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Baccalaureate Sermon

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. When higher education moved to this continent, Harvard inaugurated the custom of the Baccalaureate Service. For over 160 years Wofford has followed in this tradition. During its earliest years, each Wofford student gave a sermon or talk in Latin. Today the Wofford Baccalaureate is an ecumenical service. The graduating class and faculty process in cap and gown and the college bell is tolled once for each graduating senior. The service is open to all and lasts just under an hour. It is followed by a reception on the lawn. The text to Chaplain Robinson’s Baccalaureate Sermon will be posted following the service.

See, Hear, Wonder

Wofford College Baccalaureate Sermon 2016
Ron Robinson, Perkins-Prothro Chaplain & Professor of Religion
May 14, 2016

What we are doing here this afternoon —the Baccalaureate Service—originated at Oxford University in 1432. Each bachelor's degree candidate was required to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. Wofford graduates used to do the same thing. Some traditions are worth keeping, but I bet you are glad some have changed. Harvard inaugurated the custom of the Baccalaureate Service in this country. And we follow that today as we have for 162 years.

It is always inspiring when the Goldtones sing Amazing Grace at Baccalaureate. It is perhaps the best-known hymn in the American songbook. What you may not know is that the man who put the tune we know so well to John Newton's text—his name was William Walker lived here in Spartanburg. He was known as Singing Billy Walker, and he was here on July 4, 1851 when the cornerstone was put in place for Main Building. In fact, he's buried in Magnolia Cemetery across the street.

Sometimes my students say I can make every story I tell comeback to Wofford or a song somehow. But today is your day, Class of 2016, how about a little of your story?

Class of 2016, you were born to the beats of Greenday, Blind Melon, Boys II Men, 10,000 Maniacs, Snoop Doggy Dog, Celiene Dion and Toni Braxton. The song of the year was "The Sign," by Ace of Base, though you probably remember the Pitch Perfect version better. The Goldtones were prepared to perform it, but the choreography is a little tough for those in cap and gown.

The year you were born ER and Friends debuted on television. Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption were the top movies. The FDA approved the Flavr Savr tomato, the first genetically-engineered food product and the White House opened its website. For the first time in history, chain bookstores outsold independent stores. Most of you were just opening your eyes when ninety-five million viewers watched “O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings drive along Los Angeles freeways in history's most exciting low-speed chase.”

When you were babies, the Rwandan genocide was underway. Several of your classmates, Yves Engelmann, Daniel Tuisenge and Solange Umugwaneza, endured it and have studied alongside you in this place.

You arrived on campus listening to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Imagine Dragons; to Bruno Mars and Katy Perry; to Florida-Georgia Line, Lil' Wayne and Drake. This may be the first time I've been able to say this: The cost of gasoline is more than $1.00 less per gallon than when you arrived on campus. Most of you have taken far more photographs than anyone in my generation except Mark Olencki. Many of those photos have been of yourself.

We are honored to have some members of the Class of 1966 with us this weekend. I love this tradition we have of inviting the 50th year anniversary class back. In fact, when you graduated, the 70th year class was invited back. And the only member of that class —the Class of 1896 —the only member who didn't attend his 70th class reunion at your Commencement 1966 was 91-year old Olin Wannamaker. He was on his honeymoon – and he sent the college his marriage announcement and his plans for a 51-day honeymoon tour. Show-off!

Class of '66, you arrived on campus in 1962 with a couple of suitcases or a trunk—not a U-Haul— You were listening to … Let’s watch Addie sign these:
  • "Tossin' and Turnin'"
  • Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces" 
  • Del Shannon's "Runaway"
  • And then there was Chubby Checker's "The Twist!"
  • And the Isley Brother's "Twist & Shout!"

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were forming a band; Mick Jagger and Keith Richard were doing the same. There was a popular dance called "The Mashed Potato." Tony Bennett released "I left my Heart in San Francisco." Lady Gaga has introduced him to this class.

On campus, there was a lot of talk about fines…Dormitory fines in the fall of 1962:
  • If you were in a water fight, $5. 
  • For singing in the shower or other unnecessary noise - $1. 
  • For cigarette butts in the hallway, 50 cents each. 
  • Loud radios or musical instruments – warning for first offense, $1 fine for second offense, confiscation of radio or musical instrument for third offense. 

Col. Marcus Griffin was named supervisor of residence halls personally conducted twice-weekly room inspections. He was quoted as warning, "Those who persist in making their beds only once a week and leaving belongings about the room in a manner unfit to a gentleman and troublesome for the cleaning personnel will find the system rugged."

Your senior year the Trustees announced a new strategic development program. The campaign involved operations, buildings and campus expansion, and increasing the endowment. Plans included a new library (Sandor Teszler), an academic building (the renovated Daniel Building), a new residence hall (Marsh), and a new student center with dining hall (Burwell).

You guys—you had some cool entertainment on campus. The Fabulous Spontanes, The Tams, The Dixie Cups and the Rivieras played for you. You also had Otis Redding play on campus, and he was trying out a new song that he would record a few months later: "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." Justin Timberlake and Garth Brooks covered the song as recently as your sophomore year. Not bad.

Beyond the city's northern border the times were turbulent. In November of your sophomore year, President Kennedy was assassinated. The federal Civil Rights Act was signed into law the summer of your junior year. And of course, the war in Viet Nam was escalating. Some of you had lost parents in World War II and your thoughts and feelings about Viet Nam were complicated, to say the least.

But you left here armed with a Liberal Arts education. You were prepared not merely to make a living, but also to make a life. Your being here this weekend bears witness to the fact that you have done that well. During your college career, Class of 2016, there has been much public questioning of the value of a college education.

More than 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson, who grew up in nearby Augusta and Columbia and Wilmington, spoke to a group of liberal arts students. He said, "You are not here merely to prepare to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."

When we are children, we have many questions about the world.
  • If the leaves fall from trees, why don't the stars fall, too? 
  • Why does a rainbow have seven different colors not six?
Questions open the doors to the power of wonder. As time passes, we stop asking such questions. A friend recently said that in the middle of dinner, with no context: her daughter asked, "What did it feel like on your last day of being a child?"

As soon to be Liberal Arts graduates, you have found the answers to some of your questions. You have reframed some of your questions. And you have discovered new questions. On the one hand you have stopped being a child, but on the other hand you have opened up new worlds of wonder.

The philosopher Plato said that all philosophy begins with wonder. For Plato, wonder was that insatiable curiosity that causes people to seek to understand and explain the world around them. And rather than removing mystery and tension, our knowledge increases the amount of wonder and astonishment we feel.

In a 2013 Oxford Address, T. A. Barron said, "At the core of wonder is openness—being present, with all your senses alive... Let life amaze you!”

The teacher Jesus once taught that sometimes people see, and yet they don't see. They-we-hear and yet we don't hear.

I look up and simply see wispy puffs of white, but a meteorologist sees stratus, cumulous, or cirrus clouds. I look out and see a field, but a farmer sees the crop, notes its variety, and assesses its health. Sometimes we get stuck on the surface, when we need to look more deeply. Education helps us do that.

The prophet Micah found himself in a situation of addressing a generation of listeners who were stuck. They were putting too little emphasis on "the weightier matters of the law."

Micah asked them, "…What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

"Live amply," President Wilson might say, "By looking beyond the surface, by listening to the deeper call."

One of my favorite Pandora stations is Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Reed was a sharecropper's son, and he could play guitar and harmonica as he belted out Mississippi Delta blues that influenced so many musicians that he is in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

If a person listens carefully, there is sometimes heard, ever so faintly in the background, a soft woman's voice in advance of the next verse of the song. We're not sure exactly why, but the fact is he needed help with the lyrics. The woman's voice was that of his wife as she coached him through by whispering the upcoming stanzas into his ear as he sang.

For any number of reasons, in our lives, we will need a voice to help us a long. There are many voices clamoring for our attention. We need to listen carefully to hear the voices that matter: The voice of our education, the voice of our values, the voice of our faith.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandchild about the battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My child, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One gnaws away at life– it is envy, jealousy, greed, arrogance, and lies. The other is life-giving – it is joy, peace, love, kindness, generosity, and compassion."

The grandchild thought about it for a minute and then asked, "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Class of 2016, today as you processed here the college bell tolled once for each of you. It will do the same tomorrow. 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 one of you classmates, Cameron Pappas. 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 what we will see and hear, and who we will be. And today I wonder--I wonder-- what difference our time in this place will make for us and God's world. I suppose it depends on which wolf we choose to feed.

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