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Sermon Preached at the Annual Sarum St Michael Old Students' Service 2014

by glynch — last modified 19 May, 2014 12:00 PM

Sermon preached at Salisbury Cathedral on 17 May 2014, at the Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication at the Annual Reunion of Sarum St Michael Old Students' Association. The text was Luke 24.13-35.

It must have been quite a College that closed in 1978 and still meets in the numbers that are here, and the College has a great history. You can see it in the buildings of The Close. Sarum St Michael’s  was established in 1841 as the diocesan training college to supply female teachers to National (Church of England) schools in the dioceses of Salisbury and Winchester, to complement that for men in Winchester. In 1905 an HMI report said that, “teachers it sends out are hard working, high minded and intelligent”.  Lest you get too big-headed, the College motto, “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength, is from the prophet Isaiah, where he is addressing a rebellious people and telling them how to behave, as if they were a difficult  group of Year 9s on a wet Friday afternoon. But what a contribution you have made to education and to the lives of countless young people. We come to this reunion with thanksgiving and to be rededicated.

It is the Easter season, so the reading of the road to Emmaus fits well.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. - Luke 24.13-14

I’m going to Emmaus next week with a group of over 60 of us, mostly from the Diocese of Salisbury, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  I have been before. There’s a great sense of Jesus was here or hereabout. I loved the physical connection and have two stones on my desk: a sharp angular rock from Sinai, the mountain of law in Egypt, where Moses brought down the Ten Commandments, and a smooth washed stone from the Sea of Galilee.  It is tempting to make comparisons between law and grace, but both are hard stones, tough disciplines to sustain life. Look around and you will see such differences in the people here, living stones who have fared differently in life and the tough profession that is teaching. We meet at the end of a week that included Anne McGuire’s Requiem Mass in Leeds. Not many teachers have been killed but most will feel they have given their lives to teaching and know the cost. It is a life-giving profession in both senses.

On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples were puzzled, trying to work out what had happened with the Lord in whom they had hoped for so much. After the welcome to the City by the crowds, he was betrayed by Judas, Peter denied he knew him, he was condemned and crucified and then some of the women went to the tomb early this morning and said he is risen! A stranger joined them and asked what they were talking about. They didn’t recognise him. I love the way artists provide a visual explanation of this: he had no beard, or wore a hat. Today he might wear dark glasses. They couldn’t believe he didn’t know about Jesus of Nazareth and of all that had happened in the past week.

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” The stranger sounds like an exasperated teacher. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Now they knew the scriptures but this stranger was a teacher who told them something new. It was a pattern for Jesus. He taught as one with authority: same texts, new sight and insight. Some of us have had a few teachers like that and they stand out. The stranger led them through what was familiar but not yet understood. He brought the texts to life.

When they got to the village the disciples urged the stranger to stay for it was almost evening. At supper he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them. In those familiar actions their eyes were opened, and he vanished from their sight.

The stories of the resurrection are mostly like this. The risen Lord is glimpsed for a moment, and that moment is enough to live on for the rest of your life. The disciples ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others. Christ meets us, teaches us, transforms us and gives us a hope that the future is more important than the past.

As the College closed in 1978, the youngest of you will be my sort of age and bishops aren’t young. We’re all well into the second half of life when teachers like clergy tell stories. We are in our anecdotage. Reunions could be nostalgic and backward looking, and perhaps there is something good about the way we recognise our time here has continued to feed us. But you became teachers because you had a commitment to the young. You were forward looking, and still are.

On that first Easter Day, the stranger took the two disciples and helped them understand the past so they could look to the future rather than be disappointed with events that failed to fulfil their hopes. I know plenty of teachers who feel like that at the moment. The Super Head appointed to our children’s London comprehensive was struck of the teachers register this week. Appointing senior staff has become difficult because so few teachers want to take on the leadership roles. It isn’t the role most of you trained for or want. Mention Michael Gove in almost any staffroom and there’s usually a fairly lively response.

In a revolution, what is needed is the wisdom of people who know from experience and have thought deeply, creatively, imaginatively. We need the wisdom of teachers who know what it is to be like children, for Jesus set a child and told us to seek the kingdom of God like them. We need teachers who have prayed often about what they do and why they do it, who can help us see that teaching is one of the most important things a person can do, a vocation as well as a profession.

If we have a problem with the way our politicians view the teaching profession we also have a problem about the way some of our society sees our young people who are too often denigrated and dismissed as feral. Whereas young people as a whole seem to me more able than my generation, and are certainly harder working. They have strong values that care for others and the world in which we live and adults do not always treat them with the respect they deserve. We need to see them as people made for goodness and that needs drawing out and supporting by a good and confident teaching profession committed to high standards and to people fully human, life in all its fulness. The most obvious way of raising standards is to get alongside with respect and encouragement, rather like Jesus on the Emmaus Road.  It is, in some ways, a modest encounter and a life changing one that suits your motto, that ‘In quietness and in confidence is our strength’.


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