Friday, 29 July 2016

Sheffield University Graduation 2016

Ecclesiastes 1 and Patrick’s Graduation

There was quite some vanity on display at the Octagon building in Sheffield on Wednesday last week when maybe as many as 200 students, among them my son, received their degrees. Not that they were vain. No, they were I think mostly amazed to be there, to have reached this day to be receiving their degree, overcome with joy and I ought to say that the parents, among them ourselves, were thrilled and proud and emotional. What was strange to my mind was the opening procession of the vice chancellor and other notable dons in full attire following at least dutifully if not reverently what appeared to be a very heavy golden mace. They were accompanied by organ music and as we all stood watching them perambulate around the hall towards the stage I wondered what it was they were honouring.

“Vanity of vanities says the teacher, all is vanity.” These things we strive for are but a chasing of the wind. Not the sermon to give to those recent graduates who have gained awards and who are looking forward to their futures. In general I am not worried about age, I have never hankered after lost youth (maybe after the hair of my lost youth – yes), but never thought that I wished I was younger; except for this one moment, when just qualified the young person does have the whole world before them. I remember listening to my nieces wondering around a lunch table what steps to take next. “Shall I train to be a nurse, should I take another degree, perhaps I will travel with my back pack the oceans of the world.” Here it seems in life is a fulcrum a special time that will inevitably, if not determine, then at the very least colour and shade the future direction of their lives.

But then if all is meaningless, emptiness, futility or vanity what is the point? Are we simply chasing after the wind, shall we give our hearts up to despair concerning the total of our labour under the sun? Surely not you say and we push back against this idea with all our worldly energies, surely we have been placed here for something. And here is the peril of only reading short texts from the books of the Bible. Ecclesiastes is a short book and our reading this morning merely the introduction. It stands as a prompt to our thinking and to the thoughts of the teacher that follow. You will recall this famous passage from chapter 3:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
(New revised Standard Version OUP 1995)

And usually we stop there but it has its coda a line or two later:

“God has made everything suitable for its time.”  
And this is the thought that had I been the vice chancellor I would have wanted to leave with those two hundred geographers. She said “you came in a “graduand” and you go out a graduate” Perhaps I would say that you are sitting there thinking of filling your barns even of producing abundantly, maybe ample, sufficient to allow you to relax, but listen to Ecclesiastes, the teacher, who tells us that all of life is meaningless, futile, hollow and vain if it is not rightly related to God. Only when based on God and his word is life worthwhile.

Concluding his book our teacher says:

Be happy young man when you are young,
Follow the ways of your heart
Remember your creator in the days of your youth

 And here, suitable for the occasion, are words of wisdom and advice that we can agree with.