University Sermon. October 13th, 2013 Rev’d Dr. Jonathan Arnold
2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
The late writer and journalist, Keith Waterhouse was plagued by a recurring nightmare that when he died he would be visited by an angel, and taken by the hand and led into an enormous library where he was shown a long shelf of books. When he asked the angel why he was looking at this particular shelf, the messenger replied, ‘Those are all the books you should have written’. Indeed, to add to the nightmare, in real life, Waterhouse once left 10,000 words of the first draft of his play, Billy Liar, in a taxi, although he later admitted that losing that ‘pretentious twaddle’ was the best thing that could have happened to him.
The fear of not having met one’s own targets, or of losing one’s work, is prevalent in Oxford at this time, as we begin the academic year. Someone once told me that, if you ask a scholar, ‘How was your summer?’ and he or she answers ‘It was productive’ that means they did some work. If they answer, ‘Not as productive as I had hoped’ then it means that it is likely they did next to nothing at all!
Whether this is your first year at Oxford or your fortieth, the beginning of the Michaelmas term is always an expectant one, full of possibilities and hope as well as some anxiety, trepidation and maybe even some regret, perhaps from uncompleted tasks, or because the beginning of this year marks the end of something else. As T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding, from his Four Quartets:
‘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.’
It is difficult to make a start here without making an ending somewhere else, even if we have seen many academic years come and go. In effect, in order to make the start we have to come to terms with the loss of something else, whether that be saying goodbye to relatives, friends and homes, or to projects of work, or to a past lifestyle or place.
But the benefits of closing down, perhaps temporarily, parts of our life in order to enter a new one are great. In remembering our benefactors in the prayers today, we are reminding ourselves of the opportunities open to us because of the generosity of those who have given so much in the past. People who gave, and continue to give, precisely because they were, or are, grateful for the opportunities afforded them and wish to give in return. Remembering those who have blessed us is an important task in itself, for without the love and support of others, we could not be here today. We have every cause, at this point in the year, to be thankful and our scripture readings this morning reflect that theme.
St. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, exhorts the disciple to ‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead … Remind them’, he says, that, through Christ’s death, we live and reign with him. In the gospel, it is the one Samaritan leper, from the ten who were healed, who postpones his visit to the priest, as Jesus has commanded, because he is compelled to turn back, prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet in order to thank him and praise God.
The healing that the grateful Samaritan received is, in some ways, the end of a sad story. The end of his illness and of a life of pain and exile. Jesus offers the man a gift, but not just a one-off gift. It is a gift that begs for a response and action in order for it to be meaningful. To truly receive the gift – the transforming gift of new life itself – means accepting a new way of being, of physical wholeness and opportunity, but also of continued discipleship. What happened to the other nine, we are not told, but if they considered their healing to be the end of something, they were not entirely correct. Because what Jesus offered was a beginning. The start of a new life, which is centered on the new wisdom and kingdom of God brought in by Christ himself. Christ gives life, not just a restoration of the body, but a whole new kind of life, that begins, as the healed lepers’ inspirational and instinctive act reveals, with praise and thanksgiving to God. In Luke’s Gospel, the very next verse sees the Pharisees ask ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’. It is a dramatic juxtaposition of text that show Theophilus, the intended reader, and us that they have missed the obvious. The kingdom is here and Christ has just revealed it by deed and word, once again.
The location of this drama in Luke’s Gospel is in the region between Samaria and Galilee, a place where Jews would not normally have travelled or feel at home. For some, even Oxford may seem like a strange land at the moment, as many are displaced from their homes. But as the gospel scene suggests, it is in just such luminal places and at such times that God’s blessing can be perceived and apprehended. For if we reflect, with gratitude, on the gifts that we have been given in our life, we are drawn, by God’s love and his call, to acknowledge the source of all gifts, God himself. For our response to that gift is not just to accept it and be thankful, but to use it and nurture it as we are capable by the use of our intellects and talents. It is in the daily act of thanksgiving that we understand that our lives, our minds, bodies and souls are something to be protected and fed with care. They is precious and, if properly used, can bring us to a wisdom, understanding and fulfilment that God intended for us, as his created beings who are uniquely made, and uniquely precious to the one who made us.
This year, each one of us will bring a unique perspective on the world, one that has the potential to persuade, enlighten and move others. Such exploration and expression does not end with the finishing of a degree, or thesis, or even at the end of a lectureship, fellowship or professorship. What we learn here may take us on many other journeys and find our ultimate fulfilment in the light of eternal truth yet to be perceived or known. That time when we shall know and be fully known.
In the Rule, St Benedict gave his monks a set of tools by which to create and cultivate a holy life. One of these rules reminds the monks to remember each day that they will not live on this earth for ever. Perhaps a taboo and seemingly morbid subject these days that is certainly out of bounds for every day conversation. But St Benedict knew that to contemplate the notion that we may not be here tomorrow, is to see today in a different light. Each day is as a new beginning, a precious gift to be savoured and enjoyed, each person is loaned to us for a brief time to be known and loved, creation is to be cherished with wonder and delight, life is here in this moment in all its fullness and not just a future hope. In this light, life is not simply a round of endings and beginnings, achievements and successes, the next essay, the next degree, or job, or new house, or title, trying to find some purpose in our success and glory before it comes to an end. No, it is, as the Samaritan leper realized, about life itself, it is about knowing and believing that in this moment is wholeness, all our endings and beginnings are one now, life has been given to us in Christ in all its fullness.
And in each moment of precious time we can only learn, or know, teach and explore because of the infinite variety and possibilities with God’s creation. In our exploration of the finite and the material we are led by God’s wisdom to touch upon the transcendent and infinite, just as in the Eucharist, which we will celebrate this morning, the sacrament with thanksgiving at its heart, we encounter both the physical and the spiritual, the human and the divine, leading us back to encounter that divine spark within us responding to God’s call and know him afresh, as if for the first time.
And so I encourage you, whether you are starting college as a student, a Don, 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 every moment: in nature, in art, in words, in music and in the relationships that are and will be established in this place and the love that is yet to come. What I want to express is captured beautifully by some words of Aldous Huxley, with which I shall end:
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.