Freshers' Sermon – The Chaplain

It’s a great pleasure to welcome students, fellows and staff back to Worcester and to their Chapel in this first Sunday service of term, and a particular privilege to welcome the Freshers. If Douglas Adams is right in saying that ‘time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so!’ then it is doubly true of time in an Oxford College. I can’t think where my first year has gone – one minute we are celebrating the beginning of term, the next we are singing Christmas Carols. Christmas comes early at Worcester, wait and see!
Whatever we have in store for us this term, there will certainly be work, but I doubt that one of your first essays will be entitled ‘What I did on my summer holidays’, although maybe some of the choristers may have written such a piece, I don’t know. But one thing I did in the long vacation was to attend my children’s sports day at their pre-school nursery – they are aged four and three. This was unlike any sports day I had ever been to before, because all the children participated in all the races and each of them was given a medal at the end and a certificate regardless of whether they were first across the finishing line or last. It reminded me of Alice in Wonderland and the wonderful race of the Mock Turtle where Alice is astonished to discover that everyone wins a prize. This was all well and good, we thought, taking away the competitiveness of such days and making sure that everyone was made to feel a winner and that it was the taking part that counts. All the children were delighted and there were no tears. All very well, that is, except that, as a parent, one couldn’t help feeling just a little disappointed that, when our little girl finished first or second in a race, she was not given her just reward. As it turned out, it was probably just as well when it came to the parents’ race. In the mums race Emma came last and in the Dads race I came second to last, even though I was sure I could beat the other young fogies lined up with me. With the adults, there was no lack of competitive spirit, I can assure you.
Well, whether this is your first year at Oxford or not, getting into this institution is a competitive business and, when you did, you were certainly among the top students in your school and in the country. And, of course, in order to come here you have to obtain at least three As at A level, which is no mean feat, whatever John Humphries implies about them getting easier every year when the results come out. So, getting here is a real prize for being the best. But I wonder, how does it feel as a fresher, or how did it feel for those of us who can remember, to realise that now everyone around us has at least the same level of intellectual ability as we have if not more. Does it feel any less gratifying getting 3 As or more, knowing that everyone else has them too. Like the Mock Turtle’s race, a prize for all, but whose the best now?
Luckily here at Worcester we hope students leave here as rounded and well-balanced people, not just academic geniuses who keep their college at the top of the Norrington table, or dare I say it, Oxford University at the top of the Times League table of the best universities. Nevertheless, student life at the highest level does involve an element of competition, even if that competition is with oneself: ‘How can I prove myself now, a first, a double first? A congratulatory viva or a D Phil with distinction’? As Chaplain I know from first-hand experience that such pressure, whether external or internal can cause some anxiety and stress. And for those of you who are not students. Fellows, Research Fellows, and parents how was the summer for you? Was it ‘productive’ or does the work now have to be crammed into the next busy academic year to meet the deadlines. A friend of Dr. Scullion once mused that if a scholar is asked ‘How was the summer?’ and he or she answers ‘It was productive’ that means they did a little work. If they answered ‘Not as productive as I hoped’ then that means they did nothing at all!
Recently, the writer and journalist Keith Waterhouse died. He was famous for his columns, books and plays, but also for getting up early to work and finishing early in order to have a long and liquid lunch with friends. When one of his friends once wanted to see one of his plays in Bath and asked him: ‘How long is the train journey to bath?’ he answered ‘About a bottle and half of Chardonnay’. Anyway, Waterhouse was also plagued by a recurring nightmare that when he died he would be visited by an angel, and taken by the hand and led to an enormous library where he was shown a long shelf of books. When he asks the angel why he is looking at this particular shelf of books, the angel replies, ‘Those are all the books you should have written.’ However successful we may become, anxiety is often never far away.
Now I know that the cure for anxiety is never to say: ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine’. It simply doesn’t work like that. But I am going to suggest that this evening’s readings and psalm provide three very important practical guides to building a good life. One: Build your life upon God. Two: know that God created you, redeemed you and called you and that he is always with you. Three: seek the kingdom of God and live its values. The first of these precepts can be found in psalm 127 sung to us by the choir: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ Unless we want to know the power of Godly love, kindness, justice, forgiveness and peace, all the anxious striving for wealth, fame or success is mere triviality. God’s goodness will work in us if we allow it to. The second guide comes from Isaiah, in the promise of restoration and protection we heard read earlier: ‘But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine.’ These are powerful words indeed and one can spend an entire lifetime meditating upon the enormity of their significance – not as a creationist manifesto, but as a simple expression of humanity’s ultimate goal and purpose, to be in relationship with God, creator, redeemer, sustainer, who is with us in the good times and the bad. And lastly, Jesus’ own words, assuring us that we do not need to replace a simple relationship of love between God and each other, with a pride of self-importance that leads to stressful breakdown of trust. Seek first the kingdom of God and its values of righteousness, that is of having one’s will aligned with that of a loving God, self-importance will wither away.
Everyone has a contribution to make in this college, whether in academia, sport, art, drama or music; whether as a chorister parent, student, fellow, porter, chef, waiter or cleaner. But the greatest contribution you will make will be your love, kindness, gentleness, gratitude and humility to one another. Take comfort in Jesus’ words and consider how lovingly God has created you, how much you owe to those who have helped and guided and befriended you. Consider how you may give a little of the goodness of yourself to your fellow human being, knowing how much God has blessed you. Amen.

The Chaplain
11th October 2009

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