The Lovely Virtue
Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Readings: Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 10:5-10, 26-32
There is quite a lot to be frightened of. I remember my first days as a student in Aberdeen. I arrived in Hillhead Halls of Residence, finding my room, S26, in Adam Smith House. I unpacked my few things and sat looking out the window. There was quite a lot to be frightened of. Would I ever talk to anyone? Would I make any friends? Would I discover that, while bright enough at school, I’d be a dunce at University? Would I ever find someone to kiss?
Looking out of the window, I saw a tall student unload his car, a red mini. I couldn’t even drive. I later learned this tousled-haired Icelandic-sweater wearing Arts student was called Tricky. I was a long way from Glasgow.
I don’t think the intervening 33 years have changed the start of the University term that much. Rooms may be ensuite, you don’t have to queue for the one phone in your hall, and you are no longer permitted to have a toaster next to your bed for that essential post-night-out snack, but otherwise, it’s much the same: the same questions, the same fears. Only this year, there are some new ones.
How will I make friends, when there are hardly any events at which to ask the eternal questions, Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? What are you studying?
Will I be a dunce at University, when classes are largely online, and I’m not sure when I’ll ever meet a teacher for real?
Will I ever find someone to kiss, while also staying two metres apart?
Meanwhile your teachers may have their own fears: Will I be forced to take risks which could endanger my loved ones? Will I survive this intense workload?
And we may all be scared of a second wave, a local lockdown, another wrench into an entirely online life.
Sometimes the Lectionary – the list of Bible readings for each Sunday – just seems to hit the spot. I confess that when I saw the Old Testament reading was Moses parting the Red Sea, the escape of the Israelites and the destruction of the Egyptian army, I was slightly alarmed. It’s not very inclusive. It doesn’t obviously speak to the University’s commitment to diversity. And yet, in a time of fear, it speaks to how we may be feeling.
The Israelites were slaves. They had arrived in Egypt some 430 years before, refugees during a famine. They had stayed but they were never assimilated, never accepted, never given the rights and freedoms of citizens. Then a leader emerged, Moses, and courage seemed to come to them. They demanded their freedom – Let my people go! And, with the help of God, they made their escape. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, let them go, then changed his mind and his army pursued them until they reached the dead end of the Red Sea. Then, as we heard, Moses stretched out his hand, and God parted the sea. The water became walls, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground.
That step into the unknown took courage. But in time it became the fundamental story of the nation. Deliverance from slavery. Salvation through the sea. God before them. Exodus and freedom.
People have already shown real courage in the University this year. Staff who in the darkest days in March and April continued to look after hundreds of students in residences. Students who have risked leaving the safety of home for the insecurity of the unknown. We who have gathered in Chapel when there are many who fear even a gathering of 50 people in a large place of worship. But we are not the first to show courage here.
In early January 220 years ago, a student called John Honey was worshipping in this chapel one morning when word came to the congregation that a small ship, the Janet, from Macduff, had run aground near the East Sands. Honey joined with others at the scene, and led the rescue. He swam to the stricken vessel, and secured ropes for the Master and four further men to reach safety. But they were too weak to use the ropes, and so Honey repeatedly swam to the Janet and brought the men back one by one. On his final trip, he was struck heavily on the chest by the ship’s mast, but still made it back to shore, and all the crew were saved. Honey became a parish minister in Perthshire, but died in his mid-thirties, possibly of complications from the rescue.
He is remembered in many ways in the University, not least in the weekly Pier Walk, after worship, following the path Honey took to the East Sands, and then walking out into the sea, along the pier. As you can see from the image on the cover of the order of service, the sea has been parted by the pier, and we walk through something like walls of water. And I for one need a certain courage even to make it to the end, and as I’m scared of heights, I doubt I’ll ever climb to the upper level.
John Honey’s courage was not for himself, but for others. Our Gospel reading today encourages us to give of ourselves for the good of others. It’s the words of Jesus to his disciples, his friends and followers, to share in his life and work, to shine with the light of his love, to speak with the honesty of his truth, to live by the values of his way. They were sent out to the Israel of their day, no longer enslaved by Egypt, but constrained by a religious life which had lost its way. It was a risky business: to tell people they needed to change. Perhaps the disciples felt they should be properly kitted out for their mission: money for food and accommodation, bags for their possessions, spare clothes for the weather, shoes for comfort, and a staff to lean on when tired, or to ward off threatening animals. But Jesus denied them every such comfort. No gold, no goods. They were to be entirely dependent – on the communities they went to, on the reception they encountered, and dependent on God who would go with them.
Of course the disciples were scared. But three times Jesus responded to their fear: v. 26 Have no fear..; v. 28 Do not fear…; v. 31 Do not be afraid… God who guided the children of Israel through the muddy sea-bed knows every hair on our heads. Do not be scared in sharing my life with people, says Jesus. You may well face trials, but God will be with you in the midst of them.
Exactly a century ago, the University’s Rector was J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan among many fine works. During my time as Chaplain I have heard three Rectors give their Rectorial Address, but none, I fear, will have as much impact as that given by Barrie on 3 May, 1922. It was published in this volume, which I borrowed last week from the University Library using the Click and Collect service. It has the one-word title Courage.
Barrie speaks of putting into the students’ hands a staff as they set forth on life’s road.
I cannot provide you with that staff for your journey; but perhaps I can tell you a little about it, how to use it and lose it and find it again, and cling to it more than ever. You shall cut it—so it is ordained—every one of you for himself, and its name is Courage. You must excuse me if I talk a good deal about courage to you to-day. There is nothing else much worth speaking about to undergraduates or graduates or white-haired men and women. It is the lovely virtue—the rib of Himself that God sent down to His children.
Jesus gave no physical staff to his friends and followers. Barrie provided no physical staff to the women and men before him that day. Instead he offered the lovely virtue, courage, as if torn from God’s own being. For Barrie, courage was seen in countless places and people, and not only in those whom the world would consider successful. Indeed he saw the opposite of courage in hankering for worldly prosperity or toddling to a competency.
Barrie feared another war was coming, and indeed it was. We may be fortunate in not facing a further world war, but we clearly do have to find courage in our day: to find ourselves in the University, to live with fortitude in the midst of the pandemic, to be faithful in letting the light of God’s love shine through us.
It didn’t take long for me to find my feet in Aberdeen.
Within a day or so, I’d made a friend on my corridor, Mark Izatt, a Fifer.
Within a couple of weeks, I realised I would enjoy Great Expectations with pleasure and profit.
And within a month I’d somehow managed to find a girlfriend from my Moral Philosophy class, though I’m afraid it was over by Christmas.
Looking back, God was with me, as I took those first steps through the sea of University, as I tried, not very well, to witness to my faith. There was a lot to be frightened of, but far more to anticipate with relish. Shall we give the closing thought to J. M. Barrie:
In bidding you good-bye, my last words must be of the lovely virtue. Courage, my children and ‘greet the unseen with a cheer.’