Freshers’ Evensong sermon, 13th October 2013, Rev’d. Dr. Jonathan Arnold
Readings: Isaiah 51: 9-16; John 15: 12-end
Words from St. John’s Gospel: ‘I have spoken to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete. This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you.
I want to begin this first sermon of the academic year by testing your knowledge, bearing in mind that everyone here is well educated. The simple question is this. Can you tell me where this literary quotation comes from? The first one to give the answer will win a prize. If you don’t get it the first time, I shall give you a clue the second time. And
“… the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The quotation comes at the very end of that remarkable work Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans, otherwise known as George Eliot. I was lucky enough to be able to re-read the work recently and familiarise myself once again with its glorious prose and the story of provincial life, which finds nobility and grandeur of character in the ordinary. The final words relate to the most endearing character, Dorothea Brooke, who seeks to do good and find a great cause in life. We have to endure reading about her marriage to the dry, shrivelled pretentious scholar Casaubon, who is embarked, he believes, upon a work of erudition that is so important, it is too precious for public enjoyment. Dorothea sacrifices herself to assisting in this hopeless task until she is eventually released by his death and she can find a more fruitful outlet for her kindness and benefaction, and indeed find a more fruitful relationship. The same Final chapter of the novel has words that are very apposite for the beginning of a new academic year:
‘Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years?’ As members of this College and Chapel community, you are members of a family for the rest of your life, and so, this is an exciting and re-vitalizing time for our college, with new members of the family to welcome and a new future ahead for each one of us.
But there is one more quotation challenge and, indeed, another prize for this, which may appeal to the younger members of our gathering. Here it is, and I quote: ‘It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities’. Anyone? Here it is for a second time with a clue inserted: ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than out abilities.’ Of course it is from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling published in 1998, p. 245. Words spoken by Professor Dumbledore.
If you did not manage to guess correctly, do not worry, for not everyone is an expert in popular culture. Each year I take part in a village quiz, and our team is entirely composed of Church of England Clergy: a Canon Professor and Principal of a theological college, another College Chaplain, a Professor at Oxford who is also a clergyman, a vicar and myself. We must know something, you might think. One of our number was tested with the question: ‘Who was the last person or group to win the X Factor?’. He replied: ‘What’s the X Factor?’
But let’s get back to our quotations, and indeed to the scripture readings tonight, which speak of choice. What decisions have we made in our lives that have brought us, by twists and turns, to where we are right now? I don’t mean simply deciding to come to Chapel this evening, although may I commend you on an excellent choice is so doing, but the hundreds of other choices that have formed us: our parents’ choice of where we were brought up and where we went to school; the choice of friends we make; the subjects we chose to take and those we decided to reject; our A level choices; our decision to go into higher education and so on and so on … And why choose Worcester College? The wonderful grounds and buildings, the friendly reputation, the teaching, the sport or the music? Or is it more that Worcester chose you: chose you to study here, or chose you for a certain sporting team, or chose you to sing in the choir as a student or as a boy chorister. And what does Worcester expect in return? What fruit are we expecting you to bear? Academic success, sporting excellence, a glittering career? Great expectations indeed. I was saying the other day that it is difficult to find the right words to describe the work/life balance needed in a place like this.
It seems to me that the most important choice we have to make about how we should live, through this new academic year, is one of response to the words of Christ – that appeal of his that we should love one another. I particularly admire this version of the greatest commandment in John 15, because it does not say ‘Love one another as you love yourself’, which is sometimes a very difficult concept, but ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. The love of Christ, self-giving and sacrificial, is not only our model, but also our impetus and our strength. We are able to love because he loved us first and, although taking the road of selfless love can often be hard, we will always be given sufficient grace for the task.
Moreover, the consequences of this love in action is the bearing of fruit: the kind of fruit that we hear about from St. Paul: patience, self control, joy, peace, faithfulness, gentleness, goodness and kindness. And the consequence of this work of God is joy ‘I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy complete.’ The consequence of our response to the love of God is life in all its fullness.
The practical means by which love can be expressed in action in an Oxford college is though a mutual sense of care, kindness and responsibility. In fact, rresponsibility encompasses a number of virtues: humility, generosity, diligence, thankfulness and patience amongst others. These are all virtues that require certain amounts of self-sacrifice and discipline. Responsibility and family, or community, life go hand in hand. For if we were to be left to our own devices as individuals unaided and uncared for, and not helping others we could only fail.
This morning I was preaching the University sermon at St. Mary’s on the High Street on the day when the benefactors of the University are remembered. These patrons of learning are always commemorated in public and their legacy lives on as they are praised for their generosity. But living a good life need not necessarily mean giving on such a large scale, or receiving the glory for it. Indeed, if the gift is not in the spirit of the love and kindness Christ speak about, then it may not bring the giver much joy. I was talking to a wealthy, highly educated and distinguished philanthropist the other day, who had achieved a great deal and in turn for his generosity, had received a great deal of glory and praise for his work. I did not ask him about his motivation in life, or belief system, but he said to me that he wished to finish his life ‘a good man’. Some would say that his goodness is plain for all to see in his generosity, but he himself was still striving to feel that he was ‘good’. It reminded me of Dorothea’s words to Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch who confides to him her belief …
“That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”
This Michaelmas term, let us desire what is good, respond to the call of Christ to love one another as he has loved us, and to live lives that acknowledge the responsibility and inter-connectedness of each one of us to the other. May we do this with the help of God’s grace, freely given to us, so that we may have joy, and our joy complete. Amen.