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Sermons - May 2020

Sermon 3rd May 2020, Easter IV


Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. Acts 2:46-47

Two reflections received this week, from people who know this building well.
“We were watching the live stream today in our sitting room
and instead of the great rose window of St Columba's
we had a window overlooking an almost equally blue sunlit North Sea.
Across which were streaming long lines of gannets heading home to the Bass Rock.
As you talked about all the troops in the WW1 who were drawn to St Columba's
the gannets heading homeward made me think of all those who like me
have headed home to St Columba's our mother church
certain of a welcome and a sense of belonging.”

A distant ocean, birds in flight, eloquent of longing, and a sense of home;
that is a beautiful meditation and heartening to think
that our joining together by live stream, somehow refreshes that thirst within us.
But another message conveyed another reality, a differing reality.
Reflecting on the lockdown, up until this past week:

“The weather was fantastic which made people feel in holiday mood all the time,
whither working from home or simply retired,
children on school holidays for a wee while! and so it continued.
Then (for me) Wham! woke up to a very wet dull Tuesday morning
which persisted all day.
No gardening, no walks around the fields, shopping a possibility but maybe others would think likewise, wet day, empty shops!
[Though I also made use of the time to correspond and 'phone more friends.]
Was the good time over now,
had the sunshine lulled us into a sense of false security
in difficult and tragic times?”

Home learning meltdowns or isolating despairs,
hospital vigils or griefs borne without the customary comforts of fellow mourners
and physical embrace.
Each household will know something of the ups and downs of these days.

In the training of Army recruits time is given to the so-called core values –
courage, discipline, loyalty, respect for others, integrity, selfless commitment.
Sceptical recruits sometimes question why the need for such discussion.
Explained by the maxim:“Training to the right thing on difficult days.”

From our own training manual, the scriptures,
are there insights for the right thing on difficult days?

In the Book of Acts there is a description of the earliest days of the new community in Jerusalem, in the aftermath of the first Pentecost.
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles,
the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
[Everyone around was in awe - all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! ]
And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common.
They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources
so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple
followed by meals at home,
every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God.
People in general liked what they saw.
Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved. [The Message]

It sounds magnificent; vibrant, practical, prayerful, joyful.
And it runs the risk of making us feel miserable.
Nostalgia – biblical or congregational - can be disheartening – de-spiriting.
We should guard against it.

It is important to recognise that, as the Book of Acts records,
it is no time at all before the community experiences
both external opposition and internal dispute.
Goods held in common and sold for the relief of those in need – yes.
But also, in short time, (Acts 5) the tale of Ananias and Sapphira
who seek to withhold what they have sold.

Acts describes the best of what a church community is capable of,
but also spells out, that as flawed human beings,
we will always struggle to live up to that best capability.
Unity and woundedness, victory and failure
struggle to do/be the right thing, on difficult days;
characteristics of Christian living.

What were marks/core values of the early church?
Scripture – allowing ourselves to be engaged
by words of poetry, challenge or comfort, from Old and New Testaments;
shaped by the stories we tell –
of Christ and centuries of inherited faith.

Fellowship – the quality of our relationships;
the willingness to always keep an eye out for the newcomer,
the shy or the silent one.

The breaking of bread, in the sacrament of communion
the domestic kitchen table and the Night Shelter –
appreciating the gift of food and its particular blessings when shared.

And prayers.
Communal and private. Stuttering or eloquent.
Speaking to and listening for God.
Shouting room and still waters:
The response to sunny days and difficult days.

Two groups who know the normal St Columba’s:
Hill House School who come for a weekly assembly
and the support groups of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Both have prayers that they say each week.

O God give us courage:
Courage, to try new things and not to be afraid of making mistakes.
Courage, to get up when we are down and to go on again.
Courage to work with all our strength
and to know that it is not the beginning
but the continuing until it is completely finished,
that yields the true glory…

And Reinhold Niebuhr’s (1892-1971) Serenity Prayer,
which we will prayer in full later, but opens with the well-known:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Finally, let me circle back to the two correspondents, where we started:
Was the good time over now, had the sunshine lulled us into a sense of false security
in difficult and tragic times?”
Her own answer:
“No, the dull day was reminding us that life throws many different challenges
and it is up to us to accept and beat them in the best possible way
to everyone’s advantage.”
A rallying cry from within our own ranks.

And for the observer of birds streaking across the North Sea,
for any who yearn for the things of God,
closing lines of American poet Mary Oliver’s lovely poem, Wild Geese:

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sermon 10th May 2020, Easter VI


“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. John 14:1-2

On Friday morning, 75th Anniversary of VE Day I received this description of how one World War II veteran spent the original VE day:
“(On VE Day) I was stationed in a small town near Belsen. (in Germany)
I was the orderly officer for the day - my main duties, admin and security.
With regard to the latter, at the time, we were guarding a British Army Captain
from another unit. He was awaiting court martial, back in Britain, on a charge of murder,
having shot a major in his own unit.
(In those days, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder had not been recognised.)

Earlier, we had not only liberated France, but also her champagne,
so, each member of the company was issued with a bottle of champagne to celebrate victory.
On VE Day, there we were, in Germany;
him on a murder charge, and me guarding him –
the pair of us drinking our champagne. Macabre!”

At St Columba’s, from the pages of the Church Magazine of summer 1945,
minister and congregation were proud to record that throughout the war
worship took place, every Sunday – the only exception - Sunday 11th May 1941 –
the morning when worshippers gathered to find the church in ruins
following its destruction by enemy action, during the night.

Almost exactly four years to the day, on 8th May, 1945, at 5pm,
a Service of Thanksgiving to mark VE Day
was held by the congregation, hosted at neighbouring, St Saviour’s, Walton Street.
After four years of worshipping in the Jehangir Hall one worshipper remarked:
“It was grand to have an organ again.”
The sermon began: “It has come at last. Germany is defeated.”
The congregation of the day would not have needed it,
but the prayers that day, remind us that the war touched every part of society;
the war effort undertaken, not just by those in uniform:
“For the tireless bravery of merchant seamen and fishermen.
For the loyalty and labour of men and women in factory and field:
for the good guardianship of the Civil Defence
and for the spirit of unity and devotion among all our people
which triumphed over weariness and danger.”

Following years of blackout, one of the central images to VE Day,
was the restoration of light.
A symbol of release, from fear into freedom - a great deliverance.
The gospel reading from John 14 is spoken in time of blackout.
They are words that inform a Victory Day – yes;
but first, they are words for the difficult days of unknowing
either how long, or how much, must still be endured.

In the gospel, friends gather to share a special meal.
An upper room – discrete, for fear of discovery.
Loathe to voice it, each one there senses the sands of time draining away.
The one whose company they have kept these three years –
their compass and companion, is – they fear –
about to be torn from them.
Though he could make good his escape,
he seems intent on a collision, he surely cannot survive.
Beyond the closed doors, darkness circles and closes in.

After kneeling down and washing the disciples’ feet at this Last Supper,
Jesus makes his farewells.
(These chapters of John, 14-17 are known as the Final Discourse.)
But as well as saying goodbye, he promises to see them again.
At the edge of his own grave,
Jesus says that what he is about to go through, is the beginning of the “way.”
Despite what they fear most,
Jesus assures the disciples, that he and they, disciple and master,
will remain connected, neither abandoned, nor alone.
Love - relationship – will not be severed;
changed – perhaps – but continuing.
Death, neither God’s last, nor lasting word.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
I go into a future you cannot see, but into which, you can follow.
If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
In the shadow of his own cross, Jesus says:
You have a place - with me and with God.
God has not chosen to be God without us.
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.

Familiar at funerals, these are not simply afterlife words.
They are for the now life.
In the clarion call of Christian Aid, whose special Week starts today;
“We believe in life before death.”

In the immediate aftermath of World War II Christian leaders in Britain and Ireland met,
determining to do all that they could to alleviate the plight
of the millions of refugees displaced by war.
Initially known as Christian Reconstruction in Europe we know it now as Christian Aid.
Its aim was not to evangelise, but to respond to need,
believing that compassion transcends all borders.

Twelve years later, Christian Aid Week began.
For over sixty years, individuals and congregations have gone door to door
or shaken cans on the high street to raise money for the world’s poorest -
believing poverty, an outrage against humanity, that can and must be eradicated.
Christian Aid works in partnership to provide urgent, practical assistance
where need is greatest.
Through campaigning advocacy, it also seeks to address the root causes of poverty.
It meets need, regardless of people’s faith –
though it undertakes its work as an expression of its own faith.
“Truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me, will also do the works that I do…
John 14:12

Currently operating in thirty-seven countries, across continents.
it is responding to the coronavirus outbreak in Africa, Asia and in Latin America and the Caribbean. (Details are in our newsletter or via Christian Aid website.)

The charity itself addresses its supporters:
“Over the last few months, you’ve shown love to your neighbours in so many ways.
You’ve picked up the phone. You’ve brought them food. You’ve prayed for them.
You’ve shown that you’re by their side. And they’re not alone.
And while this Christian Aid Week will feel a little strange,
we know you will do what you can in these unusual circumstances
to reach out to your global neighbours too.”

Neighbourliness is echoed in the words of Dr Scott’s sermon on VE Day 1945:
“Now that the threat of bombs and blasting is past,
it is a joyful thing to bear testimony
to the steadfastness, courage and loyalty of a sorely harassed congregation.
But while the enemy caused grievous harm in the destruction of the church –
the truth is, these stern years have strengthened and deepened
the fellowship of St Columba’s.
If we have known as never before the horror and misery
that the works of wicked men can bring,
we have also known as never before, how wonderful are the works of God
and how sure is the promise: “Lo, I am with you always!” (R.F.V.S)

And finally, footnote to our VE Day veteran.
In his diary is the label from his bottle of champagne: Moet & Chandon Brut Epernay 1937. A church friend researched it. “You shouldn’t have drunk that champagne –
the bottle would be worth £5000 today!”.
On Friday, the former soldier reported:
“The label is back in its rightful page in the diary.
This evening, I will remember with love my younger brother Bert
who died on an RAF raid on St Nazaire. I will also have a wee dram.”

In my Father’s house are many dwellings.
God has not chosen to be God without us.

Sermon 17th May 2020


“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” John 14:16, 18

A dispatch from the Hebrides arrived yesterday; the author reflected:
“On this morning's run along the lochside I was very aware
of the salty tangy seaweed, the vanilla scent of the gorse
and the sweet perfume of bluebells near Rose Cottage.
Tranquil birdsong in the Castle woods, the clang of a boat in the bay
and the insistent penetrating call of the cuckoo on the strong breeze.
Nature hanging on - perhaps thriving - in lockdown.
… … …
I've also been struck this week by a couple of examples of how people
are hanging on to humanity - or at least their sense of humour –
in the ongoing pandemic.
First, hearing the BBC Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg,
playing requests on the piano of past Eurovision hits –
he can play every winning tune in the history of the competition!
From the piano in the Dutch embassy in Moscow
he played whatever songs people requested.”

Second, this morning on BBC Radio Scotland.
The sports correspondent, instead of talking about the impasse in Scottish football
which has been dominating every bulletin since the lock-down,
he got his rather surprised colleagues to choose a random number from 1 to 18
and then allocated them a team in the German football league
to engender interest in the games over the weekend!
He was so enthusiastic and cheery about it, he made me smile.

Indeed, this weekend, a handful of fixtures for Germany’s Bundesliga.
mark the first return of professional European football –
When teenage sensation, Erling Braut Haaland scored for Borussia Dortmund
instead of being mobbed by jubilant team-mates,
he made sure they all kept their distance
as he performed a little dance on the side-lines,
observing the strict hygiene rules that the league has to follow.
Described by fans, watching on television, after a nine-week absence –
“Surreal. Eeerie. Odd.”
The German phrase that accompanied yesterday’s return – Geister spiel - Ghost Games.

Ghost games.
Last week as part of the 75th Anniversary of VE Day celebrations, Katherine Jenkins,
Forces sweetheart of this generation, sang a wartime repertoire
to 5,000 empty seats in our neighbouring, Albert Hall.
Today at St Columba’s - Ben, Liz, myself – empty pew, upon empty pew.
Are recorded hymns and imaginary children, just Ghost games? Wishful thinking?
To borrow a phrase – Has Jesus left the building?

Yet we are here.
Longstanding church members, newly arrived, friends of friends –
from many different places, new and old.
If the messages that we have received via the office speak truly:
for some, the sense of connectedness, the awareness of others praying has actually been strengthened by the enforced distancing.

These virus days are educating a great deal about connection and disconnection.
Moments of exasperation with Wi-Fi, and disappearing Zoom callers!
More grievously, the isolation of loved ones.
The inability to give a hug when most needed –
Care Home, hospital bedside or crematorium.

Presence and absence; empty space and intimacy,
ghost games or new awareness of unseen, powerful realities?
Such questions permeate the gospel reading.
Continuing on from last week’s – In my father’s house are many dwelling places
it emerges from locked doors and rising fear.
Gathered together with the disciples, on the night of Last Supper and betrayal,
Jesus stops to explain things.
The disciples are already grieving Jesus,
struggling with his likely death and their loss, wondering what will become of them.

Knowing he must depart, guessing they will be torn apart,
Jesus predicts how the sheep will be scattered when the shepherd is struck.
Bewilderment, fear, guilt and despair - orphans in the storm.
But, in that beautiful phrase: Having loved them, Jesus loved them to the end;
delivering the promise: “I will not leave you orphaned.”

To disciples, fearing abandonment, Jesus promises:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, [KJV – comforter]
to be with you forever.
Not orphans, bereft; but part of a world-wide family;
the Spirit of God present everywhere –.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139
No time, no place, where God, Father, Son and Spirit is not with us.

Wishful thinking? Evidence? What difference does it make?
From the big picture – Christian Aid Week, just concluding - but still open to support.
It’s global vision of shared humanity and responsibility;
it’s mobilisation of faith, to counter the obscenities and injustices of poverty,
while bringing relief to those most in need.

In the small picture, ordinary folk – some church, some not –
making the phone call, running the errand, offering a little contact and reassurance –
often surprised and delighted that they receive much more in return,
than the small amount they feel they have given.

From long before Covid-19, it is Scotscare’s - Blether Buddies;
a telephone companionship scheme staffed by volunteers.
For us perhaps, it is the invitation this week, to Sunday Schooler and church old-timer
to become pen friends, corresponding our way to enhanced connection.
It is the Comfort blankets of the craft group – every stitch a prayer.
Jesus promised: “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Then commissioned each of us to play a part to make that promise true.

To finish; two more scenes played out behind closed doors:
Yesterday, the online installation of the new Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – Revd Dr Martin Fair –
“We find ourselves in uncharted territory, having to re-imagine church.
The first disciples were given no blueprint, no detailed plan, radical or otherwise,
But rather the promise that through every circumstance and change,
God’s love remains. And from love, flows peace.”

And the church member – who has loved our church for many years
but for too long has not been able to attend, due to ill health:
in response to my hope that she would always feel connected, replied:
“I will never stop being part of it.”

Abiding presence, unseen as the wind,
Nature hanging on; humanity hanging on:
Ghost games…Yes. Holy Ghost games.

Sermon 24th May 2020


(Jesus prayed to the Father) And now I am no longer in the world, 
but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. 
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, 
so that they may be one, as we are one. John 17:11

A poem/meditation that has circulated from early days of the Corona Virus pandemic by Donna Ashworth, entitled History will remember:
History will remember when the world stopped  
And the cars parked in the street, and the trains didn’t run.
History will remember when the schools closed, 
and the children stayed home,
And the medical staff walked towards the fire and they didn’t run.
History will remember when people sang on their balconies, in isolation,
But so much together in courage and song.
History will remember when people fought for their old and weak,
And protected the vulnerable by doing nothing at all.
History will remember when the virus left, and the houses opened
And the people came out and hugged and kissed and started again.
Kinder than before. 

Kinder than before?
We appear to be in a time both of transition and of unknowing.
Whether it is big picture governmental guidelines 
or the domestic readjustments to family, work or school, 
there is the refrain; easier to go into lockdown, than to come out of it.

The longer we live with Coronavirus 
the clearer it becomes how differently we experience it.
For some it is inconvenience; for others it is life and death.
History will remember – beautiful as it is,
feels to me, a little premature.
Part of me longs to think, we will emerge from this kinder,
more aware of life’s gift, 
the precious fragility of our planet and our relationships, 
But, I also wonder if we aim to hurry on, to get back to normal,
to replicate what we have always done,
because to linger in the unknown is too uncomfortable?

Perhaps appropriately, today, the 7th Sunday of Easter,
is something of an imposed pause
falling between Ascension Day (last Thursday) and Pentecost (next Sunday.)
as one commentator says: Before the work of Pentecost begins, 
the church, not quite ready to be church. 
In a time of ambiguity and uncertainty we are asked to wait, 
as the first disciples were commanded to remain in Jerusalem.
without the bodily presence of the Resurrected Christ.
To practice loving when the end is not yet in sight.
Though not quite the same; as I once read in a graffitied portaloo in Iraq:
“Due to government cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.”

Waiting is hard; life is difficult; hope essential.
Reverend James Mathieson, from the Isle of Skye,
a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland 
was for many, the embodiment of strong, but gentle, Christian faith.
As a young man he served as a chaplain with the British Army during World War II.
Captured in North Africa, he was held in a POW camp in Italy, 
before making his escape. Boys’ Own stuff. 
Though, so self-effacing, one would never have guessed the half of it.

From his POW days, he remembered with sadness one pastoral encounter.
As the war progressed, the allied prisoners knew their own forces 
were now fighting their way up through Italy. 
Relief, freedom was surely coming - but when?
A soldier he encountered eagerly asked him when that might be – 
the soldier expressed the thought that it might be just days away.
The Padre recognised it was unlikely to be imminent.
so counselled that in reality, it was likely to be some months.
It was true, but as soon as he said it, 
he could see that he had extinguished the hope of his fellow prisoner.
It was a regret, he always remembered – and tried to learn from. 

So how do we sustain hope in these days of ambiguity – for ourselves and for others?
We can draw from the well of scripture.
The gospel reading from John 17 is known as the High Priestly Prayer.
[In the letter to the Hebrews, Christ is described as the High Priest, Pontifex Maximus.
Pontifex comes from the Latin word for a bridge.] 
Recollected from the night of last Supper, 
it is Jesus’ response to time running out; the clarity of final things.

In those final things, Jesus promises his abiding presence in time to come – 
the gift of the Spirit, which will come, after waiting time.
And he prays for them - those frightened, unsure disciples – 
prays for them then on the night of his betrayal and abandonment;
and promises, that in time, those prayers will continue, 
even at the right hand of God.
The pre-Easter gospel anticipates the Ascension – 
though the way a disciple knows Christ will change, 
Christ will still be with us, far and wide, near and far. 
Then in ways beyond our understanding,
Christ prays for us, now and always.
I’m not sure I even begin to understand what that means 
but I think it changes everything.

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, 
so that they may be one, as we are one. 

A second source of hope, is unity. 
In the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea a statement this week from the Interfaith Forum: “We recognise the hard work and dedication of many of our local residents and organisations. This may be by making and delivering food, reaching out for a friendly conversation, providing a listening ear, ensuring that the homeless have a cooked meal or collecting vital prescriptions.  There are many acts of kindness being shown by people of all faiths and those of no faith  as we stand together and are committed to continuing this work for as long as we are needed.”

Or the recent Hospital documentary, filmed at London’s, Royal Free.
The community nurse, who has worked for the NHS for some forty/fifty leaving the ward having recovered from the virus that took her close to death.
Defiantly walking out of the hospital, declining offers of a wheel chair.
Thanking the assembled staff who had assembled to applaud her departure.
Her telling them: thank you for everything you have done.
“I am proud to be a nurse”

Mental Health Action Week: this year highlighting the effect of kindness 
on those who receive it and also those who provide it;  
positive effect on the mental health and wellbeing of both parties. 
Our own initiatives: (Lucy Llewellyn)
Curry and Chaat – Don’t Stew Alone. Food and friendship.
Virtual coffee – post service phone calls.

This week a church friend related, the isolation 
of feeling like a bird in a cage 
and not seeing a single person I know for weeks and weeks…
it has been challenging, 
“After agonising and struggling, I am now learning to be still 
and know that God reigns and is in control as always 
and will turn even this for good for His people.”

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, 
so that they may be one, as we are one. 

Eastertide ends with the great feast of Pentecost. Birth Day.
All is made new. Outpouring of the Holy Spirit. 
The Spirit, the great mender of broken relationships, 
the great builder of community. 
The bridge-builder – across which we will find our way into the new normal.
Let us not be too quick to replicate old ways.
Let us not that it is all done by us – we cannot do it, in our strength alone.
But let us find hope in the promise of the Spirit 
and the prayers of Christ for us.

Then in the words of one who history has remembered: 
English mystic Juliana of Norwich (1342–1416) 
“The greatest honour that we can give almighty God 
is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”
Then, by grace, we will be kinder.

Sermon 31st May 2020

SUN 31 MAY 2020

How many times have you asked someone or maybe even been asked the question “what was it like in the war”?

What about “Do you remember where you were when JFK was shot”?

“Do you remember where you were when Princess Diana died”?

“Do you remember where you were on 7/7”

And now will future generations ask, what was it like 2020 when there was no Church? Or maybe the question will be grandad do you remember when people used to go to Church buildings to worship?

How will we answer?

For now, Let me go back to the Princess Diana question, I remember where I was, but more so I was struck by what happened next.

You may recall the outpouring of grief, the crowds milling in the Mall putting down flowers just being there and wandering around. I certainly remember how strange the atmosphere felt.

Then the funeral and the flowers being thrown on the hearse. All because someone came to say goodbye to a princess. Someone they did not know but someone whom they felt had touched their lives.

Do you remember the commentators, asking people how they felt, how many times did you hear someone say, I don’t know what we will do without her.
Such is the way of the British people.

Whether or not we knew Diana, whether or not we feel any connection at all, we in the church know what it feels like.

For, in a far more profound sense, we too have lost someone one who has been the centre of our lives, the source of our joy, the wellspring of our celebration.

Like those people on the Mall. Each week we come together whether it be in a building or now virtually via the internet or on a telephone line but we come together in the name of someone, no not just someone, a friend a leader who is not here. And whether or not we realise it, our Christian faith is the attempt to answer the question, "How are we going to live without Jesus?"

Now, somebody will probably say, "Wait! Jesus hasn't gone anywhere. He is still present with his church. He's right here, present in our hearts." That certainly sounds like a cosy thing to say. But how dare we say it?

This morning reminds us that the fundamental crisis of the church was the departure of Jesus.

We did not choose Jesus; he chose us, and appointed us to be faithful followers. Yet he is gone.

It is most likely that the disciples continued to meet in the upper room where the Last Supper had been held. But they met in dread. They knew the bitterness of the Jews who had ordered the death of Jesus, and they were afraid that their turn would come next.

So they were meeting in terror, listening fearfully for every step on the stair and for every knock at the door. As they sat there, Jesus was suddenly in their midst. He gave them the normal everyday eastern greeting: "Peace be to you”.

As Fred Craddock says in his commentary on John, "Before the departing Christ, the disciples had been as children playing on the floor, only to look up and see the parents putting on coats and hats. The questions are three (and they have not changed): Where are you going? Can we go? Then who is going to stay with us?"

Where are you going? "I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer".

Can we go? "Where I am going, you cannot come".

Then who will stay with us? "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf".

How are we going to live without Jesus? The answer, according to the Gospel of John, lies in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

John calls him the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate. Eugene Peterson in the message translates Advocate rather nicely and uses the word Friend.

In the absence of Jesus, his presence draws near to his followers. If he had not left us, the Spirit would not have come. Since Jesus has departed once and for all, he can now come and be with us through the presence of another Advocate or a friend.

It is difficult to talk about the Holy Spirit.

Outside the church, whenever people talk about a person's spirit continuing on, Like they did about Diana, they usually point to those people left behind who hold the same values as their hero and who extend the impact of what their hero did or said.

Inside the church, we find it hard to talk about the Spirit of Jesus.

It's easy to say, "Jesus has left us and his Spirit is here," but that doesn't necessarily mean we hold his values or extend his impact. Sensing a spiritual void, the church frequently turns to more administrative matters.

For the past few years I have sat through the backside numbing administration at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
On one afternoon which was particularly trying, I was sat beside a former moderator who had just returned from probably a liquid lunch. As the convener of the particular committee droned on.

I turned to him and said, “this is a struggle”. His reply in what was a stage whisper, was, “she has just mentioned Jesus, that means she is about to finish”. And sure enough she did.

How true that as a church, like that convener, we concentrate on the admin and then tag Jesus on at the end.

In the Great Commission of Jesus to the disciples that Ben read this morning.

"Peace to you. Even as the Father sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them: " Receive the Holy Spirit.

That was not Jesus saying lets just do the admin and tag me on at the end, Jesus was giving us, a vision, a mission. Dare I say he was giving us a radical strategic plan.

Brooke Westcott, theologian and Bishop of Durham called it "The Charter of the Church." It means three things.
It means that Jesus Christ needs the Church which is exactly what Paul meant when he called the Church "the body of Christ" .

Jesus had come with a message for all people and now he was going back to his Father. His message could never be taken to everyone, unless the Church took it. The Church was to be a mouth to speak for Jesus, feet to run his errands, hands to do his work. Therefore, the first thing this means is that Jesus is dependent on his Church.

It means that the Church needs Jesus. A person who is to be sent out needs someone to send him; they need a message to take; they need a power and an authority to back the message; they need someone to whom he or she may turn when they are in doubt and in difficulty.

Without Jesus, the Church has no message; without him the Church has no power; without him the Church has no one to turn to when up against it; without him the Church has nothing to enlighten her mind, to strengthen her arm, and to encourage her heart. This means that the Church is dependent on Jesus.

There remains still another thing. The sending out of the Church by Jesus is parallel to the sending out of Jesus by God. The relationship between Jesus and God was continually dependent on Jesus' perfect obedience and perfect love.

It follows that the Church is fit to be the messenger and the instrument of Christ only when she perfectly loves him and perfectly obeys him.

What we only too often forget is that The Church must never be out to deliver its message; The Church must be out to deliver the message of Christ.

She must never be out to follow man-made policies; she must be out to follow the will of Christ.

The Church gets into difficulties whenever she tries to solve some problem in her own wisdom and strength, and leaves out of account the will and guidance of Jesus Christ.
We struggle in the church to wait for the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to live by the Spirit, who has many things to tell us that we cannot yet bear to hear. It is difficult to wait for a Spirit that we cannot touch or see. That is faith.

No wonder, then, that sometimes in our impatience the church itself fills the absence of Jesus with its own false certainty and pretends it has all the answers.

Jesus breathed on his disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit. When John spoke in this way, he was thinking back to the old story of the creation of man. In Genesis we read "And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being".

This was the same picture as Ezekiel saw in the valley of dead, dry bones, when he heard God say to the wind: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breath upon these slain that they may live"

The coming of the Holy Spirit is like the wakening of life from the dead. When it is blown upon the Church, she is recreated for her task.

Wherever you may be today where you join us in worship, whenever you are asked that question what was it like when there was no Church to go to, answer by saying you had faith, not faith in the Church the organisation or the buildings, but you have faith in Christ.

We trust what we have heard him say through scripture, yet we remain open to hear him still speak through the Holy Spirit. In the end, we trust God will sort everything out, for the primary role of the Spirit is to point to Jesus and guide us.

The Spirit of Christ will lead us into the life that Christ has come to give. The Spirit will teach us; the question is whether we are willing to learn.

On this day of Pentecost in 2020. What is required is a new openness to the Spirit. God is free to speak, even if the words are not yet written down in our ancient Bibles. Even if we don’t meet together in buildings. And throughout these challenging days of Covid we are required to have faith.

Faith requires us to remain open to any act of God. That, it seems to me, is how we live without Jesus. That is how we live by the Holy Spirit. Like the wind, the Spirit blows when and where it wills. We have no control over what God is doing in the world. But if we wait for the wind of Spirit to blow and divert our course, we find ourselves directed into the face of grace.

It is difficult to trust God like that. Sometimes it is easier to look elsewhere for our security and approval.

"When the Spirit of truth comes," said Jesus, "he will guide you into all the truth."

"When the Spirit of truth comes," Jesus said, "he will testify on my behalf." And if we remain open to that Spirit, we may discover that, even in his absence, Jesus has been with us all along.

The spirit is here, and now. Not tagged on at the end.

Sermons - April 2020

Sermon 5th April 2020, Lent VI, Palm Sunday


“I lit a candle and sat in my dining room watching snowflakes whirling through the air
in the cold blustery wind as I joined in with you in praising God.”
One of the messages received recently from St Columbans
watching and worshipping via the live stream.
Another, described the pleasure of sunshine, spring green and hanging out the washing.
Another – “You should see the garden shed and even the linen cupboard!”
Self-isolation, offers opportunity, both for domestic clear up
(Think children’s address – Ducks in a row):
And a paying of attention to things we too often hurry past –
the light/colours on the sanctuary wall from the stained-glass window,
a sense of what a building and its people mean,
now that we cannot physically be there.

Dusting off overlooked corners – real and metaphorical –
there are of course other realities to the week past,
potentially, to the week to come.
We are aware of members of the congregation who have been ill with Covid19 –
and mercifully have recovered.
Others continue with burdens that long pre-date, and will outlast, this current emergency.
Another member of the church explained how a recent night’s rest
had been broken by a horrible nightmare - a classic of anxiety.

So, with a mixed bag, we arrive at the outset of Holy Week,
the final days – the journey to the Cross,
the recognition of death
and the hope of Easter and resurrection.
Perhaps we will approach it this year with a different intensity –
more open to its sorrows, hungrier for its blessings.

It begins with street theatre:
Jesus knew the prophecies of Zechariah
in which the prophet spoke of a shepherd appointed by God over His people.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,
Humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem;
And the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations;
His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

When Jesus summoned a donkey's colt, because “the Lord needs it”
he declares himself living fulfillment of that prophecy.
A very public statement – “I am the long-expected one, who comes in the name of the Lord.”
So begins the calculated, chaotic, joyful ride,
from Mount of Olives into the golden city, Jerusalem,

He comes through the olive groves,
mounted on a donkey, one leg draped over her colt,
someone’s old cloak under him.
Laughter and foolishness bringing Passover pilgrims together into a waving crowd,
creating a royal carpet of garments and branches.
Legend held that this was the gate through which the Sabbath arrived each Friday;
Legend too, that this was the gate through which the Messiah would one day come.
It is little surprise, that this arrival/entry into the nation’s capital, at Passover,
should provoke such uproar.
As Matthew records:When Jesus entered Jerusalem,
the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"

The Greek word used for turmoil gives us the modern-day word seismic.
Jesus’ deliberate choice of transport – the donkey of prophecy –
causes the tectonic plates of empire and established religion
to shift and rumble.
Palm Sunday is way-more than Sunday School procession.
It is a collision course with Rome and its puppets.
And, as we know, that cannot/will not go unchallenged.


You may have seen that Bill Withers, the 1970s soul singer died this week.
Perhaps his most famous hit, the 1972, Lean On Me.
Gospel-tinged and inspirational, the song was based on his experiences
growing up in a West Virginia coal mining town.
When times were hard, neighbours would lend each other help and assistance;
the memory stuck with the singer.
It was later performed at two inaugurations of Presidents of the United States of America.
Lean On Me has recently become associated with the Coronavirus pandemic,
with people posting their own versions to support health workers.

What struck me from the obituary columns was Withers’ family statement:
“a solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world.”
I think that fits Palm Sunday pretty well too.
Jesus comes – unarmoured and ultimately alone, even amidst the crowd,
“a solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world.”

Jerusalem in turmoil asks: “Who is this?”
We too, locked down and unsure of what lies ahead: “Christ who are you?”
The answer, in part, can only come
by what we will listen to and take in, over the coming days –
The Passion of Christ: stark, holy, brutal, and beautiful.
In our own unchosen circumstances, let us remember
it is no simple, easy ride for Jesus.
When he prays in Gethsemane, he pleads for his life, the cup to pass.
Brutalised by Rome’s soldiers, he is so weak,
someone else must carry his cross.

And lifted up, dying words include:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The cross as lynching tree; isolation and oxygen-deprived lungs.

Who is this?
It is the one who then – suffered for us.
And now - suffers us with us.
The cross - the heart of Christ.
Love stretched forth, giving its all.
“A solitary man with a heart driven to connect to the world.”

There are no guarantees for the week ahead –
just as there were no guarantees for Christ.
Some of us surely now live, more aware of our mortality, than in earlier days.

Our response?
Well, one possible borrowing: David Hockney, British artist –
Currently in isolation but painting a Normandy spring and sharing his new work online.
“This will in time be over and then what? What have we learned?
I am 83 years old; I will die. The cause of death is birth.
… … …
I intend to carry on with my work, which I now see as very important.
We have lost touch with nature rather foolishly
as we are a part of it, not outside it.
… …
The only real things in life are food and love in that order,
(just like our little dog Ruby.)
I really believe this and the source of art is love.
I love life.”

A donkey is a ludicrous beast for a victory parade – a war horse is more fitting.
Yet no one needs a stallion for a journey crowned by crucifixion;
a donkey is perfectly fine. (after Eleonore Stump)

“The cross pulls us towards God and towards each other,
a vast and complicated gathering place.
In the light of the resurrection,
“the cross draws us towards love.”(Debie Thomas, www.journeywithjesus)

Sermon Maundy Thursday

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
John 13:12-17

Eternal God, in the sharing of a meal
your son established a new covenant for all people,
and in the washing of feet
he showed us the dignity of service.
Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit
these signs of our life in faith
may speak again to our hearts,
feed our spirits, and refresh our bodies. Amen.

Sermon Good Friday

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.
John 19:16-18

O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
who at the last, through wood and nails,
purchased our whole salvation,
wield well your tools
in the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench
may here be fashioned
to a truer beauty of your hand.
We ask it for your own name’s sake. Amen.

Sermon 12th April 2020, Easter Sunday

EASTER SUNDAY, 12th April 2020

Jesus said to Mary: “Go to my brothers and say to them, 
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 
“I have seen the Lord.” John 20:17-18

If Desert Island Discs morphed into Desert Island Movies – what eight would you choose?
Self-isolated, the thought might fill some happy hours or social media exchanges.
For me, somewhere in the mix would be Chariots of Fire – 
the tale of two Olympic athletes, Englishman, Harold Abrahams and Scot, Eric Liddell.
Liddell, famously withdrew from his preferred event, 
because the heats were scheduled for a Sunday – 
and instead, gloriously won gold at an alternative, less-trained for distance.
To my mind, the movie’s most memorable line:
“But God made me fast – and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

The pleasure of running/exercise is perhaps more keenly felt, in these days of lockdown.
Our sunny parks are currently, ceaselessly criss-crossed by runners.
In childhood, if I went running with one particular brother, 
we would plod round our route, chatting and puffing away. 
All very civilised. But beware!
Invariably, with 50 metres to go, and always without warning, 
my sibling would suddenly burst into a sprint, leaving me in his wake
throwing his arms aloft in triumph,
breaking the imaginary tape, to declare himself Winner! 
in a race I didn’t even know I was in!

Running, is very much part of the first Easter - a resurrection relay.
The stone rolled away is the starting pistol, 
sending Mary running through Jerusalem’s dark, pre-dawn alleyways.
The return leg, is the footrace between the Beloved Disciple and Peter; 
the former, arriving back at the tomb first, but pausing at the entrance;
Peter, arriving second, ploughing straight in – his gospel character, entirely.

Hurried footsteps in the dark is alarming – 
something is not as it should be.
Darkness, confusion, bewilderment and tears 
are all features of the first Easter. 
No one is really sure of what they are seeing;
nor do they fully comprehend the implications.
Over two millennia, we have made Easter morning bright – 
trumpets and exuberant flowers, joyous hymns and confident declarations.
That is the celebration of one truth - right and beautiful – 
our spirits search for such moments. 
But let us remember the original Easter is much more fragile.
Perhaps that speaks better to our circumstances this year, 
uncertain as we are, behind our own locked doors.
How can/should we, sing of resurrection, 
while there is so much death and fear of death all around?

Let me offer two voices that quietly speak to that difficult question.
One from this week – a beautiful meditation from a church friend, 
responding to the stories and rituals of Holy Week this year. 
Reflecting on the Maundy Thursday communion 
and Good Friday reading of the Passion:
“Setting one’s own table for Communion last night 
and then listening to the continuing tale of the overnight happenings, 
betrayal, trial, flogging and murder (only possible word) in today’s readings 
were very special, perhaps more special, for being alone.”
This year there was no busyness to pull attention away, to distract:
“This year, none of that, just a quiet thinking about what happened 
and that 2000 years on it still affects everything and everybody, 
whether they accept it or not.
We’ll look forward to Sunday’s joy and celebration.”
The Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, “The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.”

[I hope this Easter morning all will feel comfortable to receive, 
whether it is your usual custom or not.
There is a wondrous inclusivity to the Easter words:
I am ascending to my Father and your Father, 
to my God and your God.”]

The other voice is also solitary; that of the grieving Mary.
She who has run in distress to friends; 
witnessed an empty tomb, but cannot perceive its meaning; 
then staying alone at the place of sorrow, when others have departed, 
because what else, she feels, could she do.

Mistaking the figure for the gardener; 
she couldn’t have expected anyone else – 
her sights earthbound; not looking for a risen body.

“Tell me where you have laid him?”
That was enough. 
The recognition of who she was. 
I call you by name; you are mine; precious in my sight. 
And suddenly, though it is still dark, 
the world still violent and mean; 
it is also radiant, beautiful, full of possibility, transformed.
Because the life that lit her own, his life, 
is not crushed or annihilated. 
It is risen; still with her, still for her.
Once more, she can love, she can live – though it will be different – 
“Do not hold onto me” – do not cling to the past – 
allow me to lead you to new things, in new ways.
“Do not be afraid.”

Two quiet witnesses to the magnitude of Easter;
from the original garden of sorrow 
to contemporary, solitary confinements.
Easter in both; Easter in all.
Christ – renewing perspective to our locked down worlds, 
raising us above the fear of death 
restoring us, to run the race set before us.

So by grace, this Easter, dark to dawn, 
let us run, live, love and laugh,
for in doing, we will assuredly feel our Maker’s pleasure.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah!

Sermon 19th April 2020 Easter II

SUN 19th Apr 2020 Easter II

“Jesus breathed on them, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:22

“It is ironic, that at the very time that recycling centres and charity shops are closed,
I have decided to have a good clear-out.”
So, reported a church friend recently.

Lockdown certainly holds the potential for the deepest of spring cleans.
In a spirit of continuing to get our ducks in a row,
Saturday morning “tradition” – we’ve achieved it about twice –
is allocated as a family, all hands-on deck, tidy-up-the home, moment.
Yesterday for a while, Olivia and I worked together on the bathroom.
One responsible for the skilled labour of mirror polishing; the other, more basic duties.

To breathe life into proceedings, the choice of music was upbeat and contemporary –
Jess Glynne, Sigalla and appropriately, Clean Bandit.
[Recognition? Nothing? Ask the grandchildren.]
However, even that playlist could not sustain a domestic chore, cooperative enterprise, indefinitely.
So, before long, I found myself alone.
The upside – I get to choose the music.

Through moments such as these, I have arrived this week at Folk on Foot.
Launched by the broadcaster and former BBC executive Matthew Bannister,
It brings together his three passions:
folk music, walking and telling stories in sound.
In each episode Matthew walks with a leading folk artist
in the landscape that has inspired their music.
The musician sings or plays, in that location.
Landscapes are often spectacular, Highland mountain tops or remote white sand beaches.
But they can also be a disused brick factory on the outskirts of Sheffield
or a Sussex wood, in the middle of the night.
In addition to the music, a listener will also catch sounds of the natural world:
curlews circling overhead, waves crashing on the shore,
campfires crackling and rivers burbling under bridges.

A reviewer of the podcast wrote:
“The music is transcendent, the sense of place is transporting,
and if you need escape - from politics, illness, from anything –
it’s a restorative breathing space in sound.”
Timely, for days such as these.
Proving once again that music, joyful or lamenting,
often touches the parts that words cannot reach.

Yet, though we may delight in being led to wider horizons through music and soundscape –
a necessary feeding of the soul -
we are also called to remain grounded and present to the places where we are.
As people of faith we asked to inhabit both big picture and local detail.
A Thought for Today this week (Revd Lucy Winkett)
quoted the early Desert Fathers and Mothers – Christianity’s first monastics.
Faced with the almost unlimited spaces of the deserts of Egypt and Syria,
they chose the stability of small communities or hermitages,
living by the maxim: God is not elsewhere.

A lockdown room, a breathing space
and God is not elsewhere
are all notes in today’s gospel soundscape.
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the disciples were together, with the doors locked, because of their fear.

After death. After resurrection.
Beautifully; unbelievably:
Neither stony silence; nor anger at friends went AWOL, on the eve of the battle.
Instead, “Peace be with you.”
A bridge – ashes to garlands, guilt to mercy, fear to courage.
“Peace be with you” – greeting and gift, cure and command.

Showing his wounds, confirming his life before the Cross;
Jesus then breathes on them.
A detail we sometimes miss – yet, now,
in a time of masks, ventilators and measured distances.
so much more conscious of breath.
In Hebrew, breath and spirit – the same.
“Receive the Holy Spirit – receive the spirit of Jesus.”
In John’s Gospel, Resurrection and Pentecost rolled into one.

Breath of course has biblical pedigree:
In a room gasping for air, Jesus’ breath echoes the whisper of God in Genesis,
breathing life into the dust of Adam.
Later, in the visionary valley of dry bones encountered by Ezekiel –
comes the command: “Come, breath, from the four winds
and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” (Ezekiel 37:9-10)

Breath and spirit - to clay jars of humanity.
Breath and spirit – breeze, to places of stagnation and decay.
Then. And now?
Breath/spirit of Christ, coming to/enlivening our own locked rooms? Our prayer?

In the Gospel, re-formed, resourced,
the disciples are readied for setting out:
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Not in our own strength alone;
not dependent on our own competencies and achievements,
but trusting in the abiding love and ever-present strength
that God bestows upon us –
enough for the next day, the next hour, or even just the next step.

Which surely brings to mind this week’s most enduring image –
Captain Tom Moore’s garden march, his hundred laps/lengths.
His message: “We will get through it in the end.
It might take time, but at the end of the day we shall be OK again.
All you people who are finding it difficult at the moment,
the sun will shine on you and the clouds will go away.”

Easter spirit – because God is not elsewhere.
Emmanuel spirit – because God is with us.
Breath of God – peace of God.
Hallelujah. Amen

Sermon 26th April Easter III, Luke 24

26th April 2020 Easter III, Luke 24

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Luke 24:35

Captain Tom Moore is due to celebrate his hundredth birthday this week.
Recipient of some 25,000 birthday cards,
raiser of some £30 million pounds for NHS-related charities,
he is now tops the music charts – and will be the first 100 year-old to do so.
Definitely a figure who has brought a collective smile to the nation’s faces.

On Friday, at St Columba’s there was an echo of another famous fund-raiser,
in time of national emergency.
Due to Covid19, we held our first, on-line funeral at St Columba’s.
Through the care and thoughtfulness of the family a lovely service was planned –
honouring the deceased with hymn, reading, tribute and music.
As so often, music touches the parts that words cannot always reach.
So, via a recorded piece – with assorted Zoom family voices joining in –
we heard the words:

Tho' you're tired and weary still journey on,
Till you come to your happy abode,
Where all the love you've been dreaming of
Will be there at the end of the road.
Recognise it? Sir Harry Lauder’s, Keep right on to the end of the road.

Lauder, described by Winston Churchill as “Scotland’s greatest ambassador”
was an international star, famous for his songs and comedy
in the music hall and the vaudeville theatre.
During World War I he worked tirelessly for the national interest,
undertaking tours intended to raise recruits for the war effort, and entertaining the troops.
Later in the war, Lauder promoted The Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund,
a charity to help war wounded.
His only son, and infantry officer, was killed in France on 28 December 1916.

As I sat behind the communion table listening to those words – words of loving association for that particular funeral family, I also thought of the thousands of wartime troops who passed through this place between 1915-19, who would have known that song.
Keep right on to the end of the road.

This morning, perhaps the most famous stretch of road, in the scriptures.
A pilgrim pathway; holy ground.
Ironic, that Emmaus today, is lost – or at least no one entirely sure where it is.
Yet the mind map to/from Emmaus is held dear.

The beginnings are bleak.
Two refugees, trudge away from wrecked dreams;
desolation behind, emptiness ahead.

Cleopas and another – wife or companion?
Witnesses to the rollercoaster of recent days;
triumphal entry, temple teaching –
Surely this was our time: He the One to bring it about.
Yet, strange reluctance to seize the moment,
unwilling to surf the crowd’s approval to a landslide victory.
Instead, the tightening noose,
the menace of earthly powers.

An upper room, a final meal;
bread fragmented, wine poured out.
A kiss in the garden, a kangaroo court,
the viciousness of soldiers unchecked.
Now, in vain, attempting to shut out the memory
of a place called Skull (Golgotha) – where the light went out.
Then final insult more – a ransacked tomb –
though there are some wild rumours about that.

A stranger falls in with their walk:
Defeated, grief-struck, the two pour out their lamentation.
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…
Stop the clocks – We were wrong…”
The stranger allows them to tell it all,
the small healing of being listened to without judgement
or attempt, to resolve away.

But, after the listening and the speaking of sorrow,
the stranger’s reply: Could it have been any other way?
Don’t our scriptures tell it so –
a Suffering Servant, an enduring Messiah,
a cross before a crown?

The stranger tells the story back to them,
and as he does so, the story changes. (Debbie Thomas)
It becomes something bigger, more ancient, more profound.
Retold, their own griefs are set within a suffering
that somehow eases their own sorrow;
a suffering that in ways beyond words,
redeems their world. (Perspective and eternity.)

Finally, the first evening star - journey’s end.
The stranger makes no demands, seems set to journey on.
The disciples are free to leave it there.
They choose differently:
An invitation, the courtesies of hospitality, a place at the table;
ordinary and precious, bread and wine;
then, utterly un-ordinary; guest becomes host,
taking bread, giving thanks, sharing:
Memory - love’s previous feast;
Reality - love’s present feast.
Then their eyes were opened –
Something understood, “the happy abode,
where all the love you've been dreaming of
there at the end of the road.”
Risen Christ.

This week, friend and colleague in ministry,
chaplain working within Mental Health hospital facilities described his current practice:
“I bless the bread and wine in the Multi-Faith Sanctuary
and then go around the wards (with hosts only) and share Holy Communion,
almost like a reserved Sacrament.
Sometimes, we just have to put our tradition to the side
and try to do what’s best and meaningful for those in need.
It’s God’s work, not ours.
All dressed up in PPE, of course!”

Which reminded, of two parish, home communions with those approaching death –
one in a hospice room, the other in their own home:
On each occasion, after the words said and the bread and wine shared, both recipients gazed long and hard at the cup and plate on their makeshift altars:
One said: “So beautiful.”
The other: “It makes me think of so many things.”

This is core, the heart, the sacred ground of our faith;
made known in the breaking of bread.
The quiet resurrection, in the days when there are no great, Easter trumpets.
The quiet resurrection, when we pray “Stay with us” –
and the patient Christ comes into make “the happy abode,
where all the love, we’ve been dreaming of,
is there at the end of the road.”

Sermons - March 2020

Sermon 1st March 2020, Lent I


“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Matthew 4

Looking out over the pews of St Columba’s,
I am not sure if we are a big fight kind of crowd;
not sure, if many rose at 4am last weekend,
and paid £25 for pay-to-view TV
and settled onto the sofa to heavyweight boxing bonanza -
in one corner, American, Deontay Wilder, the Bronze Bomber -
in the other, and Britain’s own Tyson Fury – the Gypsy King.
If you did watch the goings on, in that wild city in the desert, Las Vegas,
you would have witnessed Wilder take the walk to the ringside
dressed in armour, a menacing mask, with red-lighted eyes and a crown.
Fury, meanwhile was carried to the ring on a throne!
Inflated, bombastic, showbiz, spectacular – all of the above.
Though, once the bell rings there is nothing pantomime about what happens next.

A different desert; a different heavyweight contest:
The Tempted v the Tempter – Christ v Satan; it also sounds box office.
Inspired by such images, on Wednesday this week,
at the Hill House weekly school assembly,
I attempted (perhaps misguidedly) to play out this gospel story,
by portraying Jesus, surrounded by three circling figures.
As it happened, all roles were played by girls – Jesus and her three combatants.
[Rehearsal time was approximately one minute in the vestry,
before going live in front of the whole school.]
My actors were undoubtedly up for it,
though the menace of their threats, a little diminished,
by their giggles, as they circled, air-jabbing, the kneeling Christ.

However, we visualise this prize fight in the wilderness,
the scene stands in a central place in Matthew’s gospel –
between baptism and the beginning of ministry,
At his baptism, Jesus is given the absolute truth about who he is.
Heavens opened, Spirit-dove descending, and the Voice from above:
“This is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
An epiphany, and a covenant.

Now, almost immediately, comes the assault on that truth.
As the memory of his Father’s voice fades,
Jesus must learn – is tested - to be God’s beloved,
in a lonely wasteland.
Biblically, the wilderness is regularly a place of significant encounter;
and forty days, like forty years – clue to sacred moments.
(Let those who have ears, understand.)

For Jesus, a deliberate drawing aside;
not a hiding place – rather, a place of fierce self-examination.
If I am God’s beloved – what choices and decisions will follow?
If I am the messiah – what sort of Messiah will I be?

Once in the ring, the combatants circling warily.
We know the Tempter’s punches; we know Jesus’ parries.
Stones and bread, towers and tumbles, kingdoms and loyalties –
feed; dazzle, rule.

In the garden of Eden (also read this morning.)
The Serpent poses the question to the earthlings:
“Can you be like God?”
Now, to the exhausted Son of God, a shrewd inversion:
“Can you be like humans?
The Tempter does not dispute Jesus’ identity;
Instead, entices with upgrades and short cuts,
that will fatally distance him from humanity,
“Sure, it was noble indeed, to join the line,
step down into the baptismal waters of the Jordan, along with everybody else -
But, enough is enough:
Why abdicate power, exercise restraint, settle for obscurity –
when you could achieve so much more with the choices I offer?”

Choose to be: Bullet-proof, lofted on a throne, the crown, a mask to hide behind.
Why be mere mortal – vulnerable, human, humane?
I give you: A Crown, without a Cross.
Take Easter, without Good Friday.

Matthew’s fable warns us Jesus won’t correspond to the Messiah
we often want him to be.
“Jesus remains maddeningly himself.
Or more accurately, he remains steadfastly God’s.” (Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas)

In an era of anxiety, whether political, health related, big, picture or close-to-home personal, In the list of concerns to which we might add what is the future of our congregation or denomination or more broadly – the Church in the West – there is understandable desire to search for a magic formula that would make things bright and shiny – grant us unshadowed lives and pews bursting with like-minded folk.
Spectacular success , so much easier to digest that discreet, unheralded service.

A retired Church of Scotland minister, Revd David Donald Scott
blogged this week about a new film entitled, A Hidden Life.
It tells the story of an Austrian farmer, Franz Jagerstatter.
Jagerstatter was a devout Roman Catholic.
And during WWII he refused to take an oath to Hitler – a conscientious objector.
Ultimately he was condemned to death,
leaving his aged mother, young wife and three small children
as well as the responsibility for their work-hungry farm.
No-one knew anything about him, except a few people
in a very small agricultural corner in the Austrian Alps.
His story raises the questions:
What difference did his sacrifice make to the outcome of the war,
the relief of endemic racism, or the shape of our world?
Was the sorrow he bestowed upon his family, justified?
It is by all accounts both a moving and challenging film.

It ends with a quotation from the nineteenth century author, George Eliot.
“…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts;
…that things are not so ill with you and me…
is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life,
and rest in unvisited tombs.”

At the outset of Lent, as we take the first, tentative steps towards the Cross:
We are reminded of Christ’s choices:
Deprivation over ease.
Vulnerability over rescue.
Obscurity over honour.

As disciples of today require to understand,
much of the faithful life will go unseen,
in time, almost certainly, be forgotten – unhistoric acts;
But such faithfulness belongs to God,
and God is love,
and love is eternal.

Sermon 8th March 2020


How many of you recognise the name Alex Honnold? He is the subject and hero of the film “Free Solo” which won an American Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature two years ago. It tells the story of the professional rock climber, Alex Honnold, who, in June 2017, climbed the 3000-foot vertical rock face, El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park in California.

El Capitan is one of the most famous, and ferocious, rock climbs in the world. Some of you may have seen pictures of it, or visited it, and you know that it looks unclimbable. Indeed, until 1958 it was thought to be unclimbable. But since then many have climbed it, though, I believe, 28 people have died in the attempt. That’s how dangerous it is. 

The remarkable thing, the truly remarkable thing, about Alex Honnold’s climb was that he was the first person to climb El Capitan solo, that is, without ropes, without aids or support of any kind. It took him four hours. Simply unbelievable!           

In the film, there is a remarkable phrase used: “perfection or death”. One mistake, one slip, one slight error of judgement, and Alex died. “Perfection or death.” That phrase gives us a very good introduction to the text I want us to look at this morning, that remarkable passage in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 3, headed, “Righteousness Through Faith”. 

And, incidentally, I think Lent, these weeks leading up to Easter, to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, is a good time to reflect on what this means. Let me pick up from verse 21 of our text.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  

One Bible commentator, Leon Morris, has called this “possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.” That’s some claim! Martin Luther, the great German reformer, wrestled with this very passage as he re-discovered and redefined the great Christian doctrine, justification by faith alone. 

What do these words mean? St Paul had a brilliant mind, and a profound intellect. In his letters in the New Testament he sets down for us, he clarifies who exactly Jesus is, what he came to do, and why it’s so very important. But you may we’ll be thinking to yourself that you find this text difficult, too “theological”. Let me put it as simply as I can.

The Bible story tells us that God created the world, and everything in it, including us, men and women, and, as Genesis tells us, what God created was “very good”, it was a paradise, and it had a name, the Garden of Eden. But our ancestors, Adam and Eve, spoilt it with their disobedience. They ate the forbidden fruit, and paradise was lost. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, and sin entered the henceforth fallen and sinful world. Violence, corruption, injustice, unfaithfulness became rampant.

But God, who is love, still loves his world. He wants none to perish, but all to come to salvation, so he devises a rescue plan, a plan that reaches its climax and fulfilment in Jesus Christ. It’s summarised in that well-known, familiar verse, “God so loved the world that he gave us his only son, Jesus Christ, and whoever believes in him, whoever put his trust in him, will not perish, will not come under God’s rightful condemnation, but he will have eternal life.”  We can taste that life now, in this life. We will find it fulfilled completely, and perfectly, in the life to come.   

This rescue plan begins with Abraham, whom God calls, and through whose descendants God makes a people for himself, the ancient Jews, the Israelites. God tells them how they are to worship him, through a system of sacrifices. He sends them prophets, and he gives them the law. In the Ten Commandments, and in the commandments that follow from them, God shows his people how to live and please him, how to be righteous. Obeying the law is righteousness, it makes us right with God, it gives us acceptance and peace with God. Perfection, through the perfect keeping of the law, is the way of righteousness. 

God looks for perfection from his people. But, in the Bible story, it is quickly established that the law is impossible to keep. God is holy, just, perfect himself. The smallest sin, when we make mistakes, and slip up, and make misjudgments, these things bring God’s wrath, his condemnation, his judgment upon us. 

But God wants none to perish. He loves us, and provides an answer, another way. Not the law, good though law is, but we cannot keep the law. There’s another way: Jesus!

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Do these words make a bit more sense to us now? “Possibly the most important single paragraph ever written?” “Perfection or death?” We are put right with God, obtain perfect righteousness not by law — it fails! — but by faith, trust, believing in Jesus, through his death on the cross and resurrection, the events of Easter. That’s good news! The Gospel! The way of grace, not law. It comes to us as a gift. All we have to do is receive it. No other religious faith gives us that! 

Let me turn to 3 little pictures which Paul gives to us in the passage to help us understand what’s going on, each picture is associated with a long word, but conveys a simple idea or a simple truth. 

The first picture is from the law courts. The long word is “justification”. But the simple idea, and profound truth, is that we are justified, we are declared not guilty in the eyes of the court, the judgement is that we are innocent, and we go free. Now you may say, but we are guilty! And we are! But the court judges us to be innocent, we are acquitted, and we go free.

The second picture that Paul gives us is from the slave market, where, in the ancient world, slaves were bought and sold. It would, sadly, have been a familiar sight to Paul’s first readers of his letter. And the long word is “redemption.” 

I am sure we can grasp the idea here. Slaves can be redeemed, they can be bought out of their slavery, they can be set free and become free men, and women, through redemption, through being bought out. We have that lovely verse from Paul elsewhere (1 Corinthians 7.23), “You were bought for a price.” We are slaves to sin, and our freedom, our forgiveness, our righteousness has been bought by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And to the third picture that Paul gives us, from the temple, and, again, a familiar picture to those first Christians. It’s a picture of sacrifice, temple sacrifice. The long word is “atonement”, or, and I think this is better, some translations have the word “propitiation”.        

The idea of God having to be appeased, or propitiated, having his anger and condemnation on our sins turned away from us through the sacrifice of his innocence Son,  that idea is one that some people find very difficult. Some people reject it. Where is the justice there, they say. But it seems to me clearly taught here, as elsewhere in the new Testament, and I find it very helpful picture, conveying a truth that is comforting in the extreme. Jesus’ sacrifice atones for my sin, and I am forgiven.

Let me summarise. “Perfection or death.” God demands our perfect obedience to his holy law. But we cannot, and do not, fulfil that requirement. We fail, and so come under his condemnation. God provides another way, another righteousness, that comes through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  

I end with this.

The Coronavirus is creating growing concern, and even alarm, across our nation and, indeed, across the world. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, caught up in this, and are properly fearful about what lies ahead. There is uncertainty, and anxiety, in equal measure.

But, as Christians, we face this with trust in a loving, sovereign God, and in the hope of the gospel which he has given to us in Jesus Christ. This hope embraces everything in this life, and the life to come. It comforts us, but it also changes us. 

The Coronavirus will present us with opportunities for helping and serving others around us in their need. We, as Christians, can witness to our Lord Jesus Christ in the way we serve, even sacrifice, for the needs of our neighbours around us. It’s an opportunity for the church, and for us as members of the church, to share and show to the world the great hope that we have.

Let’s think on that this coming week, and what we are going to do about it.

Sermon 15th March 2020, Lent III


The Samaritan woman said to Jesus, 
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" 
(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  John 4:9 

Wedding yesterday – beautiful music, a happy couple, 
a goodly number of guests – though some absences due to travel restrictions.
Earlier in the week anxious phone calls: Can we go ahead?
Yesterday, after the ceremonial part of the service was complete, 
I spoke of the cartoon sent this week:
Minister, bride and groom all at a wedding altar, all wearing masks: 
the minister delivering the instruction – 
“You may now wink at the bride!”

In these days of social distancing – health regulations – rules of separation – disruption,
there is quite an irony, that the gospel set for today is about the breaking of rules, 
social enhancement, not social hindrance.

The heroine is the woman at the well.
Hers is the longest encounter with an individual, described in John’s gospel.
Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman longer than he talks to his twelve disciples, 
or to his accusers, or even to his own family members.  
She is the first person (and the first ethnic/religious outsider) 
to whom Jesus reveals his identity in John’s Gospel.  
She is also the first believer in any of the Gospels 
to straightaway become an evangelist.
She represents all the boundaries 
that must not be transgressed in the religious life.  
All the spiritual taboos that must not be broken.  
Jesus breaks them anyway.
[“If I were asked to pick one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, 
it would be this one.”]

Before/preceding the woman, Nicodemus.
Nicodemus – male, named, titled, entitled – comes by night.
She – an anonymous woman, a foreigner, 
a different, despised (In Jewish eyes) faith tradition – 
the fierce glare of noon.
That she must collect water at the least hospitable time of the day – 
symbolic of her ostracizing, outsider status.

The contrast in their two conversations is pronounced.
Nicodemus, the religious insider seems unable to move 
beyond the confines of his religious belief system; 
she, on the other hand, is prepared to move outside her religious expectations.

It starts with a basic human need – thirst and the request for water. 
Exhausted by the journey, Jesus waits by the well.

That Jesus, a Jew, would talk to a Samaritan shocked the woman (4:9.) 
and surprised his own disciples (4:27). 
Jesus seems aware that, through death or divorce, 
she has burned through multiple marriages 
and now living with a man who is not her husband (4:18.)
Yet he conveys no hint of judgement or condemnation.

He cuts through gender discrimination, 
ritual purity (sharing a drinking cup with a Samaritan), 
socio-economic poverty (any woman married five times was poor), 
religious hostility, and the moral stigma of failed relationships.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" 
By making himself vulnerable, Jesus sets her at ease.
By showing her that she has something to offer, 
she is free to engage.
The request for a cup of water in the heat of the day 
becomes a way to speak about profound realities and yearnings -  
for a life to be refreshed and liberated. Hers – and perhaps Jesus’.

In the course of their conversation her past comes to light.
Jesus’ breach of protocol is so unexpected, 
his attention to her so apparent, 
that she goes beyond her initial self-presentation; 
trusting him with her truth.

He does not make her feel exposed, but shielded;  
not diminished, but restored; 
not judged, but loved. 
He doesn’t ignore the painful, broken stuff.  
Instead he allows the truth of who she is to come to the surface.  

From isolated and impoverished, the woman is emboldened and unshackled.
Conveyed perhaps in her own words:
“Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did…
and loved me anyway.”
She does not say those last words, but they are implicit. 
That is what saves her life.

So to today – 
As disciples of Christ we are called to be faithful. 
Faithful to what we see in Jesus – 
both in times of plenty, and in time of crisis. 
How might we do that? 

Perhaps, by maintaining perspective, appreciating what we have, 
remaining prayerful 
and in looking out for the needs of others, 
particularly those feeling vulnerable and isolated. 
“Social distancing” may have sensible health grounds, 
but minimising physical contact 
certainly does not prevent other ways of meaningful communication and support. 
Telephone calls, a note, an e-mail, a check to make sure someone has food – 
all these will help. 
We also have the gift of prayer; it appears in our Order of Service.

Dear God our Shield and our Defender, 
guide and protect my neighbour in this time of health emergency; 
deliver them from all harm 
and may your love and care ever grow in this place. 
Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Amen.

At St Columba’s we will continue to follow
both government and Church of Scotland guidance 
and be vigilant with hygiene and safety. 
And in the light of our faith, as long as we are able - 
we will aim to maintain an open and welcoming building for prayer and activity, 
as well as a strengthened and supported community, beyond our walls. 

Ironically/fortuitously - if we manage to make our services available via the internet – 
the very process we use will be a reminder:
Live stream: Living Water.

Jesus said: “The water that I will give 
will become in you a spring of water 
gushing up to eternal life.” John 4:14

Sermon 22nd March 2020, Lent IV, Mothering Sunday


As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." John 9:5

Each of us will be collecting moments and images from recent days 
that perhaps encapsulate the strangeness of these times – 
from the news coverage or shared clip on social media, or closer to home.
About a week ago I answered the bell at home.
On the doorstep two figures, one clutching a large bag.
Both wore medical masks – eyes only, visible.
It took me a moment to realise they were our delightful new neighbours.
They explained that they were returning home, 
would be away for some months 
and wanted us to have a collection of supplies that they wouldn’t use – 
disposable gloves, face masks and loo roll! 
The home city of these new, neighbourly neighbours is Beijing. 

A parishioner messaged the church this week:
“We hope you. your families and friends keep well
during a time none of us could ever have imagined - 
it certainly shakes one out of their comfort zone.”
Oras an eight-year-old, on learning that her school was closing, summed it up:
“I feel like I am in a tumble dryer.”

Not all sights have been as edifying as neighbours unexpectedly calling round.
Empty supermarket shelves, 
squabbling over packets of loo rolls 
or driving off with unnecessarily large stocks of food.
It is a powerful reminder that when we are frightened 
we do not automatically do the right thing.
As people have observed, the Corona Virus will bring out 
both the best and worst in ourselves.

Sight and insight are at the heart of the gospel read this morning.
a revelation, that can be received, or rejected.

The story begins with some cruel theology – 
blindness/disability is the sign of God’s anger and punishment.
The disciples ask Jesus: Who sinned, this man or his parents?
In the eyes of his peers, the man is contaminated, burdensome, 
somehow deserving of his circumstance.  

Jesus is categorical: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; 
he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus doesn’t explain away the great Why? question
Instead, takes the things of life, earth and spittle, 
then with firm touch and gentle command 
sends the man towards the light.
The one blind from birth, judged by his religion, excluded from his community, 
is brought back;
a wonderful restoration, an amazing grace.

But very soon, a volley of questions - not all of them kind.
His neighbours barely recognise him.
They don’t know how to see him without his disability.  
Who are you? How did this happen? Why you? Who is responsible? 
The man called Jesus. 

The man’s word is not enough; neighbours need validation.
So, the religious authorities are invoked, and intimacy banished. 

Interrogation/Debate No.1: 
This man is not from God – he does not observe the Sabbath.
Alternatively: But a sinner couldn’t perform such signs.
The Pharisees - opticians of the nation’s spiritual sight are divided.
They know an awkward truth; 
sight to the blind, is one of the herald calls of the Messiah.
If this “sign/miracle” is pukka – Jerusalem, we have a problem.
This is not the Messiah they anticipated; nor the type they desire.

The drama rolls on; parents are summoned reluctantly into the spotlight.
If they validate their son, they support the messiah conspiracy; 
eviction from synagogue and community, their reward.
Not our call. Ask the boy - he is of age.
Fear casts out love. 
How did the son hear those parental words?

Interrogation/Debate No. 2: vested interest, rising threat:
Give credit to God; not credence to Jesus, the sinner.
The immortal reply:
“I do not know whether he is a sinner. 
One thing I do know; I was blind, but now I see.”

Sadly, there is no voice to raise an Alleluia, 
no singing, Thanks be to God.
Instead the stewards of the Mystery of Life 
reject the miracle as an affront to their preconceived certainties.

They spiral downwards: 
What trickery has he performed or persuaded you to pretend?

What thoughts went on behind those new-minted eyes?
Why can’t you accept what I am saying/be happy for me?
How many times must I explain? Are you also eager to be his disciples? 
That was incendiary.

No. You are his disciple. We are faithful followers of Moses 
and we do not know where this imposter comes from.

Really!? You have no clue about him and yet he opened my eyes. 
“If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
How dare you lecture us! And they drove him out.

[… the last act crowns the play. Francis Quarles]

Jesus hears that the man is once more isolated – 
The man blind from birth who on his first day of sight 
had been treated to the face of ugly and angry prejudice.
His world has changed so swiftly, 
but his solitary confinement appears renewed.
Now the one with no place to rest his head 
seeks out the excluded one;
outcast Shepherd, seeks lost sheep.

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
One more question, trailing a trip net?
No - the voice is different. 
And the man is expert in weighing voices.
The question sounds like an invitation not an accusation.
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

Tell me who he is, that I may believe.
You know him – he stands before you.
Lord, I believe.

“…this is one of the rare and beautiful moments in the Gospels 
when Jesus himself is truly seen.” Debie Thomas
He alone, the one formerly blind, sees Jesus as the Son of Man and calls him, “Lord.”

In many countries and cultures, in time of trouble, fear or sorrow,
local communities place a lighted candle in the windows of their homes.
Presidents of Churches Together in England have issued an invitation to make today 
both a National Day of Prayer 
and to mark it by lighting a candle in the window of our homes at 7pm this evening . 
A visible symbol of the light of life, Jesus Christ, 
our source and hope in prayer. 

One meditation puts it:
“As we travel, the Lord lights the way ahead of us. 
He turns on the lamps as we need them. 
He does not light them all at once, at the start, 
when they are not yet needed. 
He does not waste light, but bestows it at the proper time.”
(Blessed James Alberione, Founder of the Pauline Family)
And one message from a member of the congregation - 
“We shall endeavour to watch and listen to the services 
thus making us and many folks still feel connected wherever we are.   
Will also try to keep in touch with people, especially by letters and cards.”
And the sign off: 
“Best wishes, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jesus said: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." (John 9:5)

Sermon 29th March 2020, Lent V

SUN 29 MAR 2020, LENT V

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. 
It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” John 11:38-39 

 “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Abba Moses.
This is one of the recorded sayings of the so-called Desert Fathers & Mothers, the first Christian monks and nuns who from the C2nd onwards withdrew from mainstream life into the hermitages and small communities of the deserts of Egypt and Syria.

“Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Abba Moses.
In a week of home schooling (already alluded to) 
this saying may somewhat raise an eyebrow.
Yet maybe it speaks to us as we commune this morning after a week where
we tried to maintain routines or establish new ones; 
spoke to/smiled at people, or didn’t; 
watched the news or switched off.
What have we learnt?

That we are fragile; 
more interdependent, more interconnected, 
than we previously acknowledged or understood.
That our daily choices have consequences for others.
That there are a bunch of things we have taken for granted.
[There is a lovely meditation from America this week:]

When this is over,
may we never again
take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbours
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine checkup
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend
The stadium roaring
Each deep breath
A boring Tuesday
Life itself.

And what might we learn from the cell of this sanctuary, this morning?
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday; 
The gospel set for today is the extended description of Jesus’ response 
to the illness and death of his friend Lazarus. 

It is about the grief of things lost, and the tears of Christ.
Recorded only in John’s gospel, it forms a bridge 
between the public ministry of Jesus 
and the final days of Jerusalem – 
Holy Week; Last Supper, arrest, trial, execution, the tomb – and beyond.
Both stories have tombs locked by stones;
Both stories have stones rolled away.
Spoiler alert - Lazarus’ resurrection prefigures of the resurrection.

Famously, in the face of the death of a loved one 
and the grief of the sisters, Mary and Martha,
Jesus wept.
As an Army chaplain, soldiers were forever apologizing to me for swearing 
because of my dog collar.
In the parish, swearing is replaced by tears – 
and people are forever apologising for crying. 
To which I try to respond: “If you can’t weep in church where can you?” 

Jesus wept, even while he prayed to the Father for restoration of life.
Jesus recognises and knows human grief; 
He laments - both standing with the broken-hearted, 
and broken-hearted himself – 
“See how he loved him”, the onlookers’ verdict.

The tears of Jesus “…assure Mary and Martha, 
their beloved brother is worth crying for, 
AND that they are worth crying with. “ (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Mar 2020) 
Perhaps we are called to do likewise.

The front cover of the children’s news magazine - Week Junior – 
Carries a rainbow. 
Above it is the now familiar headline:
We’re all in this TOGETHER.
And below: As the UK goes into lockdown, people unleash their creativity and compassion.
It is uncoloured in.- clearly an invitation to bring it to vivid life.

Jesus wept:
When Jesus weeps, he respects the necessity of silence, 
the sanctity of the wordless and the unsayable
Sometimes there is nothing to be said in the face of loss; 
tears our best and most honourable language.  
Silence, too, is faithful.  
Sometimes, silence is love.   

Jesus wept:
When Jesus weeps, he acknowledges his own mortality.  
In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the precipitating event 
that leads to Jesus’s own arrest and crucifixion. 

When word spreads about the miracle in Bethany, 
the authorities decide that enough is enough; 
Jesus must be stopped.  
The choice to go to Judea; the choice to restore the life of his friend is essentially a trading of his own life. Greater love hath no man…

In crying, he asserts powerfully that it is okay to yearn for life.  
It’s okay to cling to this beautiful world.  
It’s okay to feel a sense of wrongness and injustice in the face of death — death is the enemy, the aberration, the thief.  
(Family diagnosis: But I have so much to live for.)

Finally, when Jesus wept, 
he shows us that sorrow is a powerful catalyst for change.  
Can our current sorrow at all that we are losing, 
lead to a revitalised life when this is over?
More immediately, a rejuvenated sense of life in these days of restriction? 

Elderly member of the congregation:
“I am just sorry that everybody is so worried.”
Older generation – often reported as the ones on who our attention should be – actually far more resilient than we give them credit for – a generation who have seen and endured much; a generation who have earnt and learnt perspective.

And Olivia Giles, founder of our lent Charity – 500 Miles.
She contracted a life-threatening illness that led to her hands and feet being amputated, 
But since has dedicated her life to ensuring 
that the aftercare and rehabilitation she received in Scotland 
was made available to people in some of the world’s poorest areas. 
[Abhorrent inequality.]
For children the chance to enter education; 
for adults the chance to return to a workplace. – life transforming. 

“First day that I took a step – the best day of my life.

I’ve learnt that the human spirit is phenomenal, 
the instinct to survive and make the best of things is powerful 
and if you have something you want to do, 
today is a good day to get on with it.”

“Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Abba Moses.

Believe in the one who wept.
Unleash your creativity and compassion – colour the rainbow.
As we make our Pilgrim’s Progress,
both in the shadow of the Cross and the light of Easter,
trust the one who said: "I am the resurrection and the life. 

Sermons - February 2020

Sermon 2nd February 2020

SUN 02 FEB 2020

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are…” Matthew 5:1-3

Where is blessing to be found?

One day this week, a chance encounter on the Fulham Road,
not far from the entrance to a large and busy hospital.
I bumped into a man I know, a little.
Not a member of this congregation, so no confidences compromised.

I would not have been able to tell you his name,
but from prior conversations about family,
I knew him to be Muslim,
knew that he lived and worked in London
and was raising a young family.
Our previous encounters had always been brief,
but he had always been encouraging about what goes on in this place.
It transpired, that four months ago, his wife had given birth to their youngest child.
The baby was born three months premature.
He was in the locale of the hospital,
because four months on, the little one was still in hospital care.
I could only imagine what that must feel like – scary, exhausting –
a whole mixture of complicated emotions and repercussions
for the whole family, including older siblings.

He described, how recently, the baby had been taken off his ventilator
and was able to breath on his own for the first time –
how special a moment that had been.
Three minutes, if that – by chance - on a busy London street;
but I came away touched by the vulnerability, the courage - the humanity,
of the man and his family –
reminded once more, how so many folks carry heavy burdens,
which for the most part we know so little about.

On a mountainside, Jesus sat down and began to teach the crowds.
In this Sermon on the Mount,
he looks out over the raggle-taggle band,
the walking wounded, their scars evident or hidden;
and he tells them about blessing.
These beatitudes are not a list of commandments, but a set of promises.
Not a self-help, book of improvement, but a life-line of reassurance,
thrown to those, who fear they may be going under.

By the standards of the strong, the list doesn’t make much sense.
Those who receive God’s favour are not the privileged classes
of the Roman empire or the Jewish religious establishment.
The beatitudes are spoken to those groups whom God deems worthy,
not because of their own achievements or status in society,
but because God’s preference is for the poor and the unsure;
the forgotten, despised and sorrowing;
justice seekers, peace makers,
those persecuted because of their beliefs.

Apparently, there is something to learn about discipleship,
that privileged life circumstances will not teach.
Blessed is not a state of happiness, as defined by the image of advertisers –
luxury and ease and exclusivity – pleasant as that might be.
Such happiness is fleeting and fickle, eventually hollow.
Rather, the beatitudes open us to an attitude
of simplicity, hopefulness and compassion.

Where is blessing to be found?
In A Poetic Kind of Place, writer Andrew King
offers a meditation, based on a true incident:
A widower sat at a restaurant table.
His wife of 43 years had died the previous week.
The young couple at the next table were strangers to him,
but somehow, they reminded him of the happiness
he and his wife had long shared.

The widower signalled to the waitress. 
The bill for the couple’s meal was delivered to the widower’s table.
On a napkin he wrote a note.
He told of dining alone for the first time in 43 years.
He wrote that paying for their meal
would put a smile on his wife’s face, and make him happy, too.
He wished them a happy new year.

There was the kingdom of heaven.
For blessed are the merciful, the meek. 
Blessed the peacemakers, the pure. 
Blessed are those who mourn yet whose ongoing love 
comforts themselves and others. 
And blessed are those whose joy in doing right creates 
nourishment in this hungering world.
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
They’re the kingdom of heaven.
(By the way, this story is true.)”

If that is a little too chocolate box for your taste,
let me finish with one more, grittier story from this week.
Monday was Holocaust Memorial Day.
For that occasion, Rabbi Ephraim Mervis, Chief Rabbi
recounted the remarkable story of Rabbi Dr Joseph Breuer

An outstanding religious scholar, Rabbi Breuer’s deep faith,
extensive secular knowledge and his great personal dignity
set him apart as one of the great rabbinic figures of his age.
He studied at universities in Giessen and Strasbourg,
eventually earning his PhD in philosophy and political economy.
His worldly wisdom and charisma made him a popular teacher,
and eventually the highly respected dean of a renowned religious seminary in Frankfurt.

He was not without his difficulties:
He had poor eyesight - a challenge for any scholar.
He also found himself in a position of leadership in the Jewish community
just as the Nazi Party began its ascendancy in Germany.

Every day after morning prayers
the Rabbi would take a walk round the block to gather his thoughts.
As his eyesight gradually deteriorated,
it became increasingly difficult for him
to distinguish between passers-by, whom he knew well,
and those he had never previously met.
Adopting the Talmudic teaching that one should greet all people with a smile,
it became the Rabbi’s habit to doff his hat
and greet everyone he came across,
from his most trusted students, to the street sweepers and local shop owners.

In November 1938 “Kristallnacht” was a watershed moment for German Jews,
Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed.
Thousands of Jewish businesses were vandalised or looted.
Jewish hospitals and schools were targeted and cemeteries desecrated.
Rabbi Breuer’s synagogue was set alight and razed.
His seminary was forcibly shut down
and all the Jewish men were instructed to assemble in the courtyard of the local armoury.

SS officers barked orders at them, the consequences of which were not clear.
All men over the age of 60, step forward.”
Rabbi Breuer was 57; he stayed in place.
A burly officer strode purposefully over to him and began shouting directly at him:
You are over 60. Step forward!”
There was little point in arguing.
Breuer allowed himself to be shoved into the group of older men;
they were promptly sent home.
He had no idea that those left behind – the younger cohort –
were to be deported to the camps of Buchenwald and Dachau.

The rabbi had barely arrived back at his house
when there was a loud banging at his door.
Herr Rabbiner, I must speak to you immediately!”
It was the same officer who had shoved him forward
into the older men’s group, at the armoury.
The officer urged the Rabbi to leave Germany with his family, immediately.
But why are you helping me?”
Perhaps you don’t recognise me in this uniform.
I was the local police constable in this area for many years.
Whenever we saw each other, you always made a point of greeting me.
I couldn’t watch them take you away.
But you really must leave now – you do not have long.”

Breuer did leave, with his family.
First to Antwerp, then to New York, where he re-established his seminary
and built a community round it. He died in 1980.
The Breuer’s community still maintains a large synagogue,
several schools and a centre for religious scholarship,
which has a significant impact on thousands of lives.

The beatitudes do not ignore the possibility of conflict and suffering.
The beatitudes bear witness to God’s unwavering proximity
even in - especially in - the darkest moments.
And wherever there is strife or shadow,
those/we who are freely blessed, are freed, in turn, to bless.

Sermon 9th February 2020

SUN 09 FEB 2020

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Matthew 5:13,14

The ancients believed that salt would ward off evil spirits.
Religious covenants were often, sealed with salt.
Medically, it disinfected disinfect wounds and checked bleeding.
Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt - hence our English word, “salary.”
Brides and grooms rubbed salt on their bodies to enhance fertility.
And of course, in all the centuries before refrigeration,
salt was essential for food preservation.
From the beginning of civilization, until about one hundred years ago,
salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.” 
(Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History)

You are the salt of the earth.”
Carrying on from the beatitudes (read last week) – blessed are…
the poor, the mournful, the meek, the persecuted.
The walking wounded - the outcast, the misfit, the disreputable, the demon-possessed. 
Startlingly, Jesus tells them: “You are the salt of the earth.”
Of its time and place – a priceless commodity, valued, vital and treasured. 
So, be salt! 

Salt of course, does its best work when it is scattered.
Dissolving into what is around it.
Giving of itself, to bring out the best in all that surrounds it.

Timothy Radcliffe, former head of the Dominican Order, Alive in God:
The social crisis that is shaking the west today
is in part a loss of friendship as integral to a civilized society.
Social relationships in business and politics, even on the road – think road rage
are conflictual and competitive.
We dwell in our silos of likeminded,
barely acknowledging the humanity of those who belong to other tribes.”

Radical polarization of American politics/Brexit debates
indicate the collapse of cross-party friendships.
Illustration: A few decades ago, politicians would settle in Washington DC,
So, Democrats and Republicans got to know each other well.
Their children attended the same schools,
they met each other at church and at dinner parties.
Friendships were formed that enabled them
to understand and respect their opponents and so compromise
Now, politicians jet in and vote and rush back home asap.
Speeches are composed with those back home in mind.
There is no time for friendships with one’s opponents.
Consensus breaks down and the drift towards un-governability continues.

Befriending is a creative act. It breaks down barriers and pierces prejudices.
We cannot know in advance when we shall be called on to make a friendship
with someone from a different religion or of none,
or with different political views or of another generation.
Making unexpected friendships is one way in which we are salt -
friendships that the world deems impossible.
[Because the friendship of Christ creates bonds that we could not have imagined.]

There are of course moments that demand a sharper saltiness.
[Last week commemorated the annual Holocaust Memorial Day.]
One of the stories that has emerged in recent times is that of Jane Haining
Born in 1897, she grew up near Dunscore in Dumfriesshire.
She worked as a secretary at a thread maker company, J&P Coates Ltd in Paisley for 10 years before she moved to Budapest in 1932
to work as a matron in the Jewish Mission School,
which had 315 pupils, 48 of whom were boarders.
The majority of the children at the primary school were from Christian families
but some were Jews.

Miss Haining was on holiday in Cornwall when war broke out in 1939 –
seven years after she took up her post –
but immediately returned to Budapest and her charges, whom she was devoted to.
An avid listener of BBC radio, Miss Haining was fully aware
of the growing threat the Nazis posed to the Hungarian Jews
but was determined to ensure that it was a place
where all children would feel safe and protected.


Despite being under surveillance, the “house mother”
managed to keep the children safe for four long years of hardship
She was repeatedly ordered by the church to return to Scotland, but refused, writing
If these children need me in days of sunshine,
how much more do they need me in days of darkness.”

Dr Ninon Leader, a former pupil at the Scottish Mission School
in Budapest, Hungary during the Second World War,
said the girls were encouraged to see themselves as equals
by their “inspirational” matron.

Dr Leader recalled the day in 1944, following the Nazi occupation of the country of her birth,
when it was made compulsory for anyone Jewish
to wear a yellow star of David on their clothes.
It was a badge of shame designed to publicly identify Jews.

One of the charges against Miss Haining, was
weeping when seeing children wearing them.
Acting in Miss Haining’s spirit and personality, irrespective of their religion,
every single boarder in the Mission Home sewed a yellow star on their uniforms.
That’s how we left our building for our daily walk to the Heroes’ Square and back,
hand in hand, as equals.”

In 1944 Haining was betrayed by the cook's son-in-law,
whom she caught eating scarce food, intended for the girls.
She was arrested by two Gestapo officers at the Scottish Mission –
they gave her 15 minutes to gather her belongings - and charged with eight offences.
[Amongst other things she was accused of working amongst the Jews;
weeping when seeing the girls attend class wearing the yellow stars;
being active in politics; visiting British prisoners of war and sending them parcels.]

Haining was taken to Auschwitz where she died later the same year.
She is the only Scot named as “righteous among the nations” –
non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis –
by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.

Deirdre MacDowell, whose mother Agnes O'Brien
was the modest and fair-minded matron's half-sister,
said she was deeply moved by Dr Leader’s story.
Her girls were not afraid and it shows that she did make an impact in their lives.”

How might we be salt?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly; Isaiah 58:6-8

Sermon 16th February 2020

6th Sunday after Epiphany
16th February 2020

An elderly woman sent an email to a friend saying, “The other day I was in the church bookshop and I saw a 'Honk if you love Jesus' car sticker. I thought that would be a fun thing to have on my little car. So I bought one and stuck it on the bumper. I’m so glad I did: what an uplifting experience that followed.

I was stopped at a red traffic light at a busy junction, just momentarily lost in thought and didn't notice that the lights had changed. It is a good thing lots of other people love Jesus because it was only when they all honked that I realised the light was green.

Then I saw a nice young man waving in a funny way with only his middle finger stuck up in the air. I asked my young teenage grandson in the back seat what that meant. He said it was probably a Hawaiian good luck sign or something. Well, I have never met anyone from Hawaii, so I leant out the window and gave him the good luck sign right back. My grandson burst out laughing. He was having a good time too.

A couple of people were so caught up in the joy of the moment that they got out of their cars and started walking towards me. I thought they maybe wanted to ask what church I go to, but then the light changed, so I waved at everyone, and drove on through the junction and gave them all the Hawaiian good luck sign one last time.”

Clearly, a bit of miscommunication. Most of us know what it is like to be stuck in slow moving traffic when we have one eye on the clock; it doesn’t take long for mild frustration to build: buttons are pushed, the blood pressure rises. At worst, mild irritation rises to anger then turns to uncontrolled rage.

All three of our readings have something to say to us about how we interact with others and the expectations that God has for us in our daily living.

It seems easier than ever for offence to be given and received. I am old enough to not have grown up with social media: then it was a word in the ear, a note sneakily passed in class, then at university callingl home could involve queuing to use the phone outside on a cold winter’s evening in Aberdeen: it took a bit of effort. Nowadays, with mobile phone in hand, it takes next to no time to write a short email or text or twitter feed, all of which allows us to fire off the first thought that comes into our head, and the consequences can be devastating.

All of this is happening at a time when the country is divided politically with intractable positions across the political spectrum and I do wonder in the current climate if the human impact gets lost in the arguments.

We see young people expressing their anger at climate change and environmental damage, angry at my generation for not doing more. They are vocal, yet we also see universities no platforming speakers whose positions on particular social issues are unpalatable for some students and a good deal of talk of safe spaces.

We might consider how we can grow in mutual understanding with those who hold views that we are vehemently opposed to, if we try to shut them down.

Righteous anger recognises the fracturing of relationships, it seeks resolution.
Righteous anger wants to change the status quo, it aims to be restorative.

In 1993, Stephen Lawrence an 18 year old with aspirations of becoming an architect was murdered in a racially motivated attack while waiting for a bus. He was the son of Jamaican parents who had emigrated to the UK in the 1960s. His mother Doreen Lawrence, now a Baroness, sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords as a working peer specialising in race and diversity. She spends much of her time working with the trust set up in her son’s name that works to inspire and enable young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in their career choice. The trust is built on 3 pillars: building careers, building communities and building societies.

Asked if she ever felt paralysed by anger at the injustice she experienced, she responded, “I always tried to busy myself with something. In the early days I did focus on the anger – it was like I was locked in a room with it for 24 hours a day. I didn't want to be in that place so I don't go there.”
(Guardian interview, Sat 20 Apr 2013 Tim Adams)

Does our anger harden our heart or open it up to something positive that we might not have envisaged before? Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, offers this reflection: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savour to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1993)

What do we do with our lingering anger? If we are unable to turn it into something positive, is there at least something we can do to stop it eating away at us? We can turn it over to God. We can take that anger and cry out to God. There is plenty of precedent for this in the bible, particularly in the Psalms. David says
“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1-2)

My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? … I am worn out from my groaning. (Psalm 6: 3, 6)

We can cry out with confidence that God’s longing for us is a rich and abundant life. Our passages today highlight how unachievable that might be were it solely down to our own efforts.

Others have observed (Will Willimon Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins) that on the cross, God's righteous anger was on display—punishing sin and forgiving sinners. As another minister Bryan Wilkinson puts it, “God cared enough about us to get angry at our sin, angry enough to punish it and forgive it in one dramatic and decisive act.”

Thanks be to God.

Sermons - January 2020

Sermon 5th January 2020

SUN 05 JAN 2020, 11am, 2nd After Christmas

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9

Among several full houses in the run-up to Christmas,
four of the services were end of term school carol services –
pews packed with excited children, exhausted teachers and proud parents.
Many of you will know something of such occasions –
recent experience or distant memory.

It prompted my own memory, of the walk to the local parish church,
where my junior school held its own carol service;
it reminded me of being much-rehearsed by my own mother,
to read the first lesson – Isaiah’s:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…
And in the light of the gospel read this morning
“In the beginning was the Word…”
it took me back, to the sense that this particular reading held a particular heft/significance.
Introduced with the solemn: St John unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation…
I had vaguely heard of the idea of Reincarnation – coming back in a different form – but what was this Incarnation?
In honesty, while I would strain to stay with it,
those first phrases quickly left me bewildered:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
What was this Word all about?

It is of course a deep echo of Creation and Genesis, In the Beginning…
Now John’s revision: In the beginning… was the Word;
Christ before all things, source of the life of the world,
long before the world caught sight of Jesus of Nazareth.
But then, via the witness of John, the audacious claim:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

What might this all mean for young Freddie, baptized today, or for any of us who are reminded of our own baptisms today?

Derek Browning, former Moderator, reflected recently:
“Few things pack up and disappear so quickly as the Christmas spirit.
Few, if any, celebrate the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas now,
losing that gradual sense of unwrapping the Divine Mystery that is the Incarnation.”

The Prologue to John’s Gospel is a reminder
that Christmas by itself, is not the real deal, just as a wedding day, is not a marriage.
To borrow a phrase: The Christ-Child is not just for Christmas.
The Word made flesh is a lifetime –
Jesus’ lifetime – birth, death, resurrection – the full Monty:
And our lifetimes – birth, death and beyond –
with all the shifting, unfolding understandings
of who God is, and what God is about.
Recognition that faith/belief, is always limited, by our partial view,
(we never hold the entire picture);
recognition that faith is always a work in progress.

So much, for the sonorous, opening refrains; then, the specifics:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9

Let me finish with a story of the light, real and metaphorical:
Offered as an encouragement, perhaps as a signpost
to lead us on our way, into the new year.

Most of us will be familiar with the meeting/lecture that concludes with:
Are there any Questions?
Usually, it is the unofficial signal to shuffle papers and plan one’s exit.
Robert Fulghum, an American pastor and writer adopts a more quixotic approach.
When he hears – Any Questions? - he raises his hand and asks:
“What is the meaning of life?”
(Imagine that, at 8.35pm, as the last question at a Session meeting.)
Unsurprisingly Fulghum’s question is rarely taken seriously;
except once.

Some years ago, he attended a two-week course on Greek culture, on the island of Crete.
Near the village of Gonia, on a rocky bay, is a Greek Orthodox monastery.
Alongside it, an Institute, dedicated to human understanding and peace
and especially to reconciliation between Germans and Cretans.

The site is important. It overlooks the small airstrip at Maleme,
where German paratroopers invaded Crete
and were attacked by peasants wielding little more than kitchen knives and hay scythes.
The retribution was terrible; village populations decimated.

High above the Institute is a cemetery with a single cross –
marking the mass grave of Cretan partisans.
Across the bay, on another hill, the regimental burial ground of the invaders.
This is the backdrop to the Institute, and its desire to heal old wounds.

Its founder is Dr Alexander Papaderos.
At war’s end, he had the conviction that Cretan and German
had much to learn from each other.
They had an example to set.
If they could learn forgiveness, so too could others.

The conference came to an end.
At the last session the Director himself came to the front.
Standing in the sunlight of an open window,
he gazed across the bay to the German cemetery, and asked:
“Are there any questions?” Quiet.

“Dr Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”
A ripple of laughter; people stirring to go.
Papaderos stilled the room and searched the questioner’s eyes
gauging the seriousness of the question.
“I will answer your question.”
From his wallet he fetched a small leather pouch
and produced a round mirror, the size of a 50p.

“When I was a child, we lived in a remote village on this island.
One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror,
where a German motorcycle had been wrecked.
I tried to find all the pieces, but it was not possible,
So, I kept the largest piece and over time,
by scratching against a stone, I made it round.

It was my toy.
I became fascinated by shining the mirror’s reflected light into all sorts of dark places – nooks and crannies, crevices and holes.
Even into adulthood, I did the same.

As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game
but a metaphor for what I might do with my life.
I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light.
But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there,
and it will only shine in many dark places, if I reflect it.

I am only a fragment of the whole mirror – the whole shape I do not know.
With what I have however, I can bring light.
Change some things, in some people.
Perhaps others may see and do likewise.
This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

Then he took the small mirror and holding it carefully
caught that magical Mediterranean sunlight
and reflected it onto the face and folded hands of his questioner.
[It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, R Fulghum, pp172ff]

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…
the true light, which enlightens everyone, coming into the world.

Sermon 12th January 2020

12 JAN 2020

“Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said,
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:16-17

“I’m driving home from work, heading south,
when the sky takes hold of me – and I begin to cry.”

This is the arresting opening, to a talk from the radio series, Four Thought.
Its author is Lorna Stimson:
“In Norfolk, landmarks cling to the horizon;
the sky is bigger than anything else;
ever present and everywhere – a bit like God, if I could find one.”

The context of her sudden weeping, is the recent death of her father.
One of the things they shared was his love of clouds and stars.
So, the daughter meditates:
The sky gives us everything…light and water;
sets the mood for our days.
dramatic inky storm clouds, shrill blue summers and rainbows;
noisy rooks, aeroplane trails, breath-taking sunrises
and blank paper days, the colour of putty.
Yet, how often she asks, do we look up?

Suddenly, heavens opened, Spirit descending, that Voice:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Church calendar tells us that today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany,
(the 6th of January - day of gold, frankincense and myrrh.)
The early Church combined four elements in the Epiphany:
the Incarnation (the birth of Jesus), the visit of the wise men,
the baptism of Jesus and the miracle at the wedding of Cana –
all epiphanies - showing forth’s,
shimmering moments, allowing us to look
beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces.
Disclosure - about who Jesus is, and what he means.

After the infant Jesus comes the adult,
trumpeted by John, his kinsman,
the unsettling prophet, drawing the crowds to baptism at the Jordan river.
John, himself not the light, but come to bear witness, to the light.
Listening to John you anticipate something even fiercer,
more turbulent than he – a winnowing fork to hand, to separate wheat from chaff.
“I baptise you with water,
but the one coming after me will baptise with fire.”

It turns out, differently.
The long-awaited one, waits in line.
The heralded one, asks the herald, to perform one more announcement -
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,
to be baptised by him.”
But so quietly and humbly, there is no indication that anyone much noticed.

As so often, geography is significant:
Jordan River, rich with sacred history,  
where once upon a time the ancient Israelites, entered the land of Canaan;  
where the prophet Elijah ended his prophetic ministry,
and his successor Elisha inaugurated his.  
The Jordan, which flowed under the same “opened” sky
God first spread forth, “in the beginning,” at the dawn of Creation.  
A place with a history, a vantage point
to see the hand of God, throughout the ages.
And now the parting of more symbolic waters –
a new Red Sea for the children of Israel.

There by those not-very-bonnie banks,
a coronation of sorts takes place:
not by ascending palace/temple steps -
but by the stepping down into life’s mainstream.
First sight of the adult Immanuel – taking his turn,
shuffling alongside humanity’s walking wounded - God with us.

A coronation? Yes. But also, a kind of first death.
Prequel, foreshadowing
of a different death, a different resurrection.
Going under and emerging; drowning and soaring.
Buried in baptism, rising to new life.
Immersion - into the great river of life, its joy and its suffering;
to show not a way out, but a way through.

And for Jesus?
Torn open heavens, Spirit alighting and deepest confirmation:
“This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There at Jordan’s edge, before Jesus has done anything – miracles, healings, table turning, resurrections – before he is anything, he is loved.
From that being loved, comes everything.
That is his first and deepest identity –
That is what we share as baptised Christians –
washed and welcomed, deeply loved,
potentially deeply loving.

We are always and already God's Beloved —
not because we've done anything to earn it,
but because God’s very nature and desire is to love?  
If Jesus, beloved and beloving, has entered fully
into the messiness of human endeavor –
we are called to do the same.
People of baptism, prepared for radical solidarity, not radical separateness.

[Naming the Beloved artwork installation – Scots in Great War London.
Manifestation, visualisation – perhaps even an epiphany –
of the ties that bind – then and now.]

“Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.

So, back to the skies:
Oscar Wilde once famously coined the notion:
“We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
[Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere’s Fan]

Lorna Stimson, with whom we started,
navigating her grief through her pondering the skies:
“My faith is a shaky itinerant thing.
I have no religion but believe in something, if only I knew what.

The sky is a place to look when everything else overwhelms,
a view wider than anything in this flat, terrestrial county.

Up is heaven; up is light. Surely, Dad is up there.
I do not know how to weather this, but in the meantime,
I look up because there is a world up there.”
Four Thought. Lorna Stimson:

And we, who share the story of baptism, might keep mindful:
Heavens opened, dove descending,
water dripping, voice reminding:
“You are my child, beloved – in whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon 26th January 2020

Sun 26 Jan 2020

Jesus said: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”
Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4: 19-20

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

Some may recognise the opening lines of John Masefield’s, Sea Fever.
Some may even be able to recite it – a memory of school days, lodged deep.
This week it was read during the funeral service of a church member –
for whom some of his happiest moments were with family and friends upon the waters.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

A wild call and a clear call – that may not be denied.
St Augustine’s: Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.

When the empire of Herod Antipas, with its rule of brute force and capricious power,
strikes God’s messenger and silences the Baptist,
Jesus’ public work begins.
Jesus withdraws, but he has not gone into hiding.
Capernaum, fishing village by the shores of the Sea of Galilee
is in the heartland of Herod’s rule.
Jesus is raising the herald’s fallen standard.
The message Jesus announces is still John’s: Repent.
A summons – a readiness for life.

Though Nazareth to Capernaum is a minor geographical detail,
It marks a major theological point.
For Matthew, it is the fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah,
In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
a place overrun by foreign domination, both in the time of Isaiah and Jesus.
Associated with the hellishness of war and its aftermath;
but in the latter time, he will make glorious the way of the sea,
the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Unlikely territory for an emergent messiah:
Nathanael: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Galilee of the gentiles looked upon by the heartland people with suspicion,
a bit like the way Lowland Scotland regarded
the Gaelic-speaking Highlands before 1745. (L Fisher)

Then, a wild call and a clear call for the first disciples.
In Matthew, the prose is spare and direct.
Jesus addresses two pairs of brothers and they follow immediately.
The demands of discipleship are sharp – a decision, whole-hearted.
So, the story begins.

There is no explanation as to why he chooses Peter, Andrew, James and John.
No indication of special qualities;
Apparently, the ability that matters, is availability.

Did Jesus summon others along the shoreline, or at the tavern table?
Others, unrecorded by scripture, who declined;
too busy, too fearful, turning away, or settling for less?
“Alas for those who never sing and die with all their music left in them.”
(Oliver Wendell Holmes, 19th century)

No explanation of why them –
no explanation of what really will be involved –
neither the joys, nor the costs.
Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.
That can only be learnt in the journey itself,
in the company of Christ and his friends.
All they can do is set out;
propelled beyond their known world,
beyond any understanding of who they are.

Just as people discover who they are as parents,
in the raising of children, not before.
As a wise nun once advised: “Don’t worry, your child will teach you more about the love of God than any book you have read.”
Now, when I tell Oliva (aged 8) how lucky she is to have the best Dad in the world!
She is smart enough to remind me: “Yes, but I made you!”

There is a lovely verse in John’s Epistle: “Dear friends, now we are children of God,
and what we will be has not yet been made known.” I John 3:2
Follow me. Invitation, challenge, summons…?
Loyalty to, and a trust in, a future. as yet unseen.

Rhidian Brook will be familiar to some;
a regular voice on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, for twenty years.
He spoke here three years ago; I hope, will return in the Spring.

A few years ago, he was contacted by the Salvation Army
to write a book about the global AIDS pandemic
and the work/response of the Salvation Army, in the wake of its devastation.

Initially, Brook was very reluctant to take on the task.
Although a man of faith, he doubted he could do much, or make a difference.
He had no particular knowledge of the field, he was no expert.
To which he was told: “The world of HIV/AIDS has enough experts.
We don’t want a statistician or a specialist.
Go expecting to learn, and you will find the story.”
But my family?
Take them too – where you are going it will help you.

One by one, his objections were whittled away.
Eventually, the question: “Can you think of a good reason why you wouldn’t do it?”
(More Than Eyes Can See pp23)

So began a nine-month journey to some of the world’s most unfortunate places –
to an outsider, truly the lands of contempt
Kenya, Rwanda, China, the USA –
all places reeling, in varying degree,
from a cocktail of poverty, illness, violence, hopelessness and indifference.

In one scene of unutterable squalor,
he meets the Madams and some of the young women in a Mumbai brothel.
The sight of one of their children being cradled by its mother,
between clients, reduces him to tears.
It is there that he recalls the advice given to him
by one of his experienced Salvation Army associates:
“Don’t think you have anything to take into these situations.
Remember, God is already there, at work;
you just have to walk into the activity of the kingdom.”
Ibid pp83

Follow me:
“I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;”

Follow me: Let’s go. Jesus called. And the fisher boys stood up.
Not because they were experts, or thought they were better than anyone;
not because they understood all that they were doing.
But because they heard a call and knew deep down,
that if they ignored it, they would never find peace.
So, leaving their boats, they boarded a different ship.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermons - Decemer 2019

Sermon 8th December 2019


“This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Matthew 3:3

News watchers will be aware, that thanks to the 70th Anniversary NATO Summit,
the President of the United States of America was in London this week.
Fewer of you will be aware, that he spoke from this very pulpit, on Tuesday evening.
Not only President Trump, but also Prime Minister, Boris Johnson
and heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, they were all followed by Billy Connolly.
True? Or fake pews….?

The explanation? Rory Bremner, comedian-impressionist;
delivering a reading at one of the charity Christmas happenings
that regularly take place here each December.
He started his recitation by apologising that he had lost his voice
so, was going to borrow a few others –
a president, a prime minister, a Prince etc. And, so he did.

We are in a season of competing voices.
Party political leaders, commentators and pundits have all been having their say.
Perhaps you have been involved –
knocking on doors, or opening doors to candidate hopefuls.
Thursday, St Columba’s becomes a polling station for the General Election.

Into the election mix have come other, less accustomed voices –
those of religious leaders.
The Chief Rabbi, highly critical of the failure to root out antisemitism
in the Labour Party;
the Conservative Party criticised for islamophobia.
A day after those particular headlines, a visitor to St Columba’s
told me at some length,
that in her youth, she had read all the major books of religion –
Torah, Bible and Koran –
and had concluded that because they were basically all the same,
they had nothing to say to the world of politics.
“The Church should keep its ecclesiastical snout out of the political trough!”

So, as we near an election date,
with raised voices, competing for our attention,
which voice will we listen for,
and where will we lend our own voice?

“A voice cries; in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

From that wilderness edge,
echo of the children of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land,
wild John broadcasts his truth:
I am the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words.
I am that voice crying in the wilderness, warning you, preparing you -
God is about to show us a new thing.
I am not that One – but I am witness to the One.

The One who comes after me is more powerful than me –
How much more?
“I am not fit to untie his sandal.”
The job of the lowliest – that is the comparison.
So, get ready; make yourselves clean by the waters of baptism.
Repent – not so much looking back,
as looking forward, living better.
Judged – not so much condemned, as seen truly –
as we are, and as we might be.

The crowds amass. Including the religious professionals:
“many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism.”
“You bunch of poisonous snakes!
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Don’t think that words alone, will be enough.
You may be the inheritors of religious tradition
but that confers no special privilege.
“Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;”'
The Almighty could raise up these stones to fill the gap and raise up children to Abraham.”

Abraham as our ancestor, is the phrase
that has had a recurring resonance this week.
On Tuesday evening, at the same carol concert that Rory Bremner gave us President Trump,
the news broadcaster, Mishal Husain
read two short passages about Mary, mother of Jesus.
One familiar, from St Luke; the other less so – from the Koran.
She introduced the reading by explaining
that Mary is the only named woman, in the Koran.
Offered, in the week of the London Bridge attack, as a sign of something shared.

Two days later I accompanied a primary school trip to a synagogue near Marble Arch.
It was energising to see the excitement of the children
exploring the space and objects of that place of prayer,
while the boys tried not to let their prayer caps fall from their heads.
It was sad to hear from the rabbi, the real fear of reviving antisemitism
in places across Europe, including his British homeland.
Just as it is sorrowful to know that there is persecution of minority faith communities – Christians included – throughout the world.

In honesty, I am not sure exactly how or where, we respond to those “big” things.
But part of the response, is to choose the voices we listen to,
and to choose the stories we tell;
clamouring voices of antipathy and destruction,?
Or share the quieter, fragile voices of hope and beauty?

Timothy Radcliffe, is a Dominican monk – former head of that Roman Catholic Order.
He has travelled extensively to some of the world’s most broken places – Rwanda, Iraq, Syria. He is no stranger to the worst that humankind can inflict on each other.

In his recent book, Alive in God, he describes a visit to Baghdad.
A restaurant, where the décor includes
an image an image of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples
and a light burns before an icon of the Virgin and her child.

Radcliffe also describes a visit to Syria in 2015.
Staying at a monastery in the village of Qara, halfway between Damascus and Homs.
A few years previously it was captured by Daesh/ISIS.
The icons were defaced, the graves in the cemetery were dug up
and the bodies scattered all over the church to defile it.
When the village was recaptured,
the Christians had nowhere to celebrate Christmas.
It was the local Iman who said:
“Come and celebrate Christmas in the mosque.”

Radcliffe concludes of this and comparable incidents:
“The most beautiful response to the meaningless acts of violence
are apparently pointless acts of love.” T Radcliffe

Today the Church of Scotland marks Vocations Sunday –
asking each and all, to consider
how we might listen for and heed the call of God
in our lives and in the life of the Church.

“The place God calls you to
is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Frederick Buechner, Wishful thinking: A Theological

As we will pray: Lead us by your Spirit,
to see the shape of your plans in the gifts you have given us.

Which voice will we listen for, this Advent?
Where will we lend our voice, this Election Week and in all that follows?

Sermon 15th December 2019

SUN 15 Dec 2019, ADVENT III

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew11: 2

A Church of Scotland minister introduced this passage with the reminiscence:
Once when I was called to preach as sole nominee in a parish seeking to fill its vacancy,
it seemed appropriate to hear read – if somewhat, tongue-in-cheek:
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, prophet-envoy,
languishes in a despot’s prison cell;
his crime, to denounce Herod’s marriage (Matthew 14:3-4.)
One more prophet paying the price of speaking truth
to the guilty conscience of unchecked power.]

Now, in chains and in crisis,
he wonders whether he has staked his life on the wrong person.
The Messiah, was supposed to make the world new;
supposed to finish the costly work John started so boldly in the wilderness -
to wield the axe and bring the fire. 

Now, of all people, John is unsure;
He who leapt in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary, visited cousin Elizabeth.
He who knew Jesus to be the One
when the carpenter stepped through the reeds at Jordan’s edge:
“It is you who should baptise me.”

It had started so promisingly –
signs and wonders, healings and stirring words.
But it had panned out so unexpectedly – disappointingly?
John had the hollow cheekbones of his desert diet,
Jesus summoned up parties.
John reminded folk of their sins,
Jesus invited himself into their homes.
John readied the axe,
Jesus examined the tree, spying undetected or unlikely growth.
John warned “Save yourselves,”
Jesus reminded “It is God who does the saving.”

John wanted a tidal wave of a messiah…
what he got was a steady drip of mercy from a man called Jesus,
in whom plenty of people saw no messiah at all.
From The Seeds of Heaven pp12, Barbara Brown Taylor

John’s journey of faith travels from certitude to doubt, 
boldness to hesitation, knowing to unknowing. 
Is this spiritual failure? A lack of faith?
Or does it speak a word to our sometime circumstance?

I think of a letter received from a friend
facing the death of both parents in the same year
and a spouse’s serious illness:
Talking about the book of Job – the sense of abandonment:
“I never understood it before; now I am drawn to it.”
I think of a parent grieving for a child, telling me:
“I’m having difficulty hearing about a loving God right now.”
The jagged edges of real life.
“Are you the one…?”

Jesus response?
He does not offer quick or easy words to magic things away.
He does not condemn the despair or doubt.
Instead he holds it, and gently points to other glimpses and glints of life.
Go to John and tell him the stories of 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.

Tell John the stories – quiet as they are, scattered as they are –
show and share what they reveal.
If we were asked to do the same – what stories would we choose?

I would choose the Sunday lunch homeless guest who told me:
“Being treated with dignity by the lunch team ladies made all the difference –
and having proper cutlery to eat my meal with.”

I would tell of the young man who attends a Narcotics Anonymous Support group
who told me this week: “I’m Jewish, but I am volunteering this Christmas at Crisis.”
He added: “It’s good that a church is welcoming to groups like ours.”

I think of those who have already, or are planning to make Christmas visits,
to the lonely or ill – and who do so throughout the year

I think of two inspiring young women who in the past month
have led charitable enterprises that touch the lives of this place –
Alex GKExperience/Olivia & Restart

Further afield, I think of the friend who is much involved with prison ministry.
Recounting how our prison system admits up to 600 pregnant women a year.
Recounting how the chaplaincy team at HMP Bronzefield,
the largest female prison in Europe –
will ensure every inmate will receive a small gift this Christmas.
Echoed, by our own appeal for Sox and Boxers
gift giving for the guests of our Night Shelter.

Tell them what you see and hear.
In a few moments our young people will bring us the Christmas story.
They will invite us to sing: It’s a party, everybody. It’s a party for everyone!
Jesus the saviour has come to us,
What a wonderful thing.
He is Emmanuel, God with us,
He’s the reason we sing!

So, I finish with one more story – a gospel party:
Clive Stafford Smith, a public-school educated Englishman,
has for the last three decades worked as a lawyer,
representing prisoners on America’s death-row.
It is a relentless vocation; hard graft, occasional victory and crushing defeats.

Some years ago, interviewed on Desert Island Discs
Stafford Smith spoke of his annual birthday party.
He invites many friends, including former clients.
He always starts and ends the party with Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

One year, a death-row prisoner attended
having been found not guilty after twenty-six years of prison.
A six foot nine, African American.

Throughout the party Stafford Smith noticed that he kept himself to himself,
a little withdrawn – not unsurprisingly.
Then the DJ played a particular song – a hit from the early 80’s (a time before prison.)
Hot Chocolate’s, “You Sexy Thing” (I believe in miracles since you came along…)

As the tune took hold, the former prisoner hauled himself onto the dance floor
and losing himself in the music
treated the party-goers to a glorious, uninhibited exhibition
of the electric-slide and other deeply remembered,
long-undanced moves.

Tell John what you see and hear.
Good news to the poor, sight for the unseeing, the prisoner set free.
The ransomed of the Lord shall return, obtaining joy and gladness,
sorrow and sighing, shall flee away.
Tell John what you see and hear.
And yes, I am the One, no need to wait for another.”

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

St. Columba's
Pont Street
London SW1X 0BD
+44 (0)20-7584-2321

Getting here by tube

Knightsbridge Station

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

South Kensington Station

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

Sloane Square Station

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

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