At end of last year, the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela. He was certainly one of the most remarkable statesmen of the last 100 years, if not more. In a book called Mandela’s Way Lessons on Life author Richard Stengel maintains that Mandela’s outlook on life and leadership skills were shaped by the most difficult time in his life – his 27 years in prison. Mandela himself spoke of the tough time in prison and the deprivations he faced. His times of solitary confinement. Breaking rocks in the prison quarry. A numbing routine. But it was this, most difficult time which sharpened his resolve and made him aware of his priorities and identity.
Today we thank God for John Morden’s gift of this College. You will know the story as well as me: having amassed a substantial fortune and having become a member of the East India Company, John Morden decided to return to England. Although he was obviously a very successful merchant, he was clearly, at that point, not a canny investor because he put his complete fortune in one place, loading it on three ships, none of which arrived in England according to plan. Understandably, he was in deep despair to think that he had lost everything. It must have been very difficult to think that everything that he had worked for was gone. However, to his great delight, the ships did eventually arrive – we can imagine the party that he had when his happened. But, significantly for our celebration today, this difficult and traumatic experience had a deep and profound effect upon John Morden, releasing within him a charitable instinct and so he decided to find a way to help merchants who had fallen upon hard times…..and the outcome we are celebrating today.
It’s those difficult, traumatic times in life when we hit rock-bottom, that we find ourselves in the depths of despair that can change the direction of our lives, encourage us to influence the lives of others and can strengthen our resolve. This period in his life strengthened the resolve of Nelson Mandela and it influenced the lives of others in the case of John Morden. How have periods of struggle and difficulty affected us? How have we handled such times? Have they held us back, unable to move, keeping us in a form of helplessness? In other words, have we been victims of events? Or have we been able to move forward, not forgetting or ignoring the trauma, but at the same time not letting it hold us back? Our response to such traumas will have a profound influence, not just on our lives but also on the lives of others – maybe not on the scale of a Nelson Mandela or of a John Morden, but, nevertheless, it will influence others. And here I would like to move on to another point which emerges from our celebrations and readings from today.
‘Let us now sing the praises of famous men, ‘began our reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus, ‘our ancestors in their generations.’ Then the reading gives a list of the great and the good and the famous, listing their deeds and their virtues. It is, of course, important to honour such people and all that they do, but the New Testament draws our attention to other groups of people who are not in the public eye, but whose quiet generosity can be even greater and often it is seen and acknowledged only by God. The widow who gave a small amount to the Temple treasury, but what she gave was more generous than the far larger amounts given by others, because she quietly gave out of her poverty while others ostentatiously gave out of their wealth. Zacchaeus the wealthy tax collector who had probably reached rock-bottom in his life and his response was that of deep generosity, giving half of his wealth to the poor and paying back anybody he had defrauded four times as much. The Good Samaritan whose generosity was that of his compassion for the injured man on the road – he spent time and energy, as well as money, to ensure that the injured man was given every chance of regaining his health. ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ St. Paul reminds us in the second reading and there are many such unsung heroes in our communities and in our churches.
As we thank God today for the foundation of this place and for the generosity of John Morden and others who have followed in his steps. Let’s also thank God for those many people here at the College who have, in a variety of ways, shown great generosity. Let’s remember, too, those whose generosity comes, not from their wealth, but from their poverty. Finally, let’s hope and pray that when we face periods of difficulty, distress and trauma, we may have the resolve to move forwards strengthened by our experience and generous in our outlook.
Founder’s Day Sermon 18th June, 2014
Readings: Ecclesiaticus44.1-8, 14,15; II Corinthians 9.6-13,15.