Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio


Text:  Acts 17:16-21

         Proverbs 4:10-13

    May I begin this morning by saying “congratulations” to this year’s high school graduates?  If you

were the graduating class of 1919 rather than of 2019, and if I was a stodgy academic preacher

typical of early 20th century Presbyterianism, I would probably say something like this:  “Young

gentlemen, I remind you of the words of Samuel Johnston when he stated: ‘To talk in public, to think

in solitude, to read and to hear, to inquire and to answer inquiries is the business of a scholar.’ 

Emerson added, ‘A scholar is the favorite of heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, and

happiest of men.’  As you set off for the academy, remember that a university should be a place of

light, of liberty, of learning.”

      Not to disrespect the great scholar-preachers of the early 20th century, you whom we honor this

morning are not “young gentlemen,” but young gentlewomen?  Moreover, if I was to ramble on like

that for some forty-five minutes – which was typical of sermons of that era – you graduates, and

everyone else, would be asleep in the pews.  So instead of a stodgy opening, I’m going to share a

little story of my own graduation from high school in June, 1973. 

      I was mortified that April day when I was called to the office of Superintendant Samuel Milano-

vich.  I figured I was in some kind of trouble.  “Lawrence,” he began.  “As co-valedictorian, we’d like

you to speak at the commencement exercises this year.”  Before I had a chance to reply, he went

on: “Now we want you to prepare a five minute speech about the value of education.”  I don’t re-

member a word after that as the blood drained from my head and my knees became weak.  I felt

lightheaded and faint.  Me – the class nerd -- speak in front of hundreds of people?  Why not simply

drive a spear through me and get it over with Mr. M.”  To his credit, he gave me and the other

speakers plenty of time, almost two months, to prepare our remarks. I can’t speak for Linda Bryant

or Anthony Iannamorelli, but I myself didn’t quite see it that way.  For me, it began an excruciating

two months of no appetite, lost sleep, paralyzing anxiety, and the hope of contracting mono.

      Somehow, I managed to write and deliver the speech in Coraopolis Blue Devil Stadium that June

day.  I had it memorized, but now only these words remain:  “Graduates of 1973, administrators,

teachers, families and friends…..”  I was told I said much more, but I’ll be darned if I remember.  The

next four minutes and fifty seconds was a blur.  I only recall how I felt when it was over.  Joy and

relief don’t even begin to describe it.  In fact, I didn’t even mind the goofy accordion player my

parents hired for my graduation party at the Italian Club.  I look today at Emma and Kelly, and am

impressed that at this time in their lives, they are light years ahead of where I was at eighteen in

terms of poise, proficiency, experience and maturity.

      Kelly and Emma, you are high school graduates setting off for the academy; Kelly, you to Kent

State University; and Emma, you, to Capital University Conservatory of Music.  Your preparation has

been as thorough as your schools have been able to make it.  So too, your spiritual preparation has

been as thorough as your family and your church have been able to make it.  You are now poised

and postured to leave – at some level – the security of your homes, your families, your friends, your

schools, your church.  You’ll soon transition into a strange, new arena of higher education where

you’ll surely be confronted by new ideas, new worldviews, new philosophies, new theologies.  And

you’ll have the opportunity to perhaps challenge others with your ideas, worldviews, philosophy,

theology.  Maybe you’ll find yourselves figuratively in sandals like Paul wore that day in the great

cultural, commercial, and educational center of Athens [Greece that is, not southwestern Ohio].  I’m

going to take the liberty of retelling this story of Paul with a contemporary, academic blush.

      Now while Paul was hanging out, waiting for his friends in university town, he couldn’t believe

his eyes when he saw all the things people worshiped on campus, and it made him crazy.  So he

went to the chapel and debated the good people who believed differently than him.  Every day at

the student center, he told what he believed to anyone who would listen.  Some of them were all

wrapped up in themselves, loving to party; always looking for the next pleasure.  Others of them

seemed indifferent to everything and moved by nothing; just rolling with whatever may come.

Some asked, “Dude, where do you think this guy’s coming from?”  Others said, “Aw, he’s just some

holy roller,” because Paul was always wanting to talk about his relationship with Jesus Christ, and

what he believed about the afterlife.  Eventually, they took Paul to Brainiac Hall where students

and profs were in a seminar room trying to figure out what truth was.  They said to Paul, “You

seem to know something we don’t.  And even though some of what you say sounds wild, we are

curious to hear more.”  You see, all the faculty and students there, residents and commuters alike,

were hungry to teach and to learn.

      Paul arrived at Athens bringing something with him, as you who will arrive at your respective

campuses later this summer will be bringing something with you.  Paul carried with him primarily his

witness to the gospel of Christ into a very diverse and cosmopolitan city.  He encountered many like

him who shared his Jewish heritage and beliefs.  He encountered others who, like him, were well-

educated; top 10% of the class.  Yet others, Paul had nothing in common with; only that they were

on the same campus.

      Paul observed that everyone was trying to satisfy their own inner-yearnings in one way or

another.  A hundred different deities were represented there.  It’s was not unlike the modern university

campus where you’ll likely encounter Christians -- mainline; evangelical; independent; Jews, Mus-

lims, Buddhists, Hindus, new-agers, pantheists, agnostics, atheists.  Mostly though, you’ll find those

who claim to have heard it all, but are not sure what to believe.  For some, the search for truth has

led to cynicism and skepticism.  But for those spiritually-hungry, intellectually curious, and some-

what open-minded, they say, “Tell me what you think.  Where are you coming from?”

      For Paul, this was a great witnessing opportunity in the halls of academia.  And he seized the mo-

ment.  Acts tells us that “he argued.”  Arguing doesn’t mean fighting.  He engaged those he came

upon in debate – speaking, listening, reasoning, clarifying; whether they were like him, or very

different from him.  He testified to what he believed honestly and vigorously enough that from all

accounts, folks started to take him seriously; at least seriously enough to say, “Come up on the hill,

to the Areopagus with us, where the great minds gather.

      Acts chapter 17 goes on to chronicle Paul’s ongoing discourse with his contemporaries.  Some

thought his ideas, especially concerning resurrection of the dead, were silly and nonsensical.  Others

responded, “We don’t quite get it, but we’re willing to hear more.”  And a few were convinced and

convicted, becoming disciples themselves, even joining Paul in his missionary work.

      High school graduates, you are soon to set off for the academy; to the halls of wisdom and

learning; to that hill where great minds gather.  You do so carrying along with you the accumulation

of your educational experiences; your global travels; worldviews you have formed, philosophies you

live by, theologies you have developed in large part through your experiences here at Central Pres.

You will be confronted and challenged by a diversity of ideas and spiritual inclinations.  You will

engage in vigorous discourse and debate – inside and outside the classroom – with those who are 

like you, and with those who are very different from you.  This is all part of the post-secondary

educational journey. 

      As your pastor for many years [and Emma, for you, since the day you were born], I pray you will

be presented with great witnessing opportunities.  I trust you, like Paul, will seize the moment. 

Stand confidently and proudly for those values you hold dear as disciples of Jesus.  Some may diss

your Christian testimony offhand.  They may be skeptical or cynical.  Others may not fully under-

stand where you’re coming from, but will be willing to hear more.  A few may come to a relationship

with Christ through your testimony, and even labor alongside you in mission and outreach to others. 

In ways big and small, you will surely be presented opportunity to dialogue and debate the issues,

just as Paul did.  Do so with intensity, but sensitivity; with passion, but within reason; with the full

weight of your conviction, but with utmost respect.  In so doing, you will open many doors; for your-

selves, and for those who come to know and love you as women of Christian conviction. 

      So as you’re setting off for the academy, know that you are in the prayers of, and at the heart of,

your church family.  Graduates:  congratulations, blessings, grace, peace, and Godspeed.

     O God, You who instruct and guide, we commend Emma and Kelly to your care as they

embark on the next legs of their educational journeys.  Accompany them by Your Holy Spirit, granting

them confidence, vision, joy, peace, and a genuine hunger for learning.  Bring into their lives

persons alongside whom they will grow and thrive.  Surround them with capable and caring teachers.

And help them to grow in their Christian faith as they bear witness with their words, their actions,

their very lives.  All this we ask in name of Jesus.  Amen.