In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a lovely scene in the recent film adaption of the Michael Bond Paddington Bear books, when Paddington meets Mr Gruber for the first time. It’s tea time and a toy steam train appears, as if from nowhere, across the back of the study full of interesting sights and smells, until it stops in front of Mrs Brown, Paddington and Mr Gruber. Hot chocolate or coffee is poured from a tap in the train’s engine and the carriages are full of delicious cakes that Paddington immediately devours. Mr Gruber comments that a long time ago he had travelled on such a train. ‘Was it hard to find a home?’ asks Paddington earnestly and Mr Gruber tells his story. When he a young boy his home became very dangerous, so his parents packed him off on a train to travel the length of Europe alone. He was met at the station by a great aunt who took him in. ‘I had travelled fast a very long way,’ he wistfully said, ‘my heart, it took a little longer’.
We continue to hear of other terrifying stories in a catalogue of events which have described the desperate lengths whole families and children will go to leave their homes and risk journeys across high seas in overcrowded and inadequate boats for the hope of a new home. From the thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, who are stranded in the Andaman Sea in south-east Asia to the many more fleeing atrocities in north Africa who are daily rescued from sinking ships or dinghies in the Mediterranean sea, that story Mr Gruber tells is for many a present and perilous reality, not a history of a more barbarous past.
For many of us living in Oxford and the surrounding villages the plight of those people who have lost their homes is tragic and calls for compassion and generosity. We may not have experienced the fear and desperation that caused them to risk their lives but all of us can at some level relate to what it is like to have to leave a home which has been built up and loved to move to another place and start again. The generation who can boast that they were born, bred, lived and died in one village or even one house is dying out, as most of us these days for one reason or another move around and live in a variety of communities or countries which may not originally have been our own. From housing prices which young families cannot afford, to going where a job takes us, maybe to the other side of the world, we are a more transient generation. Home is indeed where the heart is, but as the migrant in Paddington states, creating a home can take a little longer, for the heart does not always travel as quickly as may the body, despite the eagerness with which the body might wish to travel.
Worcester College has always strived to be a home for the fellows, staff and students working and living here. In years gone by a sense of community, or home, was encouraged by the imposition of compulsory chapel on Sundays. I see that we do not need such a rule today. I recently heard a story from an old member, John Davies, who was an undergraduate here in the 1950s. He told me that a student could only be excused chapel, either on a Sunday morning or evening, if they had a very compelling reason or if they were of a non-Christian faith, and then only by express permission from the Provost, who was Masterman at that time. One student petitioned the Provost and requested that he be excused chapel because he worshipped the sun. ‘Very well’, Masterman replied. The next morning the undergraduate was woken at 4 a.m. by a porter knocking at his door. ‘Compliments of Provost Masterman’, the porter announced, ‘he wishes to inform you that the sun has now risen and is awaiting your worship.’ After a week of the early-morning calls, the student decided that he would attend Sunday chapel after all. Those were the days.
Times change, but Worcester has continued to be a temporary home to generations, and today we say farewell to a number of people, students, choristers and parents, who have been part of Worcester and its chapel life for the past few years or months, and who must once again pack up their bags and move on to begin the process of finding and building a new home, a new job or a new school, of learning new names and making new friends. For others, it is a return to home after the temporary one of this college, and time to move back to the familiar, in order to reassess what the future might hold now. Either way, this is a time of ‘moving on’ and of saying goodbye. On this of all days, when we fondly say farewell to them we are given our gospel reading as a gift to us and them. For, after your years of education in this august establishment, and in the cathedral school, we reflect upon the words from St. John’s gospel known as the Last Supper or Farewell Discourses.
In many ways it is the final words of someone who is moving on, who is worried about those he is leaving behind. His words are all directed to the Father but as you know, if you have ever experienced someone praying over you, the words and intentions are really for you to hear, God of course already knows. What he says is that he has done everything he was sent to do: he has made the Father’s name known to us, we have believed and in so doing glorified God. Now he begs that the Father will look after us, for there will be difficult times ahead and he will no longer be around. Up to this point, Jesus’ prayer is everything you would expect from someone who is going away to reassure those who are left behind that they will be all right, they will be in the Father’s keeping.
But, this is not just anyone who is embarking on a new venture, it is Christ and when he places us within the keeping of the Father, it is not just a hopeful blessing. In the last section of the prayer he reveals that with his departure everything has changed for us, through our faith in him we have been sanctified and as a result our home has radically changed. No longer is our home in this world, where we are born, live, work and die, but our home is with him which is above, within, beyond and around all that we have ever experienced or could ever experience as home. It is as if it is we who have suddenly travelled a very long way and found that our heart was there all the time.
So we speed you all on your way as you journey to different places and new experiences. Remember that you will always be welcome in this place as part of a family to which you belong and that was, for a time, your home. And rejoice that all of us share one home, our truest and most real home with our Lord above, mindful that we must always welcome the stranger amongst us, for we are all strangers until we meet in Christ and delight in the home to which our heart has already gone before. Amen.