Wofford College Baccalaureate Sermon
May 19, 2007
Dr. Ronald R. Robinson
Perkins-Prothro Chaplain and Professor of Religion
Let me offer my personal welcome to each of you today, and allow me to thank you the Class of 2007, for providing me and those who know you with glimpses of grace that, as I often say, are as frequent in this place as the steady tolling of the college bell.
As your Chaplain, my role in this moment is to connect us with a sense of the sacred, perhaps offer one more glimpse of grace, and encourage you as you transition into a new phase of your life.
When the cornerstone for Main Building was put into place in 1851, Dr. William Wightman told the 4,000 people present on that July 4th day, that “The college structure which is to rise in majestic proportions and elegant finish, on this foundation, will combine Temple and Academy: will be sacred at once to religion and letters.” It is that connection, one that has endured across three different centuries, that we acknowledge and celebrate today in this Baccalaureate Service.
The Baccalaureate service originated in a 1432 Oxford University statute, which required each bachelor’s degree candidate to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. During its earliest years, each Wofford student did a similar thing. Some traditions are worth keeping, but I bet you are glad some have changed.
When higher education moved to this continent, Harvard inaugurated the custom of the Baccalaureate Service. You may have heard of Harvard. It’s a good school; some people call it the Wofford of the Northeast.
Well, no Latin from me today. You’ll have to wait until Matias sings for that. Oh, I studied Latin for two years, but I know my limitations. And I’d really like to connect with you for just a few moments. When you arrived on this campus, you gathered as a class and were told to look to your left and your right. We told you that these were the people who would help you through. Today, I am here to remind us that you were told the truth. I am also here to remind us of the importance of our connections with these people and this place.
Class of 2007, I am aware of the important and meaningful connection I have with many of you, and if I have that connection, how much greater must the connection be between you and your peers and the faculty who guided you through your years here.
We are honored to have some members of the Class of 1957 with us this weekend. Many of you have returned today because half a century ago you made important connections with the people and the place you remember as Wofford College.
Think back a moment:
• Enrollment your senior hit 750, a new record, with about 50 nursing students from Spartanburg General Hospital taking special classes on campus.
• Frank Logan became dean of students in the fall of 1956. Among the rules enforced by Dean Logan:
o "Permission must be granted for use of electrical appliances in residence halls other than the regular lighting equipment"
o "Persons of questionable character are forbidden to visit the dormitories."
• The football team defeated Furman, The Citadel, Davidson, and Western Carolina that fall. The Dean Hudson Orchestra, from Richmond, VA, played at the Homecoming Dance. Hudson was known as the "Moon Over Miami Man"
• In the student body mock presidential election, Adlai Stevenson defeated Dwight Eisenhower 256-151.
• Sam Atkinson was, according to the Bohemian, the Glee Club Tour manager was on the staffs of all three student publications, and was the school photographer. Elton Hendricks was editor of the Bohemian. I have a short essay he wrote in the OG&B on Christian education entitled "All that glitters
isn't gold" that I can share if you want it.
• Fraternity Rush, which November 26, with bid day on Dec. 7, remains the most successful rush season in the college's history.
And beyond the city’s northern border,
• The Ford Motor Company introduces the Edsel on what the company proclaims as "E Day."
• Fortified with a good rest, a steam bath and a sirloin steak, Sen. Strom Thurmond talked against a 1957 civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes — longer than anyone has ever talked about anything in Congress.
• The South Carolina senator, then a Democrat, said the bill was unconstitutional and "cruel and unusual punishment." Republican leader Sen. William Knowland of California retorted that Thurmond's endless speech was cruel and unusual punishment to his colleagues.
During your college years
• President Harry S. Truman announced the United States has developed a hydrogen bomb.
• James D. Watson and Francis Crick announce that they have discovered the structure of the DNA molecule.
• The first kidney transplants were done in Boston and also in Paris.
• Rosa Parks, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and was arrested.
• Ian Fleming publishes his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale in the United Kingdom.
• Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio, breaking some of your hearts. It didn’t last, and two years later she married the playwright Arthur Miller.
• The First Miss America Pageant broadcast on television. And your senior year Miss Manning, SC, Marian McKnight, became Miss America. Her talent was an imitation of Marilyn Monroe.
• The week you graduated the number one song in the land was Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up. Other popular songs that spring included Blueberry Hill and Little Darlin’.
Class of 2007,
• The year most of you were born, the charity single "We Are the World" was recorded by USA for Africa.
• The Food and Drug Administration approved a blood test that has been used since then to screen all blood donations in the United States. It was for an emerging health concern: AIDS.
• Coca-Cola changed its formula and released New Coke. (The response was overwhelmingly negative, and the original formula was back on the market in less than 3 months.)
• The Nintendo Entertainment System was released on US shores.
• The Ford Taurus was revealed to the public. It would become one of Ford's biggest successes ever.
• The Record of the Year was Tina Turner’s "What's Love Got to Do with It?" "Weird Al" Yankovic recorded "Eat It"
• The year you arrived on campus (2003) you had seen Finding Nemo, and were trying to convince your little brother or sister that it wouldn’t be a good idea to flush their fish down the toilet.
• You were listening to 50 Cent, R. Kelly, 3 Doors Down, Matchbox 20, Norah Jones, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks, Mozart and Mahler, Kirk Franklin and Audio Adrenaline.
Early during your first year you read Year of Wonders, a story about a remote British village decimated by the bubonic plague. It was a story about 18-year-old Anna Frith, her courage, her struggle to understand God's will. And it was a story about everyday men and women struggling with extraordinary circumstances. Together, we learned that people are changed by catastrophe.
And you began to grasp that when people intentionally, reflectively and thoughtfully connect with their experiences, they, too, are changed. That is what liberal arts education is all about.
Class of 1957 and Class of 2007, your college experiences occurred in the same place, but the truth is yours are different worlds.
• In the fall of 1956 the sign out on North Church Street was installed. It was "Dean Logan's pride and joy" and that he feared for its safety during the upcoming Wofford-PC game. No Wofford team played a PC team in a regular season athletic contest during the career of the Class of 2007.
And I wonder if the installation of a sign would be noticed by you—you who saw the addition of a new residence hall, the renovation of what is now the Raines Center, the opening of Russell C. King Field and Switzer Stadium, the opening of the Village, the restoration of Main Building.
• In 1956, the first fully automatic mobile phone system, called MTA (Mobile Telephone system A), was developed by Ericsson and commercially released in Sweden in 1956. 24 years later only 300 had been sold. That many mobile phones have now been sold to the members of your (2007) class.
• The fall of your senior year, Clss of ’57, first hard disk drive (5MB) was born at IBM. The drive weighed a ton, and to lease it you'd pay about $250,000 a year in today's dollars. It required a separate air compressor to protect the two moving "heads" that read and wrote information, and it was noisy. The total amount of information stored on 50 spinning iron-oxide-coated disks—each of them 24 inches—was 5 megabytes. That's not quite enough to hold two MP3 copies of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog.” Or Maroon 5’s “Make Me Wonder.” It was about the size of two large refrigerators, about as tall as a person and it was always running."
It’s a different world.
Still, you do have some connections:
In 1957 the Wham-O Company produces the first Frisbee. You used to toss pie plates. Now they have an Ultimate Frisbee team.
You (2007) have had the Fun Funds, which have greatly enhanced the social life of the campus. What you may not know is that the Class of 1957 had something called the Pleasure Fund. I kid you not! It had been established by a graduate from the 1930s who never had any money for fun. So he set up a system where a student could borrow $50 dollars for a weekend of fun…and pay back $51.00. Now apparently these guys got a little out of hand, because the college's bursar, Harold Smithyman, announced that the Pleasure Fund would only be available to juniors and seniors who were passing all their classes. In the previous year, some 133 students had borrowed money from the pleasure fund. An OG&B article reported that a student had borrowed money to put a deposit on a new hi-fi stereo, and another had borrowed to buy cigarettes.
Part of what I do as a Chaplain is offer forgiveness, so if you want to speak with me this weekend, we can move you toward absolution.
There are, of course, more significant connections. Often--perhaps usually—and likely unaware, each generation builds upon, changes, or rejects what has gone before. You did that (’57), and you did that (’07).
And it is important to remember that the Class of ’57 does not still live in that world of 50 years ago. They took the best of what they received here, and they moved on. They share the world with you, and you with them. Look to your left and look to your right. We’re all in this together. Here. Now. And it is always changing.
The eighth century BCE prophet Micah found himself in a situation of addressing a generation of listeners who were stuck. Micah questioned the heart of their belief system when he challenged them to sacrifice their lives rather than their animals: "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
They were putting too little emphasis on what Jesus, nearly a millennium later, called "the weightier matters of the law”. Maybe we do, too. How else do we explain the fact that so many attend churches and temples and synagogues and mosques yet regularly take no direct action to help the poor? How do we explain those who think they are obeying God by killing others in God's name? And what about those who think of themselves as righteous but have a cavalier attitude toward others, particularly if the "others" belong to a different nation, tribe, ethnic group, or religion?
To do justice means that we must connect with the underdog, have a preferential option for the poor, and oppose those who use their power to oppress others.
To love kindness means to remember we share a bond with our fellow humans. And that bond that crosses barriers of ethnicity, nationality, language, sexual orientation, social status, and gender.
To walk humbly with God means to realize that no matter how certain we are about our beliefs and values—no matter how certain-- we must always allow for the possibility that we do not have the totality of God's wisdom and truth.
Heart, Soul, Mind, Strength
One day, a pre-law student came up to Jesus and asked, “What can I do, Jesus, so that I can inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, being a good counselor, said, “What do you think?” The pre-law student answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said: “Do this. Do this, and you shall live.” The clever student became defensive and said, “Who is my neighbor? How would you define the word, neighbor?” And Jesus said, “There once was a man who was walking down the Jericho Road…”
And he told a story about people not wanting to get involved with people who are suffering because of safety, because of money, because of time, because of inconvenience, because of busyness.
Jesus confronts non-involvement and gives an invitation for us to be merciful and kind to those in need. We are invited to look to our right and to our left and connect.
“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.” (Frederick Beuchener)
Who is your neighbor?
I addressed the college community during your first Convocation here, and used the words of Dr. Seuss to challenge all of us to reach outside ourselves and make new connections.
So today, you might expect me to say:
Congratulations! Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
What I really want to say is this:
Class of 2007, as you approached this place today, the bell tolled for each of you. It tolled on your first Sunday here. It will toll again tomorrow as you graduate. And someday it will toll to mark the end of your earthly life. Those tolls will be connected by your life. Between the tolls you are the guy who’ll decide where you go. I pray that you will be always connected with the love of God, the creative power of the Holy Spirit, and the peace of Christ. Amen.