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The Mind of Christ

Sermon: Emory & Henry Baccalaureate May 5, 2023

Text: Mark 12:28–31.

One of the scribes came up to Jesus and asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no greater commandment than these.”

To provide some context: Jesus’ opponents had been questioning him, trying to entrap him. A scribe then asked his own question. Scribes were scholars of the age, with years of schooling. Like you who are graduating, they had earned society’s respect. Ben Sirach describes them as wearing long robes and holding positions of eminence. They were the magistrates, jurists, teachers, and court officials of the day (Ecclus 38:24–39:11).

“Which commandment is the first of all?” the scribe asked. This was a peculiar question. While there are many commandments in the Torah, 613 according to the Rabbis, every Judean knew that the most important commandment was the Shema (Deut 6:4–9). “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, He alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and all your might.” The words were to be kept close; recited, contemplated, discussed with family. They were to be remembered when at home and away, while awake and asleep.

What led the scribe to ask a question which answer must have seemed so obvious? Jesus’ answer is even more interesting. Jesus not only repeated the Shema but added to it. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind,” he added— dianoia, “way of thinking,” “mind.” Then he replied further. “And love the neighbor as yourself.” The two commandments are one.

So, I want to spend a few minutes this afternoon talking with you about this topic of loving God with our minds, sharing especially some of what I have learned from you and other E&H students. What was Jesus saying to the scribe, and importantly, to us today?

[Pause for prayer.]

Jesus’ Call to Excellence.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind.” In the summer of 1998, an Emory & Henry colleague and I attended some meetings in Washington, DC with the purpose of raising money for a program we were initiating at the college. And while there, we made a point of visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Among the exhibits, we saw a Wright brothers’ glider; an X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier; a P-51 Mustang from World War II; and many other amazing machines. But what was of special interest to me was a small satellite. It looked fragile, covered with what appeared to be golden-colored foil. But there was nothing flimsy about that satellite; for although extremely light, it was designed to withstand an orbit speed in excess of 17,500 mph. I examined that satellite for a long time.  For the team of NASA engineers that created its foil covering had been led by one of our teaching colleagues from Emory & Henry, Dr. Phil Young. And just like you, Phil also had been a student here.

The technology that led to that satellite stands behind the safety communication network that protects our country, the I Phone in my pocket, the GPS that helped your families navigate to Emory & Henry. Loving God with all our minds brings discovery and creation. Loving God with our minds allowed Phil and his team of NASA scientists to take those raw materials of nature that are gifts from God and through ingenuity and labor repurpose them into a satellite. Loving God with our minds structures the music and the art we love.

Jesus’ command to love God with our minds is a call to excellence. In your studies at Emory & Henry, you were mentored by amazing people who have written books, created works of beauty, won prestigious awards, and in diverse ways worked for the betterment of society. To my knowledge, more faculty from this small college have been recognized with state and national teaching excellence awards than from any other school in the Commonwealth. Programs here have received national acclaim. I get excited talking about my fellow professors’ and this institution’s pursuit of excellence. But you know what, graduating class? I get even more excited thinking about who you are, who you will yet become, and the many talents you are bringing to God’s world.

Healing Our World.

Loving God with all our minds is more than an emotional attachment to the deity; for you who are Christians, more than resting in Jesus’ arms. Loving is active. Loving means doing.

Years past, I fractured an ankle chasing a ball. It healed but not completely. And two or three years ago, that ankle started getting worse to the point where I was hobbling, having trouble walking down the stairs, unable to sleep. I was a little anxious about the whole thing. So, last November I saw an orthopedist in Kingsport. He examined my foot, frowned, shook his head, and said, “What you need is an ankle specialist.” Then, I became more worried. The doctor continued. “So, I am going to make an appointment for you to see one of the very best ankle surgeons in our region.” And sure enough, he arranged for me to be examined the very next day. Anxious? Nervous? Not a bit. For when I hobbled in for my appointment with that specialist, it was Dr. Jason Fogelman who greeted me with a hug and a smile. Jason had been one of my students here. His sister was my student too. His wife also. I knew what kind of student Jason was and what kind of professional he became. I had the surgery in December and soon was able to put away my walking-cane and shelve any pain medication.

For a professor, there are few greater highs in life than those moments when we realize that our students have progressed beyond us. But back to my point in telling you this story—for me, Jason is a metaphor. I’ve been talking to you about my fractured ankle, but the world is in pain more serious than any fractured ankle. There is anger and bitterness in our society. Injustice and violence confront us. Even here in our corner of paradise, there are children who go to bed hungry. About 150 Americans continue dying daily of COVID. Natural disasters? Your generation must do what my generation failed to do and take on the task of creating a sustainable environment. In brief, class of 2023, there was a larger purpose to your education. Bring loving God with your mind to your work and you will bring healing to a hurting world.

Live to serve and serve to live.     

Speaking to the scribe, Jesus connected loving God with one’s mind to loving other people. Love God with all your mind and the neighbor as yourself.

Four or five years ago, I was talking on the phone to a former E&H student who has done well in life and now directs the Supply Chain Center of Excellence for Johnson Controls International, a $47 billion multi-national company. As you would suspect, this friend has a bright mind— as apparently does his daughter for at the time of that conversation she had just received a special academic award from her state’s governor. (Now, I was impressed! And I hope that when the time comes, that girl considers enrolling at Emory & Henry.) But in my conversation with that former student, he didn’t want to talk too much about his daughter’s academic award. Instead, he spent fifteen minutes telling me in detail about several of the girl’s acts of kindness; about her generosity, her good heart; how she was helping a friend who was struggling.

One of my favorite descriptions of Jesus in the Bible comes from the Book of Acts 10:38 where Peter described our Lord as a mighty prophet, anointed by the Holy Spirit, who went about doing good. To love God with our minds is more than being able to think well. It is to do good.

And even more, it is to do love—that is, the good deeds are to be born and nurtured by genuine concern for the welfare of others. In August 2005, hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Katrina was one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters ever to hit the United States. That next spring, a team from our college led by the wonderful Robin Grossman and Dean Travis Proffitt, then part of the Appalachian Center, traveled south to Gautier, MS, to help with relief. My sweet wife Dixie and I went also. Many of you have been on similar trips.

One of the students who helped organize the relief was Christian Miller, a strong, happy-go-lucky upper classman. Christian is a good-hearted person; born good. But I worried about him.  What path would he take in life? Later, after Christian had graduated, was married, and working in the public school system of Pulaski helping young people navigate their own life journeys, he shared with me that he found his life’s calling while nailing shingles and tearing out moldy drywall in Gautier—that is, while sweating and dirty and bone-tired and sleeping on the floor, helping strangers who had lost everything and had no means to ever pay him back. It is one of those paradoxes in life—we find ourselves when we lose ourselves for others. By loving the neighbor as Jesus taught us, we discover a life worth living. Live to serve and serve to live.

Leaving Our Comfort Zones.       

As I look at you, class of 2023, I see many friends whom I admire. During the last four years you have lived in a beautiful place. Our Emory & Henry campus is idyllic. And the good people from Grounds and Facilities do a marvelous job keeping it so. I love the duck pond and the library and the old buildings. And I imagine many of you share my feelings. The McGlothlin Center for the Arts is one of the wonders of Southwest Virginia.  I find myself getting emotional when inside this building (Memorial Chapel) especially as light streams through the colored glass windows and I anticipate the choir joined by alumni singing Peter Lutkin’s arrangement of the benediction.

Tomorrow, after Commencement we will say goodbye and you will head from this place of comfort and beauty off to your new horizon. It will be bittersweet. But first, one last story. (2006) A drizzly October, I stood at the entrance of Van Dyke looking at the cardboard and tent city Andrea Rocha and some of her classmates had built to publicize the situation of the homeless. In my Christian social justice course, we had read about the conditions of the poor and had examined statistics in Appalachia. The assignment that semester was to discover what it would be like to be poor and powerless. And Andrea and half a dozen others had on their own decided to do more than read the books I assigned and interview the destitute. They built that cardboard city and tried to live in it on less than a dollar a day.

I had walked down to Van Dyke to talk to Andrea. Was it time to call off the project? The group had been at it for six days. And there had been complaints from important people. Did a cardboard city project the right image for the college? But standing in the rain, observing Andrea and her classmates, I buried those complaints.

And that proved a good decision. Later that very week, Andrea and the others expanded their attempt at empathy into the broader goal of educating our community and empowering positive change. That was what the cardboard city became as the group culled and distributed statistics, targeted Homecoming weekend, and placed their story on television, the radio, and in the newspapers. By the time the project ended, the Dean of Students, the Chaplain, some Trustees, a coach, and many others had themselves become involved.

Andrea is a remarkable person. After graduation, she attended seminary at Boston University and today is a missionary in South America. But the truth I am sharing with you is not that Andrea is a good person, although she is, or that I have seen that same goodness in many of you, which I have, but it is that Christ calls us to leave our zones of comfort. You and I are called to take the blessings we’ve experienced here these years and multiply them in God’s world.

Conclusion: The Mind of Christ.

I started twenty-odd minutes ago with a Bible passage and wish to close with another. This one is from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The apostle had left his comfort zone years before, you see, for following Christ has its costs. He was in prison. Would he live or be executed? Martyred? But Paul’s thoughts were on his friends in Philippi. If it were to be life, he wrote, then that would be wonderful for it would mean that he could do more fruitful labor with them for the good. But if not life, if the verdict would go against him . . .? Well, here is my translation of Paul’s final wisdom to friends he wondered he might see no more:

“Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel,” Paul advised. “As you encourage and try to comfort one another; as you share in the Spirit, whenever you meet and show affection to one another, adopt Christ’s way of thinking. That is, have the same love he had. Don’t be governed by personal ambition. Discard all vanity. Be humble, regarding others as more important than yourselves. Don’t focus on your own interests but on the wellbeing of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus” (Phil 1:27; 2:1–5).

Class of 2023, it is that time. Here is my wish and Emory & Henry’s wish for you.

Love God with all your minds and your neighbor as yourself. May you strive for excellence in what you do. May you use your abilities to bring healing to our broken world. Make it an ever-better place. Go through life doing good. Be brave as you step into your tomorrow. And may you adopt Christ’s way of thinking. Have the same love he had.

The ancient Hebrew way of saying “Let it be true!”—which was also an oath in ancient Israel—is our word “Amen.” So, from me to you: May God bless each and every one of you. May the Lord accompany you as you leave our campus in all your goings and comings. And now, join me: May the same mind be in each one of us that was in Jesus. “Let it be true.” Amen!

About religiousjourney

I'm a professor at Emory & Henry College and operate the religiousjourney.com blog.


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