give you any trouble, tell them you are Jewish – you look Jewish.”
Olney reflected on the concern for his safety that both the Israeli and the Palestinian had shown him; reminded, once again that deep within us there is goodness in us all.
Longed that they might find a way to show that same care, to each other.

How good is our judgement?
Shamima Begum now aged 20, is one of three schoolgirls
who left London to join the Islamic State group in Syria in 2015.
Her citizenship was revoked by the Home Office on security grounds
after she was found in a refugee camp in 2019.
The Court of Appeal has ruled she should be allowed to return to the UK
to fight the decision to remove her British citizenship,
Is she a dangerous terrorist, a present threat to national security?
Or a vulnerable minor, ruthlessly groomed,
a child bride traumatised by the death of her children?
How good is our judgement?
How well informed? Good for who?

Jesus, the master story teller, spins another tale;
The farmer sows the wheat; an enemy sows weeds.
When the evidence springs up, the farmhands are eager
to uproot the unwelcome growings.
“No” commands the farmer, “not yet. Wait till harvest time.
In destroying the one, you will injure the other.”

Harvest is biblical language for judgement.
Matthew is the gospel writer most concerned with a final reckoning;
the only gospel with wise and foolish virgins, the division of sheep and goats,
and today’s field of wheat and tares (weeds.)

The scholars inform us, that Matthew wrote to a mixed Jewish and Gentile congregation,
struggling to stay united under the same roof.
Perhaps the Jewish Christians, sons and daughters of Abraham,
perceived the newly arrived Gentiles, a threat to their purity.
Perhaps the Gentile Christians, viewed the Jewish Christians,
chained to the old ways, obstructing their growth.
From moral high ground, confident in their own “wheatness”
both groups eager to ask: “Master, shall we uproot those weeds?
But the master replies: “Let the weed and the wheat grow together until the harvest…”

Let them grow together.
Apparently, God does not share our appetite for the neat field,
the efficient operation, or the pure crop.
The Master does not deny judgement – there will be harvest;
nor does he advocate passivity.
To allow the growth of weed and wheat, to wait
is neither idleness, nor submission; not a call to ignore evil.
But the emphasis/command is to grow the good, not burn the bad.
“…to bless the field, not curse it.” (Debie Thomas)
Remembering whose field it is; keeping Farmer’s time, not farmhand time.

From the most watched British comedy of the last two decades, “Gavin & Stacey”,
one of the characters, the Welsh woman, Nessa often asks: “What’s occurring?”

What’s occurring seems an appropriate question for our own 2020,
with its uncertainty provoked, in part, by the continuing pandemic.
For some there is an eagerness to dive into/embrace the new normal;
an understandable desire to regain some stability/certainty.
But the parable cautions against rushing to too-early conclusions.
As was suggested this week by a wise Roman Catholic nun:
“We have not been in the desert long enough
to understand what the desert is teaching us.”
Or as another wrote: living with both wheat and weeds means
“training our eyes (like Christ did) to gaze at uncertainty, without flinching.”
(Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

[Another death this week of someone whose friendship was very precious: Professor Bill Shaw – mentor and friend to generations of theology students of Edinburgh and St Andrews. Golf course, I asked: “Do you believe in universal salvation?”
“I believe in the love of God.” In his honour, another parable of the wheat and weeds.

One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands
decided to surprise their boss and weed his favourite wheat field.
No sooner had they begun to work though, than they began to argue –
first about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds
and then about the rest of the weeds.
Could the Queen Anne’s lace remain – for decoration;
or the blackberries for sweetness, or the honeysuckle for its scent?

The boss turned up, found them arguing and ordered all of them out of the field.
Dejected, they headed back to the main farm shed, from where they could see the field.
The boss sat them down and gave them something to drink – for the day was hot.
Sunlight moved across the field.

Initially, all the farm hands could see, was the mess.
But as time passed, they began to recognise the profusion of growth –
tall wheat, weeds and wild roses.
It was a mess – but magnificent too.
When it had all bloomed and ripened and gone to seed, the reapers came.
Carefully, gently, expertly, they gathered the wheat
and made the rest into bricks for the oven, where the bread was baked.
And the fire that the weeds made was excellent,
and the flour that the wheat made was excellent.

When the harvest was over, the boss called them all together –
the farmhands, the reapers and all the neighbours –
he took those fresh harvest loaves
and after giving thanks, he broke them and shared them out –
that bread, risen from that mixed-up field.
And those who received it agreed, it was like no bread that they had ever tasted before – bread of life; bread of heaven.

Sermon 26th July 2020

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 26 JULY 2020

“Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Matthew 13:31

One of the pillars that has sustained London lockdown,
over the past four months, has been the steady stream of photos
sent by family members from the Isle of Skye –
where unexpectedly, but not unhappily, they have lived the last four months.

Flicking through the accumulated images
there have been seals and swans, hillside deer, coral beaches,
sunsets and moonlight.
Many of the sights are familiar, from tramping the same paths;
space and light, nourishing a sometime dry soul.

This week slightly different: as the family” bubble” has expanded.
So, the picture of a three-year-old niece splashing in the shallows of Talisker Bay –
captured in that frontier moment,
borderline of chasing, and being chased, by gentle incoming waves –
delight at entry, squeal of excited escape.

A couple of days earlier, an exultant group of adult swimmers,
in the now famous, Fairy Pools –
a stunning section of water drops and gathered pools,
where the river descends direct from the Cuillin Ridge.
Swimming water temperature – “fresh!”

Such watery recordings, coincided with back to back documentaries from TV this week.
First came Wild Swimming
the narrator’s quest to discover the adventures and exhilarations
of swimming outdoors in lake, river or ocean.
Taking inspiration from a book entitled Waterlog by Roger Deakin
who recorded his own journeys and discoveries in search of
“following water, from rain to ocean;
seeking freedom from a lifetime of swimming lengths,
endlessly turning back on myself – like a caged tiger stalking its confinement.”

If that wasn’t enough, the BBC immediately served up a documentary
following a year in the life of London’s, Hampstead Pools,
a haven/magnet for the capital’s wild swimmers.
What was portrayed was wonderfully unvarnished, quirky and above all else, alive.
There was the humour of the lifeguard, reflecting on saving swimmers in trouble,
who often subsequently admitted that they can’t swim:
“I can’t fly, but that doesn’t mean I would jump off a cliff!”

You didn’t have to be beautiful, or young or successful, to be there.
Indeed, the water seemed to have the capacity to hold a specific place
for those with physical pain, or spiritual sorrow.
What appeared repeatedly – none more so,
than from the hardy band who swim in winter,
sometimes with ice on the water –
is the feeling of being absolutely, joyously, alive.
Fully awake; a baptismal moment:
Echo of Christ rising from the waters, heavens opened; the declaration –
“This is my child, beloved.”

I recognise, that you may be more Riviera than rockpool;
and that such chilly, awkward immersions are the stuff of your nightmares –
But:
Is it too fanciful to say/consider, the kingdom of heaven is like…
a child dancing on a summer beach, watched over by someone who loves them;
or a New Year’s Day icy plunge, re-emerging gasping with exhilaration;
or, an idiosyncratic swimming club,
where friend and stranger find a healing pool
and strength sufficient for the day ahead?

Jesus took the stuff of everyday life, the ordinary and often overlooked,
and used it, to connect to the holy and sacred.
He understood the impossibility of ever capturing the divine in human language –
so he framed pictures in words – not a formula – “This is the kingdom” –
but the kingdom is like – leaving us space to enquire and discern for ourselves.

Throughout the gospels, a tumble of images –
lost sheep, seed sown, wedding feasts, vineyards with labourers and owners.
The gospel today - a rapid-fire volley of comparisons.
Almost too many – as if to say, don’t dwell too much;
instead be dazzled, by the number and variety of the things
the kingdom is like.

Like a tiny mustard seed —
seemingly insignificant, apparently unmighty –
yet flowering to the bush, in whose branches the birds of the air find shelter.
Or like yeast leavening a batch of dough;
Imperceptible but transforming.

Like the man who discovers the treasure in the field
or the merchant who comes upon the ultimate pearl –
and knows that there is nothing now more important;
nothing that will so fully lead to life;
nothing that will now dissuade them from diving into that pool to emerge alive!

Like a fishing net cast upon the waters –
gathering up the good and the bad.
An echo of last week’s parable of the field of wheat and tares (weeds.)
Harvest time the moment of accountability, a final reckoning.
But the reminder that it is the disciples task to bless the field, not curse it.
The disciples task to cast the net, not sift the catch.
Such final reckonings belong to God alone.

The kingdom of heaven is like…the comparisons point to different signs of the kingdom,
But are unified by an element of hiddenness;
seeds beneath the soil, fishing beneath water’s surface, sunken treasure, elusive gems.
The kingdom is easily overlooked, difficult to detect,
unless one looks/listens carefully with a trained heart or eye.
The gift of a discerning, listening heart,
which Solomon asked, and was granted,
might be the gift we require to be detectives and disciples of the divine.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince.

The kingdom of heaven is like….

We started with seals and seascapes from the family album.
Let me finish with a different stretch of water, an alternative animal.
In a poem, entitled Almost a Conversation, by the American, Mary Oliver
she describes studying the play of an otter in the river;
suggesting their conversation maybe unvocal but real:
Wherefore our understanding
is all body expression -
She observes his sleek swimming, the bubbles of his surface breath,
his coat and whiskers; he learns to trust her continued presence.
The poem ends:

He has no words, still what he tells about his life
is clear.
He does not own a computer.
He imagines the river will last forever.
He does not envy the dry house I live in.
He does not wonder who or what it is that I worship.
He wonders, morning after morning, that the river
is so cold and fresh and alive, and still
I don't jump in.

The kingdom of God is like…?
Like an invitation;
Come on in, Christ says:
Be beloved; the water is lovely.

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

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

Getting here by tube

Knightsbridge Station

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

South Kensington Station

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

Sloane Square Station

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

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