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Freshers’ Sermon – The Chaplain

 

I want to welcome you all to Chapel tonight – welcome back students, boys, parents, staff and fellows, and especially to welcome new SCR members, Freshers and, of course, our new Provost, Jonathan, Paula and their family. This is a wonderful occasion and, I always feel, the beginning proper, of the new academic year.
All of you who have come here have done exceptionally well, whether as school pupils, or graduate students, or Junior Research Fellows or senior academics. But, do you ever find that, just when you think you’re getting somewhere, when you’ve passed some exams or got a new job, when you’ve really got to grips with life, that someone comes along who is cleverer, or richer, or has more status than you?
There’s a Mitchel and Webb sketch set at a drinks party, probably not unlike some of the drinks parties you may have been to even this week. As people sip their cocktails and champagne in walks Lionel with a swagger and is offered a drink by the host. He walks up to a couple and proclaims ‘Parking’s an absolute nightmare around here isn’t it. You have to reverse into the tiniest of spaces. Still, I managed it. I mean, it’s not exactly brain surgery is it … and I should know’
‘Why’s that?’, asks the woman, ‘are you a doctor?’. ‘Careful’, admonishes Lionel, ‘not a doctor, a brain surgeon. BIG difference. Brain surgeon. So what do you do?’ he asks.
‘I’m an accountant’, the man replies.
‘Oh, that’s good’, Lionel replies patronisingly, ‘Yeah, I could do with an accountant. Filling in those tax forms can be really confusing can’t it? Still, not exactly brain surgery is it? Are you an accountant too?’, he asks the woman.
‘No, I work for a charity’, replies the woman
‘Oh, that’s a very selfless job isn’t it?’ Lionel exclaims, ‘I really admire you. I don’t think I could do what you do. I say that because it’s emotionally draining, not because it’s hard. I mean, it’s not exactly brain surgery is it?’
Now in walks Geoff and Lionel makes a beeline. ‘So how do you make a crust?’ he asks Geoff.
‘Well, I’m a scientist’, answers Geoff, ‘I work mainly with rockets. It’s pretty tough work. What do you do?’
Lionel cannot resist the bait. ‘Well, I don’t mean to boast but I’m a brain surgeon’.
‘Brain surgery?’, considers Geoff as he takes a sip of champagne, ‘not exactly rocket science though is it?’
The sketch is a salutary lesson about boasting about one’s status, and I hope you don’t meet anybody like that in Oxford, and especially not here at Worcester College. For tonight’s bible readings speak very clearly about genuine status and about how, in God’s economy, everything is upside down. The writer of Proverbs tells us that wisdom and understanding are better than silver, gold or jewels or any worldly power, status or treasure. What is that wisdom? It is keeping God’s commandments of love, loyalty and faithfulness. In the gospel, the rich man has kept all these commandments, and yet he cannot let go of his status in wealth, even to find freedom with Christ. How hard it is for him, says Jesus, and indeed for anyone who gives up their worldly potential or power, status and wealth, in order to gain a greater peace and freedom. In God’s kingdom it is the one who serves who most to be honoured. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
How can this be illustrated in reality here at Worcester College? Well, this college was founded in 1283 as a Benedictine monastery and so here is a Benedictine story, which might indicate how we are best to live together, at least for the next eight weeks.
There was once a monk who was abbot to a small community. Things had not been going well. A lethargy had fallen on the brothers so that saying their prayers together had become a trial rather than a delight. The brothers were finding it increasingly difficult to get on with each other. Squabbles had broken out and monks who had been friends for years found each other annoying. Few guests came to visit the old monastery and no one had joined their community for years, so the small community felt dejected and lonely. The abbot was worried and sick at heart to see the brothers he loved so much tired and depressed. He had heard that there was a very wise nun who lived many miles away and wondered whether she could give him some advice as to what to do. So he set out on the journey, which took many weeks, during which time he travelled over mountain, through desert and across the sea. At last he came to the convent of the wise nun who was mother to her community. Tired and exhausted after his long journey he asked if he could see the Mother superior and she brought him into her room, laid food before him and insisted that he rested before he was able allowed to talk. After a good night’s sleep he asked if he could see the Mother Superior once again and was shown into her room. This time she silently listened to all his troubles and concerns. When he finished he asked he if she would be able to help, to offer any advice. She said, ‘Yes. What I am about to tell you, I will say only once and then I will never repeat it. Take what I say back to the brothers, say it to them one time only and then it must never be said again’. The Abbot leaned forward in anticipation of her words and she said very softly, ‘One of you is the Son of God’ The Abbot looked at her stunned and perplexed. He left the convent the next day with his head full of questions but he knew that the wise nun would never answer them.
On returning to his monastery the monks came to greet him, eager to hear what the advice was that he had been given. True to his word the abbot gathered everyone together and said ‘I will only say this once and then it must never be spoken of again’. Every member of that community leaned forward, straining to catch every word. ‘Among us is the Son of God’.
There was silence and the brothers looked at each other, wondering. The brothers went back to their daily chores and regular round of prayers. It was as if nothing had changed. But as the days and weeks and months went by, the brothers started to notice that an imperceptible change came amongst their little community. The daily office of prayer became a delight once again. As the brothers continued to wonder which one of them was the son of God, the began to see each other with new eyes and a deep reverence and respect for one another descended on the community. The brothers became more eager to serve one another than to find fault. The abbot found peace and others gradually began to join the community again and it became renowned. No one could say why, but it was often said of them that, there, one felt as if one was in the presence of Christ.
The story raises many questions that linger in the mind. But my question this evening is this – in the community, the family, of Worcester College, does one feel that one is in a place that respects the same values that Christ stood for? Is there kindness and gentleness? Is there generosity, patience and humility and keenness of service that seeks to help others? Do we find reverence for each other and diligence to see good prosper here? For these qualities are the values of the kingdom of God and are more precious than all the riches in the world. One act of kindness can transform our lives, whether we give it or receive it.
So welcome to Worcester College, and may we all, this year, consider one another as children of God, each created as uniquely precious to him. Amen.

Rev’d Dr Jonathan Arnold
9th October 2011