Graduation Commencement Address 2016
By Marc Hays
I. Exordium: QUOTE from Return of the King, “Scouring of the Shire”:
“[Pippin] cast back his cloak, flashed out his sword, and the silver and sable of Gondor gleamed on him as he rode forward.
‘I am a messenger of the King,’ he said. ‘You are speaking to the King’s friend, and one of the most renowned in all the lands of the West. You are a ruffian and a fool. Down on your knees in the road and ask pardon, or I will set this troll’s bane in you!’
The sword glinted in the westering sun. Merry and Sam drew their swords and rode up to support Pippin; but Frodo did not move. The ruffians gave back. Scaring Breeland peasants, and bullying bewildered hobbits, had been their work. Fearless hobbits with bright swords and grim faces were a great surprise. And there was a note in the voices of these newcomers that the ruffians had not heard before. It chilled them with fear.”
II. Narration of Scouring of the Shire:
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin were the four hobbits that accompanied Gandalf the wizard, Legolas the elf, Gimli the dwarf, and the two men, Aragorn and Boromir, on the journey to save the West from the evils of Lord Sauron. Their journey culminated in the destruction of the Ring of Power in Mt. Doom and the crowning of Aragorn as King in Gondor. However, upon the return to their home, the Shire, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin found a spiked gate, securely fastened at both ends of the bridge crossing the Brandywine River. They were refused entrance into the Shire and warned not to cause any trouble or break any of the new rules, or the Chief would hear of it, and throw them into the Lockholes.
They returned to find their home overrun with “ruffians and highway-robbers.” Food and drink had been rationed and there was even a daily allowance of wood that could be burned. Only the Chief’s men were allowed tobacco and speaking against the Chief was forbidden. There were so many new rules that at one point the shire-folk saw something funny and wanted to laugh, but weren’t sure if laughing was allowed. Upon seeing all this, Sam Gamgee responded, “I hoped to have a rest, but I can see there’s work and trouble ahead.” So, after jumping the gate and tearing down the list of rules, the battle-proven foursome proceeded to “scour the Shire”—to cleanse their homeland of the ruffians who were holding the hobbits captive in their own homes.
But the scouring of the shire is not meant to only be seen as another martial conflict at the end of a long series of battles. The scouring of the shire was written, as Stratford Caldecott says, “written as a call to arms to the reader, as a blast on the Horn of Rohan summoning us to the help of our friends and the healing of our world. We too, if we have imaginatively accompanied the hobbits on this journey from the mundane to the epic and back again, are initiated into the realities that exist behind the veils of everyday life." (~Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring)
So the shire was a different place than when they left it, but then again, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin were not the same hobbits they were when they had left on their journey. To quote a friend of mine, “Those hobbits who returned were gangsta.” And when it came to confronting the thieves who were tormenting their friends, they were “gangsta.” Without batting an eye they mustered the hobbits and conquered the invaders.
Regarding how the hobbits had grown on their journey and were now prepared to protect their people:
Pippin left the Shire irresponsible and reckless, but while serving under Lord Denethor, Steward of Gondor, he learned obedience and fealty. However when Lord Denethor went mad and was going to mistakenly burn Faramir alive on the funeral pyre, Pippin learned to transcend obedience to man’s rules when a higher good requires rules to be broken. Faramir’s life took precedence over Denethor’s wishes.
Upon returning to the Shire, Pippin would not stand for his neighbors to be under the unjust thumb of the new Chief and all his oppressive & petty rules. So, Tolkien had Pippin to be the character who tore down the list of oppressive rules. What Pippin had learned in Gondor, he applied in service to his neighbor at home.
Merry left with the Fellowship much in the same state as Pippin. He was young, inexperienced, and timid. However, during his journey, he pledged himself to King Theoden and rode with the Rohirrim, with the mighty horsemen of Rohan. Before the final muster to battle, Theoden released Merry from his vow, though Merry wished to continue on to fight. The text reads, “Merry wished he was a tall Rider like Eomer and could blow a horn or something and go galloping to the rescue.”
Upon returning to the Shire and finding his neighbors in need of rescue, it is Merry who blows the horn to muster the hobbits for battle. Although he was lesser than the Riders of Rohan, he was the best man for the job when the Shire needed scouring, and he became a faithful steward of his home and of his people. What Merry had learned in Gondor, he applied in service to his neighbor at home.
And what about Frodo? During the scouring of the shire, Frodo refused to wield his sword, but allowed others to do so if the need arose in order to protect the life of a hobbit. He was not a pacifist in the scouring, but he served as a protector to anyone living. No one was to be killed through vengeance or malice.
Through bearing the ring to Mt. Doom, Frodo learned to be patient with sinners. He knew how strong the temptation to seize power could be, for he succumbed to that same temptation when it was time to throw the Ring into Mt. Doom. He couldn’t do it, and Gollum ended up being the agent of the Ring’s destruction. Frodo remembered this lesson, and was not so quick to throw anyone away, simply because they were doing something wrong. He was longsuffering and loving toward his neighbors, even the ones who were his enemies. What Frodo had learned in Mordor, he applied in service to his neighbor at home.
And Sam. Sam was strong and faithful and dutiful and courageous and temperate and just and virtuous from the beginning to the end of this story. I am not sure what Sam’s lessons were, honestly. Please tell me afterward if you can remember some. Sam is the average guy that goes through life completing the mundane tasks in such a way that everyone around him is blessed by it. Sam fights faithfully in the scouring of the Shire, and eventually Sam marries Rosie Cotton, settles down, becomes a father, and is actually given the final words of the entire trilogy. Sam is a faithful friend who is faithful to the very end.
“The scouring of the shire is important because on one level the story is all about how the hobbits go through all their adventures in distant lands to acquire the virtues with which to confront the evils back home.” So “gangsta” might not be the best word to describe the hobbits. “Virtuous” might be a better one.
III. So, you may be wondering, “what does this have to do with my graduation from high school?” Well, I’m glad you asked: I will make three applications of this story to your graduation this afternoon.
1. The Epic and the Mundane
2. The Stewardship of Gifts
3. The Weapons for the Battle
IV. First, The Epic and the Mundane:
Today is epic for you and it shouldn’t be any other way. You have been on a journey for nearly two decades, and this leg of life’s journey is nearly complete. 18 years! That sounds more like Homer’s Odysseus than Tolkien’s hobbits. That is a long journey! If you feel like today is epic, that is because it is! No doubt about it!
Today is a day for revelry and feasting and toasting and celebration and pomp and circumstance. And your journey toward this day, like that of the hobbits toward Gondor, has been a series of day-in day-out tasks—little things that eventually pile up into big things. Single steps that eventually add up to a long journey.
This is one reason why the Scouring of the Shire is so important to the Lord of the Rings story and so applicable to this day. The hobbits move from the shire to Gondor and Mordor and back again to the shire: the move from the mundane to the epic and back again to the mundane. And through the faithful completion of mundane task they accomplish something of epic proportions.
This is just like life. Epic days, like today, do not happen in a vacuum. They don’t fall out of the sky. A long series of mundane tasks has led up to your epic graduation: mundane tasks like reading books, which began by reading single words, which added up into chapters, which added up into books has added up to your reading of dozens and dozens of stories and thousands and thousands of pages throughout high school.
You did not write all your essays and speeches without going through the mundane tasks of writing each successive word and every next sentence. You did not memorize your speeches without memorizing the first line. Then the next line. And the next. And the next.
Some synonyms for “mundane” are words like: uneventful, unremarkable, repetitive, routine, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, commonplace. Do some of those words describe your journey through high school? I think the hobbits would agree that some of those words describe many of the days along their journey to Gondor and Mordor.
Both you and the hobbits completed a long series of mundane tasks that has resulted in the celebration when all was accomplished. And like the hobbits returning to the Shire with a job to do, you must embrace the reality that tomorrow will not be like today.
Now don’t get me wrong: every day is epic in one sense. It is a great blessing to open our eyes each morning, to fill our lungs with air, to be with our families, and to fulfill our tasks, but we have the word “mundane” for a reason. Most days are common. Most days are somewhat routine. Otherwise we would not have a word to distinguish those days from any other days. Right? If everything is special, then nothing is special?
You graduate today. In our culture, today is your coming of age: the threshold between the first part of your life: childhood, and the second part of your life: adulthood. It doesn’t get more epic than that. Which means that the rest of your days will be as adults. The rest of your lives will be after the battle on the Plains of Pelennor and back in the Shire.
There are exciting things ahead, don’t get me wrong, but today is huge. Everything else happens as an adult. And if you are not expecting it, the monotony of adulthood could become discouraging.
But on this note, G.K. Chesterton once said, “…perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. (in the repetitious, in the mundane) It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.”
So, my first application from the Scouring of the Shire: Your journey, like the hobbits, is from the mundane to the epic and back again.
V. Second application: The Stewardship of Gifts
As mentioned earlier, the hobbits returned to the Shire and used their unique lessons learned to the help of their friends and the healing of their world. It is no accident that Tolkien’s heroes are short, chubby, and unassuming. To all appearances they are not a threat to anyone, and yet they are the ones who save Middle Earth from the evil and darkness. They are the ones who save the Shire from the ruffians and thieves. They are the fictional incarnation of the truth that “the least shall be the greatest”; that a single mustard seed can grow into a mighty tree; that a widow’s mite can be more valuable than a King’s ransom.
A widow’s mite and a sower’s seed are both limited by physical and temporal “smallness,” as are the widow and the sower themselves.
But He places the mite in the widow’s hand and asks, “What will you give?” She gives everything and He asks nothing more. He did not ask for two mites. She gave her fortune, little and limited as it was, and Jesus smiled as He smelled the sweet savor of her sacrifice.
What did God do with a penny? I haven’t any clue, but I trust it was something great. He has made it a habit of doing grand and glorious things with the seemingly scant offerings of His creatures. God never asks for anything less than everything, and in his mercy, never asks for more. He remembers our frame, our dustiness is never hidden from His eyes.
Remembering the parable of the Talents, we remember that the master gave 5 talents, 2 talents, and 1 talent to each “according to his ability” before leaving on a long journey. The man who was given 1 talent had apparently not proven himself a wise investor, but still the master gave him the chance to try again.
When the master returned and the talents were required of the stewards, the one who had received 5 brought 5 more. The man who had received 2 brought an additional 2, and the man who had received one brought back only the one. He had buried it in the ground, refusing to take any risks with the master’s money.
Well, he judged his master all wrong. Failure may have been judged harshly, but lack of trying was judged more harshly even than failure. What little he had was taken from him and given to the man who had 10 talents. He did not use what little he had and even it was taken from him.
When Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin originally left with Fellowship, they were not prepared to Scour the Shire, their master had not yet given them those talents, but upon their return, they were ready, the time had come, and they did not bury this readiness in the ground. Out of love for their neighbor they laid down their lives for the help of their friends and healing of their world.
Like the hobbits, you are capable of doing far more than you could ever imagine, but you are never asked to do anything more than you are currently capable. God knows your frame. He remembers that you are dust. God has given you each talents and he has given you the gift of a thorough education for the maturation of those talents, and now you will find opportunity after opportunity to use them. You, and no one else, are the steward of your talents. Don’t bury them in the ground. Take a risk with your master’s money. He wants you to.
VI. Third application: The Weapons for the Battle
Once while eating at Taco Bell, I noticed a young man, wearing a Taco Bell uniform, standing beside one the windows. He was out of the way of foot traffic, watching the room and apparently waiting for something to happen. He had a dishcloth tucked in his left back pocket and a spray bottle hanging by its trigger from his right front pocket. By his facial features and stature I could tell he was a young man with Down’s Syndrome. He stood waiting until someone finished eating, picked up their tray, and headed for the waste bin.
As soon as the customer had left the table, the young man made a bee line for it. As he was walking, he snatched the dishcloth from his rear pocket with his left hand, and he whipped the spray bottle up with his right. Upon arriving at the table he scoured that table. Four quick bursts of cleanser and one fluid wipe down were all that was required for the table, and a couple bursts and quick wipe for each seat.
That dining room had been placed under his stewardship, and I have never seen as diligent a worker as that young man. He was single-minded in his task, and I noticed as I left that it was the cleanest fast-food dining room I had ever been in. He wielded his weapons well. The dirt and scraps were exiled, and his employer won a great battle.
(As an aside, speaking of the food service industry, don’t get down on yourself if you end up working in fast food for a while, even if for a long while. Jesus said “feed the hungry” and that’s what you’re doing. Hungry people enter the restaurant and full people leave. You are doing the Lord’s work. And if you think that it doesn’t count because you’re getting paid to do it, remember that your pastor is getting paid to deliver God’s Word, while you are getting paid to deliver God’s food. Jesus said, “feed the hungry” just as clearly as he said, “preach the Word.”)
You may not know at this point what your vocation will be or which weapons you’ll bear. If you go into dining room cleanliness, you may bear a dishcloth and a spray bottle. If you go into law enforcement or armed services, you may bear a “sword,” as it were, like the hobbits. But I can tell you today the two weapons you must take into every battle in life.
Upon hearing my thoughts, you may think that “weapon” is the wrong word for them, but you will ultimately conquer enemies and win battles only with these two weapons. These two weapons are the only two Jesus cares about, and he says so. They are the fulfillment of all he’s given us to do. They are the fulfillment of every noble task we could ever perform.
In Matthew, chapter 22, the gospel writer relates:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In your right-hand you have “Love the Lord your God.” In your left hand, you have, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind—with all your passions and emotions, with all your appetites and desires, with all your thoughts and ideas. If you bear this nobly with your right hand, your left will wield this love of God to pass it along to your neighbor.
It’s kind of funny to me, “as you love yourself.” I wouldn’t think I was a good judge of this, but God’s says, “Marc, you are your neighbor’s steward. Invest the love I’ve given you in them. You must decide how are you’re going to invest in them. Just don’t bury my love in the ground.”
How do you want to be treated? Love your neighbor by treating them that way.
How do you want to be thought of? Love your neighbor by thinking of them that way.
How do want to be encouraged? Love your neighbor by encouraging them that way.
How do you want to be loved? Then love your neighbor as you love yourself.
· Like Pippin and Merry and Frodo and Sam, you are the messenger of the King.
· Like the hobbits, your mundane and your epic are both equally blessed.
· Like the hobbits, your shire needs scouring: wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whomever you’re around, you’ve been called as a steward of the people within your reach and called as a steward of any corner of this earth where you may live or roam.
· Love of God and love of neighbor will not fail to please God, to bless you, to serve your neighbor, and to spread the Kingdom of Jesus Christ to every square inch of creation.
· May God bless you today as you graduate.