“My Gift to You”

J. Cameron West, President of the College
Huntingdon College
Montgomery, Alabama

May 5, 2017

Huntingdon Class of 2017, Seniors, your president is here to give you a graduation present.  Can I get a, “Hawk ‘Em?”  Can I get another, “Hawk ‘Em?”

I’ve asked your classmate, John Iwaniec, to come over and open your class present.

[John opens wrapped present] 

John, I have given you an envelope, wrapped in beautiful graduation paper with a scarlet bow.  Now I would like for you to read the words on the envelope and then open the envelope and tell your classmates what’s inside.

[John reads envelope and reports empty contents.]

So what’s in the envelope?  Nothing?  No promises that all student loans are forgiven?  No promises of graduate school admission?  No batch of 4.0 transcripts for everyone?

No.  What I’ve given you, Class of 2017, is something different, something contained in the words John read from the outside of this envelope. That’s what I’m going to talk about in my Baccalaureate sermon when I walk back up on stage. While I’m headed back to the stage and John is headed back to his seat, let’s give John a big round of applause for being a good sport and helping me start this sermon.

Let us pray:  Work, sisters and brothers, not for riches or a land of glory, but to write our testament of love upon the day we seize.  Amen.  (L.E. Sissman, “Work:  A Sermon”)

We are all on a search for happiness, aren’t we?

I have climbed the highest mountains

I have run through the fields…

I have run I have crawled

I have scaled these city walls… 

I have kissed honey lips

Felt the healing in the fingertips

I burned like fire

This burning desire…

But I still haven’t found

What I’m looking for

But I still haven’t found

What I’m looking for.


At some point in our lives, all of us have been, are, will be, on that search for happiness. Which is the problem. Because happiness cannot be found through human striving, through human attainment, through goals met, through checking off boxes. Now it’s important to strive, to work hard. It’s important to attain goals like getting a meaningful job, being admitted to graduate or professional school so you can put real flesh and bones on living out your calling in life. But happiness—real, genuine, authentic happiness—comes as pure gift from God, often when we least expect it, often in the midst of circumstances which we would never have expected to give birth to happiness.

In this afternoon’s Scriptural story from the Book of Acts, the helpless man who lies in the Temple begging for money is instead given by Peter and John a real, a genuine, an authentic human relationship which changes his life and gives him happiness. A total surprise that comes unexpectedly, in the midst of misery and hopelessness. “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”  “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.” (Matthew 5.3-4). A pure gift from God, through the hands of Peter and John, totally unexpected. Happiness.

A week ago today, my wife, Elizabeth, and I were in California, in the Los Angeles area. I had been attending a professional conference, and we decided we wanted to spend a day on a tour bus getting a sense of what the Los Angeles area is like as a whole. That day, we saw the oldest parts of L.A. where the city was founded. We saw the Staples Center, where the Lakers and Clippers play. We saw art museums and concert halls. We saw the beaches, Hollywood, and, yes, Beverly Hills. As we were being driven through Beverly Hills by our amazing tour bus driver, Chris Shia, he stopped in front of a condominium building and announced:  “That’s where many episodes in, ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ are filmed.” Out came the cell phones to take pictures. Faces pressed against the windows to, oh, please, just maybe catch a glimpse of one of the Real Housewives. “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”  Beautiful homes, beautiful streets, beautiful cars, beautiful restaurants, beautiful stores, beautiful people. All there in beautiful, glamorous Beverly Hills.

Late that day just a week ago—actually at the end of the day—Elizabeth and I were the last tourists on the bus as Chris was driving us back to our hotel. The three of us were talking about everything we had seen, when suddenly Chris grew very serious and said: “You know, I love giving this tour. So much life, so much happiness. There’s only one sad place, and that’s Beverly Hills. Did you see any real life in Beverly Hills? People out on the streets, laughing, enjoying being together, doing the things that make life really worthwhile? Nope, in Beverly Hills everyone is in a bubble, alone, trying so hard to find happiness by being beautiful.”

The Gospel According to Chris Shia, Driver and Guide for StarLine Tours.

And this is where the envelope that John read a few minutes ago comes into the message of the sermon. Do you remember that the envelope identified a room attendant, a housekeeper named Madeleine at the J.W. Marriott Hotel?  In fact, Madeleine is a real life person. She cleans rooms at the J.W. Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., where Elizabeth and I had stayed during another professional meeting, this time three months ago in February.

Now you members of the Class of 2017 who have traveled with Elizabeth know that she will talk with a post … and the post will actually talk back! That’s how friendly she is. I mean, that’s how I fell in love with her. I was just floating in a lake one summer day, and she paddled over in her inner tube and started talking with me. That’s pretty friendly! Elizabeth struck up such a friendly relationship with Madeleine the week we were in the hotel that halfway through our stay I asked Madeleine about her life and why she always seemed so happy. What I found out was that she had come to the United States many years ago, fleeing civil war in the West African nation of the Ivory Coast, leaving a job as administrative officer to a high ranking government official in order to protect the safety of her four children and, as she told the story, to ensure and provide for their education.

“I made sure I had a job at a nice place. I made sure my family had a safe place to live. I made sure my children were enrolled in the best public schools I could find. I made sure they applied for college scholarships. Now three of them have finished college. Two of them are in graduate school, one is working. My youngest is about to finish high school. I am happy. I clean rooms, yes, not the wonderful job I had in my home country; but it makes life for my children possible. I am happy because my children are safe, my children are educated, my children have a future. God has provided. I am happy.”

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

(Matthew 5.8-10)

My friends in the Class of 2017, what I’m giving you for graduation is the story of Madeleine. It’s a story about the secret of happiness, about how happiness finds you when you have the eyes, the heart, the soul to embrace happiness, to wrap your arms around happiness, to claim the gift of happiness when happiness is looking for you. Happiness comes in letting yourself be used—in the best sense—in building relationships with those people who need your help, in sharing your strength with those people who cannot be strong without you. When all is said and done, happiness is a matter of faith—of seeing what is there when often it appears that nothing is there. As important as achievement, attainment, meeting goals, checking boxes is—and all of that is important—all of that by itself does not equate to happiness. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills do not have happiness figured out. Madeleine the housekeeper does have happiness figured out.

And as Woods and Hannah sang in the John Hiatt song, “Through Your Hands,” so you through faith will figure out happiness, too:

Yeah, we scheme about the future

And we dream about the past

When just a simple reaching out

Might build a bridge that lasts

There’s a healing touch to find you

On that broad highway somewhere

To lift you high

As music flyin’

Through the angel’s hair

Don’t ask what you are not doing

Because your voice cannot command

In time you will move mountains

And it will come through your hands.

Let us pray:  Work, sisters and brothers, not for riches or a land of glory, but to write our testament of love upon the day we seize.  Amen.

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