An address given to the student leavers of Christ Church, Oxford
June 17th 2020 (via video)
Philippians 1: 1-11
14th June 2020
We come to the end of this strangest of terms to a Leavers service without leavers in a cathedral without a congregation. One of my favourite books in the bible is St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul is in prison and he’s writing a thank you letter to his community in Philippi, a community he’s bereft to be separated from. And so as I pondered what to say in this final address of term I thought I would write you a thank you letter in the style and manner of St Paul, using some of the text from his letter to Philippi.
Clare, servant of Christ Church and Christ Jesus,
To all the saints scattered around the country and world, together with the fellowship of Chapter and the wider community of Christ Church.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you. I really do.
We are separated, not by chains or imprisonment, but by nature of disease, and this means we cannot be together as we wish. How I long to be able to gather together again in this holy place for Evensong, Compline and Taize. How I long to be able to dine together in Hall, host another Brain Strain tea, and even to stand outside the JCR at midnight watching Bop come to a messy end with Angels once again.
I thank God for you.
For your perseverance and endurance under immense pressure;
For the ways you have shown love, compassion and support to one another,
For how you’ve endured hardship, especially during this time of the Pandemic.
From the first day I met you in your first Michaelmas Term, until now, being confident of this, that God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ.
Now I want you to know, my sisters and brothers, that false teachers will tell you lies about yourself, and they are sometimes so loud and pervasive they are hard to ignore.
Three of these are:
I am what I do
I am what others say about me
I am what I have
‘I am what I do’ – of course my hope is that each of you will go from here into fruitful and satisfying careers where you will take all you have learned over the years here and use it for good in our world, a world that needs innovative, creative and brilliant minds like yours. I hope that you will find where you are needed, and what it is you love, and that you will do it with all the passion and skill you can. But there may be times when what you do isn’t what you hoped or longed for.
Remember: you are not what you do.
‘I am what people say about me’ – we all love it when people say good things about us, when our friends are numerous and our social media profiles are getting positive feedback. It makes us feel good, and rightly so. But how many of us remember for far longer the hurtful comments, the essay that was slammed, the criticism from someone we thought a friend.
Remember: you are not just what other people say about you.
‘I am what I have’ – all of us have been enormously privileged to spent time in a beautiful place like Christ Church. You have the gift of an Oxford education, friendships, experiences and memories of your time here. I hope some of these will all remain with you throughout your life. But we also feel the loss of all that we didn’t have this term: dinners, the Ball, physical farewells. St Paul says he’s learned the secret of contentment whatever the circumstances. This isn’t easy but at the heart is the knowledge that what we have isn’t who we are.
Remember: you are not just what you have.
So, if we are more than what we do, what others say about us, and what we have, what is it that we are?
Just before Jesus began his ministry, just as he was stepping out into the wilderness, he was baptised, and at his baptism he heard these words coming from above:
You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleasedMark 1.11
And these words are words I would like you to hear as well.
You are beloved. This is regardless of whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, whether you have worshipped regularly in this space during your time here, or whether you consider yourself to be not worthy of God’s love.
You are beloved. You are beloved.
And once we know we are beloved then what we do, what people say about us, and what we have, becomes less important and has less hold over us.
The future is uncertain, particularly at this time in our history, and this can lead us to be fearful.
St Paul says:
Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in ChristPhilippians 4.6
So not be anxious. Do not be afraid. God is with you.
I thank God for the many gifts you have given to me over the years you’ve been here. Gifts of laughter, joy and challenge. I have learned so much from you. Thank you.
Remember, you are more than what you do, more than what others say about you, more than what you have.
You are beloved.
To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen