Last Thursday night I was asked to deliver the baccalaureate sermon at Hargrave Military Academy. About 340 seventh through twelfth graders are enrolled at Hargrave, and all were present for this last convocation of the school year. Here’s the message I shared with them.
Standing Out From The Crowd
Numbers 13:1-3, 26-33 NIV
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.”
3 So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites.
26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country;and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan. ”
30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”
31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
The Origin of Baccalaureate
It’s great to see you here tonight. Of course, you didn’t really have a choice about whether or not you were going to come tonight, but I’m still glad to see you. And, if it makes you feel any better, the original baccalaureate sermon was delivered in Latin…by the students who were graduating!
So, that should help you feel a little better about having to be here tonight. You just had to show up, unlike the kids at Oxford in 1432, when the baccalaureate sermon was thought to have originated.
Baccalaureate is made up of two Latin words — bacca, which means bachelor; and, laureate, which means laurels. The idea was that candidates for the bachelor’s degree would present laurels, or accolades of thanksgiving and gratitude, for the four years of learning required to finish college.
Tonight, rather than have all of you speak to us in Latin, all you have to do is listen to me in English, so this shouldn’t be too hard for either of us.
An Old Testament Story with a Contemporary Point
The story that was read just a moment ago is from that beloved Old Testament book, Numbers. I’m sure you’ve spent many hours reading the book of Numbers and can quote entire passages from memory. Actually, believe it or not, lots of people think the Book of Numbers is a little boring. Well, maybe not math majors, but everybody else.
Anyway, the Book of Numbers is also called “In The Wilderness” in the Hebrew Bible, which makes a lot more sense. That’s actually where we pick up the story that was just read a moment ago. Here’s the scene:
This happened about 3,500 years ago. The nation of Israel — sometimes called “the children of Israel” because literally they were all descended from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel — had just escaped from Egypt. In Egypt, they were slaves whose job was to make bricks for Pharaoh’s construction projects. Not great work, by any estimation, and Pharaoh liked the idea of free labor, so he was reluctant to let the Israelites leave.
But God chose Moses to confront Pharaoh, and after Pharaoh and the whole country of Egypt suffered 10 plagues, like swarms of locusts, rivers turning to blood, frogs everywhere, and so on, Pharaoh finally relented and let them go.
Now, fast forward a few months at least. The Israelites, which are somewhere between 300,000 and 2-million depending on who’s counting, have made their way to the land that God has promised to give them. That’s why it’s called The Promised Land. And you thought senior Bible was hard!
So, now they’re camping close to the land of Canaan. But before they go over, they decide it’s a good idea to do some recon. So, God tells Moses to select one man from every tribe — there were 12 tribes — and send them on a recon mission to spy out the land.
Now these were young guys, strong fellows, who were fit and strong. We know that because they bring back some of the fruit of the land. One cluster of grapes is so large that it takes two guys to carry it back strung on a branch between them.
So, when they get back to camp, everybody is excited. The 12 spies show everyone the grapes, the pomegranates, and other fruit they brought back. Then, the chairman of the committee of spies gives his report.
We don’t know who it is who gives the report, but he says, “Moses, you’re exactly right. The land you sent us to is great! Lots of produce, fertile land, great for growing crops and raising cattle and sheep. But there’s only one small problem. Other people already live there. And, they’re bigger than we are. They’re so big, we looked like grasshoppers compared to them. So, unfortunately, we can’t take the land because they’ll kill us.” That is more or less what he said.
However, Caleb and Joshua don’t agree. Caleb speaks up and says, “Wait a minute. He’s right — this is a great land, no doubt about that. But he’s wrong about going in. We can do it. God promised it to us, and God will give it to us. We ought to go ahead!”
So, this is something of a democracy already, or at least they think it is. Ten-to-two, majority rule, nobody is moving into Canaan, grapes or not.
Not only that, but that night everybody in the camp, all 600,000 – 2,000,000 of them, starts complaining. “We should have stayed in Egypt,” some said. Others said, “Moses has brought us out here in the desert to die. We ought to go back to Egypt.” They even talk about stoning Moses and his brother to death and picking a new leader to take them back to Egypt.
Now remember Egypt is where God delivered them from. Egypt is where they were slaves. Egypt is where Pharaoh declared that all their boy babies should be killed to keep the Hebrews from rising up and overthrowing Pharaoh.
God has about all he can take, and all of a sudden, the glory of God fills the place. God says to Moses, “I’m tired of this. Has everyone forgotten all the miracles I did in Egypt to get them out?”
God says, “I’m going to spare their lives, but none of them who did not believe are going to see the Promised Land.”
So, for the next 40-years, until that unbelieving generation died, the nation of Israel wandered in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb, the two original spies who believed God, finally led the people of Israel into the Promised Land and took it for their own.
Standing Out From The Crowd
The obvious point of this story is that the majority can be wrong. The ten spies who did not want to try to enter the Promised Land were wrong. Just because you’re in the majority, doesn’t make you right. The history of our own country tells that story. “The majority rules” may work in politics, but often in life it is those in the minority, people like Joshua and Caleb, who are in the right.
In a couple of days you’re going to graduate. You’ve worked hard for your diploma, and I congratulate you on your accomplishment. But this is only the beginning as you pass from this institution learning to other institutions higher learning. So, this is only one chapter in your life story.
The lesson I want you to take away tonight is that faith gives us the courage to stand up for what is right, to chart a different course, to make the lives of others better, to change the world.
But you don’t do that by going along to get along. You don’t change the world by doing what everyone else has done. You don’t make the lives of others better by simply preserving the status quo.
The Monkey Experiment
Let me tell you a story I think you’ll find interesting. In 1967, an experiment was published in the periodical, Progress in Primatology. In that experiment, researchers took 5 monkeys and placed them in a room with a banana hanging from the ceiling, and a ladder placed under the banana.
Apparently it is true that monkeys like bananas, so when the first monkey attempted to climb the ladder to get the banana and eat it, he was sprayed with cold water. Not only was he sprayed, but the other 4 monkeys were sprayed with cold water as well.
Monkeys apparently dislike being sprayed with cold water more than they like bananas, and so when the monkeys stopped trying to retrieve the banana, the researchers replaced one of the monkeys with a new monkey.
Now this new monkey sees the banana, and guess what, he immediately starts to climb the ladder. Only before he can get past the first step, the other monkeys jump on him, and beat him up. Of course, the new monkey doesn’t know why he’s being beat up, because he’s never been sprayed, but he quickly learns not to go for the banana.
Once the new monkey has learned his lesson, the researchers replaced another one of the original monkeys with another new monkey. Guess what happens? The new monkey goes for the banana, and the other monkeys jump on him and beat him up. Only this time, the first new monkey also joins in beating up the second new monkey. He doesn’t know why, but he’s quick to do what all the other monkeys are doing.
Once the second monkey has learned his lesson, the researchers replace a third monkey, then the fourth, and finally all five monkeys and been replaced. None of the monkeys tried to get the banana anymore, but they didn’t know why. None of the new monkeys had been sprayed, so they didn’t know the history of why going for the banana was dangerous. All of them simply gave up, and they didn’t know why.
Back To Egypt or Into The Promised Land?
My point is this: You can be like the monkeys who kept others from even trying to get the banana because you’re afraid of the consequences. Fear of failure is a paralyzing fear that keeps many from even attempting to do something new.
In other words, you decide if you want to go back to Egypt, or if you want to enter the Promised Land.
If you think you want to go to the Promised Land, there will be a lot of folks who will say you can’t. That you’ll fail. That there are too many obstacles out there. That no one has ever done that before.
But if you listen to the voice of God, the voice that says to you, “I haven’t brought you this far to fail. I love you and have a great plan for your life,” then you’ll do what others said can’t be done. You’ll succeed where others see only failure. You will find God’s plan for your life, not for someone else’s, and you will do what God is calling you to do.
That’s what Father Greg Boyle did. After serving for two years as the associate pastor at Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, California, Father Greg became the pastor. In 1986, Los Angeles was considered the gang capital of the United States, and Father Greg’s neighborhood was ground zero. There were 10 gangs consisting of over 10,000 members in Father Greg’s community.
But, against the advice of others, Father Greg decided that somebody ought to love those gang members with what he called “boundless compassion.” So, Dolores Mission opened its doors to gang members.
At first, the gang members just used the church as a place to hang out. Father Greg didn’t mind that so much. He figured if they were at the church, they weren’t somewhere else causing trouble. But so many kids had been kicked out of public schools for gang activity, that Father Greg started an alternative school for gang members. Their first principal lasted one day.
But eventually things settled down. Father Greg stayed busy brokering peace deals between rival gangs, while also running the school. But what the neighborhood really needed was jobs, he thought. Even small time drug dealers weren’t going to give up their livelihood if they had nothing to replace it.
Gradually, Father G, or “G” as most gang members call him, started finding jobs for kids who had left their gangs. G got some doctors involved who were willing to remove gang tattoos, making job applicants more appealing to potential employers. Gradually, Father Greg’s “Jobs for the Future” program began to pay off. Dozens of gang members, more than they could handle came to Dolores Mission looking for work.
So, Father Greg started Homeboy Bakery, taking over an abandoned bakery in the neighborhood. Eventually, Homeboy Bakery spun off Homegirl Cafe, where former gang girls worked as waitresses. More businesses were created, and a kind of conglomerate, Homeboy Industries was formed as the umbrella organization.
Today, Homeboy Industries has helped thousands of LA county gang members leave the gang life, and start a new life. With that kind of story, you’d think everyone would have supported Father Greg. But Father Greg had his own “back to Egypt” committee working against him, too.
When they first started working with gang members, Father Greg encountered lots of opposition from citizens in Los Angeles who believed helping any gang member would only encourage more gang activity. After Father Greg wrote an editorial for the LA Times, the offices of Homeboy Industries received several death threats, and a couple of bomb threats.
Of course, looking back, Father Greg’s story is a success, and Homeboy Industries has become a model for the country in gang intervention. But if Father Greg had listened to those who were sure he would fail, to those who were convinced that gang members couldn’t change, then there would be no Homeboy Industries today.
So tonight, as you anticipate graduation, as you face your future, I want you to know that you can find God’s plan for your life. You can be what God is calling you to be. But it will not always be easy. Not everyone will support you. Some might even try to discourage you from following the dream that God gives to you.
When that happens, just remember Caleb and Joshua. Their’s are the only names we remember from that story. They believed God had something for them to do. They believed that they could stand out from the crowd. You can, too. That’s my prayer for you tonight. May God bless you and guide you.