Sermon for Encaenia 2016

“Martha, Martha; thou art anxious and troubled about a multitude of things;
one thing is needful”

Isaiah’s lovely words which Abigail read complement Luke’s wonderful words which Colin read. Together they suggest something about the significance of this day and our gathering here in the School Chapel which has been in so many ways an integral part of your time at King’s-Edgehill. Cadets, Chapel, Sports, Classes – “these are a few of your favourite things”! It is, to be sure, the last Chapel for the graduating class. Today you step up as students and step out as graduates and alumni. You have made the grade! And I am sure that along with the mountains and the hills breaking forth with joy, there are the prayers of many a parent and grandparent, guardian and friend, whose hearts are breaking forth with joy, too, a joy coloured by no little sense of relief that you made it. At last! I hear them sigh, checking their chequebooks for what they hope might be the last time. It won’t.

Along with your stepping up and stepping out, Mr. Darcy Walsh goes with you after thirty-six years of teaching and coaching here at King’s-Edgehill and after far, far more Chapel services than any of you can boast. I worry whether Chapel will be able to continue without his expertise – in turning off the blower, that is to say. I don’t mean me. We wish him all the best in his retirement. But no doubt he will be back and back to the Chapel too when Finn and Sawyer come of age to continue the tradition of Walshs at King’s-Edgehill.

Yet, paradoxically, this time of endings is also about beginnings. Encaenia is the proper word for this service, even as Commencement is the word for the ceremonies which follow. Both words speak of a sense of beginning by way of honouring the principles that last, the principles that inform the life and purpose of the School. Encaenia is a Greek word (en & kainos) referring to a dedication festival, to a renewal of a sense of purpose and identity. Used with respect to the anniversary dedication of temples and churches, it has its further application to “the annual commemoration of founders and benefactors at Oxford University in June”(O.E.D.) and, by extension to many other schools and colleges throughout the world, such as King’s-Edgehill here in Windsor. We are all part of something much larger than ourselves.

Such words connect us to a rich interchange of cultures both ancient and modern, to things Jewish, Graeco-Roman, and Christian and beyond, to a rich interchange of spiritual and intellectual concepts that shape and form our corporate life. For we are reminded of our purpose and meaning as an educational institute and about ideas that are greater than ourselves. We meet in the 228th year of the School and in the 125th anniversary of the founding of Edgehill School for Girls and in the 40th year of the union of King’s and Edgehill. In some sense 2016 is the Year of Edgehill when we celebrate what Edgehill brought to Kings, a kind of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of dignity and respect, and a certain polish to ideals such as gentleness and learning. Our challenge with you as students has been to help you realise that you are part of something bigger than yourselves and that service and commitment to truths held sacred make all the difference in a troubled and anxious world.

The sacred duty of teachers, as Plato reminds us, is to impregnate their students – with good ideas, that is, that contribute to the betterment of all. That means paying attention to the things that matter. Ideas matter. They matter more than we realize.

It requires the kind of thoughtfulness that the reading from Luke signals so powerfully. “Mary”, it is said, “has chosen the better part which shall not be taken from her”. She is attentive to the one thing needful. What is that? In a word which perhaps seems terribly old-fashioned, the contemplation of the truth, to what is eternal and everlasting in the midst of the ever-changing. This means something more than the mindfulness promoted by Google which contributes to employees being better employees, more focused on the main agenda, namely, profit. “But what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?” it is asked biblically and ethically. To contemplate is to be aware that there is more to life than power and money, the ambitio saeculi, the desires of the world, which can never fully satisfy the longings of the human heart, and only leave us frustrated and empty. You have, perhaps, become a little more aware of yourselves as selves which means an awareness and a concern for others and for our world, perhaps even an awareness of God.

“It’s like a little village”, Katrina said to her mother when she first came to live on campus at King’s-Edgehill. And in many ways, the School is like a little village but one which, I hope, is at least a little like the village of Mary and Martha where we see the interplay of action and contemplation. For while “Mary hath chosen the better part”, that does not mean that Martha’s part is unimportant. The problem is not that Martha is busy any more than you have been busy. No. The problem is that she is distracted.

What does that mean? It means that she is uncollected, uncentered, and without a proper focus. The word itself suggests that her eyes move about from one thing to another, turning this way and that, almost in a frenzy of activity but without any clear sense for what end, for what purpose. The most miserable form of busyness is busyness for busyness’ sake. Luke, it seems, has anticipated the problems of our digital age, distracted with much busyness, anxious and troubled about a multitude of things. Anxiety is the more modern term for carefulness, literally, being full of cares.

Such anxiety is really a kind of forgetfulness, a forgetfulness of who we are and what we are called to be. All the great religions of the world call us to a kind of thoughtfulness as the counter to busyness for busyness’ sake. It doesn’t mean ‘stop the world, I want to get off’, a flight from the demands and the obligations of our life together. It means instead the kind of thoughtfulness that recalls us to the purpose of our activities, to the end or goal for which things are done.

It is a charming twelfth century Cistercian monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, writing in northern England who captures beautifully the deep lesson of Luke’s passage.

In this wretched and laborious life, brethren, Martha must of necessity be in our house; that is to say, our soul has to be concerned with bodily actions. As long as we need to eat and drink, we shall need to tame our flesh with watching, fasting, and work. This is Martha’s role. But in our souls there ought also to be Mary, that is, spiritual activity. For we should not always give ourselves to bodily efforts, but sometimes be still and see how lovely, how sweet the Lord is, sitting at the feet of Jesus and hearing his word. You should in no wise neglect Mary for Martha; or again Martha for Mary. For, if you neglect Martha, who will feed Jesus? If you neglect Mary, what use is it for Jesus to come to your house, when you taste nothing of his sweetness?

Ultimately, the busyness of Martha has to be brought into the restfullness of Mary, sitting and listening.

Some of you will remember the reading at the last Chapel service of the term. It was the familiar Parable of the Good Samaritan. It begins with a conversation between Jesus and a certain lawyer in which Jesus responds to his question with a question, “How do you read?” referring to the law. That drew out of the lawyer what is known as the Shema by Jews and The Summary of the Law by Christians, a remarkable distillation of the essential moral teaching of both religions; the love of God and the love of neighbour are intimately and necessarily connected. But it leads to a further question by the lawyer. “And who is my neighbour?” he asks. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the answer to that question. A man lies wounded and half-dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, symbols of the heavenly and the earthly city. He is the victim of robbers and yet he is a symbol of our wounded and broken humanity. A priest and levite see him and pass by. But “a certain Samaritan when he saw him, had compassion on him and went to him”. Out of his seeing flows purposeful action: he “took care of him”. The Parable ends with Jesus asking the lawyer, “who was neighbour unto him who fell among the thieves?” To which he answered, “he that showed mercy on him”. “Then said Jesus unto him, Go and do likewise.”

I remind you of that wonderful story because it teaches us about the necessary interplay between thinking and doing. This is the Gospel passage which immediately precedes the story of Martha and Mary. Thus we see the nature of the interplay of thought and action: the thinking that leads to doing, and the doing which is ultimately for the sake of thinking. Such is the interplay of action and contemplation. You need both in a kind of harmony. “You should in no wise neglect Mary for Martha; or again Martha for Mary”.

You see, it is not about either/or; it is about both/and. This is the counter to the strong reductive tendencies of our technocratic culture that leave us paradoxically empty precisely because we are too full of cares. It is altogether part and parcel of the educational project of the School. It is part of who you are. Celebrate it.

You have been busy about a multitude of things, far too many to mention. At times there has been the very real challenge to keep things in balance. You need these times to sit and listen. It means learning how to be quiet within yourself, learning how to attend to the “one thing needful” in each and every situation.

Encaenia and Commencement are very poignant and emotional times for all of us precisely because of all the things which we have been through together, tough times and sad times, hard times and fun times. We have laughed and danced together, sung and run together. We have been in your faces and you in ours. IB crazy and you too crazy, too crazy! Whether you have been here one year or many years, the purpose of this School has become a part of you and you of it. You go forth in joy, I hope, but I pray that you go forth a little wiser and little more thoughtful. In the busyness of Martha, may you always recollect the wisdom of Mary, for “one thing is needful”.

“Martha, Martha; thou art anxious and troubled about a multitude of things;
one thing is needful”

(Rev’d) David Curry
Encaenia, June 18th, 2016

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