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Sermons - March 2020

Sermon 1st March 2020, Lent I


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 8th March 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I end with this.

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

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

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

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

Sermon 15th March 2020, Lent III


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 22nd March 2020, Lent IV, Mothering Sunday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 29th March 2020, Lent V

SUN 29 MAR 2020, LENT V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons - February 2020

Sermon 2nd February 2020

SUN 02 FEB 2020

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

Where is blessing to be found?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 9th February 2020

SUN 09 FEB 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 16th February 2020

6th Sunday after Epiphany
16th February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Sermons - January 2020

Sermon 5th January 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 12th January 2020

12 JAN 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 26th January 2020

Sun 26 Jan 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons - Decemer 2019

Sermon 8th December 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon 15th December 2019

SUN 15 Dec 2019, ADVENT III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus response?
He does not offer quick or easy words to magic things away.
He does not condemn the despair or doubt.
Instead he holds it, and gently points to other glimpses and glints of life.
Go to John and tell him the stories of what you hear and see:
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermons - November 2019

Sermon 3rd November 2019

SUN 03 NOV 2019,11am

Then Jesus said to Zacchaeus,
Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Luke 19:9-10

A baptismal day (today, Maggie’s) is surely a day,
to be joyful and to be prayerful.
Most special of course for immediate family –
but a reminder too of our own baptisms,
whether recent or many decades ago.
Sign of welcome and promise,
renewed each time we play out the little drama
of water and naming, presenting and blessing.

Many baptismal days are also a moment to draw family and friends together
and my guess is that it is a day
both to reflect a little on family trees – where we come from
and to wonder what this new life will become.

Edwina Gateley, is a contemporary poet.
Born in Lancaster, trained as a teacher, but then moving to America.
where she studied theology and trained as an HIV counsellor.
In the early 1980’s, Gateley first lived for nine months in a hermitage in Illinois,
then spent a year on the streets of Chicago;
walking with the homeless and women involved in prostitution.
From these two experiences -solitude and the streets –
she founded a house of hospitality for women involved in prostitution.

In a poem entitled: Called to Become
[There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013)] 

It does not matter
How short or tall
Or thick-set or slow
You may be.

It does not matter
Whether you feel loved and admired
Or unloved and alone

For the Lord delights in you.
Unique and loved you stand.
Beautiful or stunted in your growth
But never without hope and life.

The Lord delights in you – echo of what we declared to Maggie:
The Lord delights in you – echo of what Jesus declared to Zacchaeus:
You too, are a son of Abraham.”
Zacchaeus – short of stature; short of friends.
The tax gatherer - extorting revenue for Rome’s occupying oppressors –
a Quisling, ritually unclean,
despised – economically, politically and religiously. 

As Jesus passes through Jericho,
famously, the crowd cold shoulders Zacchaeus.
So, he does something utterly undignified for a man of his station.
He runs ahead of the crowd, and climbs up into a tree,
then waits for Jesus to pass by.

Jesus draws near. Looks up.
And in the seeing and the being seen – something happens.
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community
which cares for those severely disabled said:
The way you look at someone can change their life.” 

Ludicrous and despised -
Jesus sees beneath and beyond the outer shell,
however shabby it may be.
Rejected or reviled,
Jesus still sees the face of a child of God. 

For Zacchaeus, in the seeing and the being seen,
he discovers/rediscovers his own dignity;
the moment reawakens him to the meaning of his name:
Zacchaeus – which means, “pure.”
While the crowd may snort with incredulity,
the little man laughs with a dawning joy:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

The rest happens in a hurry.
Jesus calls him by his name and he quickly comes down.
There is no sermon on repentance;
but by choosing to keep company with him,
and accept the consequences of doing so –
Jesus gives Zacchaeus the experience God’s love – first hand.
Zacchaeus responds exuberantly.
Tragically, predictably, not everyone sees this as cause for celebration.
Like the Pharisee praying in the Temple,
like the elder brother refusing to join the prodigal’s return party
the crowd grumbles.
He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Heading for a showdown referendum in Jerusalem,
this is no way to run an election campaign.
What kind of Messiah does social media, with someone like that?

It is of course, utterly characteristic;
how often Jesus picks out, celebrates, unlikely companions;
the faith of a Roman soldier, a "good" Samaritan;
warnings of woe to the religious self-righteous
or those who disregard the poor.
Jesus consistently, calling out the apparently good
and calling in the apparently bad.
Bystanders demonise Zacchaeus;
Jesus declares him, a son of Abraham.

Today salvation has come to this house:
For the Lord delights in you.
Unique and loved you stand.
Beautiful or stunted in your growth
But never without hope and life.

Ask Zacchaeus;
show Maggie;
remember - all of us.

Sermon 17th November 2019

SUN 17 NOV 2019

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Luke 21:17-19

Walking away from St Columba’s this week to attend a meeting elsewhere,
I was half way down Pont Street, when I met a fellow, school-gate Dad,
walking towards church.
“It really is my favourite London Church.”
In the face of such enthusiasm, it seemed appropriate to turn around and look,
pausing to take in one of the views that best shows the architect’s vision.
Sometimes it takes the unexpected,
to remind us of the beauty/gift of a thing.
Sometimes, a little distance - real or metaphorical - is required,
to refresh our sight.

This week too, from a funeral tribute: “She loved Canterbury Cathedral.”
Perhaps in your mind’s eye you can think of buildings –
ecclesiastical or other - that have captured or entranced you.
With architect’s vision, artisan’s skill - buildings have the ability –
to create space, light, form and contrast –
that deeply connect us to certain places.
(For me: Durham Cathedral, a Franciscan chapel in a converted house in Northumberland,
a cave-chapel in a hillside, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.)
We all have loyalties to certain bricks and mortar.

To which, Jesus the prophet, speaks uncomfortable words:
“The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another;
all will be thrown down.”
Words addressed to disciples who have been gawping
at the magnificence of the Jerusalem Temple –
truly a construction of shock and awe.
The length of several city blocks; reputedly so covered in gold
that the unsuspecting pilgrim would be blinded by its reflection.
Magnificent symbol of religious permanence and confidence;
the very dwelling place of God.

Yet, despite standing alongside, looking at the same temple,
Jesus and his disciples do not see the same thing.
“It won’t last.”
Ruination may be painful, that is OK,
because bricks and mortar are not the point.
Look beyond the grandeur.
God will not be incarcerated or domesticated
by any construction, however fine.

[“God exceeds every edifice, every institution,
every mission statement, every strategic plan,
and every symbol human beings create in his name.”
(Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, Nov 19)]
Then Jesus teaches what to do and how to live,
when the walls come tumbling down.
“Do not be terrified, when the earth shakes, and nations make war,
when imposters preach gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred.   
Don’t give in to despair.  Don’t capitalize on chaos.  
Don’t neglect to bear witness. 

Expect things to get hard.  
Endure even when they do.  
Know that God is near, no matter what the world looks or feels like.  
Speak the truth, trusting that God’s Spirit is alive and present
in our acts of bearing witness.  
Be faithful until the end, because God is still - always and everywhere –
a God of love.

In this troubling context, it’s easy to despair.  
And yet:

Last Sunday our Night Shelter restarted, serving guests a meal
and a roof over the head for the night.
Listening to one of the GlassDoor staff:
“The need is undiminished, but there are so many good stories –
most people find a way to a better situation.
Most of them just need a little hand up.”

Or an Eastern European gentleman who returned to St Columba’s on Friday.
Over the last three years his visits have met some very low ebbs.
Living out of a broken-down car –
a move to Holland to search for work – London again.
But this week, returning to show certificates passed for train track laying.
Now, the prospect of work; the prospect of wife and child
being able to join him after years of separation.

Or the gentleman who welcomed me at the door,
here for his AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting:
a member of another congregation, but so proud to tell me –
“I have two communities – this one (AA) and my church.
My vicar tells me – if you have been saved – don’t be quiet about it!”

Later today, we will hear an update from the Young Lewisham Project (YLP) –
Which you supported very generously, via the Lent Appeal –
giving people skills, a sense of hope and self-worth. (Dave Newman)

All of these are ongoing stories; small, mostly unseen;
none of them quick fixes.
They comprise despair and hope, success and set back;
They are about enduring; the courage to say: Tomorrow I go again.
Critically, and often, the tale tells of companions –
those who understand a little of what seems overwhelming,
and who choose to abide, walking awhile, alongside.

This week I was introduced to the words and work of Fr Greg Boyle –
an American Roman Catholic priest who has worked with gang members in Los Angeles
for the past thirty years.

Via the organisation he founded, Homeboy Industries,
Fr Boyle sets about freeing people from the clutches of the gangs
by offering job training, counselling and other services;
tattoo removal, legal advice, mental health support and education programmes.
It runs a bakery and cafe, and trains people to become qualified solar panel installers.

Boyle recognises Homeboy Industries is not vastly different
from other gang intervention and rehabilitation programmes found elsewhere.
Concrete help, employment and education all play important parts:
But: “Our secret sauce is the fostering of a community of tenderness and kinship.
The only delivery system of hope that I know of is a human being –
a loving, caring adult who shows up and pays attention.”

Our long haul may be far removed from helping gang members go straight.
But in turbulent times, we are called to be steady, faithful, and loving;
never wearying, in doing what is right.
For by our endurance, souls are gained.

Sermon 24th November 2019

SUN 24 NOV 2019

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Luke 23:36, 42, 43

How often does it take a visitor to refresh our seeing,
awaken us to things that have become so familiar,
wonders that we have grown so accustomed to,
that they are all but invisible?
In a city, a home or a church?

On Friday afternoon, each bearing heavy rucksacks, our friends from the GKExperience, were for a while sandwiched like sardines on the London Underground.
Excited, but also perhaps a little bit bewildered – certainly for those here for the first time.
As the Victoria line (named after a Queen) approached Green Park – the tannoy announced – “Alight here for Buckingham Palace.”
Regular commuters didn’t blink.
Visitors’ eyes lit up.

Another famous London landmark – nearby, Harrods:
There is a funny story from the early C20th:
A famous, but scatter-brained composer, was shopping in the Harrods food hall.
By chance, he bumped into a lady who he vaguely remembered,
but could not quite place.
In one of those awkward conversations, the composer struggled
with a conversational gambit that would unlock the lady’s identity;
she seemed in no hurry to help.
Eventually in desperation the composer asked: “And how is your husband?”
“Still King” she replied.

Palaces and sovereigns - why this brush with royalty – topical as they sometimes are?
Today is the last Sunday of the Church year – our calendar comes full circle:
Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity and beyond;
annual signposts along the pilgrim way.
Next week we set sail again – the first Sunday of Advent.
But first, today, reaching harbour,
we report our findings about our year-long voyage;
the verdict, once all the evidence has been gathered.
And on this “last Sunday” we bestow the title – Christ the King.

Kingship runs through the New Testament.
Later believers would worship Jesus not only as king of the Jews,
but also, as “the king of kings” (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 19:16),
the “king of the ages” (Revelation 19:3),
and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5).
To quote Elvis Presley:
“There’s only one king, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So, on this triumphant sounding Sunday,
we might expect the power and the glory,
Isaiah’s words: “A son will be given to us,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder.”
Or a big reveal, gospel special –
Jesus emerging from the waters of baptism or transfigured on a mountain top.

What we get, is crucifixion:
A stripped and suffocating man;
a crowd spitting venom at his tortured body;
friends, watching on helplessly from a distance.

And in the heart of this horror, amid the vile words,
amid the fear that drives the violence, and destroys humanity;
It is there, at the very moment when everything seems smashed,
light snuffed out;
it is there our ancestors in the faith – first disciples, later gospel writers –
there at the place of the skull –
they cam eto believe this was truly the place of coronation.

Perhaps the key is in the threefold taunt of today’s gospel:
From the (religious) leaders of the day, then the soldiers,
finally one of the thieves hanging next to him:
“He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

Behind all the particular mockeries devised for Jesus –
a crown of thorns, the elegant robes of rulership,
the false bowings and scrapings, followed by blows and laughter –
behind or beneath, the taunting challenge:
If…if you are God’s chosen one, let us see your power; save yourself.”

Echo of another wilderness, another temptation:
“If you are the Son of God – turn stones to bread, cast yourself from the Temple tower,
for the kingdoms of the world, worship me…”
He said no then, he says no now.
What kind of king does that?

It is a King who makes a choice.
Having set his face towards Jerusalem the message at the core of his being –
the love of God for a broken world.
He will not abandon those he came to seek – even if he must pay with his life.

In the Netflix series, The Crown, a current episode centres around a domestic disaster in 1964 – when a coal heap, perched above the Welsh mining town of Aberfan, slipped;
the resultant landslide killing 145 villagers, 116 of them children.
The narrative of the episode, is about how the Establishment reacts.
In the face of unimaginable tragedy – what is there to do?
The TV version, is that initially protocol demands that the Queen does not go.
Only later, does she visit the disaster scene.
The footnote to the episode, is that to this day,
it is apparently the Queen’s greatest regret, that she did not go sooner.

A group of clergy were once advised by an RUC policeman,
talking about visiting bereaved families. from the Troubles of Northern Ireland:
“People don’t care how much you know,
until they know how much you care.”
Archbishop Eames: “Long after families have remembered what you said,
or forgotten what you said – they will remember that you came.”

Remember: Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
“I will. I do.” Jesus replies.
“Do this in remembrance of me” the words will hear at communion.
Great reminder, of the King who chose so strange a way of kingship.
The King who chose to come,
once for all;
and comes again, a thousand times
in disguises, sometimes recognised, sometimes not.

As our communion prayer will conclude:
“In giving all,
you have not withheld from us your own dear Son,
your very self;
how can we withhold anything from you
our Lord and our God?”

In the name of Christ – still King – Amen.

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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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