In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some words from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. In Little Gidding he writes,
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
For many people the traditional time of new beginnings is when we mark the turning of another calendar year in January. Reflecting on all that has taken place in the last twelve months, it is then that we turn our faces like a confident Janus away from the dying days of December and take up the promises and challenges of the New Year. But for us who are still so governed by the structures and traditions of educational establishments, be it college or school, it is this time of year, the autumn or Michaelmas, that marks a beginning, a new start. I was struck, last weekend, when those who attended the Gaudy night dinner on Saturday – old members who seemed to have wealth, power and influence in their own worlds – left on the Sunday morning, the college scouts arrived, the beds were changed, rooms cleaned, and the college was made ready for a new generation of students to arrive. New life, new blood. It is one of my favourite times of year, because this college thrives on the new. Without it, we decay.
As Eliot’s words so wonderfully reflect, intermixed with this sense of a new chapter in the book of life is also the poignant sense of loss and something coming to an end. You don’t have to be embarking on a new course at university to experience it, for the world all around us is dying away as the golden days of summer slowly darken into the barren landscape of winter. All of us live with the constant mingling of beginnings and endings, of the new emerging from the old and an ending that is a dying back to reveal the new. I am sure that none of us that live on this seashore of undulating change underestimate how it can feel at various times. Thrown about in the flotsum and jetsum of life, new beginnings can at one moment bring the elation of change and possibility mixed with the fear and deep insecurity of letting go whilst at another the depths of sadness at an ending can drown out any sense of new life. We all in our different ways and at different times both swim and sink with the transience of our existence.
Our readings today do not so much give us a way out, as a rock on which to cling that will see us through both the times of new beginnings and endings, and so enable us to embrace them with that sense of trust and acceptance that Eliot manages to convey in his poem. For the Israelites, this rock comes in the form of advice, encouraging God’s people to remember and obey God’s way of living as set out on those two solid stone tablets on which are etched the Ten Commandments. In these literal stones God gives his people the words and tools of guidance on which they can construct their lives. They are not simply a list of rules which a dictator God gives to his chosen servants to ensure they uphold their covenant with him and become a successful, law-abiding nation, but, they are given as the ten best ways by which to live. If we are tempted to think of God’s commandments as out-dated forms of morality, ask any child about the impact of a broken marriage or wanting what others have, and we soon see that they have as much relevance today as it did thousands of years ago. The writer of the Proverbs, admonishes us to trust and honour God by our obedience
‘My child, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments;
for length of days and years of life
and abundant welfare they will give you.
The key items the writer wishes to stress are loyalty and faithfulness: ‘bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.’ Again the stone metaphor emphasises the permanent nature of these decrees, and further paraphrases of the ten commandments follow: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
Honour the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty.’
But these are not idle commands to be blindly obeyed to no purpose except obedience itself. To follow God’s will is to seek a path of true wisdom that brings true wealth.
‘Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honour.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
Again I am reminded of those successful old members who returned for their Gaudy last week. When they arrived as students over twenty years ago, did they come to this university simply to obtain the means by which to gain a good job, or great wealth? My conversations with those I met convinced me otherwise. For their stories and their friendships spoke of a deeper wisdom, perhaps not fully realised in their lives, but acknowledged and aspired to. In this place we gather to ponder that deeper wisdom and seek to find it.
The story of Jesus and the rich man is well known and salutary. He wants eternal life, and so Jesus points him towards the Ten Commandments, no doubt knowing full well that the rich man had kept them since his youth and yet wanted a deeper reassurance. He is met with the challenge of giving up everything and it is a hard thing for him to do. The mystery is who will inherit eternal life is not solved by this meeting. Will it be some? Will it be all? We do not know, only the enigmatic ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ It is not for us to know or conjecture. Our task is to seek the wisdom of God, day by day, as we follow his ways and trust in him.
So as we reflect on this time of change all around us, of new beginnings and endings, let us once more seek to build our lives on the rock of Christ (and not to mistake him for the shifting sands of our own illusions and pride). I leave you with the words of T.S. Eliot once again:
With the drawing of his Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. Amen.