AAR Meeting Book Display

AAR Meeting Book Display

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Baccalaureate Sermon

For all those interested, here is the baccalaureate sermon I preached last night to the Campbell grads:

2 Chron 34:8-14

According to Dr. Phyllis Trible, who lectured on this campus earlier this spring, 2 Chronicles 34 – read for you just a moment ago by Brooke Whitley - reports the oldest archaeological discovery on record. That is to say, it’s not the oldest thing ever discovered, but it is the oldest instance of an archaeological discovery. The year was 621 BC. The city of Rome was less than 100 years old, and it would be another 200 years before Socrates and Plato would walk barefooted in the streets of Athens.
Even so, the great Temple of Yahweh, conceived by King David and built by Solomon in heart of the city of Jerusalem, was, in 621 BC, already 300 years old, an antique, a monument of the past. Due to long years of heavy use and structural neglect, the Temple was falling into disrepair. And now, in the 18th year of King Josiah’s reign, it was finally getting the restoration it long needed.

Dust swirled as sweaty workers tromped in and out, carrying lumber, stone blocks, mortar, bags of sand, pick-axes, and spatulas. The sounds of hammers clinking on stone and saws cutting through planks were punctuated only by occasional shout of instruction from supervisors. The pace of the renovation was so furious that one could easily forget this was a house of worship. At times it felt like just another municipal construction site. Except that every now and then, one caught out of the corner of the eye a priest darting by, his long black robes flapping behind him as he would skirt around piles of rubble. The ordained Levite priests did their best to perform their normal duties. More often than not, I’m sure they were irritated by the interminable ruckus, the pungent smell of the laborers, the insufferable dust, and the general mess everywhere you looked.

Hilkiah the high priest was trying not to let his frustrations get the better of him when he looked up and noticed one of the dirty-faced laborers waving him over to the place he was working. Hilkiah scowled but then resigned himself and obeyed. The workers were cleaning out some of the closets of the temple, little rooms that were locked up with long-forgotten artifacts, historical documents, and other dusty treasures. As Hilkiah approached, the man pointed a grimy finger toward something – An oversized, skin-colored scroll that had been stowed away. It was an odd relic and the workers did not know what to do with it. The ancient scroll was hoisted to a table and, because it had been rolled tightly, had to be pried open. Hilkiah needed time to read through the weather-worn pages of this strange scroll. But as he scanned the faded script, his eyes grew wider. His hands began to shake.

He read faster and faster, jumping from line to line, devouring every word. With each trembling turn of the scroll, the realization sank in upon him. Hilkiah was holding the Law, the divine Torah, God’s special covenant with his people given to Moses. He wiped back hot tears and kept reading. Leaping up, he ran to show it to the king’s secretary Shaphan, who immediately realized that King Josiah must know about this. Read 2 Chron 34:15-19

2 Chronicles reports that the king was moved to tears and ripped his garment in grief and amazement – grief for what had been so long lost, amazement at what had been found. Even so, it’s interesting that King Josiah demanded that the scroll and its content be authenticated.
2 Chron 34:20-21

Why? Why would Josiah need to verify the legitimacy of the document? The reason is this: For a long time now, the kingdom of Assyria to the north had held power in the land, and had put in Solomon’s temple their own sacred objects and their own documents of religious instruction. These alien intrusions were now being removed in the renovations. The temple was being purified religiously. King Josiah needed to know if this scroll was the law of Israel’s God or the law of Assyria’s God. He needed to verify that this was the law given to Moses, the commandments of the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not a false god of the Assyrians.

In verse 23 we find that inquiry about the book was made to the prophetess Huldah, the resident expert, and she confirmed that the book of the Law was genuine. Modern scholars now believe that the Law that was discovered by Hilkiah was part or perhaps all of the book of Deuteronomy.

When the king heard from Huldah that the Law was authentic, he rededicated himself and his people to God. All the people were called together. From the least to the greatest, they gathered, and heard, for the first time in generations, the book of the Covenant read aloud. 2 Chron 34:29-31

Tonight, I want to make just one insight from this story: from the beginning, we have been a people of the book.

Again and again throughout the Old Testament we see that the people of Israel are a people of the book, a people of the written law. The earliest Christians inherited this love of the written word of God from their Israelite predecessors. Indeed, one thing that helped Christianity spread so quickly was an underappreciated invention that gained traction in the second century AD: the codex, the book with loose pages attached together at one edge, bound to a single spine. The codex could contain a huge amount of writing in a very compact unit, something that the scroll, which was thick and unwieldy, could not do. A monk or missionary could easily tuck a codex into his cloak and travel with it, reading it aloud from church to church.

It is not surprising that the major task of the early Christians was reading, writing, copying and preserving books. Priests and ministers needed to be trained to read so that they could perform the liturgies, the Christian services. Because of this need, cathedral schools sprang up in the middle ages. And, as you probably know, the first modern universities were chartered by the Church, that is, by Christian leaders committed to the life of the mind and to literacy: Bologna in 1158, and by 1200 Paris, Oxford, and Salerno. In the American colonies, the first institutions of higher learning were two church-related schools: Harvard University and William and Mary; Harvard being constituted in 1636 to train Congregationalist and Unitarian ministers; William and Mary being formed in 1693, in part to educate Anglican ministers.

The founder of Campbell University, James Archibald Campbell, was himself an ordained minister and the son of a Baptist minister. Writing about his first appointment as a headmaster, J. A. Campbell remembered that ‘All students were required to attend religious exercises. The program consisted of Bible reading, recitation of Scripture texts, and prayers. The school read, in concert, from the Psalms every other morning. Every student who could read was required to memorize a verse of Scripture each day and recite it before the group.” CU 25. For the original Mr. Campbell, there was a deep connection between the kingdom of God and the work of education.

Literacy has always gone hand in hand with faith. The Christian church is a major ambassador for literacy. The bulk of children’s Sunday School work involves reading with youngsters. If you think about it, your earliest exposure to books and reading was probably with the Bible. Hopefully your exposure was not like the boy who visited his grandparents and opened the big family Bible. He was fascinated by the old and ornate pages. Suddenly, something fell out. He picked it up and found that he was holding two old leafs that had been pressed flat between the pages.
     "Grandma, look what I found," he called out.
      "What have you got there, dear?" his grandmother asked.
      The boy answered, "I think it's Adam and Eve's underwear!"

I want to use this sermon opportunity to give you, my former students, my intellectual partners and scholarly equals -- one more assignment, just one more project: never stop reading. Read wide and  read deep, read high and read low, read fiction and read non-fiction, read for pleasure and for knowledge, and for heaven’s sake, read your Bibles. Never stop reading.

Perhaps you were unaware of it, but part of what we were doing in our classes when we assigned weekly readings was instilling in you certain habits of reading. We were trying to condition your eyes and minds for a life of regular reading.

I give you this last assignment because my fear is that some of you are so desperate to land a job, start a career and a family, build a house, pay off debt, climb the ladder of success, buy a new car and a new boat, make something of yourself. These things are all good and noble, but I’m afraid that those concerns have forced you to boil your education down to a single question: “Will it get me a job?” You want to know the utilitarian, instrumental value of your degree. You want your diploma stamped, Made in Campbell, on sale now. I’m wondering: have you thought of your education as preparation for a vocation, a life-long career, a profession, a calling, or as a means of manufacturing yourself into a useful commodity that a bank or a clinic or a firm might pick up, pay for, and use as it sees fit? Because if the latter is true, then in essence, what you want is to be treated like a tool, no more than a wrench or a hammer – just a collection of skillsets and certifications. And this the world is happy to do. The world we live in is more than willing to treat you like a tool – to hire you not as a person but as a function, that is, to employ a certain quantity of your time and labor, which it will pay for and use up until you break or become obsolete.

But what we have tried to offer you here at Campbell, during your four year sojourn in the land of learning, is an opportunity to become more than a tool. The Christian university does not exist just for the sake of landing you a lucrative job (although I certainly wish that for you). It does not exist to give you knowledge for knowledge’s sake – so that you can win points playing trivial pursuit. The Christian university exists because our God is the God of truth and knowledge and wisdom.

Deuteronomy 6:5 says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Dr. Cogdill of the Divinity School pointed out to me that when Jesus quotes this commandment in the New Testament, he adds one more: he says you must also love the lord with all your mind. Jesus declares that the greatest commandment is:
to love the lord with all your kardia, your heart, that is, your feelings, emotions, and devotion
with all your psyche, your soul, that is, your vitality and consciousness,
with all your ischys, your strength, that is, your passion, drive, and instinct
and with all your dianoia, your mind, that is, your intelligence, your thoughts, your brain.

Jesus’ addition of the mind is a good one. It makes explicit what is implicit in the text. I think that included in your ‘heart, soul, and strength’ is also your mind, but just to make sure that you don’t miss it, Jesus makes it clear – yes, God wants you to love him with your mind too. God desires you to desire God with every fiber of your being and brain. The Christian university exists so that you might discover how to do this. It exists so that you might become more than one of TS Eliot’s hollow men, but that you might enjoy life to the fullest and worship God in the highest.

This is far more radical and edgy than it first sounds. What I’m saying is that over the past four years the classroom has been a place of resistance, a strong fortress from which we peer down into the machine of the world that wants to turn you into a function and ask Jesus’ probing question, “What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?”

I hope you have learned during your time here that your soul is not a commodity; you are not your job, you’re not your kakis, you’re not your credit-card statement. You’re not a tool.

This is the outrageous idea of the Christian university! This is the driving conviction of Campbell University. Welcome to the resistance!

In a world saturated with buying and selling, credit and debit, advertising and marketing, the Faustian temptation will always be crouching at your door, pressing hard upon you to deny your Lord, tempting you to reduce the meaning of life down to the amount of stuff you possess, tempting you to reduce family down to what they can do for you, tempting you to reduce happiness down to the dollar amount on the paycheck. You will have to fight bravely and resolutely to do otherwise.

The good news is that you are not without defense or hope. You are graduates of Campbell University: that means that the weapons of resistance are always yours. You have been shown how to read and write and think deeply. You have cultivated the habits of the mind and the wisdom of the heart. You are ready. I look out tonight at you with pride in my heart. I am proud of what you have accomplished. I am proud of who you have become. Your energy and your raw talent inspire me. Your bright eyes and big smiles give me courage. You have become men and women of character and commitment.

So, seize the life of the mind for God’s sake. Like Hilkiah the high priest, always remain open to discovering new books and old ideas. And may you rise each morning with the prayer of Isaiah 50 on your lips, that the Sovereign Lord might give you ears to hear, and an instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary.

Spirit of God who lights the lamp of learning, let the world see in us the difference that your illumination makes. Son of God, help us to love you with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind. Father God, we ask that you warm our lives with your embrace and free us with your smile. Thank you for loving us, thank you for calling us, thank you for sending us out.