Moorlands Graduation Service.

October 21st 2005

 

I want to thank the Principal very much for his welcome to the College and say how delighted I am to be here with you today- both in my capacity as guest speaker and also as Chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire.

We gather of course to salute the achievements of those who have finished their degrees or diplomas and to send them out to serve Christ and their generation. And on behalf of everyone here may I say: ‘Well done! We are thrilled to be here to celebrate your achievements’. 

I want to bring to them a few verses from Phil 3: 14. ‘I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’. 

That passage in Philippians is one of the most magnificent of Paul’s teaching. He draws upon his own story and tells us three things about ambition. First, that Christian ambition involves renunciation; second that it involves risk; third, that a reward awaits us. Renunciation, risk and reward.

Well, renunciation. I take it for granted that each of you here know what that has meant and means. Very possibly it has included financial insecurity and, I am sure, at times deep anxiety. Other factors may have played a part- pressure on family life and less time to give to others. It hasn’t been all cake and roses along the way!

Well, St.Paul knew all about that. Why, he tells us: ‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse’. It is good to have a goal in life where you and I are willing to surrender everything for a higher goal. I see this in the lives of politicians, businessmen and other professional people. Don’t be fooled by the argument that only Christians know what it is to renounce. I can tell you this that at the top of every tree people are prepared to sacrifice almost everything for the sake of their chosen career. Cabinet ministers burn the midnight oil regularly and have to appear in their offices less than six hours later. The same goes for other professions. St.Paul knew about that kind of ambition. In 1 Cor 9:25 he speaks of the ambition of an athlete exercising night and day to win the race and he says ;’They do it to inherit a perishable wreath- but we an imperishable’.

So may I say to you tonight, thank you for your willingness to renounce and commit yourself in this kind of way.

But there is a risk attached to this but I wonder if we are seduced these days by our society which leads us to believe that we must exclude from life all risk! We are living in a risk-averse culture. The unspoken assumption around is that life should offer us guarantees that we will be successful and all our efforts rewarded. Last year an advert appeared in a magazine devoted to carers which showed a man on a ladder changing a light bulb with an infirm man looking on. The advert read: ‘Even a small thing may have great consequences. As a care worker you can make a difference to the life of someone else’. However, the Care Association phoned in and said ‘We wish it were that simple. In actual fact it takes four people to change a light bulb. One to hold the ladder, one to turn off the electricity, one to change the bulb and one to look after the infirm man!‘

We all know we live in a litigious society but our fear of the consequences of our actions has led to excessive caution. During the time of the Crusades there was great anger that the Holy Land was in the hands of the Turks. Crusaders called for volunteers to join them to free Jerusalem. Many believed this was a noble cause and sent money and gifts and very many actually went. As time went on and it became clear that the war was dangerous and very risky, some people put off going and instead went around shouting ‘La sainte Terre’ (Holy land). People praised them and gave them money and gifts. But they stayed at home and never went to the holy land. They became known as ‘the saunterers’; the ‘sainte terre’ and the cry became a cry of contempt- those who just boasted and sauntered around the country; talking about the battle but never ever went.

It is easy to be like them, to have big ideas and endless discussions – but never in fact doing anything. You see, we are called to risk everything for a cause greater than anybody here and anything else in life. Christians are not simply, and merely called, to change themselves and their local community - but the world. What a terrifying project! So, when St.Paul says, as he does here, that he is ‘straining forward’ and ‘pressing on’ he is using contemporary athletic jargon to emphasis determination and commitment. But this is not a short or easy sprint! He is going for the finishing tape but it is a lifetime activity.

If I have one longing or ambition for you it is that you should see your leaving here as being at the beginning of your ministry and not its culmination. Some of you will exercise ministry in churches but it is possible that quite a few will go back into secular work. And those who do the latter, please be aware that it is not an inferior calling. We need godly people in all walks of life. What should define your life whether ordained or a professional person elsewhere should be excellence or thoroughness. A friend of mine in the business world used to say ‘thoroughness makes thoroughbreds’. Aim to be the best; aim to do your best and aim to bring out the best in others. I remember Willie Whitelaw saying to be about Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister that she was so thorough in her preparation that even her cabinet ministers trembled when they had to present a paper to the cabinet meeting, because she knew the ins and outs of the document better than they knew it themselves. You may know the story of the time she went to Chelsea restaurant with several of her colleagues. She ordered her food. ‘I’ll have steak, medium rare’. ‘And the vegetables?’ asked the waiter. Glancing at her colleagues she said ‘They’ll have the same’.  Her example, however, does make the point that leaders should aim to bring out the best in others and expect them to exercise the same degree of thoroughness and focus. Too often we Christians are lazy, indulgent and settle for second best. St.Paul never did.  

But can we really talk of rewards? It is nice to receive prizes, isn’t it and to achieve a good degree is a thrill that gives pleasure especially to one’s family! But, in other respects we tend to recoil when we hear of spiritual rewards. Most of us here have been influenced by the Protestant tradition; we believe in faith not works; grace not rewards.

However, we must be careful that we do not say less than the New Testament does. Jesus spoke of rewards for those who followed him and we should never be reticent about speaking in the same firm tones that our Lord is no man’s debtor. The Christian message is about fulfilment. To be candid, I am dismayed that present day preaching has lost that note about the transformational qualities of the gospel. We should expect lives to be different if we are following Christ and our preaching and teaching should claim that promise. I think of a lovely Christian man in Uganda named Gideon Byagamushi. Some ten years ago his wife died after a painful illness.. etc.. Gideon refused to lie down and give up to the disease… he said to himself: ‘I must make this my life’s work; I must show people that in spite of a debilitating and potentially terminal illness, Christ may transform the situation’. Gideon has given hope to thousands of people.

And that is what we should expect. And perhaps the best reward we can ever desire is that of knowing that we are serving our Lord and getting huge satisfaction out of doing it to the best of our ability. And the best ‘ability’ will always be ‘availability’; people who are not saunterers but those who make themselves available to be used by God and used by his Spirit.

So to all leavers here tonight Paul’s message comes  personally to you, ‘to press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ and as you do so to aim for excellence in all you do.

“For excellence can be obtained if you

Care more than others think is wise

Risk more than others think it safe

Dream more than others think is practical and Expect more than others think is possible”. 

© George Carey