Sermons - July 2021
Sermon 4th July 2021, 6th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 4th JULY 2021, 11.00am,
“Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house),
they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 2:5
“And Jesus could do no deed of power there,
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
And he was amazed at their unbelief.” Mark 6:5-6
A friend recounted a recent train journey, from Edinburgh to London.
It was the day before Scotland played England in football’s ongoing Euros 20.
A train packed with raucous Tartan Army, intent on enjoying the moment.
As he swayed his way to the buffet car, he was entertained by a medley of songs:
Letter to America, 500 Miles and Sunshine on Leith.
You don’t have to be a Hibs (Hibernian) fan
to perhaps recognise whose back catalogue of songs was being chorused.
Auchtermuchty’s finest; brothers, Craig and Charlie Reid: The Proclaimers.
To proclaim (definition): is to announce publicly/to indicate clearly.
It’s a good word to pair with prophet;
prophet in the biblical sense - not a “fortune-teller” but a “spokesperson.”
Prophets, described as “drunk on God –
in the presence of their terrible tipsiness, no one was ever comfortable.” F Buechner
Israel’s prophets called out/roared out against corruption,
injustice, hypocrisy and mistreatment of the poor.
Kings and priests were regularly in their sights.
For Ezekiel, came the commission:
Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel,
to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me … impudent and stubborn.
You shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.”
Whether they hear or refuse to hear
they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. Ezekiel 2:4-5
“There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper
more than once.” F Buechner. Gospel reading highlights just that;
though on this occasion the prophet is rejected more for who he is,
rather than what he says.
It is homecoming day in Nazareth; a day to celebrate,
to enjoy the reflected glory of a local hero.
Since Jesus began his travelling ministry things have gone rapidly,
rumours and reputation taking wing.
They have heard of the healings.
He has just raised the synagogue leader’s daughter from apparent death.
Surely, the force is with him.
Initially, all is well. On the Sabbath, in the synagogue of his youth,
people listen attentively and nod their heads in approval.
Nice words for a Nazarite – wise, profound, eloquent and true.
But here in hometown, folks have a problem.
Who changes the mood in the synagogue?
A jealous neighbour of Mary, a childhood rival of Jesus; the village gossip?
Somewhere it starts, perhaps with the classic put down: “I kent his faither.”
Actually, there is no mention of his father,
but rather a deliberate dwelling on his mother:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary….?
In Jesus’ day, the only reason to identify someone by their mother,
was to question their legitimacy.
(“Sapping God’s Strength,” Barbara Brown Taylor.)
To refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary” is a calculated act,
an intended take-down, to shame Jesus into silence.
“Hey Mary’s boy; we know who you are. Just remember your place.”
The ones who apparently knew Jesus best, could not treasure him most.
And they took offence at him.
Their imaginations could not/would not expand, to consider a big possibility about him.
The gospels are full of Jesus and the miraculous,
but here is the tale of the un-miracle.
With grim finality Mark concludes: “He could do no deed of power there,”
Jesus carries on regardless. He does not demand ‘honour’, nor wait for it.
He moves on, healing and preaching.
And he commissions others to do the same.
Strangers at home; let them be home among strangers.
He sends them in pairs; an early signal that this kingdom business
is not built by soloists;
but better manifested, in mutual support and interdependence,
conveyed by community, collegiate style.
Mark is not interested in recording what happened next.
But he is very interested in Jesus’ preparatory instructions:
“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff;
no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;
but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” (6:8-9)
He gives them “authority”, but not “entitlement.”
They are to go humbly; guests in the houses of their hosts.
This call to go forth – does it make us shift a little uneasily?
Well, if all we can imagine is tele-evangelists or street corner preachers,
maybe the encounter I read of this week may give us food for thought.
Woman in bookstore. Hasidic Jew enters: “Would you like any help?”
“Yes, I would like to know about Jesus.”
She directed him upstairs to the bookstore section on Jesus/Religion.
“No, don’t show me any more books, tell me what you believe.”
[Recounting the encounter: “My Episcopal soul shivered” -
but she gulped and told her visitor everything she could think of.]
Tell me what you believe. In spite of rejection, or embarrassment
or fear that we don’t have the right words, it is helpful to remember:
evangelism is not to get someone on our side,
not to grow the church,
but to proclaim/to tell clearly what God has come to mean to us.
This is an action performed out of love, not competition or anxiety.
“They shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 2:5
Scripture’s record, when the proclaiming starts,
is that one of two things will happen;
acceptance or rejection; repentance or resentment; fertile or stony ground.
Sometimes, as individuals, as a congregation, as Christians across the world –
sometimes we are ones claiming to know Jesus best,
but letting him be Jesus, the least.
Like the neighbours of Nazareth, too narrow in our view of what is holy,
of who, or what, is bringing the Spirit alive and making it present.
So set in our ways that we constrain Christ.
The warning: where we will not risk, we will fossilise.
And Jesus will move on, seeking welcome in less respectable places.
And sometimes as individuals, as a congregation or as Christians across the world,
we speak, or at least recognise in others, a prophetic word.
May be ignored; may be snarled at,
to keep our ecclesiastical snout out of the political trough.
But, according to Ezekiel, the proclaimer is not measured by results,
but by whether or not we deliver the message. (Faithful, not successful.)
One commentator this week, reflecting on how the Nazareth crowd
wanted to keep Jesus restricted, in the boundaries of their choosing,
highlighted the contemporary phrase: Stay in lane
i.e. stick to your business, don’t meddle in mine. Stay in lane Jesus!
Apparently, the phrase became prominent in 2018,
when the USA’s National Rifle Association criticized emergency room doctors
for commenting on America’s gun crisis.
Doctors should “stay in their lane,” the N.R.A tweeted.
They should practice medicine, stick to their areas of expertise,
instead of expressing opinions on subjects they know nothing about.
The doctors responded immediately; sharing stories of patients
who had arrived in their emergency rooms
following traumatic gun-related injuries or deaths.
“This Is Our Lane,” they tweeted.
[“A prophet's quarrel with the world is deep down a lover's quarrel.
If they didn't love the world,
they probably wouldn't bother to tell it that it's going to hell.
They'd just let it go. Their quarrel is God's quarrel.” F Buechner]
Sermon 11th July 2021, 7th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 11th JULY 2021, 11.00am,
(7th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST) John 6:14-29
On a morning of welcome – new Associate Minister, William and newly baptised, Ella -
is it really appropriate that the Gospel dish we serve today is, head on a platter?
Is this the way to greet a brother and sister to their own party?
Easier perhaps to tiptoe past this ugly, inconvenient tale;
select something more edifying –
Let the children come unto me, a baptismal classic.
We could, but what would we miss that the gospel writer wants us to see?
Mark’s Gospel is the shortest,
but what it lacks in length, it makes up with velocity.
No birth stories of Bethlehem to ease us in, just:
“The beginning of the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ…”
Key to that announcement, the wild, wilderness figure of Jesus’ kinsman, John the baptiser.
Declaring the need for turning around/repentance,
he tells the crowds who come to him in numbers:
Get ready for the One who is coming after me.
The difference between what you see in me and what he will be?
So great, I wouldn’t deem myself worthy
Even to untie his sandal and bath his feet –
the most menial task for the lowest servant.
That’s how special is the one to come.
After that entry music, Jesus blisters his way through the opening chapters;
healing, gathering disciples, ruffling the feathers of the authorities,
earning quite the reputation.
That led us last week to the return of the hometown boy to Nazareth,
where the juggernaut stopped in its tracks –
the prophet discovering that he had honour in some places,
but apparently not among the people who knew him best.
And he could do no works there.
Abruptly, the story switches back to John
and uncharacteristically for this gospel,
there is an extended description of a particular incident,
including its accompanying backstory and motivations.
It starts with a swirl of rumour and identity speculation.
Jesus’ actions have come to the notice of the highest in the land.
Who is the catalyst of these reported happenings? Elijah? One of the prophets?
Or a resurrected John the Baptist, head and shoulders miraculously reunited?
Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, in his palace
plumps for the seemingly most unlikely option.
Why? Because the guilt he harbours about John’s death
plays havoc with his imagination and sense of dread.
Rumours remind him of the man he was fascinated by –
the righteous and holy man, he liked to listen to, even when John rendered him perplexed;
John, the one Herod protected for a while.
What had brought about this odd couple?
Herod had forsaken his wife for his brother’s wife.
John, speaking truth to power calls out the marriage.
That is rewarded with a prison cell.
Then the royal birthday party – the dance of the step-daughter.
Basking in the moment, acting the big man: “Anything you want my girl.”
Surely this is about looking good in front of the elite.
The girl consults. Her mother, nursing revenge, seizes on the opportunity.
The rest needs no rehearsing.
With frightening speed, the consequences play out.
John is killed and the grim proof is paraded at the banquet.
Did the feast continue?
Away from the hall, unseen, John’s stricken disciples claim the prophet’s body.
Violent and vivid – why does Mark dwell on this episode?
One reason: clear similarities between John’s death at the command of Herod Antipas
and Jesus’ death, by the order of Pontius Pilate.
Both rulers (Herod & Pilate) look favourably upon their captives.
Each ruler desires to spare the life of his prisoner.
Eventually however, both care more about pacifying their powerbase
than exercising justice.
At the moment of testing, both act against their “better judgement”
condemning innocent men to death.
As footnote: Both of the victims’ bodies are recovered by disciples and laid in tombs.
First time listeners of the gospel may not comprehend the connection straightaway,
but the author is surely saying something about the cost of discipleship,
and preparing us for the passion of Christ.
A second reason for including this grim episode:
A recognition that there is horror in the story of God’s love for the world –
unvarnished, not magicked away or redeemed –
there to show that the gospel requires honesty;
honesty about the depths to which the world/humanity, sometimes sinks;
about life’s unfairness.
John does the right thing, then suffers anyway.
At the end of a dedicated life, he dies unsure of his Messiah.
His death, random and apparently without meaning;
no last-minute stay of execution; no miraculous conversion of prison guards.
This surely echoes with what we know;
from headline news and personal experience.
Herod’s court may seem a far country but the tragic and the undeserved happens,
and religion is no rabbit’s foot against that.
We inhabit a world where innocent are still imprisoned;
a world of sudden and random illness and violence;
where the young are prematurely sexualised and the elderly ignored;
where speaking truth to power is a rare and costly act.
If the gospel didn’t include the awful, its also/ultimate goodness would ring hollow.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus heard of John’s death,
“He left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.”
Some things were/are too terrible for words even for Jesus;
some hurts couldn’t be salvaged with a neat theology.
Before anything else, Jesus chose grief and silence;
no pious platitudes, just the need to be alone.
Only after that time – later - he fed people.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand directly follows John's death.
Jesus came back from mourning, asked a crowd to sit down,
gathered whatever bread and fish he could find, and fed people.
That gathering of community to receive sustenance from the figure of Jesus
leads us back to the baptism for Ella we will move to shortly
and the welcome we extend to William.
For Ella, formerly welcoming her into the family of faith,
trusting that today’s gospel hasn’t completely put her off the idea – or William?
Mindful of the Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila’s words:
“Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”
While there may be a mixture of excitement and trepidation at the step you now take,
know also that the decision that you take contributes in ways you may never imagine
to the life of this place and beyond.
We are used to the beauty of the infant baptism,
but it is good to be reminded of the same gift offered to, and accepted by, an adult.
It is good to witness a brave decision about future loyalties.
It is an encouragement to the faith of all of us;
a reminder of our own baptisms and belongings.
Whether being baptised, or starting a new ministry
or simply bringing the prayers of one more Sunday,
may the words from the prayers prepared by the Congregational Prayer Group
speak for, and to us, all:
May the words we have spoken
and the dreams we have shared
and the faith we have renewed today
give us wisdom, comfort, and courage
for all the days ahead;
for the way is often hard,
the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
But deep down there is another truth,
we are never alone.
Sermon 18th July 2021, 8th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 18th JULY 2021, 11.00am,
(8th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST)
Those of you who were able to tear yourselves away from the football last Sunday evening might have noticed that Channel 5 were showing “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a brilliantly funny film, with a stellar cast including Dame Judi Dench. Oscar winner Judi Dench must be one of the best known actors in the world today having starred in “A Room with a View”, “Mrs Brown”, “Shakespeare in Love” and “Philomena” as well as James Bond films and numerous stage and television appearances. She has said that when her late husband, the actor Michael Williams was alive they enjoyed camping holidays on the Isle of Mull where no one disturbed them.
Similarly, Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, has spoken about how much she and her husband enjoy sailing their yacht off the west coast of Scotland, just the two of them alone on the water.
It is understandable that those who live their lives in the public eye, be it royalty, actors, prominent politicians or some church leaders feel the need to retreat, to escape the public gaze and have some time to themselves.
It seems from our gospel lesson this morning that Jesus and his disciples felt similar pressure from the crowds. The disciples were just back from their first mission. They’d started from quite a low point in Jesus ministry, for he’d just been rejected in his own home town of Nazareth when he sent the disciples out in pairs to teach and to heal and to spread the good news of the coming of God’s kingdom.
It must have been quite a frightening experience for the disciples. They’d just seen the rejection suffered by their leader and the hostility shown towards him by his own people and they were doubtless aware of the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod, yet they were sent out with no backup. Not only were they unarmed, they took no spare clothes and no food or money, so they had to either sink or swim by relying on God and on the generosity of strangers.
Mark does not tell us explicitly the results of that mission but in v. 30 we do have this one short sentence: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught”. The impression is given that they couldn’t wait to tell Jesus about everything they’d been doing. But even while this was going on, many other people were still coming and going and we’re told that Jesus and his disciples had no time even to eat. So the Lord suggested that they all went away by themselves on a kind of retreat. They clambered into the boat and headed for a quiet place, probably intending to seek solitude somewhere up in the rocky hills and mountains of Galilee.
But despite what we might sometimes think, people aren’t stupid even when they’re in a crowd. The crowds saw them sailing away and guessed immediately the sort of place they’d be heading to, and went ahead of them by road. That is the disadvantage of a place like the Sea of Galilee – its easy to see which way a boat is heading and possible to catch up by hiking round the shore.
Now I suspect that most of us would have felt utter despair on arriving at a place which was supposed to be a retreat, a safe haven of peace and quiet, only to find huge crowds of people already gathered on the shore. But Jesus didn’t easily lose patience and when he saw for himself the great needs of the people, he had compassion on them.
On this particular occasion, the hunger of the crowd seems to have been spiritual rather than physical. In Jesus eyes they were like sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them many things.
We’re not told what the disciples did during this time. Perhaps they were able to rest, or perhaps they helped Jesus, marshalling the crowds or sharing in his teaching ministry. Whatever they did, in due course they all climbed back into the boat and rowed right across the Sea of Galilee to the other side, to the Gentile side, the region known as the Decapolis.
Here they were met by yet another crowd, for by now Jesus fame had spread to the gentile regions. But this was a different crowd. We’re told that these were people who needed healing, for everyone ran to collect all the sick people they knew and bring them to Jesus.
And they didn’t leave Jesus alone for a moment. Wherever he went, into villages, cities, farms or market-places, they followed him. They laid the sick on mats in front of him, and begged to touch him, even if only to touch the fringe of his cloak; and all of them who touched it were healed.
What a contrast to that previous experience in his home town of Nazareth , where he was treated as of no account and where he was unable to heal many people. Yet down the ages the ministry of healing has always been at the forefront of the church’s mission. The organisation we recognise as St. John Ambulance has its origins in a hospital founded in Jerusalem in 1099 to care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Today the St. John Eye Hospital is also a very important aspect of the work of the work of the Order of St. John.
Much more recently in December 1869 a young Irishman named Wesley Bailey working as a teacher with the Church of Scotland in India was inspired to found The Leprosy Mission which still does great work over 150 years later
As Christians and members of the church we are called to continue Christ’s ministry in the world today. And the mission of the church is still very much as it was in those early days. Responding to a contemporary crisis the Church of Scotland HIV programme supports 16 projects in 13 countries around the world, including Scotland. We are still called to teach and to heal and to spread the gospel.
Some people need spiritual sustenance, just as those people did who wouldn’t leave Jesus alone when he and the disciples were looking for a quiet retreat.
Other people are sick and need healing. Of course we all need healing, it isn’t simply restricted to those who are physically or mentally unwell. Or indeed to well know public figures who feel the need for quiet time. Healing encompasses broken relationships and previous hurts and memories which damage and injure us... All of these leave us as less than whole people, whom God is longing to heal.
Sometimes Christians feel that they can never say no. As Christ’s ministers in the world today church members often feel that they must keep going until they drop. They feel that they must be forever helping others , and may never think of themselves.
But this is a false economy. It might be possible if none of us needed healing ourselves, but we just like those very human, frail and fallible early disciples, need rest and quiet and retreat.
Church members or not, women and men, young and old are no good to anyone if we burn ourselves out. We’re no good to anyone if we’re unable to give them the attention and the help they need because we’re spreading ourselves too thinly. As Jesus recognised we need our rest and recreation.
I don’t know how far any of us will be able to travel this year, but even if you’re not going away, take time out this summer. Make sure you get the rest and recreation you need, so that you’re fit and ready to continue the church’s mission of healing and teaching and spreading the gospel.
Sermon 25th July, 9th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET
SUNDAY 25th JULY 2021, 9th SUNDAY after PENTECOST
“When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him,
he said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’
(He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.)
Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread
for each of them to get a little.’” John 6:5-7
Joy Harjo is the current Poet Laureate of the United States of America.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 9, 1951, Harjo is a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation
She is the first Native American in the history of the position.
In a poem entitled, Perhaps the World Ends Here,
She muses on all that happens round the kitchen table –
the breadth of life it encompasses and the conversations it witnesses; it opens:
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
… Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table….
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
(Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.)
Harjo’s hymn to the kitchen table is a prompt,
to honour the meal tables of our own making –
and a reminder of the shared table’s significance
for the sustenance of life and its centrality to community;
a good herald for our gospel reading.
The multiplication of loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand
appears six times across the four gospels.
Clearly, the event meant a lot to the early church.
Familiar form Sunday School telling or St Andrew’s Day sermons,
it is a hillside encounter to spark the imagination and set us wondering.
Jesus is in demand. The people have seen or heard of his healings.
Why would those who are in need not seek him out now –
just brush the hem of his garment, some whispered.
Passover – when all Israel remembered its liberation from the slavery of Egypt –
Jesus goes up the mountain - echo of Moses –
and sits down there with his disciples – the rabbi’s signal for teaching time.
Settled, looking up, Jesus sees a great swell of refugee humanity
about to break upon the shore of his companion circle.
Multiple needs and hungers, despairs and hopes;
visible practicalities, demanded in the moment
and unseen yearnings, long-harboured, yet barely understood.
“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asks Philip.
“Six months’ wages wouldn’t cover the bread
enough for each of them to get even a little.” Philip is right of course.
In Mark’s version of this moment,
the disciples object to their teacher’s desire to feed the crowd, pointing out
“This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;
send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”
Faced with the insurmountable, the disciples see only their own insufficiency,
their own scant resources. You can’t really blame them.
Sensible, practical, responsible - the disciples’ instinct
is to scatter the people, let them fend for themselves.
Meeting the demands of this crisis is too large a burden;
a responsibility too far for their existing community.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, chips in:
“There is a young lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”
Andrew at least is casting around for something resembling a solution,
but he too comes to the same, logical conclusion as Philip:
“But what are they among so many people?”
To which Jesus responds: “Make the people sit down.”
In place of the deadweight of: It can’t be done.
Jesus injects the moment with life and possibility;
not the predictability of scattering, but the miracle of gathering.
Since March 2020 we have known a little of being scattered.
Many have been (and are still) bereft of company round a kitchen table,
subject to loneliness and isolation for which we were little prepared.
The absence/now return, of coffee after service;
the absence/now return of singing, albeit masked;
reminds us how life-giving it is to gather –
how much of our humanity depends on proximity;
at the school gate, the office kitchen, the sports stadium or the hospital bedside.
How food shared is often so central to that –
Sunday biscuit, picnic sandwich, wedding cake, bread and wine one final time.
When Jesus feeds the five thousand,
he does more than fill their stomachs.
When tea is brewed and a cup rattles in a saucer,
there is more than one thirst being quenched.
On a Galilean hillside Jesus encourages hungry and weary, to sit down together;
in company, to notice and attend to each other,
concerned not only for their own fulness, but the fulness of others.
In the same way that the Support Groups – AA & NA –
meet regularly in quiet church halls and other venues
on a daily basis across the secret landscape of this city.
Two encouragements/two fragments to be gathered in baskets from this place.
In a month when the regular volunteer chef for Friday night Restart
visits his family in Romania, out of the blue, an approach from a private chef,
working in a nearby home, who comes by the church.
Her employer is away for a month;
she has seen the guests coming and going on winter evenings.
Could she help out this month?
Her employer is happy to pay if the cause is charitable.
Or the request from a Professor of Imperial College
who gives time to teach students as part of the Play for Progress
(we supported with the Lent charity.)
Due to COVID restrictions Imperial is closed -
but it seems St Columba’s has space this summer.
And so, there is another ripple –
both from the recent generosity of those who supported during Lent,
and from those who in decades past gave and served and stewarded,
so that we have the gift of this place to share today.
This, in the face this week, of desperate reported plight of unaccompanied children
sleeping on the floors of converted council offices in South Coast towns.
A week when it is easy to ask: What can we do in the face of so much need?
A week to be glad that the small things - loaves and fishes -
the seeming inadequacies of our own lives,
handed to Christ, handed to God,
can be crafted into unsuspected kingdom banquets;
abundance found, because someone took the risk not to scatter;
the risk to gather and to imagine the feast.
In the words of a prayer from Calcutta sent to me this week:
But you, Lord, have made us responsible for each other; for the neighbour, the stranger.
This is the glory of your kingdom, you have put us in relationships;
you have made us responsible with you.
Help us, Lord, never to disown that responsibility.
The world begins at a kitchen table.
Jesus said: “Make the people sit down.”
This table … a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks,
he distributed them to those who were seated;
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow.
We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’