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Sermons - August 2020

Sermon 2nd August 2020


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

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

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

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

Giving and receiving; receiving and giving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 9th August 2020

SUNDAY 09 AUGUST 2020, 11am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 16th August 2020

SUNDAY 30 AUGUST 2020 (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

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

Two texts:

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermons - July 2020

Sermon 5th July 2020

SUN 05 JULY 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 12th July 2020

SUN 12 JULY 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 19th July 2020

SUN 19 JULY 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 26th July 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kingdom of heaven is like….

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

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

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

Sermons - June 2020

Sermon 7th June 2020


When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
[Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.] Psalm 8:3-5

In the face of ocean depths or the vastness of space;
in the face of life’s trivialities or tragedies and the brevity of our days;
What are human beings that God is mindful of us?
God, why do you take a second look at us? (The Message)

In a week of images highlighting racial inequality –
the disproportionate impact of Corona Virus on BAME
(Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities,
to the unlawful killing of George Floyd, an African American
during a police arrest in Minneapolis –
it is not easy to own the Psalmist’s affirmation:
God, you have crowned us with glory and honour.

Where, like the Psalmist of old, might you find
both the handiwork of heaven, the moon and the stars,
yet something earthbound too?
Something glorious and honourable - humanity crowned.
Can I suggest, a desert island;
more specifically, this week’s Desert Island Discs.

I am sure you know the beautifully simple formula of the long-running radio show.
Guests are invited to choose and talk about their eight desert island discs,
along with one book and one luxury.
Over the decades: pens and paper, coffee, tea, photo albums, musical instruments, telescopes,
Theatre director Marianne Elliott requested a bath with three taps:
hot and cold water and wine!

This week, Desert Island Discs featured the music that has sustained
or come to be meaningful, to ordinary folk, during lockdown.
There was a wonderful range:
Village in Dorset, 1pm The hills are alive with the sound of music.
Followed by a request from fellow villagers, leading to daily, impromptu dancing.

Head teacher. Missing the buzz and chatter of the school day;
most of all the sound of the children singing –
His choice: Mary Poppins, Let’s go and fly a kite
“It reminds me of time when all together as a school community –
the passion, enthusiasm and optimism of the children.”

Not surprisingly, there was music from hospital.
The man who was given ten minutes to phone his family before he was placed on a ventilator,
recognising the likelihood that he might not live.
Bestowing the request to listen to folk singer’s, Sandy Denny,
Who knows where the time goes?
Later, the same man, paying tribute to the care he had received
and describing how medical staff applauded him
when later he was finally discharged.

Neurologist, on night shift. Overtaken by a piano piece by Greig, entitled, Homesickness.
“We are all homesick for the world where we saw each other face to face and we touched.
As a human species we need to touch; we are a tactile species.
… … …
For that key worker,
the music was a reminder that such a time will come again
and we shouldn’t despair.
(The music): “Unassuming, tiny, delicate but very insistent.
Like life, insisting on itself.
A window or a call from a world beyond Covid.
After that, love will be waiting.”

Time and time again, what comes through these musical choices
and their accompanying stories
is the desire for, and discovery of, connection.
And connection is at the heart of Trinity Sunday.
For connection is at the heart of God,
as we, albeit falteringly, describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I was given this week, the intriguing comment –
that if we take the Trinity seriously, we have to say:
“In the beginning was the Relationship”.
(“The Divine Dance: the Trinity and your transformation”, Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell)
Echo of John’s Gospel opening: In the beginning was the Word.
“In the beginning was the Relationship”.

God is relationship, intimacy, connection, and communion.
Think baptism of Jesus – the interplay of things.
When God the Son is baptized,
God the Spirit descends in the form of a dove,
and God the Father parts the heavens to speak delight and affirmation.

If Three is the deepest nature of the One;
if relating and relationship is at the heart of God,
where does that leave us, as disciples/students of the Trinity?
And before we dismiss it all as something dreamt up
in an obscure or irrelevant theological think tank –
remember, the Trinity it was forged and articulated by Christians in the ordeal of experience;
facing questions, challenges and persecution.
Trying to make sense of the life they had chosen (or been chosen by.)
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” I Corinthians 13:13
is what got them through the furnace of the day and the night terror.

Connection and faith; faith in connection.

As Desert Island Discs reaffirmed the importance of music,
and this week’s headlines played out,
I was reminded this week of an earlier documentary
about music and the Civil Rights movement. (Soul Music)
“Music played a major role in the Civil rights movement.
Without music, the Civil Rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”
Music created a sense of solidarity; it unified people, it inspired us to sit in.
We sang, even in gaol.
“When in doubt pray and sing.”

One eye witness described a Civil Rights gathering (1963, Danville, Alabama)
being surrounded by police, ready to break up the meeting in violent fashion.
Fearful, the protestors began to sing Amazing Grace
and marched through, the parting police ranks.
The law enforcers described as uncomfortable,
because that was song sung in white churches.
We made it back to church that night.

Desert Island Discs began with the description of hospital staff discovering
that at the end of routine staff meetings, with all their attendant pressures,
singing together, gave them purpose and energy – returning to the wards with a smile.
Most particularly, they discovered that singing Amazing Grace stunned them.
“I can’t really explain what happened but we sang it absolutely beautifully;
people really connected with that song. Did we just do that?
… … …
Song about healing: Ultimately, it is a song transformation,
striving to do the right/best thing.”

This week I received a message from a college friend in Chicago
who for many years worked with excluded school children in that city:
“What a hard time - but I am hopeful that all of this unrest
will finally light the fire of change.”

Dr Martin Luther King, accepting the Nobel Peace prize in 1964:
“I refuse to accept despair as a final response to the ambiguities of history;
I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life,
unable to influence the unfolding events that surround him.”

A window or a call from a world beyond present sorrow and present anger,
where love will be waiting
and all lives matter, crowned and honoured.
For in the beginning, and in the end –
relationship –
the heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon 14th June 2020


“These are the names of the twelve apostles:
first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew;
James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;
Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector;
James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;
Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.” Matthew 10:2-4

A few blocks from St Columba’s, at the top end of Exhibition Road,
close to the famous Albert Hall and Albert Memorial is a statue.
From the combined height of pedestal and horse,
a Victorian military figure, commands the junction ahead of him.
Imposing, rather fine, if that’s your taste.

Every time we pass it, I turn to my eight-year-old daughter and ask:
“Have I told you about this statue?”
The combination of groan and rolling eyes, suggest she may have heard it before.
“Well”, I offer enthusiastically. “His name is General Napier.
He was a general and he won a war in a part of India called Sindh.
Following victory, he sent a one-word message – in Latin –
the word, Peccavi – which means, “I have sinned.”
[Sindh, the province and sinned the verb]
This is definitely my only Latin pun anecdote, so I feel it merits some attention.
Audience response? “Can I have an ice cream now?”
Perhaps my daughter is right – anecdotes from an era of Latin grammar
and imperial conquest are perhaps best left behind?

Statues of empire and their accompanying stories
have been headline making, recently.
But, before examining that, maybe pause a moment
and consider a statue from the pages of poetry - Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said -“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies,
[The now toppled head of the statue still bears the, sneer of cold command,]
… … …
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

King of Kings, colossal Wreck – the lone and level sands stretch far away:
It is a warning to the pride of all who set themselves above others –
A reminder that all empires, crowns, corporations and celebrities come and go.
Statues too. Psalmist declares: “Put not your trust in princes…
Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help,
whose hope is in the Lord his God.” Psalm 146:3,5

“Statue smashing has a long and complicated history – and it is always contentious.”
(Revd Giles Fraser, BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day)
The toppling of the C19th Bristol slave trader, Edward Coston’s statue
and its unceremonious dumping into the harbour,
on the back of George Floyd’s brutal killing in Minnesota,
continues to provoke and polarise opinion.
Outrage and fear at civil unrest, apparently unchecked by law enforcement;
or, the symbolic, exhilarating and righteous righting, of an old evil.

Would it have been more powerful if those in authority had taken it down,
or at least done enough to make it clear how Coston,
known as a generous philanthropist, made his money,
by the humiliation and cruelty of the slave trade.

I am told the great boom in British statuary was 1830-1914, the era of empire.
Before mass photography, statues were the only visual image available.
So many of the statues of our civic spaces
were deliberate expressions of patriotism and power.
Nowadays, we know too much about most of our leading figures
to give them such unchecked reverence.
A more transitory home in Madame Tussaud’s perhaps would suffice.
Commenting on the Coston statue –
the juxtaposition of philanthropist and slave trader –
someone said to me this week: “None of us really merits a statue,
because none of us is perfect. Let the one without sin cast the first stone….”

Statue smashing of course has biblical pedigree.
One of the Old Testament’s most vivid tales
comes during the wanderings in the wilderness, of the children of Israel,
escaping the slavery of Egypt.
Moses goes up the mountain, to meet with God.
A cloud descends upon the high places;
even Moses is not permitted to see God face to face.
Meanwhile, in camp, patience runs out;
the people crave a more visible, more predictable God.
The priests gather the jewellery of everyone
and melt the gold to form a statue – a golden calf.
Upon return, Moses is incandescent.
He forces them to grind down the idol, immerse the powder in water
and makes them drink it.
As a first-time hearer of this tale said this week: “Hardcore.”

Like the abandoned statue of Ozymandias,
the creation and destruction of the golden calf, is a warning.
It is about the danger of idol worship – particularly for people of faith.
As arguments rage - what are our sacred cows?
Do they merit unquestioned status?
Are they unlocking, or roadblocking, the work of the Spirit, here and now?
Do the people, the histories, the ideas, the people we celebrate,
the ones we elevate, to pedestals real or imagined,
do they align, with what we understand to be God’s priorities?
From Psalm 146 that warned about placing trust in princes, it continues:

“Happy, those whose help and hope is in the Lord their God:
who executes justice for the oppressed; gives food to the hungry.
sets the prisoners free; opens the eyes of the blind.
lifts up those who are bowed down;
watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow,
who loves the righteous, and keeps faith forever.”

Today’s gospel gave a roll call of names – twelve disciples.
In time, we have certainly made statues or stained glass of some of them.
We also know enough about them to understand they were completely human,
a mixed bunch at that; including deserters, Zealots and betrayers;
capable of grandeur and prone to failure.
Yet they are called and commissioned to serve in the world.

Listed names remind us God works through flesh and blood people, not grand ideas.
Will work, through us;
if we have the humility and faith to follow.
Starting honestly with, peccavi – I have sinned –
but discovering joyfully, that is a beginning word, not a last word.
Because God’s mercy, and Jesus’ word of forgiveness
adds/renews our names to that disciple list; commissions us to play our part:
For freely we have received; freely we must give.

Peccavi - two footnotes to the man on the horse statue:
It seems unlikely General Napier ever sent the message.
The ‘peccavi’ story appeared in Punch magazine in 1844 and became accepted as fact.
It’s thought that the author of the joke was Catherine Winkworth, a teenager.
Winkworth (1827–1878) went on to become a translator and campaigner for women’s rights.

And the statue that I regularly show Olivia near the Albert Hall?
It is indeed a man called Napier? It’s just not the right Napier.
The East India Company soldier of Peccavi fame actually, resides in Trafalgar Square.

Sermon 21st June 2020


Do not be afraid Hagar; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.
Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand,
for I will make a great nation of him.”
Genesis 2117-18

In 2014, at the Academy Awards ceremony,
the Oscar for best documentary feature film went to: 20 Feet From Stardom.
The movie honoured the unknown musicians who sang backup vocals
for Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin,
the Rolling Stones, U2, and more.
Many of these backup singers were black women who leart to sing in church.
Darlene Love, daughter of a pastor, (then aged 72,)
featured prominently in 20 Feet From Stardom
and accepted the Oscar on behalf of the film.
In her acceptance speech to Hollywood's glitterati she declared:
“Lord God, I praise you, and I am so happy to be here
representing the ladies of Twenty Feet From Stardom.”
She then burst into a full-throated rendition of the gospel hymn:
“I sing because I'm happy, / I sing because I'm free, /
His eye is on the sparrow, / And I know he watches me.”
She received a standing ovation. (It’s all there on Youtube.)

Not long before his death, Jesus asked:
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?
Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father."
So, do not be afraid:
“Even the very hairs of your head are numbered by God.”
Do not be afraid:
“You are worth more than many sparrows.”
Three times: Do not be afraid:
God sees; God hears: God knows us infinitely and intimately;

“God’s eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me."
Gospel promise; also, First Testament tale.
The saga of Hagar. And it is a saga:
A tale of complicated, compromised lives
and the hurts they inflict upon each other.
It is also a story about how and where these flawed people experience God,
In moments of dignity and defeat, in moments of despair and deliverance.

Abram, called in old age to be a wanderer for God.
Along with Sarah his wife; bearers of the Divine promise:
“I will make of you a great nation – descendants, as many as the stars of the desert night.
To their credit, when the Almighty said, “Go” – they went.
On their travels, somewhere along the line, Hager joined the travelling caravan.
Hagar. Egyptian by birth, an African sister, a slave.

The years and the miles added up –
the promised progeny showed no sign of showing up.
Sarah decides the divine plan needs a little help.
The servant girl will bear Abraham a child.
Hagar acquiesces – was there a choice?
As a slave her fertility was not her own.
Yet there were advantages.
Few in the camp would cross her now, if she was the mother of Abraham’s little one.

But the best laid plans …
“When Hagar saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt upon her mistress.”
Sarah, infuriated, confronts Abraham:
“May the wrong done to me, be on you! I gave this slave girl to your embrace, now this.
May the Lord judge between you and me!”

Abraham’s response? A battle, the old hero will not fight:
“The girl is yours, do as you please.”
The mistress dealt harshly with the girl
and like an unhappy adolescent, she runs, from the place others call home.

The desert was no place for a pregnant runaway
When she is found – by God’s angel – she is asked:
“Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?”
Her tale of woe pours out.
“Go back. Retake your place. Your offspring will greatly multiply.
And this child, that stirs within you.
Call him “Ishmael” which means God Hears,
because God has given heed to your afflictions.

In turn, Hagar gives God a name:
“The Living One who sees me.”
In a Hebrew, a play on words - Hagar exclaims, “I have seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:1–6). Hagar returns.

Fourteen biblical years later; the upstairs-downstairs drama
heads for a second defining moment. (Read this morning.)
“The Lord dealt with Sarah, as the Lord had promised.”
Her crazy dream comes true.
Isaac, child of Sarah and Abraham; fruit of waiting; a boy called “Laughter.”

“Chuckles,”/Isaac grows and is weaned;
on the day of his weaning, Abraham declares a feast.
But there’s trouble; neither the first, nor the last family gathering, to end in tears.

Who knows what ghosts still haunted Sarah –
Hagar’s continued youth, her contempt, unforgotten;
the unspoken threat from that wild colt, Ishmael?
For the miraculous, now matriarch, there could be no chances
where her child was concerned;
she would not be robbed of the dream.
“Abraham, cast her out; the woman and the boy.
Ishmael must not inherit. He and Isaac are not equal.”

A second time, Abraham faces losing his own flesh and blood.
Then the Holy One:
“Do not fear. Do as Sarah commands. Isaac is the one.
Ishmael too will beget, will become a nation.”
Both are promises.

Just before dawn, the camp still sleeping,
the wine cups scattered round the last embers, a dog’s early bark,
Abraham went to Hagar. There was nothing to say.
The water skin, the wrapped loaf – inadequate, farewell gifts.
Did Hagar always know this day would come?

Perhaps defiantly – no backward glance.
Ishmael, barely awake, stumbling after her,
confused, searching his father’s face for explanation.
Abraham, old and hollowed out.
Sarah, watching it all, before turning back to her sleeping Isaac.

Once again, the mercilessness of the desert;
not long before water skin and bread are gone.
She was stronger than the child –
yet even she could not face the final agonies.
Under a meagre shelter she lays the boy –
withdraws a bow shot’s distance (some 300 feet.)
The under the pitiless sky, like a tidal wave, a great howl of anguish:
“Hagar lifted up her voice and wept.”

“What troubles you?” another angel of the desert.
It sounds crass or callous, unless you hear it:
“Hagar, why do you fear, knowing what you know?
Remember the child’s name – Ishmael – God hears.
Remember the name you gave God – God sees.
Take the boy’s hand. Hold him fast. He is still to be a great nation.”

God speaks to Hagar’s heart; she looks and her world is changed.
She re-crosses No Man’s Land, the bow shot’s distance,
and in the embracing of the child’s suffering
the parent discovers life-giving water near at hand; water to save his life; and hers.

That is the saga of our ancestress Hagar;
a wild, sometimes shabby affair of pride and insecurity, jealousy and weakness.
It is about how the two boys, Isaac and Ishmael survive all this.
There are two reasons to tell the tale.
We tell the story, not because of the seediness of the humanity,
but the steadfastness of the Divinity;
The God who sees; the God who hears;
and despite what we do to ourselves and each other,
continues to care;
counting both the stars of heaven and the hairs of our head.

We tell the tale also to ask:
What is the distress God hears now – which voices of anger or lament?
Which weeping does God weep over?
What promises is God keeping? What eyes is God opening?

It is difficult to look beyond the continuing Black Lives Matter protests –
raising awareness about continuing racial injustice at several levels in our common life.
As a church friend admitted this week:
“I am not as reasonable as I thought I was.”

Two weeks ago, John Sentamu, retired as Archbishop of York.
Born near Kampala in Uganda, he was a lawyer and judge
and suffered under the regime of Idi Amin.
Defying an order to deliver a not guilty verdict he was arrested and badly beaten in prison.
He fled to the UK in 1974.

His appointment to York for the first time in history, the Church of England would have a black archbishop. Sentamu himself played that down:
“First I am a Christian, second I am a man, third I am black”.
It is also true that while living in London,
he was stopped and searched by the police eight times.
There were other incidents too:
“There was a lady who didn’t want me to take her husband’s funeral because I was black.
I took one funeral and at the end a man said to me,
‘Why did my father deserve to be buried by a black monkey?.’
We also received letters with excrement in them.”

The gospel reading affirms, yes, the hairs on our head are all counted,
and yes, we are worth more to God than many sparrows.
But it also spells out, the life of faith is arduous and risky.
It does not guarantee health, wealth, prosperity or safety.

When Jesus declared: “Not peace but a sword”
It is not his desire to stir up conflict, for conflict’s sake.
But, reminder that the peace Jesus offers us
is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation.
His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace.

Jesus will disrupt: not because Jesus wants us to suffer,
but because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for.
(See Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus Jun 2020)

To bring about change you must not be afraid to take the first step. Rosa Parks

Sermon 28th June 2020

SUN 28 JUNE 2020

“Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord:
You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!”
(And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah,)
“Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you,
and you made this people trust in a lie.” Jeremiah 28:13, 15

Once upon a time, (and this is a true story,) there was a medical student.
Along with her peers, she was required to study for an important exam.
Though it was a major hurdle, it was not a final exam,
so the class were due back in the lecture halls, the very next day.

The morning after the exam, less than half the class attended.
The Professor – a man of stern reputation – waited for five minutes.
The announced: “If the class can’t be bothered to turn up, then I can’t be bothered to teach!”
And strode from the hall; the students were stunned.
The medical student asked: “Is it just me, or was that unfair?
We came to class – why won’t he teach us?”

That afternoon, she wrote a letter to the Professor.

  1. She explained the circumstances – yesterday they all had a big exam.
    Perhaps the Professor was unaware of that?
  2. Not teaching the lesson was not fair, on those who did attend.

The next day the student received a note, an immediate summons to the Professor’s Office. She went, understandably nervous. How irate was the Professor going to be?
When she entered his office; the Professor was holding the note (looking pretty ferocious.)
“Did you write this note?” ….Yes.
“Is this what you believe?”....Yes.
“Hmmm. Well, you were right; I was unfair.
What do you want me to do about it?”
“Well, you could apologise to the students who were at the lecture
and you could give the lecture to all of us.”
The professor considered:
“I’ll give the lecture; but I will only apologise to you.
You were the only one brave enough to write a letter.”

Speaking truth to power.
Calling someone out, an individual or an institution –
a child in The Emperor’s New Clothes;
Some of the qualities of a biblical prophet.
(Prophet meaning, spokesperson, not fortune-teller.)

Throughout Scripture, with a total lack of tact,
The prophets roar against phoniness and corruption
wherever they find them.
The prophet Nathan told King David to his face
that he was a crook and an adulterer (2 Samuel 12:1-15).
John the Baptist, much the same.
Amos declared to the priests that God’s verdict on their religion:
“I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Justice is what I want, not photo opportunities;
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:21-24).

Jeremiah himself showed a clay pot to a crowd of Judeans
and told them it represented Judah.
Then he smashed it to smithereens and told them
that this was a mild version of what God had in mind to do to them (Jeremiah 19).

The American Presbyterian minister and writer, Frederick Buechner observed wryly:
“There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper
more than once.”
[Hearing uncomfortable truths is neither easy to deliver, nor easy to receive.]

In our Old Testament reading this week, (Jeremiah 28),
There is a kind of prophet throw-down.
Two prophets declaring contrary messages to the people.
The year is 594 B.C.E.
The Babylonians have conquered Jerusalem, captured many of its leaders,
and carried them into exile.
The small band of people who remain in the wrecked city
long for the Babylonian oppression to end, a return to normal life.
They crave a word of deliverance from God.

Prophet 1, Hananiah announces deliverance is on its way.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.
3Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house,
which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.
4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah,
and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord,
for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

Prophet 2, Jeremiah: “Amen! May the Lord do so;
may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied,
and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord,
and all the exiles.
7But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing
and in the hearing of all the people.
8The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times
prophesied war, famine, and pestilence
against many countries and great kingdoms.

[They have dared to tell the hard and holy truths;
about God’s anger and grief at a people’s unfaithfulness;
about the need for repentance and return.
hard and holy truths about the high cost of justice, about sacrifice and endurance.]

9As for the prophet who prophesies peace,
when the word of that prophet comes true,
then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Jeremiah had taken to wearing a wooden yoke around his neck,
a walking reminder of their servitude to the Babylonians.
Hananiah, now, just as theatrically as Jeremiah has worn the yoke,
takes it from Jeremiah’s neck and dashes it to pieces.
Announcement people!
“Thus says the Lord: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.”
It is exactly the message the people wish to hear.
A message of nationalist hope, divine favour, and victory assured.

At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way.
12Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:
13Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord:
You have broken wooden bars, only to forge iron bars in place of them!
14For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him;
I have even given him the wild animals.

The Babylonian exile will not end quickly, Jeremiah declares.
God’s people will have to wait and pray and surrender and repent.
Jeremiah can't/won’t offer a feel good, false promise of peace.
He can only offer them the truth.
Right now, the Chosen people are naked,
because for too long they had clothed themselves
with the rich robes of injustice.

The Gospel fragment has Jesus spelling out to his disciples
that if they follow him, they will encounter
both great welcome and fierce hostility.

To receive or reject a prophet;
to speak out or stay silent;
these are choices of today, not just dusty Old Testament temples.
Who are our prophets of our day and age – within or without the Church?
Who will ask the awkward question,
make the uncomfortable challenge,
sometimes at personal cost, but for a greater good?
How will we hear and react when the challenge is made to us –
maybe giving up some of the privilege or advantage
we have grown accustomed to?

Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
Jesus hands his own reputation to his disciples.
How the world will view Christ
will come from how the world views us.

Professor, that was unfair.
The Emperor is naked!
You have broken wooden bars, only to replace them with iron!
The vocation of truth-telling:
We are not at liberty to soften the Gospel,
with its demands for justice,
for the sake of our own likeability.

We mirror Jesus, whether we plan to or not:
What a risk; what a responsibility; what a reward.

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. 

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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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