A Sermon for the Commemoration of King's College on John 10:3-4
When we come together and we read the scriptures we are confronted by existential questions. Questions about what the meaning and purpose of life is? Questions about your life and my life! Question about who we are, where we have come from and where we are going?
And tonight as we contemplate what we have heard I would like to hone in on is this. “Which shepherd do you follow?” “Who is your shepherd?” “Who is it that is determining how you live?” “Who are you allowing to shape your existence?” Have you actually taken the time to consciously make decisions as to who your shepherd is? What particular story, what grand narrative, is shaping your existence? Have you even thought about it?
For myself I have. I have made a commitment in my life to following Jesus Christ. And in this I believe I have made a commitment to listening to God. Jesus is my shepherd. In the reading it declares the sheep hear my voice and they respond and so my life is very much based around this notion of listening for Jesus voice, for God’s voice. This voice of God influences who I am, how I live, and how I view the world.
But my question to you is “Have you done the hard work of thinking about who is your shepherd?”
I had a conversation with a student at Kings earlier in the semester. He went to a private school run by a church, like many of you have done as well. In the conversation he was critical of the approach of his school forcing the students to do religious education. The student said he was not really critical of religion per se but he did not like the notion of indoctrination to a particular set of beliefs.
Nor do I! But here is a question that puzzles me. Why, oh why, do we object to the notion of so called Christian indoctrination but blindly accept the indoctrination of secular humanism? Why are students not prepared to do the hard work of critique the mainstream ideology that God is dead and that all we have is ourselves?
My suspicion is that many of you have given your assent to this way of thinking without even realising it. One of the critiques of the majority of people leading into the reformation was they had an inherent faith which relied on the understanding of others. Or another way of describing it is that they had a blind faith. For my mind this blind faith of the masses has shifted from belief in God and trust in the church, to unbelief and trust only in ourselves.
I am continually struck by the experience that I have speaking with people, particularly young men, that they are not prepared to go deeper in their conversations to these critical existential questions.
Now tonight is the Commemoration of Kings College and it is entirely pertinent to ask ourselves the question what is at the centre of Kings, or more precisely who is at the centre of Kings. Kings has its origins in the Methodist Church and now retains strong links with the Uniting Church. Yet for those who were driven to establish Kings I suspect that what drove them was not centring people on the church but centring people on God. The college motto “The truth shall set you free” is not an amorphous epistemological appeal to generic learning but is a direct quote from the Christian scriptures which points at the person of Jesus Christ who called himself the truth. The truth that sets us free is Jesus. The voice that I listen to as my Shepherd is Jesus.
This notion that Kings College has God at the centre can be reflected to you in two simple examples. The first is this. For those of you who have taken the time to read Men and Masters you will know that the chapters are titled with the names of the first books of the Bible. Chapter 1 is aptly entitled Genesis. The author Trevor Faragher clearly understood this connection between God, the Christian tradition and King’s College.
The second example is more recent. Less than two weeks ago Jim Farmer recounted the story of Uncle at the ANZAC Day Ceremony here at Kings. As Jim recounted the story of Uncle and his friends Grimey and Shirty we were told that they joined the ambulance corps. Why? Because like many young men at the time their faith in God had led them to believe that even in war killing others was wrong. These brave young King’s men stood by both their faith and their mates when they went off to war. What we heard in the story of these young men is that when you have God at the centre it changes your moral and ethical decisions. Its shapes your life choices. It drives you to respond to the voice of the shepherd: Jesus.
So I return to the question that is before us tonight. Who is your shepherd? Who is it that you are following? Who is indoctrinating you? Have you taken the time to think deeply and critique the voices that have shaped who you are?
If you believe as I do that God can still be found at the centre of King’s College if you look hard enough then like me you can continue to listen for the shepherd speaking in our midst but what happens when the centre does not hold.
In W.B. Yeats great poem “The Second Coming” he utters those fateful words “the centre does not hold things fall apart”. Let me recite a little more of the poem:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
If we lose our centre, if we lose contact with God, will things fall apart? Are things falling apart?
One could arguably say that the answer to this question is yes. It may not appear as if things are falling apart but the measure of our success and vitality in this matter are not always measured by our human yardsticks.
This is though is the challenge, a deep and abiding challenge for those of us who continue to believe God is at the centre not just of King’s but of all things.
On this night as the Spiritual Advisor to the College I am acutely aware of the spiritual malaise in the college for I know that for many gathered here this night have largely switched off from spiritual matters and any notion that there is a God. There is a challenge here for you as young men as to how aware you are as to the blindness of your own faith in secular humanism and the idea of the death of God. There is a challenge here for you to question the growth of this indoctrination over the last 500 years into a way of thinking about the world without God and whether or not this is actually a good thing.
Back in 1953, Alfred Weber, the younger brother of the highly influential thinker Max Weber, in his book “The third or fourth man”, describes four stages of the human genus. Whilst we might want to spend time critiquing these stages the description of the fourth man struck me as deeply significant. Remember this is 1953 that he said this. “The fourth man is no longer conscious of history, but is only the product of the technicizing of human existence.”
As young men, through no fault of your own but as a by-product of the enlightenment; as a result of the rise of the individual; as a consequence of the disconnection between human history and natural history; you have been set adrift on a sea of unreality, duped into believing that there is no centre other than yourselves. The voice of the shepherd that you are being told to listen, that you have been indoctrinated to, is your own inner voice speaking into a buffered echo chamber of your own existence. This centre is I believe unstable and cannot hold.
In the passage from John Jesus warns of thieves and robbers. These thieves and robbers present themselves with ideas and approaches that clamour for attention over the voice of God in our lives.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his book “A Secular Age” describes modern people as being buffered as opposed to porous. The says, “the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but becomes an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.” What does he mean? We suffer from an illusion that each of us can live in our own separated hedonistic reality. We make the world our own. That our destiny is ours to make.
But is this really the case?
The suggestion that we listen to Jesus as the Shepherd’s voice suggests not – it suggests that there is a different story than one that places ourselves at the centre and in control of our own reality. The idea of centring on ourselves is increasingly being recognised as something that is problematic.
Dan Ariely in his insightful book “Predictably Irrational” counters this illusions. He writes, “We usually think of ourselves as sitting the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we made and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires-with how we want to view ourselves-than with reality.” We are not in control of our destiny as individuals, nor may I say as humanity, and our disregard for the connection of all life is having dire consequences. The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has recently recognised the problem of the disconnection between natural history and human history in his reflections on the Anthropocene. Whilst Clive Hamilton’s foreboding book Requiem for a Species was another in a long line which has warned us of the consequences of the notion that we can just keep taking from the natural resources of the creation for ourselves. The problem is that so many of these kinds of warnings are simply ignored.
For my mind it is though many of you are asleep, living in a dream, disconnected from life and its fullest meaning. You are happy to carry on in the oblivious dream that the world revolves around you, that the worlds owes you something. It can be far easier to stay asleep than to risk waking up.
There is that great scene in the Matrix where Neo is given the choice to wake up or to stay asleep – but to wake up, to hear God’s voice speaking, takes you down the rabbit hole. If you acknowledge that Jesus is your shepherd and that you’re going to listen to him the world becomes a different place. Once you are awoken from your slumber the world and how you live it in becomes an altered reality. Are you game enough? Are you courageous enough to wake up?
For once you wake up you will realise that life is not all about you. I am not at the centre. You are not at the centre. God is.
I deliberately chose the second reading as the one from the book of Acts because in it we begin to see the impact that listening to Jesus voice can have on people. Deep decisions about living a shared existence spiritually, physically, financially, morally were made in the early church. Now let me be clear and let us not be naïve those early Christian communities were not without issues – but what is clear is that they began to view the world and other people differently as the listened to Jesus voice.
To return to a moment to Jim’s recount on ANZAC Day one of the things which stood out to me was this. At the end he asked the current cohort of King’s men what if anything did this have to do with them. Jim answered his own question and spoke about some core values of life. These are good values but let me clear values, especially the values Jim mentioned, do not emerge from a vacuum. The values Jim spoke of are largely generated from a deep and abiding relationship with the divine. The values arise out of conviction and of faith and this could be seen in the earliest Christian community.
I believe these kind of values arise when people hear the voice of the true shepherd. Whilst we might wish to encourage these values without a centre on which to hold them it is very difficult for you or I or anyone to buy in.
So here we are at the Commemoration Service: an acting of bring to remembrance. What are you meant to be remembering? Let’s start with there was, is and will always be a centre at King’s which is the reality of God. Your belief in that or otherwise does not and cannot diminish or reduce this truth. That for many you the capacity to connect with this centre is severely stunted by the indoctrination you have had to this secular age. And, most importantly, regardless of this challenge the shepherd’s voice is still calling to you, just as it has called to me. It is a voice the calls you out of the safety of the constructed world view of our modern age and says to you there is more.
So the question remains. “Whose voice are you listening to?” “Who is your shepherd?” “Who has indoctrinated you?”
For me the answer is simple as it is clear, an answer that we have already sung tonight.
“The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want”