Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 145:1-22
What is a University for? Increasingly it seems that the answer is to prepare students to join the workforce. More specifically, to provide the economy with people who are skilled in the kind of things which employers need – facility in science, technology, and maths; the power of critical thinking; experience in group projects, teamwork and leadership. This suits governments who feel they have a responsibility to foster as successful an economy as possible. And it is accepted by many students themselves, who also believe that what the University is for is to make them employment-ready, with a transcript citing relevant modules, a CV containing suitable internships, and contacts handy for securing that first job. What is a University for? Many would say it is a careers service.
All of this may well be the last thing you want to hear on the first Sunday morning after a pleasant two-week vacation relaxing at home, exploring European cities, or catching up on sleep. You may have more or less anxiety at this point that you don’t know what career to follow, you don’t know what job you’ll first find after University, you don’t know what your CV should say under Other experience. Let me offer some reassurance – the last thing I want to do today is to instil a sense of panic in the final year student. If anything, the reverse. I want to add some perspectives which I hope might reduce the tension we all feel about the direction our working lives will take.
Let’s look a little more closely then at the Old Testament story. It’s about the choice God makes of a new king for Israel. God calls Samuel the prophet to go to Bethlehem and anoint one of the sons of a man called Jesse to be the new king to follow Saul. All the sons are brought before Samuel, as if for interview, but none receive a callback, let alone an appointment letter – until the final boy is brought, the youngest, called David. And Samuel senses that this is the one God has chosen. His appointment letter was oil poured on his head – anointed to rule, to lead, to serve. The shepherd-lad who was keeping the sheep that day was chosen to be a shepherd over the whole nation.
Now, let’s not jump too far. First of all, not every graduate of St Andrews gets to be king or queen, though there’s a cafe near here that might one day have to add the words King and Queen to the famous sign in their window. Secondly, the story doesn’t say that God arranges the future career of every human being. What happened to Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah and other children of Jesse? Scripture does not say: we only know what happened to David.
But the story itself offers principles for God’s choice. v. 7: the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. After all, David was the youngest son with the fewest qualifications, the least experience, the shortest CV. But it seems God was looking less for a picture of the past, but for someone with the character to serve. The heart here is not the physical organ, or the seat of the emotions, but the personality, the character, the real nature. The honest interview panel will confess that in many ways they look on the outward appearance, and it is only later, as the person does the work, that their heart begins to become clear.
This semester, in my sermons I’m also trying to think how this chapel itself adds perspectives to our faith. The cover of the order of service features a stained glass window in the organ loft, near where the choir usually sit. It’s of David, rather a chiselled-cheeked David as King, playing his harp. David was a musician, playing his harp to console King Saul in his times of depression. Indeed, many of the psalms are ascribed to David – poet and composer perhaps. Beside the window are two other Biblical musicians – Jubal, the ancestor according to Genesis of all who play the pipes and harp, and Miriam, sister of Moses, who played the tambourine and sang following the escape from Pharaoh across the Red Sea. Set in the organ gallery, from which our music is led, where the choir sings, they reflect the calling of music which many people sense in their lives and follow, not least in the University. The windows are the work of Herbert Hendrie, who taught at Edinburgh, and date to the 1930s. Let me know if you’d like a closer look after the service.
I’m not sure if music is the sort of career which governments believe a University is for. But it is a calling, a vocation perhaps, which many discover as students. And I would like you to consider today what sort of calling you may be feeling in your life. The Lord looks on the heart. And in David’s heart he saw the character and the potential for leadership and service. What is found in our hearts? What do we like doing, watching, reading, thinking about? What gives us energy when we contemplate tomorrow? What are we good at? What comes easily to us, a natural gift? These are questions which we pose to ourselves, especially as students.
But other questions are posed to us from outside ourselves, from others, from the poor, the needy, the vulnerable, the young, the old, the marginalised, the lost. Can you help me? What can you give to us? How can your gifts bless me? Have you energy to care for us? Frederick Buechner, American theologian, put these two sets of questions together, from inside and outside ourselves, when he wrote: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
For some people that place is a form of ministry. I didn’t know that line of Buechner’s when I was an undergraduate in Aberdeen, but I recognise the truth of it in my life then. I found a deep gladness in what I was doing – teaching in Sunday School, leading at Scripture Union camps, running a Christian discussion group in a hall of residence, volunteering with people with mental health problems. And I sensed a deep hunger in people to be taught, to be led, to be cared for. That led me, aged 20, to apply to the Church of Scotland to be a minister. Since being accepted I’ve done a wide range of roles – further study and training, parish ministry, writing theological reports, University chaplaincy, even playing guitar, very badly – and I wouldn’t dare to do it here. I love this work – the Lord saw my heart, invited me to serve, and I am glad I followed into the places where gladness and hunger have come together.
If this is striking a chord with you, then speak to me, or write to me. I often spend time exploring in confidence with students and others their sense of calling to ministry. Indeed, for the past three years I have brought people together who feel their future may involve ministry into a Ministry Discernment Group. We meet every two weeks or so to explore such a future. Perhaps that’s the Chaplaincy’s own Careers Service. And you’re welcome, at any time, to come to that. It’s always open to newcomers.
But not everyone’s career should be in full-time paid Christian ministry. What a weird world that would be. And if a University is for anything it is for the delightful discovery of diversity. Our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger may well come together in countless different places – from medicine to art history, from management consultancy to Teach First, from monastic life to motherhood. It may well be that we don’t necessarily find it easy to connect our faith to our career. There are far far more jobs which a Christian can do than which might be questionable. I’d struggle to write a reference, for example, for someone to work in so-called enhanced interrogation – torture by another name.
But work is still fundamental to our lives; we spend large parts of our day at work, and many of our closest relationships, moral dilemmas, and purpose and meaning come through work. And so there is a deeper calling for the Christian which is not about a specific career but about who we are in our career. Most of us are not called to do Christian work, but we are all called to be Christian in our work. Mother Teresa, now St Teresa of Calcutta, said, Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus. If that was true of her, how much more is that true of each of us, ministers, employees, students, academics, retired, parents, unemployed. We are called not to a particular work, but in our work and life to reflect, to share the love of Jesus. As Paul put it to the Ephesians, Live as children of light.
What is a University for? Yes, it is a Careers Service, and there is nothing wrong in the University trying hard to prepare young people for fruitful, stimulating working lives. But more important than knowledge and skills, a University is for helping people be formed, for character to develop, for the heart to be discovered. And if we are open to that University service, who knows what places our gladness and world’s hunger may lead us?