Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33
After 40 years of wandering, the children of Israel were on the brink of crossing the Jordan. They had escaped slavery in Egypt, been given the Law on Mount Sinai, worshipped God but also bowed down before the golden calf. God had always been with them in their journey, however, providing manna for them to eat, going before them as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. But now, they were ready to cross the River Jordan into the Promised Land; in Nina Simone’s wonderful words, it was a new dawn, a new day, a new life. They would no longer be wandering but settled; they would give up their nomadic existence to put down roots; they would become a society among other societies.
Today’s reading from the Old Testament is cast as God’s word to Moses, their leader, on the brink of the crossing. It lays out what matters for life on the other side. And it lays it out as a choice. This chosen people could choose how to live: God had entered into a covenant with them, he had promised to love them, to be their God, yet he didn’t compel them to follow. They were free to respond in different ways, although today’s passage lays out the consequences of those freely chosen actions, seen as a binary choice, an either/or.
The first option is to love the LORD, to walk in his ways, to obey his commands. And this approach will lead to life, prosperity and blessing. By contrast, the other option is to turn away from the LORD, to bow down and serve other gods. This approach will lead to death, adversity and curse. It is a stark choice: as they look west across the Jordan and consider this fundamental change in their lives, it is not a time for a half-hearted commitment, a moral ambivalence, a hedging their bets. It is a time for dedication.
Today, in this Chapel, many people may feel they are on the brink of another Jordan. New students or members of staff have come this far through childhood, school, study and exams, and travel by planes, trains, and, as I saw yesterday at DRA, heavy-laden automobiles to this small town by the sea. And now, from 1600 first-years to our Principal & Vice-Chancellor, you have crossed over Jordan – and what do you see? An unfamiliar town, in what may be a strange country, and full of peculiar traditions. The arcane rules on the wearing of gowns. The odd desire of everso slightly inebriated third-years to become your parents. The exciting custom of walking out along the Pier known, with a helpful accuracy, as the Pier Walk. The presence, in our midst, of a Proctor, Hebdomadar, and Quaestor & Factor. And of course, for those new to Scotland, the sheer oddity of four separate banks issuing the money you can spend here.
You may be thinking – this is not the promised land I hoped for. I will never fit in here. I will never succeed in this place. I will never have the confidence and ease of those returning students I see embracing in Market Street. Don’t worry – they felt just like that when they arrived a year or two ago. And your fears will pass.
Of course, parents too may feel they are at journey’s end. After two decades or so of bringing up this child, the feeding, the protecting, the applying of band-aids, the teaching, the dealing with teenage traumas, it is now time to leave them here, on this unfamiliar side of the river, where they will lay their heads under a strange roof, sharing a flat or a corridor, even a room with people you do not know. Returning home without your child is quite a Jordan to cross – to a quieter house, a different shopping-list, new patterns of your time, new identities to forge. But at least, crossing this river today, you do not have to rely on infrequent messages by boat: master facetime and you can still help with the occasional student traumas which occur.
Those who are returning today, not for their first semester, but for a new year: we too are not the same people entirely who said “Have a good summer” back in May. And today may well mark a fresh start, and a time to develop new patterns in living. After all, we started Graduation Week in June secure in belonging to the European Union. Four days later, the North Sea seemed less a place of crossing than a moat over which our population had pulled up the drawbridge. And so the University and nation, in facing the consequences of Brexit, has something of a Jordan to cross.
Well, what will this Promised Land be like? I can tell you that St Andrews is a fantastic experience for students. You will hear and see more about that at Opening Ceremonies, Freshers Week champagne brunches, barbecues, beach bonfires, walking tours, treasure hunts with cream tea, and pub quizzes. Lots of pub quizzes. On Tuesday alone the dedicated pub quizzer has to choose between Doctor Who Society, Bacchae Society and German Society pub quizzes. (Although of course the Doctor Who pub quiz may already have taken place. Thousands of years ago. On Gallifrey.)
But the question today is less, what will St Andrews be like? but what will I be like? Who will I be here? How will I change with the Jordan behind me?
Here the New Testament reading is helpful, if fairly challenging for a first morning in the University. Jesus is being followed by crowds. The motives of those in the crowds would be pretty mixed – fun and excitement, the hope for healing and help, and probably the desire for a glorious overthrow of the Roman authorities. Jesus speaks directly to the crowds and says that following him is not about a glorious political victory, but about commitment. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For some that cross may literally come true: St Andrew, for whom this town and University is named, is believed to have been martyred on an X-shaped cross. But for all Jesus’ disciples, there are the consequences of honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice and love for the vulnerable – these attitudes may well lead to humiliation, and something greatly feared in contemporary society – being unpopular.
Jesus even says that following him means hating family and giving up possessions. It is hyperbole, and Jesus’ own life showed he loved his family, even caring, when dying, that his mother would be looked after. But he asks the crowd to realise that there is an ultimate loyalty, a fundamental commitment, and that is to God, and his kingdom of love. You have to be prepared, and count the cost of commitment as someone does before building. Parents know that – children are costly, and leaving home doesn’t always mean financial independence from home. Actually, it rarely means such independence, I fear. But the costly commitment of parenthood is bound up with the joy of bringing forth a human being into maturity. Jesus asks something similar of us in our lives: who will we be? A half-hearted hanger-on, who will not be committed? Or a truly involved participant, who gets stuck in to the life of honesty, integrity, self-sacrifice and love for the vulnerable?
This may all seem a touch heavy. After all, you may have more interest in knowing when to sign up for Ultimate Frisbee, rather than worrying about the ultimate meaning of life. (It’s Wednesday at 2 for Ultimate Give-it-a-go.) And I want to draw things to a close with a final emphasis. Both the word given to Moses, and that shared by Jesus, speak of blessing.
In Deuteronomy, the blessing is described as life, a long life, prosperity and numerous descendants. Some may argue that a St Andrews degree offers a pretty similar set of benefits, though there is no guarantee. But the New Testament sees blessing in a rather different way: knowing the fulfilling joy of belonging to the loving purpose of God, receiving the forgiveness of God and sharing his reconciliation in peace, working for justice, hoping that all will be made right. You do not need a St Andrews education to enjoy that blessing, but there’s nothing to stop them happening hand in hand.
John Burnside, Professor of English here, wrote in his novel The Devil’s Footprints, that “Everything begins before we see it beginning.” We began on this journey across the Jordan long before our first glimpse of the water, the shore, and the town huddled on the edge of the sea, the town that will be home to students and staff of the University. As God led his people through the wilderness, so, I believe, God has led us here. Not controlling us, but inviting us, in love, to follow him, and go with him across our own Jordans, and the Jordans faced by our University, country and world. God, who has brought us thus far will be with us as we step ashore.