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Freshers’ Sermon – The Chaplain

 

Words from St. John’s Gospel: ‘You did not choose me: I chose you. I appointed you to go on and bear fruit, fruit that shall last; so that the Father may give you all that you ask in my name. This is my commandment to you: love one another.’
As I have already said, welcome back to Worcester and welcome to those who are here for the first time. As I enter my third year here as Chaplain, it seems that time, in Oxford, passes quickly and seems to become condensed somehow. I realised the other day, that this is the year when I will see third year undergraduates leave, the ones that started at this college with me in 2008. This is also, sadly, the beginning of the Provost’s last year as Head of House, and so it is a significant and poignant year. But we are not to be downcast, for I also suspect it will be a great year in many ways and it is auspicious perhaps, that today is the 10th day or the 10th month of 2010. So the numerologists, and those of a superstitious nature, tell us that it is the luckiest day of the year and likely to be the last properly sunny day. It must be true, because I heard it on the news! We shall see.
But 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 afterwards. If you don’t get it the first time, I shall give you a clue the second time. 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. Next Friday I will take part in a village quiz, and my 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. But I tested one of them the other day. I said ‘Can you tell me, for instance, who was the last person or group to win the X Factor?’. He replied: ‘What’s the X Factor?’ Oh, dear!
But I digress. Let us examine the wisdom of another Professor, Professor Dumbledore. ‘It is our choices that show what we truly are’. If this is true, it begs a question of each one of us tonight. 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. One finds oneself oscillating between saying ‘Don’t worry, enjoy life and all that Oxford has to offer’ and ‘But do work hard’ ‘but don’t worry …’ etc.
But there is a different kind of choice that puts all of this into perspective. And it is not hard for me to find the words, because, as is so often the case, Christ has the words, and the gospel turns the wisdom of the world upside down. Jesus says: ‘You did not choose me: I chose you.’ I find these words very comforting, because they demonstrate to me that in the dilemmas and struggles of everyday life, I am not alone, that I am loved by God regardless of how I am feeling and that his Spirit is at work in us. It is the primary work of God’s love for us that gives us strength to do good. I particularly love 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 in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is patience, self control, joy, love, 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.
In 2006 I heard a series of radio interviews entitled: Humphries in Search of God, which have now been published as a book, in which John Humphries, the grumpy one from the Today programme, talked, as a non-believer, about faith to key religious leaders. The Response of Rowan Williams to one of Humphries’s question aptly summarizes the notion that God chose us: his love is there for us. Williams said:
‘The gift of God is there for you … God stands at the door and knocks and if you don’t fully open the door you are not fully in the company of God’. The fundamental question, Rowan said, was, can you respond to the notion that ‘you are the object of an unconditional eternal love which values you in such a way that your contribution, as you, to the world is uniquely precious to the one who made it.’
I hope that you all have a great year, and whatever you have to contribute to this college, or your school or your workplace may bring fulfilment and joy. I hope that you may find the courage to love one another as Christ loved you. And I hope that whatever choices you make, be they wise ones or mistakes, that you may meditate on the life-giving truth that, before all the complex decisions of life began and before all difficult choices were presented, God Chose You. How you respond is up to you.

Rev Dr Jonathan Arnold, Chaplain
10th October 2010