Sermon preached on 8 November 2015

We stood at the top of the top of the hill looking down the Clyde looking past Bowling and on towards Dumbarton.

No ships. No boats. The slight eeriness of the empty estuary.

“And that’s where the fire was” she said. “The VE day fire”. And over there – behind the house, that must be where the shelter was.

Earlier this year, I had taken her on a bit of a nostalgia trip. We went back to Clydebank where she grew up and had a look around the house in which her family had lived. It is still there, something which seems remarkable in itself.

“That must be where the shelter was”. Something about that statement made me start to do the sums in my head to work out how old she was. “But you were only a baby”, I said. You’d been evacuated anyway.

“No I hadn’t” she said. “I was there. I was in the shelter all night. I was in the shelter and mum, your grandmother held me all night as the bombs were falling. Oh yes, I was there. I was only evacuated to Kilmarnock after that, when the town couldn’t be lived in.”

I have always been aware that every congregation that I have ever worked in has had people in it who had first-hand experience of war – both recent and in the past. However, I’d somehow never managed to clock the fact that my mother had been there when the bombs were falling. Quite how I’ve made it to nearly 50 without knowing that, I don’t know. But sometimes stories about war come back long after the event and it isn’t unusual I guess to simply not talk about what had happened.

“Well, who else was there then?” I asked.

“Oh, your uncles – but they were not in the shelter. They had been at band practice in the town and the bombs started to fall as the practice ended. They were trying to get home on their own. There were no phones. No ways of getting a message to say whether they were Ok or not. Mum and dad didn’t know what had happened to them all night.”

And suddenly my mind was filled with an image of this story that I’d never heard of before – my two uncles – boys then, picking their way through the town as the bombs fell on it. Trying to get up Kilbowie Hill to the house and the shelter. Seeing the factories and the yards and the houses burning.

And I’m going to leave them there for a few minutes – I promise I’ll come back to them. But we’ll leave them there half way up the hill experiencing things I can’t and won’t imagine.

And let us turn to what Jesus is saying in the gospel.

Beware of the scribes who go about in long robes.

There’s nothing quite like reading that gospel reading whilst wearing this get up.

Beware of those in long extravagant robes, says Jesus. Beware of those who go into the temple and pray longs prayers just for show. (Long liturgy isn’t particularly my extravagance but I’ve been at several induction services recently where the service could be measured better in hours than in minutes and where I found myself meditating to myself on Jesus’s words.

Beware too he says of those clerics who get shown to the best seats in the synagogue.

Oh dear, I’ve just got back from seeing the new Provost installed in Aberdeen yesterday and I know I had the best seat in the house.

Who is Jesus telling you to beware of?

He’s telling you to beware of me. And quite right too.

As I watched Isaac being installed as the new Provost in Aberdeen yesterday, I found myself thinking back to my own installation here nearly 10 years ago. Glorious and wonderful it was. But there was no doubt that I was being given a long flowing, glamorous robe and placed in the best seat in the temple and told to preach and preach and preach.

Beware O my people. Beware of me.

Should I take off my robes and shut up and sit at the back. (And I give thanks in asking that that this isn’t a congregation where people answer rhetorical questions out loud as in some places that I’ve preached).

I’ve had to come to terms with my own answer to this as I’ve read it out through the years whenever we get to this point in the lectionary. I think that my take on this is not merely to tolerate hierarchical behaviour but also to use it. But never without being suspicious of it.

I think that Jesus is telling us to beware of religious power being exercised arbitrarily without thinking about people – to be suspicious of the use of pomp for the sake of pomposity and self aggrandisement rather than the creation of community ritual and joy.

Be very suspicious of those who want you to do what they want because of who they are.

Be suspicious of hierarchy that works for itself and not to common good.

Be suspicious of anyone who makes decisions solely for themselves and who can’t look out for the widow or the orphan.

Beware of power, in other words, no matter what robes it puts on.

Christianity has this weird relationship with power. So often it has not merely flirted with it but positively embraced it. And it can be pretty frightening when that happens. All kinds of good intentions get muddled up with all kinds of badness. The desire to heal, to feed, to teach is intertwined with so many narratives of domination and colonialism.

So much so that it is difficult that I think that we are struggling to know how to respond to the world in which we live today.

I’m unconvinced that you can bomb your way to peace in the world today. I am equally unconvinced that we can simply stand back and do nothing.

Recognising our common humanity is one starting point and a place that we are being called back to again and again at the moment.

So many have been touched by sights we see week by week on the very edge of our European influence. The body of a child being picked out of the sea. The horror of people traffickers offering cut price deals in the crueller winter months.

The fear that stirs in surprising hearts who think that security can be maintained by keeping the other out and rejecting the refugee.

It can’t. And we are better than that anyway.

And somehow we need to pick our way through the confusion of the situation that presents itself across Europe and far beyond as we face up to what has been done to the Middle East.

And we must do so knowing that we have been here before. This country offered rescue and refuge in this country to at least some Jewish refugees fleeing from tyranny and destruction that would have wiped them out. We were right to do so and that experience must inform out present crisis.

But we have been there before too.

As I stood at the top of Kilbowie hill, I pictured my uncles walking through fire. Walking through the bombs as they fell.

They were safe. They arrived home in the morning.

But children still walk through fire, pick their way through cities and towns as bombs fall.

In the 1940s, those two boys were safe. Someone took them in overnight and kept them from harm. They arrived home in the morning.

In 2015 – those children walk towards us. Across Europe.

How shall we meet them?


  1. Deeply moving sermon, Kelvin. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind