Rev. Ron with student

Salt & Light

Wofford College
Baccalaureate Sermon 2017
Ronald R. Robinson
Perkins-Prothro Chaplain & Professor of Religion

Wofford College has one foot in history and tradition, and another foot in the future and change. This moment includes both.  

The Baccalaureate Service originated in 1432 at Oxford University. Each bachelor’s degree candidate delivered 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. On this continent, Harvard inaugurated the custom of the Baccalaureate Service. We follow in that tradition today.

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. 

Class of 2017, we celebrate you this weekend. To give the rest of us some perspective… most of you were born the year the Olympics were held in Atlanta, and just after the nation had endured the OJ Simpson Trial. If you have older siblings, they might have received a “Tickle Me Elmo” for Christmas that year. 

One of the most popular films of the year you were born was Jerry Maguire. Two well-known cultural memes came from that movie: Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s "Show me the Money!" Perhaps many of you are saying that today. And then there was Renée Zellweger, "You had me at 'hello.'" Maybe some of you are saying that today, too. 

Fake News has already appeared: In 1996 as a hoax, Taco Bell printed in six major American newspapers that it had bought The Liberty Bell and was renaming it The Taco Liberty Bell. The year you were born Gwen Stefani and No Doubt had the top song… Fast-forward: You arrived on campus near the end of summer in 2013, and you were listening to Macklemore, JayZ, Darius Rucker & Drake, Eminem, Robin Thicke—remember those blurred lines-- and Blake Shelton.

No one genre of music, no one point of view, no one set of experiences can accurately encapsulate you.

We are honored to have some members of the Class of 1967 with us this weekend. Half a century ago you made important connections with the people and the place you remember as Wofford College.

Most of you enrolled at Wofford in1963. Beyond the city’s northern border the Congress of the United States passed a resolution making Winston Churchill the first ever-honorary citizen of the United States of America. That resolution was signed by the speaker of the house, by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and by Pres. John F. Kennedy. And by the way, if you go into the building just behind you can see that very document and the pen that Pres. Kennedy used to sign it. 

And on campus, this class would not have asked each other what they were going to do in January. The class of 1967 is the last class to graduate from Wofford without having the experience of Interim.
Back to the fall of 1963…You were listening to music -perhaps on your Silvertone Transistor radio – you were listening to tunes:

  • Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind
  • Peter Paul & Mary If I Had A Hammer…
  • The Surfaris Wipe Out
  •  The Beatles recorded their first album with tunes like I Want to Hold your Hand
  • and Johnny Cash was singing Ring of Fire, or as he sang, Ring of Far.

That freshman year must have been extraordinary—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the time you were arriving on campus. And you would become the last class to graduate from a segregated Wofford. You were 17/18 year olds who were away from home, dealing with new friends, new ideas, and then it must have felt like the world was falling apart. 

On September 15 the church bombing that took the lives of four little girls in Alabama brought the attention of the US Civil Rights movement to the world. Any many people would say, “Enough.” 

In November, President Kennedy was assassinated. By the time you were seniors, the Vietnam conflict had already taken some of your friends from back home, and many of you would go on to serve in that conflict in some way. 

All of that stood in contrast with your youthful desire to “be young, be foolish and be happy.” The Tams trotted out their tune by that title in 1967, and your Spring Dance was one of the first places they played it. It went gold the next year.

The Old Gold & Black noted the week after “yes, it was quite a weekend… even with Saturday classes… not to say it could not have been better without them.” That’s right, they had Saturday classes…
In one of my classes this year, we speculated about the changes you have seen in 50 years and some they might see when they return in 50 years. That prompted some research. In 1967, 26 of the 46 living members of the class of 1917 were present at Commencement weekend. Think of the changes they had seen: two world wars, a depression, and the Civil Rights movement when they came back to see the class of 1967 graduate. 

We discovered that the class of 1917 didn’t have the Class of 1867 at their commencement—there had only been three graduates because of the Civil War. But they did have an opportunity to shake hands with the college’s oldest living graduate—a member of the class of 1858 who was part of the very first four-year class here at Wofford. So we speculated…stay with me now…if a member of the original Wofford four-year class shook hands with the class of 1917… And if the class of ’17 shook hands with Class of 1967…and if the Class of ‘67 shakes hands with the Class of ’2017…you get where I’m going... that kinda connects all of Wofford across more that 160 years…

While we’re connecting, I want to offer a word from the faith perspective. Jesus uses two metaphors that you heard in the reading. He says: "You are the salt of the earth.” "You are the light of the world." 

A friend says, “You are not the honey of the earth, sent to sugar-coat all of life's harsh realities. You are not the WD-40 of the earth, sent to lubricate and smooth over all life's hard edges. Nor are you the duct tape of the earth, desperately trying to hold things together. No. 

You are salt, which is to say: You preserve what is important, and you add zip and zest. You make things tasty and tangy in a world that can seem so tedious and tasteless. You make the world spicy. You are a force to be reckoned with in the world. You are going to make a difference. You are here to make everything more interesting, more engaging, more fascinating.

One of the best things about salt is that it doesn't take much to do the job. A pinch makes all the difference in the world. Salty people change things. They disorder the status quo. They value those who are left out, they care for those who suffer, they show mercy, they have integrity, and courageously they stand up for what’s right. 

Then we’re told we are light. 

Last weekend in the beautiful new building behind you, Dale Chihuly told people that perhaps his most meaningful experience as an artist was when he had an opportunity to create Chihuly Over Venice. Some of you have traveled there and know it is a city with centuries of history of glassblowing. Chihuly said: “Glass is the most magical of all materials. It transmits light in a special way.” 

The gospel calls us to do the same thing.

Annie Dillard writes, "You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary." You know there is darkness in life--external and internal. In order for light to be seen, we must be willing to go where darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, so that, in time, light can overcome it. 

I heard about some college students who were walking through the fairgrounds when they met a little girl who was carrying a gigantic fluff of cotton candy on a stick. It was almost as big as she was. One of the students said to her, "How’s a little girl like you going to eat all of that cotton candy?" She looked up and said, "Well, I'm really much bigger on the inside than I am on the outside." 

It is my prayer that your liberal arts education has made you bigger on the inside.

The Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno says that in addition to light, what we should ask for is more warmth. He said, “Human beings do not die of the darkness; they die of the cold."

People who are big on the inside are people of warmth.

On your first Sunday on this campus, the college bell was tolled for you. It was tolled again today as you processed in, and it will be tolled again tomorrow. Then it will be tolled again at the end of your life. We’ve done this for two of your classmates, Jeremiah Tate and McGregor Ruffin. And whenever I hear you sharing stories about them, they are inevitably stories of salt and light. We toll because you and I are always part of this Wofford family. What matters, of course, is how we live between the tolls. 

So my words for you, Class of 2017: Be salt, and make life spicy. Be light and brighten dark places. Be warmth, and thaw a cold world. 

And be big on the inside…