May 21

University Baccalaureate 2023

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Click here to hear just the Baccalaureate Address

Graduates of the class of 2023, as we gather, we celebrate your success, we honor our esteemed, excellent University leadership, we welcome your parents and friends, and we pause, briefly with you, to ponder the meaning of it all.  (Usually, I have the responsibility to speak to the Baccalaureate guest, and among other things gently but clearly remind them that they have just 15 minutes for the Baccalaureate Address.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and I feel their pain, only 15 minutes.  The wheels of justice grind slow but exceedingly fine!) So let me ask you to consider, briefly, three aspects of this high, holy moment, your graduation, all three of which are embedded in this Marsh Chapel, and embedded in the meaning of your study here. Learning. Virtue. Piety.  Life-Long Learning. Social Virtue. Transformational Piety. 

We have at Boston University a strange, superstitious tradition regarding the seal embedded in front of Marsh Chapel, which by legend is not to be stood upon prior to completion of courses, on pain, threat or supposition that one such misstep will block one’s progress toward graduation itself, or at least delay the degree, somehow.  

For a few minutes at this Baccalaureate 2023, let me upend my own, and perhaps your own, puzzlement, even disregard, for this tradition. Just for a moment.  For like a lot of strange traditions, this one about not stepping on the seal may have, oddly, a point.  For the seal has upon it three exacting words, words to live by, not just for a bit of life, but for the whole of life.  Potent words.  Words with electricity, juice, in them.  Words, three words, not to be treated lightly, tread upon, scuffed, sauntered over, mistreated, marked or mocked with disdain.  Words, three words, fit to carry for the memory of Commencement, the beginning of the road away from school. Words, three words with which not just to make a living, but also to make a life.  You and I do not believe in ghosts.  Yet…we have our own reasons, over time, to accord some measure of respect, respectful agnosticism, but respect nonetheless to the uncanny, to the numinous, to the strange, to the elusive, even when such are produced for us out of an odd legend.  For life is haunted by things we don’t see, things we don’t understand, things we cannot control.  Scripture and tradition acknowledge this—from the Midas touch to Lot’s wife.  

Here are three divine words, lasting truths, immutable markers of what matters, lasts and counts.  In the vigor of youth, and in the tempestuous vitality of young life, somehow, it may be, our students are on to something.  They are teaching us, and themselves.  They are chary of, wary of, disdain for the true, the good and beautiful, in places of the heart, of the soul, of the subconscious.  In good Shaker tradition, the heart follows the hand, their heart follows their feet.  Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.  In three words.  

The first of these is learning. That means life-long learning.  As you entered the Chapel, above the portal, there is the sculpture of Mr. John Wesley, whose Methodist movement gave BU birth in 1839, and who sang, ‘unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, learning and holiness combine, truth and love for all to see’. A kind of early One BU. He was devoted to learning, life-long learning, as have been many of our guests here, over these years. In 2018 John Lewis (of blessed memory), Anthony Fauci, Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto (mayor of San Juan) all reminded us of this, both in speech and in example. They embodied the civil rights movement, the challenges in Puerto Rico (remember the former president’s graceless remarks about Puerto Rico that year?), and the importance of science in health (though we could not yet see the pandemic coming, nor Dr. Fauci’s central leadership through it).  Experience is the greatest teacher, especially when it causes us to learn through disappointment, but also when it causes us to learn through generosity.   

Disappointment teaches us lessons that success cannot fathom.  Faith mainly comes from trouble. Mr. Wesley and his early band of Methodists learned to ‘watch over one another in love’, because life is so shot through with disappointment.  Wesley was 200 years after Shakespeare, but he would have known the aching hurts recorded in those monumental plays and poems. You read Shakespeare at some point at BU, and so recall his 66th Sonnet, awash in disappointment:  

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,  

As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly–doctor-like–controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone. 

 We learn through experience, including the experience of grace, the grace, say, to overcome disappointment.  That is faith, whether in secular or religious attire. 

 Likewise, we learn too through giving.  You only have what you can give away, what you have the freedom and power to give away.  You only truly possess what you have the liberty to give away. 

 So, 200 years after Shakespeare, along came John Wesley, teaching a tithing generosity, Mr. John Wesley who greets us at the door, coming and going.  

 This morning we gather up in prayer the experiences of four years and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace. 

 This morning we embrace the graduates of 2023, as you commence with the rest of life, and lift them all in a spirit of grace and peace. 

 This morning we open ourselves to the world around us, and pledge ourselves to live not only in this world but also, and more so, for this world, for this world in a spirit of grace and peace. Horace Mann: “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” 

 John Wesley was the founder of Methodism, the religious tradition that gave birth to Boston University in 1839. His motto: Do all the good you can. The words are simple:  that is significant.  The language is universal:  that is significant. The tone is thankful:  that is significant.  The phrasing is memorable:  that is significantWords fit for use morning by morning, day by day, year by year, all in a lifetime:  that too is significant.   

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can. 

Do all the good you can. 

 Learning, lifelong learning. 

The second of the three words embedded in the central, haunted Plaza seal, the occult and subconscious dark backdrop of life (life as Hobbes said that is solitary, nasty, brutish and short) the second of these words is virtue.  That means social virtue.  That means common, civic, communal virtue.  Your class has known the importance of shared, national virtue, which was needed to overcome a raging pandemic which impacted every one of you, every one of us.  Your class lived through the raging furies of January 6, 2021 which had the potential to impact every one of you, every one of us.  Your class lived through the surges of isolation, anxiety and depression, which continue to challenge us. 

Well, we have a second permanent guest in Marsh Chapel a fellow who knew much about this.  He is in the back corner, on the pulpit side, up in stained glass.  Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln.  He is reminder that virtue is the bedrock of shared, national, social, cultural life.  Real leaders have virtue. Virtue is not optional in a nation’s leadership.  Shun mendacity. We may differ about the size and scope of a budget, or the most apt programs in foreign affairs.  But we cannot differ about telling the truth, about personal virtue, about lies, including big lies.  Personal virtue, especially in leaders, is the basis for national virtue.  Class of 2023, in warning, we say:  do not be fooled, here.  A house divided against itself, on this, cannot stand.   

Remember who you are and whose you are.  Listen to the few paragraphs of Lincoln’s greatest words.  Listen for the anaphora in the beginning, and the epistrophe at the end. Listen to the gravity and realism, but listen also, out of a dark corner and hour, for the hope. 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

Both history and mystery are at the heart of a regard for virtue, and at the heart of any real college education.  

Virtue, social virtue.  

The third of these three words is perhaps the strangest to our ears, but maybe the most important.  It is piety. That means transformational piety.  This year Jonathan Eig has published Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Perilous Power of Respectability). King lived to transform.  Real piety is transformative. The piety here, the faith here, in your BU old bones, is transformational, not just personal, but transformational piety. 

My dad was born in the same year as King, and was here as a student at the same time.  My dad was raised by a single mom, with no dad at home.  But not all of our parents are natural parents.  Some are relational parents.  He met a teacher, a homiletics teacher, here at BU, who became such, a relational not natural parent, and so when their first child was born, they gave him the middle name, ‘Allan’, after that teacher, Allan Knight Chalmers.  He is the rascal speaking to you now.  None of us got here alone.  Others helped, others practiced a transformational piety.  Thank one, two or three of them today, if you have a chance.  

There is no greater voice, near or far, of transformational piety, than that voice celebrated in the heart of our plaza.  For your meditation, here are selected epigrams from your fellow BU alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   

When it gets dark enough you can see the stars. 

 Say that I was a drum major for justice, for peace, for righteousness.  

 Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 

 Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. 

 I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. 

 The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. 

 I have a dream that one day my four children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

 ‘You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?’  Have some dreams, even if, as Nina Tassler told us in 2016, you have to edit your dreams.  It would be great to have some of the children of King—Rafael Warnock, Deval Patrick, Marilynne Robinson, Barack Obama–here in autumn 2025 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Marsh Chapel.  May we find the grace to seek and serve his cause of justice in the years to come. 

 A story, one of transformational piety, which King repeatedly told, is of Marian Anderson. She was awarded an honorary degree here at Boston University in 1960, a black opera singer, whose voice was perhaps the greatest of all in the last century.  But it was her mother who made it possible:  I remember when Marian was growing up, and I was working in a kitchen till my hands were all but parched, my eyebrows all but scalded. I was working there to make it possible for my daughter to get an education. 

One day somebody asked Marian Anderson in later years, “Miss Anderson, what has been the happiest moment of your life?  Singing in Carnegie Hall? Performing for the Kings and Queens of Europe?  When Toscanini said a voice like yours come only once in a century.  No…No…No…And she looked up and said (smiling) quietly, “The happiest moment in my life was the moment I could say, “Mother, you can stop working now.” Marian Anderson realized that she was where she was because somebody helped her to get there. (MLKing, “A Knock at Midnight”).   And somebody helped you too. 

Piety, transformative piety.  

Learning. Virtue. Piety.  Personal. National. Global. Lifelong. Social. Transformative. They are your words, now, now that you have crossed the seal, your words chiseled in the stone of Marsh Chapel, your words, embodied in the beauty of this chapel, with Wesley and Lincoln and King.  Nod to Mr. Wesley, President Lincoln, and Dr. King, in sculpture and window and monument, as you depart.  But class of 2023, carry them in memory, not for a day, but for a lifetime.  

Let love be genuine 

Hate what is evil 

Hold fast to what is good 

Love one another with mutual affection 

Outdo one another in showing honor 

Never lag in zeal 

Be ardent in spirit 

Serve the Lord 

Rejoice in your hope 

Be patient in tribulation 

Be constant in prayer 

Contribute to the needs of the saints 

Practice hospitality 

 Class of 2023:  Bon Voyage! 


-The Boston University 2023 Baccalaureate speaker was The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel

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