EDITOR’S NOTE: Last night, longtime English faculty member Mr. Ted Blain delivered what we now know to be his final sermon as a faculty member at Woodberry Forest. While he kept his remarks mainly focused on service to others and how it pertains to the senior spring at Woodberry, he also announced that he would be retiring at the end of this year. The sermon in its entirety is posted below.
When I learned in August that Mr. and Mrs. Firman would be retiring at the end of this year, I was happy for them but sad for the rest of us. The Firmans have epitomized what it means to serve a community, and they have served us unselfishly and graciously for 24 years. We are going to miss them.
Now this talk isn’t going to be about the Firmans, but I’m using them as examples of what I will be discussing. Tonight’s scripture lesson from Luke turns out to be about service, and it is very strange. It begins when the apostles make what seems like a reasonable request of Jesus: increase our faith. And in response Jesus blasts them for having no faith at all: If you had the faith of a mustard seed, then you could tell this tree to uproot itself and throw itself into the ocean, and it would obey. Before they have a chance to digest that bizarre answer, he goes on to tell a story about servants who work all day and all evening without ever complaining. And then he reminds his disciples that they are servants, not masters, and they should expect to work from morning until night without any special privileges or thanks for their efforts.
Increase our faith, the disciples ask. And Jesus answers, remember that you are servants. Apparently to increase our faith, we should increase our service. But how does that work? Many of you have gone down to the Barbee Center on a Sunday morning to work for the Special Olympics. You might have had some doubts about the purpose at first, but when you saw how much joy the Special Olympics could generate, you increased your faith in the cause. The same happens with Habitat for Humanity. What you’re doing—building a house—is work, but it’s a different kind of work, an enjoyable work, because it’s tied to a cause that you believe in. Service is different from labor, and faith in the cause that you’re serving is what makes the difference.
This passage has lots to say about how we live here at Woodberry. Every day I hear students thanking teachers for doing what we’re supposed to do, which is to have class. Every day I hear students calling “thank you” to the nearly invisible employees working in the scullery of the dining hall, where the conveyor belt carries the dirty plates and glasses. I hear teachers thank students for waiting on their tables or for cleaning the dorms at night. It seems to me that we all take turns serving each other all day long. The people who work in housekeeping and food services and maintenance and grounds provide more service to us than they receive, but every time you clean up after yourself, every time you avoid throwing that trash on the ground, you’re showing your gratitude for what those amazing people do.
And yet, despite this healthy culture of respect and good manners and unselfishness, something isn’t quite right by the time the spring trimester approaches, and the problem involves the senior class. Seniors, please listen carefully. You about to be not insulted. On the contrary, I have a lot of nice things to say about the Class of 2020, and I want to say them now, at the beginning of the year, when your service to the community has been so abundant and so helpful. You have done nothing wrong, and plenty of things right, but, figuratively speaking, it’s early in the day. In recent years, unlike the servants in this Bible story, the seniors at Woodberry have tended to knock off work a little early. Instead of spending the whole day in the field and then working through dinner, the seniors start to kick back any time after lunch. I believe that this year’s senior class can change that trend. Tonight I’d like to invite the senior class to go down in Woodberry history as the class that changes the culture of this school for good. And I’d like to show you what I mean by getting back to the Firmans for a second.
This spring, when you go to the dining hall for lunch, you’re not going to find the doors locked and the food unavailable because it’s Firman Skip Day. You’re not going to see a sign on the door saying that Mr. Firman is here for his final spring and is therefore entitled to abandon all responsibilities to the community for a day of utter self-indulgence. This spring you may see Mrs. Firman on a golf cart, but it’s going to be her own golf cart. She is not going to steal somebody else’s property on the specious claim that it’s her final spring on campus and she’s therefore entitled to ignore everything we teach about respect for other people’s belongings. This spring, if you see the Firmans on your way to the Fir Tree some night, they are not going to pelt you with water balloons. They are not going to claim that that their final spring at Woodberry allows them to suspend everything we believe about showing consideration for others. On the contrary, on Amici Night, the night before graduation, Mr. Firman and the dining hall are going to serve a feast to the seniors and their guests. On the night before graduation the infirmary is going to be open in case, God forbid, somebody gets sick. If Mrs. Firman herself isn’t in the infirmary that night, then she’ll be out on the lawn helping her husband serve punch to the Amici Night visitors. I know, because I’ve seen them do it for 24 years. The Firmans are going to serve this community up until the very end, just like the servants in the Gospel of Luke.
Sixth Formers, you have the power and the intellect and the talent and the imagination to change the culture of this school for good. Specifically you can change the culture of the spring trimester. You don’t have to settle for banality. You don’t have to settle for silly pranks, water balloons, self-indulgence, or hazing of underformers. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have any fun. It’s your senior year. You should be having a blast. The other night I walked in on a group of seniors who were engaged in an activity involving slingshots, goldfish crackers, open mouths, and safety glasses, and to that I say, fire away. That’s the kind of fun that doesn’t annoy, inconvenience, or disappoint anybody else. It’s unselfish fun.
I know this senior class, and I know that you’re capable of looking around and seeing work that can be done, underformers you can counsel, intellectual or creative projects you can pursue. You can serve the community as a mentor or a role model. You can have the community wake up every morning this spring and feel proud of you. You can even devise pranks that make us all applaud your generosity and creativity rather than groan at some mess you have made. You can change the culture of the senior year for good.
If you think it’s presumptuous of me to make such a proposal, let me finish with a personal commitment to you. Last summer I told Dr. Hulsey, and tonight at dinner I told my advisees, that this would be my final year at Woodberry. It’s my 44th year of teaching seniors, and my 38th year at Woodberry, and I am planning during this final year to have a great time. I am enjoying my advisees, my students, my extracurricular activities, my friends and colleagues. I enjoy watching all of you compete and perform, and I enjoy getting better acquainted with you as we meet on the sidewalk. It’s my last year at a place I love, the place that has been my life and my home for 38 years, and I am counting on having fun. But I’m also expecting it to be the hardest year yet. I’ve been here so long that I can see so much to be done, and I need to be working hard every day if I have a chance of getting close to finishing. When it is all over, I want to be like the Firmans, giving it my best every single day up to the last day, not because I expect to hear thank-you, but because it’s what I’m supposed to do, and because choosing to serve is a better way to spend our time than choosing to coast.
Maybe all Jesus meant when he talked about having the faith of a mustard seed was that with just a little faith you can accomplish amazing things. I have more than a little faith in this senior class, and I know that it’s capable of changing our culture for the good. I also have faith in the current junior class, and I know that they will be waiting to reinforce and continue what this year’s seniors start. In 1970, I graduated from high school. Exactly 50 years later, I’m going to do it again. Seniors, I am honored to be leaving with you. It’s our last year. Let’s make it the best one yet in every way. Let’s have fun every single day, but let’s maintain our principles, our values, our obligations, and our common courtesy all the way to the end. Amen.