Leaver’s Sermon, Sunday 9th June 2013. Genesis 9:1-17; Mark 4: 1-20.
Rev. Dr Jonathan Arnold
We apprehend Him in the alternate voids and fullness of a cathedral; in the space that separates the salient features of a picture; in the living geometry of a flower, a seashell, an animal; in the pauses and intervals between the notes of music, in their difference of tones and sonority; and finally, on the plane of conduct, in the love and gentleness, the confidence and humility, which give beauty to the relationships between human beings.
When William Burges decorated this Chapel in the 1860s he didn’t pull any punches. It is an amazing collage of colour and splendour that captures the imagination. I’m sure that, along with the beautiful gardens and other places in this college, that the chapel walls and pews will not easily be forgotten by anyone who has been here.
As you know, the imagery and words that surround us have more than one theme, but a key one is the idea that the whole of creation is blessing God, giving praise and thanks for the world around us. Just as this chapel represents divinity through nature, so our readings tonight both draw heavily upon the natural world to explain our relationship with God and with each other. Firstly the covenant established between God and his people after the flood, symbolized by a rainbow in the sky, and secondly, the parable of the sower, with the resulting growth representing those who receive the seed of God’s word and allow it to blossom into a fruitful life.
With regard to the first passage, I don’t think that there is a depiction of a rainbow in here to represent the imagery in the Genesis passage is about God’s covenant with the whole of creation, but it could easily have been included.
God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.
This is such a powerful vision and very a effective connection between natural phenomena and spiritual reality: when God shows the sign of his covenant, the bow in the clouds, it is to reassure us of his promise, not just to humans but to all creation. Nothing could be simpler than the visual trigger of image and idea. And so it is with Burges’ Chapel. Image and idea relate, including the parable we heard in this evening’s Gospel, which is beautifully portrayed. You may not have even noticed it yet amongst the busyness of the building but it is here, behind me: Ecce Seminans Seminandum : A sower went out to sow. And from his seed on the ground we see the tendrils of growth which spread throughout the altar area. The fruit of that harvest is apostles, evangelists, teachers, saints.
These are the ones who are not distracted by false idols in the world, or the ones who have no roots and fall away when persecution comes or the cares of the world, says Jesus. The ones who bear fruit are the ones who receive the seed of God’s message on good soil, and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.
The Gospel message is often related in images drawn from the natural world, in the Gospels, and by the God of Israel in the Old Testament. Likewise, it is represented in art on these walls, and the floor and ceiling.
The two metaphors that we consider this evening, the rainbow and the seed that gorws in the ground relate directly to college life. Not only because the heritage of this college is one which is based upon service to God, from its Benedictine religious foundation in 1283, to its connections with Orthodox Christianity and Thomas Cookes’ foundation in 1714, which all emphasise service to God and one another at heart of our statutes, and that the chapel should be at the spiritual centre of its life. But also because, as students, fellows, staff, children and parents, we make a covenant with each other, not only to abide by certain rules, but to actively work towards a greater collegiality, based upon humility, respect, honesty, and a common purpose. Moreover, at the heart of college life is the notion of growth: the purpose of nurturing what is best in human life, and that comes in many forms, like the varied depictions of the chapel walls. Thus, in all of us here, the seed of knowledge has been sown, skills of research, writing and scientific experimentation have been honed, alongside the fostering of talents for sport, music, art, drama, or whatever it may be – skills that you will take into future careers, places of learning and research, and to new schools.
The variety of potential that has been nurtured in this place is a reflection of the divine potential within ourselves and in the world. I think Burges knew that when he worked on this place, for the diversity of creation portrayed reflects the glorious diversity of all of you who have come here to pray, to worship, to sing, or to find peace, guidance or spiritual nourishment.
But most of all, I hope that this college, for you, has been about relationships: those between one another, our relationship with the wider world and with God. For all learning and talent is best employed in the service of the greatest kind of wisdom, which is love.
I hope that, if you are leaving this college community, at least for a while, that you will remember this chapel, with its riot of colour and imaginative art inspired by the divine creation and the world around us. I hope that you remember the paintings, the carvings, take them in and observe them now and when you venture forth into your new lives; be inspired by the world around you. But above all, I hope that you remember us, and the people you have known here. Because it is still your college and chapel community and you will always be welcomed back whenever you wish to come. Dare I say it, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and the website. Wherever you are in the world, you can keep in touch.
And so I encourage you, whether you are a college leaver, a student, a chorister, a parent, or like everyone, someone who is taking another step into the future, keep your antennae alert: watch, listen and seek to find the divine within all things: in nature, in art, in words, in music and in the relationships that have been established in this place and the love that is yet to come.
‘We apprehend Him in the alternate voids and fullness of a cathedral; in the space that separates the salient features of a picture; in the living geometry of a flower, a seashell, an animal; in the pauses and intervals between the notes of music, in their difference of tones and sonority; and finally, on the plane of conduct, in the love and gentleness, the confidence and humility, which give beauty to the relationships between human beings.’