This is the sermon preached on the Sunday before our Linkage.
SERMON, Blawarthill Church. 12 February 2023
Today, we are looking forward to our Service of Linking on Thursday evening, when the Presbytery of Glasgow will be constituted in this church building, for the special purpose of drawing together the two congregations of Blawarthill and St Columba Gaelic, into one linked Charge, in terms of the law of the Church of Scotland.
It will be the most important evening that our congregations have been part of for a very long time. The Presbytery has recognised the degree of importance for us in a special way. It is not every Presbytery service to which a former Moderator from outwith the Presbytery is invited to be a guest preacher. And I know that when Dr Morrison was asked, he not only agreed to come, but did so with enthusiasm and pleasure. He was delighted, as a native Gaelic speaker, that here in Glasgow we are making a real effort to keep the cause of Gaelic worship alive.
It is not just the one congregation, but both congregations that are to be commended for working together to provide a new home for Gaelic worship and mission. The members of St Columba must of course take the lead in reaching out to the Gaelic community. But at the same time, the elders and members of Blawarthill should recognise that in sharing the responsibility, they too are gaining something.
On Thursday, Blawarthill will gain a degree of security for its future...which is a precious thing to have in these uncertain times for the church. And St Columba’s will gain a number of things. First. And forgive me for saying this when emotions are still raw at the loss of your iconic Highland Cathedral in St Vincent Street...but you are gaining a clean start. You can now concentrate of going forward with a missional focus...unfettered by the concerns of maintaining a building that was becoming harder and harder for a small congregation to keep wind and watertight. Of course, with a bit more support from the national church, funding streams could have been opened up. That annoys me too. ...and yet, you would still have had a legacy building not greatly suited to modern needs. The work of the Kingdom can so easily take second place when there are regular concerns caused by a beautiful, but ageing building. So you can now concentrate on mission.
And secondly, your vacancy of 13 years will come to an end. Not to mention my interim moderator-ship of 7 years. Both a ministerial vacancy and an interim moderator-ship are meant to be short term arrangements. The length of both must be some sort of record. Again I must recognise that while the charge was vacant, you were not bereft of ministry. This was led for much of the vacancy by your Locum, Graham Morrison, and supported by the office bearers. Yet effective leadership in any church requires that degree of recognition which has for centuries been enshrined in a congregation’s call to a minister of word and sacrament. And this you have not been able to exercise for far too long.
Even with my appointment, it was not a call in the traditional sense, involving open advertisement and a process of discernment led by a Nominating Committee. From my point of view, the feeling I have that I am a stopgap figure, will continue. I feel unsuited to be a leader in Gaelic worship and witness in Gaeldom’s largest centre of population, and I suspect that will continue even after my introduction on Thursday. Yet, you will at least have a minister once again. And I will be he! And that is something you have not had for far too long, and it is a significant step forward.
So this week we shall have much to rejoice about.
But...it would be insensitive of me not to recognise that the Linkage will also be, in some ways, an occasion of sadness. Both our congregations have declined significantly in number over many years. This decline has been steady and persistent. We are not alone in this. Nearly every other congregation is Scotland has experienced the same, and that is why we are all facing massive change at the present time. The power and the influence of the church and the Christian faith have greatly diminished over our lifetime, and that in itself is sad. But this week will see changes in our congregations in particular which give cause for a degree of sorrow.
For this is the last Sunday that both congregations meet as independent entities. Since 1941, Blawarthill has had its own minister, full time, full status and full tenure. Effectively, for seven years you have shared me. But in a legal sense, I was Blawarthill’s full time, full tenure minister. In terms of church law, from Thursday, I will be part time minister of Blawarthill, and part time minister of St Columba’s. It will be a shared ministry, from here on in. And of course, a shared building.
And, believe you me, it has been a sair fecht even to achieve that. After the last Presbytery Plan...you remember the one with sticking paper leaves on paper trees? Blawarthill was declared to have a poor “outward-looking focus” and we had to take a long, hard look at ourselves to ask exactly what we were for, in the present day and age. Today, although still vulnerable in some respects, we have a well-established social outreach program, and I would say, one of the strongest outward-looking focuses in the Presbytery. As well as that, when I came here, the church building was in a state of considerable distress. The congregation was, to use the old phrase, in good heart. But the building was not. We have fixed that. We have a mission and we have a purpose. And we have a building that is, broadly speaking, fit for purpose. We will have to go on fighting and go on refocusing...and go on searching for effective ways to win souls for Jesus Christ...but we are in a better place than we were, to be doing that.
With Thursday behind us, St Columba’s will also have to take a long, hard look at itself to decide what practical steps it can take, to reach out to our Highland and Gaelic constituency, and show them Jesus Christ, and make new disciples for Him. Happily, one of the triumphs of our Basis of Linkage, is that it recognises and reaffirms St Columba’s unique, non-parochial status. St Columba’s “parish” remains the whole of Glasgow and beyond, as we reach out and minister in Christ’s name to people who cherish their Gaelic and Celtic culture and language.
Now, having said all of that, I am left with very little time to preach any kind of sermon in the traditional sense, and to refer to our Bible passages today, from Matthew’s Gospel and from First Corinthians. But let’s just remind ourselves, that our Gospel reading, taken again from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, refers to how the person who has faith in God should take a vow, or make a promise. Now a Presbytery service, like the one we will have on Thursday, involves the taking, or the re-taking of vows, both by me, and the congregation. We are all looking forward to a new future, together, and the vows will set us firmly on that road.
If you boil it down, Jesus is simply saying, when you take a vow, do it with simplicity, and do it sincerely. Don’t hedge any promise you make with qualifications or conditions, or by invoking the power of “the heavens” or “the earth” or anything else you have no control over. Just “Let your yes be yes and your no be no”. Keep it simple! And that way you’ll find it easier to keep your vows and promises, and easier to stay focused on what really matters.
And in I Corinthians, Paul is addressing divisions in the Church. Particularly, divisions in the church caused by conflicting loyalties to one leader or another. And here’s where it gets exciting. In proposing the remedy for this outbreak of disagreement in the church in Corinth, Paul tells us: “You are God’s field.”
And in God’s field, it is God who makes things grow. The General Trustees can make their decisions about what buildings must be sold, and what are to be kept. The Presbytery can make its decisions about how to share out its scarce ministers and ministries. But God makes decisions about you and me, and Jesus his Son directs the Church, in which we are members.
God's decisions are beyond the limitations imposed by our society, our demographics, our ethnicity, our gender, our language, our culture, and even our church authorities. Those authorities often tell us today what is NOT possible. But in God ALL things are possible. (Mat 19:26)
Paul is reminding us that any crop that God plants will flourish in his fields; those who are spiritually mature, committed to God, faithful to his laws will flourish; and those who have the Spirit of Christ and are faithful to his teaching, and accepting of his loving care, will prosper.
So let’s finish on that positive note. We’re facing important changes and developments this week with our Linkage. But take your vow, make the commitment that’s asked of you. Don’t over complicate what God is calling you to do, or to be. And persevere in faith, remembering that God’s in charge.
And it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be all right.
Glory be to the Father...