Traditions & Transitions

Wofford College Baccalaureate Sermon 2013
Ron Robinson, Perkins-Prothro Chaplain & Professor of Religion
May 18, 2013


Welcome to Weekend at Bernies! This is a special weekend for several reasons, Mostly, it is about you—the Class of 2013, but it is also about our leader for the past 13 years. And, its about those who are members of the 50 year Class. And its about family and friends. This is an important weekend because it is a time of transition. 


One of the ways we humans deal with transitions is by invoking our traditions. In my line of work – as clergy – people often show up at times when they are about to face big transition in life. That’s particularly true when a baby is born or when a couple wants to get married, or at the end of the life of a loved one. Baptisms and weddings and funerals. Or, as known to my profession, times to be hatched, matched or dispatched.

I’m glad people still do that. It says to me that when we are facing the instability of a transition, we turn to the stability of the traditions to give us perspective. In the midst of anxiety, we look for stability offered by the communities and institutions we hold dear. We do this so, among other reasons, we have a firm foundation from which to launch into a new phase of life

The college has long relied upon its traditions to lead it through transitions.


The Baccalaureate service is one of those traditions. What we are doing here this afternoon 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. And we follow in that tradition today. 


We are honored to have some members of the Class of 1963 with us this weekend. You arrived on campus in 1959 with a couple of suitcases or a trunk—not a U-Haul— ane you were listening to Mack the Knife, 16 Candles and Elvis’ Big Hunk O’Love.

On campus, Milliken Science Hall was completed and opened during your first year here. DuPre Hall opened in the fall of your senior year, and the OG&B called it “one of the most functional, luxuriant dormitories in the southeast.” Class of 2013, during your time year, you had the Village—which won national awards for collegiate housing.

Some of the parallels with these classes are striking… and thanks to our archivist Dr. Phillip Stone, we’re able to document these….

Some of the conversations on campus in 1963 included lamenting the cost of higher education, saying that Wofford “would soon reach the elite circle of the $2000 school.” There was also talk about the value of a liberal arts education, and William F. Buckley spoke on campus in October 1962, on the subject “The Decline of the Intellectual”. Students frequently complained in the newspaper about the lack of light on campus at night.

Apparently there was a big argument about whether students should wear ties, or coats and ties, to class. There was a proposal to make it a requirement. The proposals were initiated by those in classes ahead of yours. You were definitely children of the 60s—no such rules for you! The proposal went nowhere.

During March of your senior year, a new cooperative program between Wofford and Converse was announced by President Marsh. It was “designed to further strengthen curricular offerings at both institutions.” “It was stressed that “neither institution would lose its identity or sacrifice any of its tradition.” The program would allow students, primarily juniors and seniors, to take courses at the other college, no more than one per semester, and grades would transfer as if they had been earned at the home institution.

You guys—you had some cool entertainment on campus. The Drifters played for your homecoming dance and the Glenn Miller Orchestra played for your Winter Ball. Not bad. And by your senior year your music had changed to Sugar Shack, Surfin' USA, My Boyfriend’s Back, Puff the Magic Dragon, Blowin’ in the Wind and Wipe Out. You had a lot of fun.

Beyond the city’s northern border the times were turbulent—even harsh. In January of your senior year, Harvey Gantt was admitted to Clemson, ending South Carolinas status as the last state to hold out on racial integration. Around the time of your graduation in May, Bull Connor was unleashing dogs and firehoses. And internationally, the Cold War was in full tilt, not really ending until Mikhail Gorbachev’s farewell speech in 1991, when he said, “The threat of a world war is no more.” 1991- the year many of you (Class of 2013) were born. So many transitions…


Class of 2013, you were born to the beats of Paula Abdul, Boys II Men, Whitney Houston, Marky Mark and Nirvana. The song of the year was “From A Distance.” The Goldtones were prepared to sing it, but the armchair theologians always feel the need to discuss its theological shortcoming with me we do. The year you were born South Africa repealed apartheid. Several of you have studied there. The Soviet Union broke up into independent states. One was yours, Olga. You arrived on campus listening to Trace Adkins and the Black Eyed Peas; to Darius Rucker and Flo Rida; to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga; Beyonce, Kanye and Pitbull. Yours has been a time of traditions and transitions as well. Just yesterday afternoon I saw one of my Wofford classmates coming out of Old Main with his daughter—a member of this class. They had been inside the building to rub the misspelled benificent, and they made a photo with both of their class rings rubbing the misplaced “i.” That’s another tradition that has been important to Wofford folk across the years—a tradition your two classes hold in common.


In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the lead character, Tevye, sings out, “Tradition! Tradition!” And then he explains: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask: How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you: I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

“Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Oh really? Is tradition always a good thing?


The eighth century BCE prophet Micah found himself in a situation of addressing a generation of listeners who were stuck in a tradition. Micah questioned the tradition of their belief system and he challenged them to make a transition: 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 when we take no direct action to help the poor? And what about those of us who think of themselves as righteous but have a cavalier attitude toward those who belong to a different nation, tribe, ethnic group, or religion?

Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God says Micah.

To do justice means that we must connect with the underdog, 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 we construct.

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 wisdom and truth.


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.”

And the pre-law student said, “You are right, teacher.” And no one else said anything.

People who Love. Love God and neighbor. That is such a powerful descriptor of who we are called to be and what we are called to do with our lives.


There’s a story out there about how one time Albert Einstein, the well known physicist, got onto a train going from Princeton, NJ to Boston. Soon after he was on the train, he began searching for his ticket. When the conductor arrived at Einstein’s seat the conductor said, “Mr. Einstein, I, and everyone else on this train know who you are and I am sure you have a ticket. Rest assured that you have a seat on this train”.

Einstein was relieved momentarily but then continued to frantically look for his ticket. When the conductor had finished checking everyone’s ticket, he noticed Einstein still trying to find the lost ticket. The conductor walked down the aisle and tapped Einstein on the shoulder and said, “Dear sir, I have total faith and confidence that you have a ticket. Please take your seat and be sure; you can ride this train”. To which Einstein replied, “Thank you again, kind sir, but I need to locate that train ticket to find out where I am going!”

Where are you going? And just as importantly, who are you going to touch along the way?

One of my favorite theologians writes, “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)


There is a viral video that features a family who is returning from watching the movie Les Misérables. The parents are sobbing and they talk about the movie and compare it to the play. Near the end of the video the father says, “We’ve been to funerals of family members and haven’t cried like this.”

Why does Les Misérables elicit such powerful emotions in people? Probably because it taps into something deep within the human narrative.

The Bishop kicks everything into motion. In an act of grace, he forgives and blesses Jean Valjean, a cast-away convict, after Valjean robs the church. This sets off a ripple effect. Valjean is now on a mission.
So why do we cry during this story? We cry because it inspires all of us to live better lives. Les Misérables reveals how ordinary people have the ability to make great change in the world. Because down deep, even with our traditions, we know that the world is not a fixed place. And Les Miz shows us how one act of kindness can affect the lives of thousands of people. It proves that the ripple effect is real.

A young social entrepreneur blogger I offered these comments: So when you see Les Misérables, don’t just hum the songs - live the story.

Be the soul of your community. Offer grace to people who don’t deserve it, forgive others, and rescue people from their darkest places. It is there where God will meet you and the ripple effect begin.

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. Love God. Love your neighbor. These actions, these attributes will serve you well through life’s transitions.


Look, what I really want to say is this:

Class of 2013, tomorrow as you graduate the college bell will toll once for each of you. It tolled on your first Sunday here. Those are Wofford traditions. And someday it will toll to mark the end of your earthly life, as it already has for two of your classmates, Matthew and Karl. That, too, is a Wofford tradition. Those tolls bind all of us in this peculiar terrier family—together. Between the tolls you and I are the ones who’ll decide where we will go and who we will be and what we will do. My prayer is that justice and kindness will flow from you and cause a ripple throughout the world, and that you will walk humbly with your God.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.