Sermon by our Minister and Intercessory Prayers by Rev Tony Tucker, 5 Dec 2021
This sermon was written and preached by Rev Helen Garton at Christ Church Cathedral at a joint service to mark 1500 years since the birth of St Columba with our ecumenical neighbours there.
A Gloria written by St Columba (trans. Duncan Macgregor):
Glory to God the Father, the unbegotten One;
All honour be to Jesus, His sole-begotten Son;
And to the Holy Spirit – the perfect Trinity.
Let all the worlds give answer, “Amen, so let it be.”
Thank you for your invitation to preach here in this place and for your invitation to the congregation at St Columba’s United Reformed Church to join you in worship, to mark the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of St Columba in Gartan, County Donegal (my surname is only one letter away!) As your nearest ecumenical neighbour, only The Bear pub separates us to the side, but I suspect that we will have a different approach to our honouring of St Columba, for in the United Reformed Church we do not have the same notion of patronal saints as you do in the Church of England.
Our church, which began its life as the Presbyterian Chaplaincy to the University and then became a church in 1929, took St Columba as its name in recognition of our Scottish Presbyterian heritage. And you will hear that in the accents of some of our senior and wiser members! But where our paths meet, there is always a cross, for we stand in the presence of Jesus Christ, the message of our very existence.
In our set readings for today, the second Sunday in Advent, we have encountered 3 messengers who have, in turn, spoken about the coming of God into this world, to call the people to account, to judge them and to save them from themselves. The very name ‘Malachi’ means ‘messenger’ in Hebrew. And in Malachi and the Gospel of Luke, the people have been so hell bent on holding God to account by their own standards, that they have become unable to recognise God in their midst. No wonder, for the people were weary and tired, just as we are wearied and tired today with what has been happening all around the world and on our own shores.
For God to be known and seen and recognised in situations such as this, a messenger is needed to prepare the way, as if the light of God’s countenance is so bright that it cannot at first be seen without a veil and an explanation. St Columba it is who is credited with the establishment of Christianity in Scotland, beginning first on the tiny island of Iona, whose community today extends beyond Scotland around the world.
But it was not a dramatic moment of conversion or calling, which gave Columba this role of messenger of the gospel of Christ. Instead, it was a less savoury episode in his life, which led to his mission to Scotland. As legend has it, he took it upon himself to copy out the Psalter written by St Jerome kept in the Abbey at Movilla where he was a monk and a priest. This got him into trouble with his teacher St Finnian who disputed his right to keep the psalter to himself. Things got so out of hand, that it spilled out into an existing political conflict, resulting in a battle in 561 in what is now County Sligo, a conflict that led to the exile and temporary excommunication of St Columba, from which he set sail for Scotland, never to see Ireland again.
St Columba was 42 and much of the detail we have about him is sketchy and disputed. Some say that St Columba’s exile was punishment for the conflict, others say that it was an act of penance for the lives lost in battle. Either way, St Columba took with him the message of the Gospel and with the 12 disciples he took with him from Derry, he settled on the island of Iona, on the boundary between the Western and Northern Pictish kingdoms, where he set about converting them to Christianity.
It was said of Columba that he was “Someone whose mastery of the written word led to the deaths of 3000 people… someone whose mission to spread the living word of God should save more than 3000 souls and lead to the spread of Christianity to these shores.”
It would be too much of a stretch to say that St Columba’s intention in copying the psalter was to put it into the hands of every person in the land. The time for such a miracle would not be for nearly a 1,000 years. But there is a lesson in this, that the word of God blows freely and where it will. But put the written word of God into the wrong hands and it becomes a weapon to brow beat the downtrodden and already oppressed. The word of God has so often in the past and in our own time become a weapon for those who want to preserve it for their own use. Set the word of God free as a dove and it spreads where the spirit blows, to the four corners of the earth. It is no coincidence that our saint was named ‘Columba’ or Columcille, translated to mean ‘Dove of the Church.’
So today, we honour a complex man with a complex history; today we honour a saint of the Church, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for the spreading of the Gospel. However we like our saints… whether we revel in the stuff of legend and myth, or go to another level and reverence them as the object of devotion, for me, the saints I relate to best, have feet of clay which are firmly planted in the ground.
Whatever we are able to glean of the facts and reality of St Columba’s life, we know that he was a man of great learning with the word of God at the core of his being. We know that he had strength and determination, to set forth on a missionary journey into, perhaps not the complete unknown, but certainly into uncharted waters where his reception was not guaranteed. We know that he was a man of inspiration, who inspired those who followed him on his pilgrimage to Iona. We also know that he was a man of God, and we see that in his legacy, in the monasteries he founded, as well as in what of his writings remain… and in his rule of life.
None of this would have been possible if he had floated serenely over the surface of the waters and the earth. Instead, he planted his feet of clay firmly in the ground, one foot in front of the other, and did not stop until his work was done and took his final rest on the island of Iona. He was a true messenger of God, as was the prophet Malachi and the evangelist St Luke and the missionary St Paul. They too had feet of clay which walked upon the same earth as we tread today, taking with them the message of God’s good news to the world.
So it is not inappropriate that we remember St Columba today, the second Sunday of Advent, with all the prophets who have prepared the way for the coming of Christ. And the message is always the same, to prepare ourselves to receive the good news of Jesus Christ, who was born into the complexity and mess of human existence, and whose purpose is always to direct us towards God, for our salvation is at hand.
I end with two prayers by St Columba himself:
Let me bless Almighty God,
whose power extends over sea and land,
whose angels watch over all.
Let me study sacred books to calm my soul:
I pray for peace,
kneeling at heaven’s gates.
Let me do my daily work,
gathering seaweed, catching fish,
giving food to the poor.
Let me say my daily prayers,
sometimes chanting, sometimes quiet,
always thanking God.
Delightful it is to live
on a peaceful isle, in a quiet cell,
serving the King of kings.
Be O Lord,
a guiding star above me,
a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
and a bright flame before me;
today, tonight and forever. Amen
The prayers of intercession were written and led by Rev Tony Tucker, a retired URC minister and member of St Columba's URC Oxford who has been ordained 67 years this year.
Lord God and heavenly Father, we give you thanks and praise today for your servant St.Columba. We remember the vitality of his faith, his missionary zeal,his affirmation of the place of women in the Church, and his tireless journeys throughout Ireland and Scotland to bring the Gospel to the people of those lands. We pray that we may be empowered to share his vision as witnesses to your saving love in Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for the Iona Community as in Columba’s name, it continues his ministry through its work for peace, social justice, and the integrity of Creation. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for your Church in this city, diocese and synod, and especially for your blessing on this Cathedral – its chapter, choir, musicians , staff and volunteers – and on the Minister, Elders and members of St Columba’s. In working together, may we find our unity in Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for the communities in which we live, and those who serve as councillors, officers, and administrators in our health, education and emergency services. May we be communities where all are valued, none is excluded, and the voices of the poor and homeless are heard. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray for one another, that we may be faithful disciples, following in Columba’s footsteps, and building one another up in Christ. Grant to us and to your whole Church the faith of the apostles, the boldness of the prophets and the strength of the martyrs. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new, transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives, make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sermon preached online on Sun 6 Feb 2021 by our Joint Church Secretary, Prof Adrian Moore
I want to begin with some reflections on language. There are many words and phrases in English that are broadly evaluative. To apply one of these expressions to a person or to a thing is not just to describe that person or that thing, but to offer an evaluation of some kind too. And we can divide these expressions into two broad categories: there are the positive ones, the ones that are used to commend; and there are the negative ones, the ones that are used to disparage.
Here are some terms of commendation: ‘kind’, ‘compassionate’, ‘easy on the eye’, ‘delicious’, ‘soothing’. And here are some terms of disparagement: ‘selfish’, ‘callous’, ‘a real eyesore’, ‘disgusting’, ‘annoying’.
But there are puzzling cases too—cases that are not so straightforward to classify. For instance, what about ‘nice’? I don’t mean in its sense of ‘precise’ or ‘subtle’, as when we talk about a nice distinction—although there might be some puzzlement about that case too! I mean in the sense it has when we describe a person as nice. Most of us, I think, regard this as a compliment. But it can also be used in a rather damning way, to suggest a kind of feebleness. Football pundits often use it to criticize a player who is not up for the metaphorical fight—or possibly even not up for the literal fight!
Or what about the word ‘photogenic’? It’s never been entirely clear to me whether or not describing someone as ‘photogenic’ is complimentary. On the one hand, it is nearly always taken as such. On the other hand, it can be heard as a way of saying that photographs of the person flatter them.
Or what about the expression ‘like a child’? The English language nicely—note my use of the word ‘nicely’, by the way!—the English language nicely gets round that equivocation by giving us two separate alternatives: ‘childlike’ to commend; ‘childish’ to condemn.
Or what about the phrase ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’? You’ll often hear this said of people, particularly in the past tense in obituaries, with a tone of respect and admiration. But if suffering fools gladly means treating stupid people with patience and kindness, then the Gospels abound with examples of our Lord doing precisely that.
The phrase ‘suffer fools gladly’, as many of you will know, comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And if you’re interested, after this morning’s service, it’s worth going back and having a look at what exactly Paul is doing with the phrase. But, be that as it may, it’s a familiar phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that has prompted these reflections of mine—a phrase that occurred in the epistle reading from this morning’s lectionary. I am talking about ‘being all things to all people’, a description that Paul willingly confers on himself.
I say ‘willingly’. A more hostile way of putting it would be to say ‘smugly’. At any rate Paul obviously feels no shame in applying this phrase to himself. Yet for many of us, particularly when we think of the phrase being used in connection with politicians, it has negative connotations. It calls to mind that wonderful Groucho Marx line: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them... well, I have others.’
Do these negative connotations apply in Paul’s case? Is Paul compromising his principles in an effort to please? I am sure we would all agree that he isn’t. There is a kind of pragmatism at work here, but only to ensure success in getting a vital message across. Instead of flaunting his freedom from Jewish law, Paul has conformed to it when among Jews, in order to get his message across to the Jews. Conversely, when among Gentiles, he has stressed the irrelevance of Jewish law—though of course he remains only too conscious that a Christian must live under some law, the law of Christ. In short, he has been prepared to accommodate himself to everybody, in an effort to connect with them and to put them in touch with what really matters.
It’s not particularly mysterious. Admittedly, in practice, there may be difficult decisions about how much accommodation of this kind is possible without some compromise of principles, and I dare say that we all occasionally succumb to the temptation to conform to other people’s ways of doing things as a way of trying to win them over when it is not the right thing to do. But the idea that Paul can describe himself as all things to all people and feel no shame is not, as I say, particularly mysterious.
But I think there’s a more interesting and related question in the background. In what ways might God be said to be all things to all people? Here I’m reminded of some things that Helen said in her wonderful sermon last week. And I hope you will forgive me if some of what follows repeats things that she said then—but I think they bear repetition.
In what ways, then, is God all things to all people?
In what ways was Jesus all things to all people? Let us reconsider the passage from Mark that was read earlier. Here, very early in Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus engaged in many acts of healing. We are told that everyone in Capernaum was gathered around his door, and that all those who were physically or mentally ill were brought to him to be cured. It seems relentless and exhausting. It is perhaps not surprising that Jesus wanted some time to himself early the following morning, when he could be alone to pray.
But the passage begins with some contrasting intimacy. In verses 29 – 31, one of Jesus’s many acts of healing is described in more detail. This time the invalid is identified: it is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. And we are told how Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up, to the point that she was well enough to act as their hostess.
The juxtaposition of this story with the subsequent account of Jesus curing so many others puts us in mind of that familiar point—a point that has become all too familiar in recent times—that whereas one death is a tragedy, a hundred thousand deaths are a statistic. But there is of course a happier variant too: whereas the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was a cause for special joy and celebration, the curing of the many others was a blended backdrop to the Gospel narrative in which Jesus went about doing good.
The third lectionary reading gives us something similar. In Isaiah Chapter 40, verse 26, we find a reference to Him who brings out their host and numbers them juxtaposed with His calling them all by name; not one, we are told, is missing.
God is all things to all people. God can meet each one of us, in our own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention. Absolute. Undivided. God focuses all of God’s attentive love on each and every one of us; all of it. There is no need for any sharing of resources here. Moreover, God is infinitely adaptable to the unique contours of each and every one of us; God is all things to each and every one of us.
I am reminded of a sermon that our former minister Susan once preached at St Columba’s, in which she memorably and beautifully described God as both utterly faithful and utterly promiscuous. For, at the same time as God is meeting you, in your own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention, God is meeting me, in my own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention, and is meeting hundreds of thousands of others, in their own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention. That gives hope to each of us as individuals. But it also gives hope to all of us as a community. We can know that God cares as much for each of our brothers and sisters as God cares for us; and we must also know that God is calling us into solidarity with our brothers and sisters for that very reason, so that, with God’s help, we can respond together to the challenges that we confront. This not only gives hope, it gives the kind of hope that is of course so crucial in the particular circumstances in which we have found ourselves over the past year. Thanks be to God.
Sermon preached online on Sun 31 Jan 2021 by our Minister, Rev Helen Garton
Don’t know how you are all feeling, but I found last week particularly difficult. Of all the weeks since the start of this pandemic, if I’m honest, I would say that I felt quite depressed and I think that was down to two things. It was because we had reached the milestone of 100,000 deaths and also because, on Thursday, it was Holocaust Memorial Day. Both of them reminders of things beyond our ability to comprehend without feeling overwhelmed and saddened. One a warning of just how serious the pandemic is, the other a stark warning of just how inhumane human beings can be.
But just as it was getting to me, I did what we were being invited to do on Thursday evening for Holocaust Memorial Day, and that was to light a candle and place it in the window so that it could be seen from the street. And as I did so, I turned off the light in the kitchen and felt the calmness that you get when you light a candle. And I saw that some of our other neighbours had also lit candles and placed them in their windows. A candle can be such a powerful presence: both a sign of remembrance, but also for hope. As Anne Frank said, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” Or in the words of St Francis of Assisi: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
We have to remind ourselves that we are still in the season of Epiphany, the season of light and enlightenment, when Jesus is revealed as the Christ, the messiah promised long ago, the saviour of the world. That single candle in the window reminded me of one of the memorials at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which remembers all the children who perished in the concentration camps in the second world war. At its heart is a single lit candle, surrounded by hundreds of mirrors which reflect its light as a voice reads out all the names of the children, one by one.
We can so easily be overwhelmed by the scale of suffering in the world. And yet, as every politician reminded us as they announced what they called the grim milestone of reaching 100,000 deaths, each one of those deaths represents a person. And beyond them are the countless friends and families who will grieve their loss. Each one is a person, of infinite value and worth, whose loss is not just a loss to those who knew them, but a loss to us all.
So where is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, in the midst of all of this? What does the Bible say to us today? We start with the message of Christmas in the midst of a world in torment, a world as full of beauty and wonder as it is suffering and struggle. That’s where we begin as Christians, because it is this which gives us hope and a purpose. The God who created the world, the universe, and everything in it, will not let suffering and evil have the last word. The word of God is love and that stands out in the darkness of life, like a solitary lit candle in the window at night. The God who made us, is the God who will save and redeem us. And the God who made everything in the universe, every living thing, cares for each and every one.
Each and every one is of infinite value and worth to God. Over 100,000 people now rest in God for eternity, each and every one of them. God does not work to the world’s values: a person winning £100,000 in the lottery would not expect to receive their winnings in £1 coins. A person making a deposit in the bank to the tune of £100,000 would not be popular if they turned up with £100,000’s worth of coins. Yet to God, each and every one is as precious as the next. Multiplying that up by 100,000 or 100 million would not increase the love that God has for us.
This is not how we operate as members of the human race. We are forever judging ourselves against each other, not always to strive for excellence, but to establish our superiority over and against each other. Be it wealth and possessions, intellect or strength, moral superiority or unchallengeability. But, says Jesus, this is not how it should be with us, whoever is greatest must be servant of all.
So, when a man with an unclean spirit makes himself known in the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus is teaching, Jesus stops what he is doing and takes the time to deal with him and heal him. You can imagine the scene, the congregation has gathered to worship, they have settled down to listen to Jesus’ teaching and a man interrupts the moment. Worse than that, he is unclean, for it says he had an unclean spirit. His behaviour is unacceptable and gets in the way and he is unclean, he shouldn’t be there, he should keep his distance and keep out of the way: hands, face, space! But who were they to call the man ‘unclean’? Jesus sees what is wrong with him and liberates him from the spirit that has taken hold of him. This man matters to Jesus as much as he matters to God. Who are we to call anyone ‘unclean?’ And the people remark that the teaching of Jesus carries with it an authority that they had never known before, because his actions match his words, there is a consistency there. Jesus began his ministry with the words of Isaiah, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has called me to bring good news to the poor, to set the oppressed free.’ This story in Mark’s gospel is the first public act of Jesus. It takes place in the synagogue, a place of worship, on a sabbath and it is a demonstration that Jesus is filled with spirit of God, who cares for each and every person, each and every living thing.
In the West we are obsessed with cleanliness. Look at the shelves in the supermarket and count the number of cleaning products, for doing the laundry and the washing up, for cleaning our cars and for cleaning ourselves. And now, in the middle of the pandemic, we are even more obsessed with keeping clean, with washing our hands and keeping our distance… and rightly so, for everyone’s protection. But here Jesus is offering us another kind of cleanliness… another kind of holiness… one which brings liberation to each and everyone. And Jesus, the Holy One of God, is offering us a different kind of holiness. Not kept apart for occasional show, but a holiness which meets people in their need, which touches lepers, cuts through cultural prejudices, a holiness which is not about being set apart, but about being set apart for a purpose.
So this morning, I want to offer you a candle in the dark: hold on to the hope we have in God through Jesus Christ. Hold on to the knowledge that good will prevail over all that is evil in the world, all the prejudice and injustice, for love always has the last word. And love teaches us that we too are holy, for we have been set aside for a purpose, to bring hope and healing to the world. We are not being asked to take on the world’s problems single-handedly. Instead, we are to remember that God loves each and every one and that is where we start, to care for each other, for those around us, to do what we can to make the world a better place by following the teachings of Jesus and the example of Jesus. The Jesus who spoke with authority, for his actions matched his words, even to the point of interrupting his teaching to reach down to a man in need. To be kinder and gentler, to be more compassionate and more loving.