On September 29th, 2005, I preached at the Swansea University Welcome Service which begins the academic year. Richard approached me afterwards and said, “Look, I know you’re not into visiting websites – not even mine, you bastard! – but would you mind if I posted that sermon at Connexions?” “Sure,” I said. So I emailed it to him and then forgot about it.
A couple of days later Richard emailed me back: “You might want to visit the site after all. You’re getting quite a response.” So I did, and I was, and I joined in the conversation, and the rest is blah, blah, blah.
So here we are, five years later, on September 30th, 2010. Today I preached again at the University service. Here is the sermon. Dedicated to Richard. Unless he thinks it stinks. In which case he can forward it to Ben Myers for second refusal.
Great speeches. Think for a moment. Who comes to mind? If you’re British, Churchill for sure. Seventy years ago, in May 1940, anticipating the Battle of Britain: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”; and three months later, honouring the RAF pilots: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Or perhaps, for the Welsh, something from Lloyd George – or Nye Bevan, his Tories “are lower than vermin” speech (Manchester 1949), which would now include the Lib Dems – and come to think of it, New Labour as well. Or perhaps Richard Burton playing Hamlet. Or Swansea’s own bard Dylan Thomas inimitably reading his own poetry.
For me, as an American growing up in the sixties, it’s got to be Martin Luther King. And you’re spoiled for choice. His “I have a dream” speech (August 1963), the climax of the great March on Washington. Or the “I’ve got to go back to the valley” speech, on his receiving the Noble Peace Prize in Oslo (December 1964). Or perhaps his last great speech – “I’ve been to the mountaintop” – the night before he was shot and killed (Memphis, Tennessee, April 1968).
Great speeches, from politicians, or actors, or poets, or preachers with what the Welsh call hwyl. Perfect command of the language. What a gift. Who knows, here at the University you might even find a lecturer who actually lectures, eloquently, rather than just providing a running commentary to a PowerPoint presentation.
Then there is intellectual brilliance. Again, who stands out for you? At school, did anyone leave a striking, lasting impression on you? Perhaps a teacher who made her subject catch fire, inspiring you to study for a university degree. And think of thinkers whose ideas have revolutionised their fields. It’s been said that all of western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. And others have changed the way we think about human beings – Darwin with his theory of natural selection, Freud and the unconscious. And still others have changed the way we think about the whole universe – Copernicus, Galileo, Newton with his theories of gravity and motion, Einstein and relativity. For me, reading Karl Barth’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans was the dynamite that exploded in my life and blew me into Christian faith. Thinkers who have sounded the depths of what there is to know, and then returned to share their discoveries with us. Genius. Perhaps you might run into one at the Theological Society Lectures that Nigel conjures up during the academic year.
And then there are the altruists, the paragons of dispossession. There are the philanthropists, people who really are indifferent to money, money, money, who give it away without any hidden agenda. Or it may not be about material things at all. Think of people who give up their careers for those less fortunate than themselves, like Albert Schweitzer, already a famous musician and theologian, who gave it all up to practice medicine in Africa. Or it may be famous people who give of their time and talents to bring hope to the suffering. Think of Bob Geldof orchestrating the Live Aid and Live 8 Concerts, or Esther Rantzen starting Childline. But it may just be ordinary people who have taken up some cause that has touched them, galvanising fund-raising for cancer research, driving lorries filled with goods to villages near Chernobyl, or working to rebuild the infrastructure of Haiti. Or it may just be people who are dedicated to the work that they do, working all the hours God gives them – and then some – in hospitals or the social services, some awarded, most unrecognised – except by those they serve. As students you will have an opportunity through the University’s Discovery programme to do voluntary work during your time in Swansea. Carpe diem!
Finally, let me mention the super-heroes, the ones who lay down their lives as an ultimate witness to their faith. These are the martyrs who speak truth to power, who are tortured but won’t recant, who are executed or assassinated and die with courage and dignity and forgiveness for their murderers – Dietrich Bonhoeffer hanged by the Nazis, Archbishop Oscar Romero gunned down in his own cathedral by government thugs. Their blood, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the church.
Human greatness: in oratory, in brain-power, in self-giving, in the ultimate sacrifice. Would that we could be like them, but if we can’t, that’s okay, because we are all still the better for them, and the world is a richer place. We are thankful that they are great while we are puny, fleas compared to elephants who yet carry us on their huge shoulders. What more can we say?
Let Paul say it. Paul who himself could preach a bit. Paul whose letters are the text to which the rest of Christian theology is mere commentary. Paul who travelled the Mediterranean world like a man possessed, not only to spread the gospel, but also to gather collections from his churches to bring to the poor in Jerusalem. Paul who suffered beatings, shipwreck, imprisonment, and who would eventually be martyred in Rome.
Yes, let Paul, who is in a position to say it – I am certainly not – I’m the monkey, Paul is the organ-grinder – and it’s shocking stuff, however sentimentally we hear it read at weddings and post-Diana funerals – let Paul say what has to be said in I Corinthians 13: the oratory – “I may have the gift of inspired preaching”; the brain-power – “I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets”; the giving – “I may give away everything I have”; the valour – “I may give my body to be burnt”;– “but if I have no love [Paul says] I gain nothing by it.” No matter what I say, no matter what I think, no matter what I do, I am nothing – nothing! – without love.
Think about it: the Churchills and the Luther Kings, the Platos and the Einsteins, the Schweitzers and the Geldofs, the Bonhoeffers and Romeros: without love – nothing! As the American minister William Sloane Coffin observed: “I doubt if in any other scriptures of the world is [there] a more radical statement of ethics. If we fail in love, we fail in all things else.”
Now: if that is true – and the Bible says it is true – then what? Well, a good place to start is with confession: we have failed, failed in love. We have failed in love not only because love is the measure, but because (as St. Augustine said) the only measure of love is love without measure – and who among us loves without measure, with inexhaustible overflow, with unconditional commitment, loves with a love “that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7)? Who?! Who in our cynical, market-driven world, bolstered by a philosophy of education that reduces students to economic units of production - who would even want to do such foolish things? Love like that and you’re not going to make a lot of bucks, rather you’ll get yourself in trouble, you might even get yourself killed! But, yes, because we have failed precisely in this love, and therefore failed in all things else, it follows that we are, indeed, nothing.
We are nothing. That sounds like a sentence, but it’s not, because there is a comma there, not a full-stop. Because being nothing is not the end of the matter. Being nothing, we are empty. But being empty, we can now be filled. And that is God’s will – hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, the one who did not fail in love, who loved to the end, who loved without measure – you! me! us! – it is God’s will to fill his empty people. Make no mistake: God loves us just as we are, in all our emptiness; and, further, there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less. But the point is this: God loves us much too much to leave us just as we are. Rather God wills to make us something, wills to take us loveless creatures and turn us into loving creatures, by filling us with his very own love, by freely pouring his Holy Spirit into our hearts.
It is great to be a great speaker, thinker, giver, martyr. The chaplains pray that you will achieve great things during your time at university. But above all – because otherwise it is time wasted – we pray that you will grow in love – in patience, kindness, humility – for all the different and sometimes difficult people you will meet: in a word, that you will become more Christ-like, and thus participate in the very life of God, the God who is love.