Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Readings: Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-18
Before he was a leader, Moses was a shepherd. One day he took his flock a long way from their usual pastures, beyond the wilderness we are told. At the foot of a mountain called Horeb he saw a bush on fire yet which was not being burnt up. It was a vision, and in it an angel and a voice:
Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.
Some here today may feel that you too have come on a long journey, far from your usual pastures, going beyond the wilderness – moors, continents and oceans – to this holy ground. Not to a mountain but a small town of three streets – St Andrews.
Why holy ground?
Perhaps because this has been a seat of learning since 1413.
Or because it was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, with the largest cathedral until all changed in the Reformation.
Or because it’s named for an apostle, with dedications to other saints – St Mary’s College, St Salvator’s Hall, St Regulus’ Hall, St Katharine’s West, St John’s House, St Leonard’s College, St Gregory’s postgraduate accommodation, even Andrew Melville Hall – named for the Reformed churchman and University Rector.
Or maybe it is this chapel itself which feels like holy ground to you: dedicated to St Salvator, the holy saviour, Jesus himself. The bones of Bishop Kennedy who founded this college and chapel of St Salvator are buried below this extraordinary tomb. The War Memorial records the names of University members who died in the First World War. And the Chapel hosts services from weddings to memorials to graduation celebrations when the mace, the bedellus, the Principal and the gowns speak of the significance of the space and time of worship. Holy ground indeed – are you feeling an urge to take off your shoes?
Yet, returning to the holy ground of Mt Horeb, what is so striking is not its geography, its age, its history or its name, but the encounter which took place there: between God and this particular human being.
God called to him from the bush, Moses, Moses! He was named by God, and known by him. And Moses replied, “Here I am.”
God then tells Moses what he’s seen and heard and knows, and what he will do: to come down to deliver his people from slavery. And he shares with Moses what his role will be: I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.
Moses feels inadequate – there is more than a hint of imposter syndrome about him:
Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?
But God promises his presence with Moses: I will be with you.
Do you know the website What3Words? It has given every 3 metre square in the world a unique address made of three words. Just for fun I recently typed St Salvator’s Chapel into the site, and this was the address: touched.inflame.viewer. Could there be a better description of Moses’ encounter with God on that holy ground? touched.inflame.viewer.
Feet touching the earth, a bush inflamed by the presence of God, a viewer given a commission and a promise.
Are you interested in some other What3Words addresses in St Andrews?
Agnes Blackadder Hall – removable.bedroom.zapped
DRA-Fife Park – upwardly.provoking.expel
Younger Hall – giants.rocket.musically
McIntosh Hall – aspect.slurping.flirts
Union – shows.blackmail.mergers
St Salvator’s Hall – contrived.formless.digesting
Chaplaincy, where Sam and I have offices – appeal.showcases.listen
University Hall – winks.relishes.hormones
John Burnet Hall – qualifier.elects.walnuts
Sports Centre – throw.wolf.chariots
St Regulus Hall – helping.smoking.reclining
Deans Court – latest.chosen.quiet
College Gate, home to the Principal’s Office – extremely.estimate.occupations
Yes, once you start this, it’s quite hard to stop.
Over the past 12 years, I have spent time with students and their parents and other supporters as they have arrived or returned to St Andrews every September. I’ve observed that wonder as people realise they have reached this holy ground, that mixture of anticipation and fear. I have heard contemporary expressions of Moses’ imposter syndrome: who am I to have got a place here? How will I, among thousands, find my way? Why should anyone listen to what I say? Why should others care about me?
But comfort came to Moses in Horeb, the holiest of places. God knew him by name, invited him into taking up a unique role, listened to his fears, and promised his presence: I will be with you.
I’ve seen that comfort at work in our lives, and I’ve witnessed that inspiration changing students. Making them leaders in producing action on climate change. Giving them strength to be themselves when it’s all too tempting to compromise to fit in – in classes, communities and churches. Devoting days to the Dr Who Society, or nights to Nightline.
Now you may be thinking: I’m never going to be a Moses. I’m not a leader. It all sounds rather super-spiritual. I need to get away from this holy ground to somewhere, well, a bit more aspect.slurping.flirts. Well, it is here that some words of St Paul to the Romans we heard earlier offer a beautiful counterpoint. It’s a depiction of being holy simply in living well. The virtues are rather ordinary. He doesn’t talk about achievements, successes, internships and awards. Rather: the Christian life is about who we are as much as what we gather: authentic love, discerning good from evil, caring for other people, generosity, humility and reconciliation.
Perhaps the whole passage is encapsulated in v. 12: Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. What three words they are – or three phrases. A motto for life, which I sometimes explore in weddings here.
First, rejoice in hope – at the beginning of a degree, a new year, a new chapter in a student’s life, my hunch is that every single person here from grieving parent to first year undergraduate, seasoned member of staff to people applying for graduate jobs, is rejoicing in the hope for new learning, new loving and new experiences.
Second, be patient in suffering – there will be bumps in the Martinmas Semester road, and beyond. Not all will be first in class, or get first-class marks. Relationships will be forged, then fizzle out. Friends may let you down, and academics may not reply to your request for feedback at 11 pm on a Friday. Sadness and disappointment are normal in life, though so are happiness and fulfilment. And people are around, to help you see what lies beyond the bumps, and help you get there: some work for Student Services, and that’s also what we chaplains do. Indeed our watchword is found in v. 15: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Though I draw the line at pulling an all-nighter with those who pull an all-nighter. I prefer to make a deadline the previous day and get a good night’s sleep.
And the third word in this verse – persevere in prayer. Yes, that is how people of faith live: sharing your life with God, in chapel, in churches, in other paths, in faith societies and in praying, when walking on the West Sands, or walking into an exam. Already, in being in chapel today, you are open to something beyond you, beyond the strictly material. It may be the shimmering beauty of the Chapel Choir singing Locus Iste, or the sense of community around us, a love of tradition exemplified in the Pier Walk, or a sense that we need care from beyond us. They’re all forms of prayer. And you’re always welcome to find ways of praying here – in silence and sound, in words and music.
Remember that holy ground of Horeb: God called Moses and he answered, Here I am. And here we are, before God who knows us and loves us.
Congratulations. You have made it beyond the wilderness to this holy ground – returning after the summer, or depositing your charge only slightly fearful for their future, or beginning yourself in student life. St Andrews is a profoundly special place. It is holy ground. But what makes it deeply spiritual today is not really the stones and the steeples, but the people who live here. Some are extraordinary leaders like Moses – touched.inflame.viewer. Most of us are more modest in our roles – latest.chosen.quiet. But all of us are invited to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering and persevere in prayer. And God, the God of our ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; of Mary, Regulus and Katharine, will be with us.