Sermon: For the Durham University Alumni
Preached on 9th September 2007
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
One raw grey November afternoon in 1966, the train from Kings Cross decanted me on to the platform of Durham railway station. I had applied to Durham University to read maths. It was my first exposure to the north of England. I gazed across the rooftops at the apparition of this cathedral, its great tower scraping the lowering sky. I was billeted for the night in a dark little room in a remote and chilly corner of the Castle and was interviewed across a venerable oak refectory table by Professor (as he later became) Tom Wilmore. He asked me about differential equations, exponential functions and Coriolis forces. In due course I was offered a place and argued with my parents to be allowed to take it. But they were Londoners, and insisted that I should not be seduced by the charms of the north but should await news of possible offers further south. So further south is where I obediently ended up. But as I wandered round the cathedral in the failing light, I think I fell in love with Durham, captured by its powerful sense of place. In 2003, courtesy of GNER, I arrived back at Durham station in the driving cab of a 225 electric to be installed as Dean. This time, the sun was shining. I decided to stay.
So it's as an alumnus manqué that I speak to you who are the real thing. No doubt your memories are as vivid as mine and to celebrate memory is partly what a gathering of alumni is for. But we are also here to celebrate our collective memory of our University in this 175th anniversary year. And to come to this Cathedral is to return to your roots, for it was the initiative of Bishop Van Mildert and the Cathedral Dean and Chapter to found this University in 1832. That those tentative beginnings have blossomed into the great institution Durham is now is a tribute to the energy, intelligence and resourcefulness of our founders and their successors. We in the Cathedral are proud of this offspring of ours.
The power of memory lies behind the story we heard as our Old Testament reading tonight. It tells of King David building an altar and offering a sacrifice to God there. The story is part of a narrative that tells how the king occupied the city he would establish as his capital, Jerusalem. For reasons we needn't go into, David finds himself on the threshing floor of one of the native citizens, where he sets up an altar to God. The huge significance of this threshing floor is that in this very place the great Jerusalem temple would one day be built. What David did that day determined the entire history of a city, indeed, a nation. It's like the memory we cherish here at Durham, of how 10 centuries ago wandering monks brought the body of their saint here on to this peninsula. Round it, three cathedrals were built. Out of that story, a city was born, and a university, tall oaks from little acorns indeed.
But there is a little detail at the end of the story that we mustn't miss. David builds his altar. But what is an altar without a sacrifice to offer? The man whose threshing-floor has been so summarily taken over by the king knows that history is being made. It would be best to keep on the conqueror's side. So he offers David animals for sacrifice and wood to burn - costly gifts, all for nothing. And David, in one of those great, generous moments of his, refuses to accept the gift and insists on paying for it: ‘I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing'.
Perhaps David's words say something important on this day of celebration. 175 years ago, there was a real price for our founders to pay: lands, buildings, endowments. The idea of a university did not cost nothing. It has gone on costing ever since. Education does not come cheap; nor should it if it is worth anything. The enterprise we call a university is an expensive commitment of resource, time and effort. Excellence is always hard-won. As we come to this University's birthplace today to give thanks for its life and rededicate its mission, we do not offer to God what cost nothing. But in a more personal way, we should recognise how vital is the part Durham has played in our lives. The investment that went into our education is something we ought to be thankful for all our lives. We owe it so much. Without it, we would not be what we are, could not do what we do. It did not cost nothing - far from it. Education is a privilege almost without price. It may be a human right, but that shouldn't stop us being grateful.
And I am not forgetting the investment of yourselves in this project, the cost to you of embarking on higher education. The time and effort it takes to gain a degree is itself an offering made in the belief that it leads to something truly worthwhile. I don't want to attribute to you motives that are unduly noble or heroic. But if thanks to Durham doors have been opened, and we have been able to make a difference to our society however small, then we have good reason to offer thanks today. These are not empty offerings that cost us nothing. They have cost us ourselves. And ourselves, the gift of our lives, is what we offer to God today. It's all we have to offer. But it's everything.
David's great words point us to a way of living that is generous and self-sacrificing. In a grasping, acquisitive, society, I believe it matters that we try to emulate him. As a Christian, I see in Jesus Christ the one who gave himself for the sake of others, and in that act of love for the world, gave new meaning to being human. Far from costing nothing, it cost him everything. It's the source of all that we are and all that we do. The offering of life, I believe, begins with our gratitude for God's inestimable love. If we say of ourselves, as Durham University, ‘shaped by the past, creating the future', that is God's work before it is ours. This is why we are here: to honour the history of our university, to give thanks for our own personal part in it, and above all, to celebrate the goodness of God, past, present and future. We come here in gratitude and hope. ‘For all that has been: thanks! To all that shall be: yes!'
Durham Cathedral, at the University's anniversary service for alumni
9 September 2007
2 Samuel 24.18-end