Monthly Archives: March 2015

WERE YOU THERE? (thoughts for Palm/Passion Sunday – Sixth Sunday in Lent)


I remember reading a short story – the title escapes me, as does the author – and being captivated by it.

It’s a science fiction story and concerns a travel agency set in the future.

Now, this travel agency deals with the extra-ordinary: it caters for people who have become blasé about going to distant exotic lands, whether on this planet or elsewhere.

So, what they offer is this: travel to anywhere in history – an opportunity to take part in great world events as they actually happen.

This story concerns a large group of tourists who have decided – through this time-travel expedition – to visit Jerusalem at the time of Christ.

In the twinkling of an eye and the press of a button and the throw of a switch, they are transported to the Holy City……and find themselves arriving on Good Friday.

They discover themselves looking up at Pontius Pilate from his balcony, offering the crowd the choice of Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth for execution.

Not wanting to appear conspicuous, the time travellers feel that they ought not deviate from history, and so start to chant “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

And so, it is done.

But, suddenly, one of these visitors happens to look around and notices to his shock and horror that the mob crying out for Christ’s crucifixion is made up entirely of his fellow tourists.

Then he glances up at the windows of the houses round about him and sees that all the devout Jews are indoors silently praying

Whatever we make of that fictional story – apart from its logic, its historicity or its theology – note this theme, this recurring theme: somehow WE are implicated in the crucifixion.

This is the theme of the old spiritual,  “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”



And it’s the theme of many a hymn, and many a sermon.

Where you there when they crucified my Lord?

We don’t like this.  We would rather be counted among the crowd on Palm Sunday cheering and applauding that same Lord as he entered Jerusalem in triumph.

And if we could, we would have.

But human nature is fickle.  When things are bright and beautiful, and the sun shines on us, and all’s well with the world, we’re content – indeed happy – certainly without complaint, and God is glorified and worshipped and adored.

But when we feel let down, or misunderstand the situation, or if the world appears to be kicking us in the teeth – where then is that God?

It’s easy to change opinions, abandon principles, abandon faith itself.

We go with the crowd.  We go the way that seems right for the time.  We really can be fair-weather Christians.

And with that comes the very sins that crucified Christ – amongst them, selfishness and self-interest, corruption of ideals and abandonment of principles, hypocrisy and expediency

And the crowd that shouted ‘Hosanna’ when the occasion demanded it, prompted it – turns its cry to that of ‘Crucify’ because it suited them at the time.

In which group shall we be numbered?  The Judas people who still betray him when he doesn’t satisfy their selfish agenda?  The Pontius Pilate people who dismiss him when what he stands for contradicts expediency and pleasing the crowd?  The folk – like those in the crowd – who distance themselves from him when following him requires transforming self and society?

Or with those who honoured him on that Palm Sunday and continue to do so not just every Sunday but on every day of their life, offering him they dedication of their whole selves in his service and to his greater glory?

And as the hymn “At the name of Jesus” puts it:

“In your hearts enthrone him;

There let him subdue

All that is not holy,

All that is not true:

Crown him as your captain

In temptation’s hour;

Let his will enfold you

In its light and power”



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The Joys of being the Interim in a Church of Scotland Vacant Church

When a Church of Scotland church becomes vacant, a nearby Minister is appointed to guide, counsel, and, effectively, to act as the Minister of the Charge that is looking for a new incumbent.

Almost all of the time, it’s a very fulfilling experience.  Most often there is a locum appointed to take Sunday worship, but I have, in the past, conducted weddings and funerals, and have, as a result, felt more in touch with that Kirk and Parish. Obviously, I’ve also chaired Meetings, and have been present at Vacancy Committee (now “Nomination Committee”) to guide, advise, and give point out rules and regulations regarding Church law.

Yep – great times….. with one exception:

Two churches in the one town were amalgamated.  Let’s call them “St Agnes by the Gasworks” and “St Botox on the Brow “.  The first of these kirk buildings was closed, and both congregations met in the latter’s premises.

It was very much a case – for many from each former congregation – of “them and us”.

When the Nomination Committee was elected, the balance of Church membership of St A’s and St.B’s, was reflected in the make up of the group.  The larger number came from St.B’s.

Meetings were civil enough, and reasonably united, until……..

…. a particular applicant was suggested as being the “anointed one” – the potential new Minister.  All hell broke loose, as this guy had previously been an assistant Minister in the old St.Agnes Kirk.

“Debate” isn’t a word that I would use to describe the deliberations; more a verbal punch-up, with both “sides” literally shouting at each other.  I metaphorically held the jackets, as they laid into each other, all the old historic rivalries rising to the surface, and un-Christian bile being spat out venomously.

Surprisingly, after the dust had settled, a vote was taken, and the Minister- in- waiting was agreed upon – by the slimmest of majorities – it was something like 7 for and 6 against.

I phoned the “lucky” winner. He seemed delighted. Then he asked if it had been a unanimous vote, and I had to tell him that it was a majority, to which he asked the dreaded question, “by how much?”.

Well, he naturally turned it down.  The news wasn’t greeted with tearing of hair nor gnashing of teeth, but some of the Committee members had wry smiles on their faces.

One should always expect the unexpected.  Not I, when someone proposed that the Committee be disbanded.  And it was: those “for”  reflecting the party line split; St.Botox showed these upstarts from St Agnes!

Christmas intervened.  Discussions were held between me and the vacancy advisory group.  Then – in the following January – it was decided to elect a new Nomination Committee.  During the hiatus, a couple of attempts were made to “nobble” me, but without success.

So – here we go again!  But with a twist: instead of the Congregation openly voting for members of the new Committee, by show of hands, it was decided that nominations should be done by secret ballot.  Can you begin to imagine how long that took?  I was counting the voting slips for well over an hour.

And, surprise! surprise!  The top twelve “winners” were all from St. B’s; only one – with the lowest score – came from their “rivals in Christ” and was number 13 of all those chosen. Moreover, many of the old Committee members were voted back on.

We met as a Committee immediately afterwards, and, before a Clerk could be elected, the poor guy who was #13 launched into a tirade against the whole sorry procedure and those involved in it.  Having been just elected, he then immediately tendered his resignation, and stomped off in high (or is it low?) dungeon.

I suppose we should have started all over again – again.  But we carried on, twelve good men (and women) and true, and muggins here too.

Eventually, someone WAS chosen, and I bowed out gracefully – certainly, gratefully.  Yet, I lost about a year and a half of my life that I’ll never get back.

The joys, oh the joys, of practice and procedure in the Kirk of Scotland!  So much better than having a Bishop appointing someone – NOT!





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“What has Easter got to do with the Church?”

Supermarkets have been accused of pursuing an ‘anti- Christian agenda’ after refusing to sell Easter eggs with a religious message. (article in the Daily Mail)
Some of Britain’s biggest stores are celebrating the most profound event in the Church calendar by offering treats featuring everything from Darth Vader to Postman Pat – but turned down products that mention Jesus.
One chain even asked ‘what has Easter got to do with the Church?’, according to the makers of The Real Easter Egg, which features Christian crosses on the box and contain a leaflet telling the story of the Resurrection.
Now Archbishop of York John Sentamu has stepped in – urging Sainsbury’s, Asda and the Co-op to stock the charity eggs – while former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said he was ‘saddened’ by the three supermarket giants’ decision.
Lord Carey said: ‘The rest are rubbish. These Easter eggs that have nothing to do with Easter, all they are trying to do is get more money out of people. They have no meaning. I think it shows ignorance on the part of these supermarkets.

‘By not offering an alternative to secular Easter eggs they are really undermining the real message of Easter. It saddens me because we are living in a land that is completely losing contact with its religious roots and is out of touch with the Christian message.’





David Marshall, the head of the Meaningful Chocolate Company, said the supermarkets appeared biased against its ‘proven seller’. He said: ‘We do wonder at times if there is an anti-Christian agenda from some of our supermarkets who just keep turning it down. It is as if some feel Christianity is politically incorrect or the Easter story, which mentions Jesus, might put people off.
‘One buyer asked us what Easter had got to do with the Church, while another simply said, “I don’t think this is a credible product” and asked us to leave.’
The Warrington-based firm has spent five years trying to persuade stores to sell its £4 Christian-themed eggs, which were launched in 2010 with the backing of Archbishop Sentamu.

At first the supermarkets refused, but two years ago, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and the Co-Op bowed to pressure and agreed.
But this year Sainsbury’s and the Co-op have dropped the eggs, blaming poor sales, while Asda has never stocked them. However, the Meaningful Chocolate Company say a million eggs have been sold over the past five years.

‘Poor sales’: Sainsbury’s and Co-op have cited poor sales as the reason they dropped the Eggs, while Asda said it has not be approached by the makers of the egg

Archbishop Sentamu, who has lamented ignorance about Easter after learning that a third of children thought it marked the birthday of the Easter bunny, said yesterday: ‘With a million Real Easter Eggs sold I am delighted that Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose have met the challenge. I call on Sainsbury’s, Asda, and the Co-operative to give their customers the same choice.’
Sainsbury’s said their decision was based on ‘the popularity of ranges in previous years’, with the Co-op also citing ‘poor sales of the Real Easter Egg in previous years’. Asda said it had not been approached this year, a claim disputed by the Meaningful Chocolate Company.

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Q & A



I’m reminded of the Minister giving a talk to the youngsters at the Children’s Address part of the Sunday Service.

He asked them, “what’s small and furry, climbs trees, and stores nuts in his cheeks?”

A small hand was raised.

“Yes, Johnny?”

“It’s Jesus; it’s always Jesus!”


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March 24, 2015 · 12:25

When the Cheering Stopped – a thought for Palm/Passion Sunday


Some years ago a book was written by Gene Smith, a noted American historian. The title was “When The Cheering Stopped.” It was the story of President Woodrow Wilson and the events leading up to and following WWI. When that war was over Wilson was an international hero. There was a great spirit of optimism abroad, and people actually believed that the last war had been fought and the world had been made safe for democracy.

On his first visit to Paris after the war Wilson was greeted by cheering mobs. He was actually more popular than their own heroes. The same thing was true in England and Italy. In a Vienna hospital a Red Cross worker had to tell the children that there would be no Christmas presents because of the war and the hard times. The children didn’t believe her. They said that President Wilson was coming and they knew that everything would be all right.

The cheering lasted about a year. Then it gradually began to stop. It turned out that the political leaders in Europe were more concerned with their own agendas than they were a lasting peace. At home, Woodrow Wilson ran into opposition in the United States Senate and his League of Nations was not ratified. Under the strain of it all the President’s health began to break. In the next election his party was defeated. So it was that Woodrow Wilson, a man who barely a year or two earlier had been heralded as the new world Messiah, came to the end of his days a broken and defeated man.

It’s a sad story, but one that is not altogether unfamiliar. The ultimate reward for someone who tries to translate ideals into reality is apt to be frustration and defeat.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, the crowds went wild. Cheering “Hosanna!”, they greeted their “King and Saviour”

And then the acclamation turned to condemnation and cries for his blood. “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

And he was broken on the Cross.

Just another false Messiah. Just another phoney prophet. What a let down. What frustration. What hopes, dashed at Calvary. Defeated, dead then buried and forgotten……..

And then… and then…. the cry:

HE IS RISEN! And with joy, our response: HE IS RISEN INDEED!

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No Compromise (a short homily for Palm/Passion Sunday)

Palm/Passion Sunday – Year B:   Mark 11 verses 1-11


Most people will have seen Mel Gibson’s rousing (and historically illiterate) movie,  Braveheart.  In the film, William Wallace attempts to unite the feuding factions in Scotland in their fight against England in the 13th century.  In doing so, he tries to elicit the help of Robert the Bruce.




Bruce refuses to help and in soliloquy he says: “Wallace is an uncompromising man.  Uncompromising men are admirable.  But only a compromising man can be king.”

We can affirm that on Palm Sunday an uncompromising man became King of all history.

There may be times when we have to be flexible.  On strategies, we can compromise, but not in principles.

There must come a time when we ask: Is this the way it is–Yes or No?  Palm Sunday challenges the notion that all of life is but a part of the compromising process.

There once was an English priest called Charlie Andrews who became a friend of Gandhi in India.

Andrews worked and lived with the Indian Nationalists.  The Government, however, also used him as an intermediary to explain positions and decisions.

Most British people in India misunderstood him, because they thought that he was a traitor to Britain.  Many also said that he had compromised his Christian faith.

He was reviled and slandered, even although he wrote books with titles like ‘What I owe to Christ’

Andrews was really, truly, and sincerely, a man of God and a committed Christian.

He followed the way of the Cross in more ways than patiently bearing lies, insults, and abuse from the British in India.  He also lived a most spartan life in primitive village conditions, and lived tirelessly for other people.  Nobody in any kind of need was outside his concern.






During Gandhi’s illness, Charlie Andrews was constantly with him, and the press reported that he would sing Ghandi’s favourite hymn to him – ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’

Charlie Andrews never counted the cost to himself of anything he did.  That is the true mark of the loyal follower of Jesus Christ, who himself gave up his life for many.  Jesus Christ came to serve humankind, regardless of the criticism, condemnation, and misrepresentation.  He never compromised his message or his mission.

Nor did Charlie Andrews, nor have countless other followers of Christ in all centuries since Jesus uncompromisingly started to bring the Kingdom of God into the lives of men and women everywhere.

On Palm Sunday, the crowd cheered Jesus as he entered Jerusalem.  Later that week, the acclamation turned to condemnation, as they bayed for his blood with their cries of ‘Crucify him!  Crucify him!’

These people just could not follow Jesus all the way through.  For, when he became unpopular because of his uncompromising stand, they abandoned him.

Is our faith like that?  Are we fair-weather Christians, ready to drop principles or compromise our beliefs when the going gets tough, our position threatened, or our personal comfort disturbed?

On the other hand, are we like Charlie Andrews and his kind whose faith never wavered?  A man who stuck to his principles.  A true disciple of his Lord and Master who, undoubtedly, took these words of Jesus to heart:

‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me’

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Two Paintings – Sermon preached at Dumfries Northwest Church, Sunday 22 March 2015 (audio version)

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Testimony Service

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Two Paintings (Lent 5b)

John 12 verses 20-33





Some people are always eager to know or learn something, to find out about a place, a situation, a person.

Many Greeks were like that: enquiring, searching, probing, querying, questioning.

Greeks were known for their curiosity— they loved to travel, study people, places, as well as the natural world to find things out. Many of them were born seekers after the truth.

It was no unusual thing to find a Greek who has passed through philosophy after philosophy, and religion after religion, and gone from teacher to teacher in the search for truth. The Greek was the one with the seeking mind.

And now a group of them wanted to see Jesus, so we’re told in today’s Scripture.

It’s interesting how Jesus responds to their request.

Jesus is way more than a mere curiosity for people to study. His answer here in verses 23 to 26 certainly points the Greeks as well as all of us to something above and beyond observers and curiosity seekers.

He points them – as he points all of us to the way of the Cross.

Today, I want to tell two stories – both involving paintings of Jesus.

I can’t state categorically that the first tale is historically accurate – many art experts have tried, and failed, to prove the existence of an artist of this name ……. but the story of the painting, real or not, points us to a great truth.

Here goes:

An artist, named Stenburg, was, so the story goes, once commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the crucifixion, even although he had no interest in Christ at all.

One particular day, he was struggling to capture a detail in the painting, so decided to go for a walk to clear his head and gather his thoughts.

Near the edge of the forest at Düsseldorf (his home city) he came across a gypsy girl who was weaving a straw basket.

He was entranced by her innocent beauty, and thought that she would be an ideal subject for a portrait.

She agreed to come to his studio in the city. But she just wouldn’t sit still, constantly looking at the unfinished painting of the Christ. Continually asking questions: “who is that man? What’s he doing there? Who are these evil looking people around him? Why are they hurting him? Was he a bad man?”

And so it went on, until Stenburg put down his brushes in frustration, and told her the Jesus story, even although it had no personal significance for him.

After a few more sittings, and loads more questions, she left. Before she went, however, glancing at the unfinished painting of Christ, she said, “you must love him very much; he has done so much for you”

Embarrassed, the artist said nothing.

Then one evening, he saw a group of people going into an old dilapidated building in Düsseldorf – out of curiosity, he followed them, to discover that they were followers of the Reformer Jan Hus.

The little group began to discuss their faith and talk about Jesus as someone with whom they had a personal relationship.

Stenburg had never heard anything like this before. He saw Christ in a brand new light.

He started painting again with a new zeal. Not just the agony of a crucified man, as he’d depicted before in his recent work, but now the love of God, revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

This new painting was donated to Düsseldorf’s gallery, where the general public could view it. And view it they did, hundreds of them. Touched, amazed, uplifted – they had seen nothing so glorious.

One day, the little gypsy girl came. She said to the artist, “I am only a poor gypsy. For you is the love, but not for someone as lowly as me”

“It is also for you, and for everyone” the artist replied.

And Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’


HYMN – When I survey the Wondrous Cross


Isaac Watts hymn, which we’ve just sung, has been described as being the most beautiful in the English language.

What wonderful, inspiring and moving words –
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my, life, my Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my, life, my all.




Count Nicholas Zinzendorf was born into one of the most noble families of Europe.

During his Grand Tour (a rite of passage for young aristocrats) Nicolas visited an art museum in Dusseldorf where he saw a particular painting. Now, some commentators would like us to believe that it was the very same picture that we’ve just been thinking about – by the “artist Stenburg”

In fact, the painting that Zinzendorf viewed, was by an artist named Domenico Feti.

Ecce Homo, “Behold the Man.” portrays the crucified Christ – with the legend, in Latin,

“This have I done for you – Now what will you do for me?”

As the story goes, when Zinzendorf’s eyes met the eyes of the thorn-crowned Saviour, he was filled with a sense of shame.

He could not answer that question in a manner which would satisfy his own conscience. He stayed there for hours, looking at the painting of the Christ on the cross until the light failed.

And when the time arrived for the gallery to be closed, he was still staring at the face of Christ, trying in vain to find an answer to the question of what he had done for Christ.

He left the gallery at dusk, but a new day was dawning for him.

From that day on, he devoted his heart and soul, his life and his wealth—all he had—to Christ, declaring, “I have but one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.”
Did those Greeks move beyond their curiosity and observation of Jesus to be drawn closer to him by following his way of the cross?

What about us? May Christ who is lifted up on the cross draw us ever more closer to him so that like Nicholas Zinzendorf and countless others; our passion is Jesus, Jesus only!

Even though many would mock and outright reject the way of the cross, nonetheless it is God’s way of drawing people to himself.

The cross is a clear demonstration that Jesus does not want us to be indifferent or distant bystanders or observers.

Rather, he called those Greeks long ago and everyone else to come close up and actively engage in life by following the way of the cross

May we, like the hymn writer be able to say – now and always –

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my, life, my all .


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