Baccalaureate Sermon 2003
Wabash College Chapel
May 18, 2003

By Raymond Williams

“The World Turned While You Were Here—Therefore”

Jeremiah 29:4-5;5-7;9-11; Romans 12:1-2; 9-1

First, let me presume to speak an informal word of thanks from the faculty to the parents, speaking for a moment over the heads of the graduates.

Thank you for sharing your sons with us for four years. We have enjoyed the fruit of your labor, and we celebrate the accomplishments of your sons.

You taught them to speak their first words, and for four years we have enjoyed their best creative writing, editing, and speaking. You suffered through their first music lessons, and we have been enriched by their recitals, the glee club, and music ensembles. You taught them to think for themselves and to argue fairly, and we have been enlightened by our debates. You developed in them a fascination with the world, and they have been our colleagues in research. You played catch and baskets with them, and we have cheered excellent intercollegiate teams. On rare occasions they have even been victorious over faculty intramural teams. You endowed them with spirit, and we have watched it soar. Your sons, and the talents you and they share with us, are a major reason it is so pleasant to be part of this college. Makes us “Proud to be Wabash.”

You planted, and watered, and tended; we watched for a while; and God has given a wonderful increase. In that we all rejoice.


The two biblical texts for this morning seem appropriate because each involves a transition. For the ancient Israelites, it was a time of social transition facing the move and exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Therefore, Jeremiah says, "When you get out there, live like this...." For Paul in Romans it was personal transformation based on the freedom of the Christian elaborated in the first part of his letter. "Therefore" is the most important biblical word, the fulcrum between the old and the new, accomplishment and potential, past and future. Therefore...

The founders of Wabash College believed a good college and a faithful church are sister institutions, sharing the highest aspirations — human flourishing, civic virtue and justice, all to the glory of God. Never is that more evident than when we enter this chapel to celebrate the transition of graduation.

So, the most important word today is the Scriptural "THEREFORE"

As liberally educated men, you are skilled in reason and critical thinking to know that "THEREFORE" requires antecedent propositions. So, let me suggest a couple.

First, the world has turned while you have been at Wabash. You entered in 1999, at the end of the old, just in time to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium. You witnessed the awful events of 9/11 and the consequent changes in our sense of security and freedom. You flinched when the economy tanked revealing greed, dishonesty, deceit, personal and social and disruption, and uncertainty about the future. You wished godspeed to a classmate yanked from the stately procession toward graduation to go to war in Iraq. You experienced the post-Cold War interlude end in terror with major shifts in the world political and religious scene. It is as though a razor-thin facade of decency was peeled back to reveal the world as a meaner, uglier, colder, and more challenging place. That’s the world the Apostle Paul wrote about in Romans in theological terms of wrath, sin, and death. That’s your world—turned, twisted. THEREFORE

A second antecedent proposition: you have changed since you have been at Wabash.

On Commencement weekend a few years ago a colleague and I met parents of a graduating senior in front of Sparks. When they learned that I had taught their son, they beamed with pride in their son and were effusive in their praise for the college. They said that their son had become a man at Wabash, thoughtful, competent, confident, caring, a real gentleman. They gave me a bottle of fine wine. As they were walking away, my colleague, with a dry sense of humor, whispered, "I didn't have the nerve to tell them that sometimes happens to young men between 18-21 no matter what we do." But, he was joking; we knew better. In four years he could have become something very different — a terrorist, or a thief, or just an egotistical bore. A wag once said, "Take a lad who steals coal from the railroad yard and educate him, and he will steal railroads." But, we at Wabash don't believe that for a moment. Liberal arts education changes you because it leads to the skills of freedom and virtue. Scientiae et Virtuti is the motto on our college seal and on the front of your program.

Loren Pope profiled Wabash in his book Colleges that Change Lives. We know that he had gained wisdom with age because he concluded the chapter on Wabash with these words, "Long before the end of my visit to Wabash, I was wishing I'd gone here instead of to its coed rival, DePauw." [Some of you will have to forgive us; that’s an inside joke.] Nevertheless, his is a serious thesis — that excellent liberal arts colleges "raise trajectories, strengthen skills, double talents, develop value systems, and impact confidence." Scientiae et Virtuti. That's the reason the Wabash faculty placed this statement as the Preamble to its curriculum, "We, the Faculty of Wabash College, believe in a liberal arts education. We believe that it leads people to freedom, helps them choose worthy goals and shows them the way to an enduring life of the mind." We trust you have changed for the better since you have been at Wabash. THEREFORE....


First, the Apostle Paul. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect." Or, in the words of another translation, "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold." Jeremiah warns God’s people against those prophets and dreamers who have ready-made answers, perverted visions of the future, little boxes to live in, and ultimately despair.

Our world seems to abound in such prophets, politicians, sect leaders, pundits, and commentators. Even some forms of education bind persons in a role, an occupation, a stereotyped future, with bonds as tight as any prison. People prepared to step into ready-made prisons, whether of sect, or occupation, or corporation, are much in demand and highly praised and paid. You were not educated to become cogs in corrupt machines of other people’s imaginings or grist for their mills. Your parents and your Wabash teachers realize that we have been preparing you to live as free men in a world we cannot imagine and that some of us will not live to see. If you have found in this college liberation, new vistas, virtue, and hope, cherish that because it goes against much of what we experience of this world.

Liberal education is not without agony and risk. It is not easy, but it is worth it! As sophomores you read W.E.B. Dubois' "On the Coming of John" published just one hundred years ago this year. John returned home from college full of dreams to be a teacher. His family and community took him from the train station to a welcome-home celebration. Pushed behind the pulpit, he shared his dreams, but could not make himself understood in the “unknown tongue” learned in college. Then a elderly deacon spoke with a “rude and awful eloquence” but John “never knew clearly what the old man said.” The gap was great between John’s dreams and challenges for the future and the reality of his lived world. An awful chasm! John walked out into the night. When his little sister joined him, John wept on her shoulder. “John,” she said, ‘does it make everyone — unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?” He paused and smiled, “I am afraid it does,” he said. “And, John, are you glad you studied?” “Yes,” came the answer, slowly but positively.

That dialectic of education is strong in the silent anxiety of parents as we watch our children mature. Will they be like us? Oh God, I hope so! Let them continue to speak our language, cherish our values, be at home with us. Will they be different, better than we are? Oh God, I hope so! Let them soar as free men. Give them the whole world as a gift, before they feel it as a burden. Don't let them be trapped by our faults and failures. Save them from the dark side of the world.

From the other side, I remember the point of maturity, which came too late, when I accepted the fact that I am the son of my father and mother, with all the particularities of accent, faith, and location that implied. But the liberation came when I found that meant they were pushing me onto their shoulders to see new vistas, and, with the help of the church and college, to dream dreams and see visions they could never imagine.

Therefore, do not be conformed to this world as it is, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds to discern for yourselves what is good, acceptable and perfect, which, Paul says, is the "worship worthy of thinking beings." Dare we say, “worship worthy of Wabash men?”

The second exhortation is simply, "Therefore, save civilization!" That isn’t exactly sacred scripture; it comes from President Ford’s comments to you at your Freshmen Chapel. “Save civilization!” [Our guests will have to excuse his extravagant language. I fear it is an occupational hazard of a Wabash president. He always thinks that he is speaking to Little Giants.]

But President Ford has it right. The goal of liberal arts education is not just personal freedom and transformation. It prepares people to lead, to make a difference, to make the world a better place, to save civilization.

Fred Craddock, one of my teachers, said that as a young man he yearned for the opportunity to make one heroic gesture of giving his life to Christ. But as an older man he realized that there was no one dramatic gesture for him. Rather, his life was given in bits and pieces, most often as a teacher when a student stopped him in the hall and asked, "Professor, do you have a minute." You have seen examples of such calls here, some mentioned in The Bachelor: "Mr. Medsker, will you lead this student organization?" "Mr. Espino, You have a serious illness; will your response be an inspiration to others?" "Mr. Bopp, will you be able to lead your team to excellence and good works from the sideline." “Mr. Shepard, will you lead the MXI and its service programs?”

Each of you seniors can put your own name in there, and remember how you responded to similar calls. In such acts of service and virtue, hereafter, you live up to your calling as Wabash men to save civilization bit by bit.

So, some biblical exhortations (a little less extravagant than President Ford’s, but to the same end).

From Jeremiah: Therefore, seek the welfare of the city where you live.

From Paul: Therefore, love one another. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Don't be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Repay no one evil for evil. Live peaceably with all.

And a final exhortation from Wabash College: Therefore, “judge thoughtfully, act effectively, and live humanely in a difficult world.”

In doing so, you will fulfill the college’s hopes for you and God’s plans for you — plans for your welfare and not for evil, to give you a future with hope.

Please God, let it be so for these young men!

Williams is Professor of Religion Emeritus at Wabash.