President’s baccalaureate sermon: “Cultured for Loving Service”



Baccalaureate sermon (as prepared for delivery) by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College on Sunday, April 24, 2016 in the Goshen College Church-Chapel

Text:  Philippians 1:9-11


“And this is my prayer…” So St. Paul writes. “This is my prayer.”

I’m guessing that when those of you in “Graduateland” here today first came to Goshen College, someone in your life — no doubt many represented here — a parent, grandparent, spouse, friend, pastor, mentor — said something similar to St. Paul’s “This is my prayer” for you.

And so, here you are, about to leave “Graduateland,” some to teach, some to go to law school, med school, graduate school. Others to ride across the country or hike the Appalachian trail. You will go into business, voluntary service, nursing, film making, fire fighting, research. You may stay where you are or go elsewhere. And our prayer is that you will, indeed, find your way forward, “to determine what is best for you,” even if you are not sure where that is, just yet.

In his short three sentence prayer, St. Paul offers two clues to help in determining what is best for you as you anticipate your futures. The first is a prayer for “knowledge and full insight.” The second is “that your love may overflow.”

As to the first prayer, that you gain knowledge and insight, author Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestselling book Outliers, says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to gain the necessary knowledge and insight to achieve mastery in a field. By my rough estimate, over four years at GC, the number of hours you spent in class, labs, and homework, alone, is about 10,000 hours, not including a second major or minor, and all the other hours you spent in co-curriculars like theatre, sports, music, clubs, intramurals, or SMITE or Call of Duty, internships, volunteering, Study-Service Terms, jobs, and so on.

Famed futurist, architect, author and inventor Buckminster Fuller created what he called the Knowledge Doubling Curve. He noticed that until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II, however, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. More recent research has shown that on average “human knowledge doubles every twelve months, soon to be every 12 hours.” (David Russell Schilling, April 19, 2016,

With all that learning going on around and inside you, the myelin on the nerve axons in your brain are about as thick as they can get. Your brain has gone “from dial-up to broadband” in the hours, days, months, and years since you arrived.

The brain of physicist Albert Einstein was secretly removed within seven and a half hours after his death. Studies on his brain showed that the myelin on the nerve axons of his brain were more dense than other brains.

So, perhaps, it’s all the more important to remember Einsten’s words of caution about the mere mastery of knowledge alone. “Any fool can know something,” he said, “the point is to understand.” Or as the ancient Proverb says it, “With all your knowledge, get understanding.” I feel confident that our prayers for you are being answered and that you have passed the threshold from mere knowledge to greater understanding. I feel confident that our prayers have been answered for you and that you have been “cultured” well (10,000 hours plus) in the best that a Jesus-centric values-based liberal arts institution like GC has to offer.

The second prayer of St. Paul and of ours for you is that your love may overflow more and more. Like St. Paul, Eleanor Roosevelt expressed a marvelous link between the gaining of knowledge and increasing one’s capacity to love when she said, “The giving of love is an education itself!”

As if to underscore this link between education and love, St. Paul writes elsewhere (1 Corininthians 13), “If I have the eloquence of the greatest orators, even angels, if I understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong, a crashing cymbal. . . I am nothing.”

St. Paul reminds us that even if our prayers have been answered, as I claim they have, with regard to your having gained knowledge and insight, if you have been profoundly “cultured” in the best of a Jesus-centered liberal arts college, if you now understand and have gained mastery over a set of facts and data, if your prophetic powers for justice and your eloquent speeches are impeccable, award-winning even, but do not love others. . . in a sad sense, your education has been in vain.

We are the most educated people in the known universe, and yet, sadly we are becoming more polarized than ever.

In a world so polarized, so divided, so crippled by fear, and anger, and hatred, and violence, and exclusion — education alone cannot solve the problem. Knowledge alone won’t do the trick. Insight by itself doesn’t heal the world.

I was so pleased that a committee of your peers not only chose the Scripture passages for this service, designed the service, but also decided on the theme: “Cultured for Service: Engaging and Uniting the World.” What a magnificent theme, a prayer, really. They are proclaiming their intention that whatever else is gained from becoming “cultured” graduates; whatever else is gained from being educated, enlightened, graduates; the most important outcome of your time at GC is that such culture-making knowledge must lead to loving service, to acts of engagement that unite the world.

I am grateful that I have witnessed repeatedly, and over time, how you have shown your love for God, for each other, and, especially, for the underprivileged outliers of society and life around you. Not always, not perfectly, and not without error, but you have tried and for that I am terribly grateful.

Your love has overflowed in wonderful ways: you have volunteered at Boys and Girls Clubs, helped build Habitat for Humanity and La Casa homes; you’ve sung hymns for peace building in the Middle East, raised money and made health kits for Syrian refugees, tutored in jail, cleaned wildlife rescue centers, served thousands of hours in developing countries all over the world; by last estimate some 60,000 hours of service each year. Now that is love poured out.

I am grateful, too, for the many efforts you have undertaken, that we have taken, imperfectly to be sure, to have 3-D Conversations on campus — Difficult Discussions about Differences with regard to cultural, religious, racial, gender and sexuality, all in the context of wanting to truly become the beloved community of Christ’s vision for humanity.

Even at that in a world torn apart by animosity, anger and a tit-for-tat cycle of vengeance and hatred, the biggest challenge you face as you leave Graduateland will continue to be loving others as Christ loved others, perhaps, and especially, enemy others.  

The most prophetic act in our current reality comes in the form of a prayer, an invitation really, sung in just a minute by fellow graduate Julio Rivera.

Enviame a mi. Send me. . . Send me into the world with a love. . .

  • that overcomes hurt, hostility, and hatred,
  • that tears down walls peace by peace;
  • that listens more than speaks,
  • that disagrees with civility when others do not;
  • that mirrors compassion in the face of opposing passions;
  • that goes the second mile, when the first one seems too long;
  • that cares for the truly “other,” not just the “other” of our liking;
  • that turns the other cheek more often than reciprocates;
  • that lays down our lives for friend and foe alike.  

Send me forth “cultured for loving service” to engage and unite the world. 

Enviame a mi. Yo ire. Send me. I will go.