Text: Vandy Kemp’s baccalaureate sermon

Text: Vandy Kemp’s baccalaureate sermon

Vandy Kemp, vice president and dean of students at Maryville College, delivered the sermon during the baccalaureate service on May 14, 2016. Read excerpts from her sermon, titled “Lessons of Love from MC and Me.”

After I accepted the invitation to speak today, I gave considerable thought to whether or not a Baccalaureate Ceremony really matters much anymore. After years in academics I knew a little about the event. I knew, for example, that it is a religious event; specifically, a Christian event which includes religious music, references, prayers, Holy Scripture, and a sermon.

  But, to be certain, I looked a little deeper and learned that “a Baccalaureate ceremony or mass is a service of worship in celebration of, and giving thanksgiving for, lives dedicated to learning and wisdom.” And like many of the finest traditions of academia, it too originated at Oxford University in 1432. And you seniors should note that Oxfordians were required to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of the Baccalaureate tradition! 

Here’s what I think about Baccalaureate ceremonies:  I think that one’s completion of a college degree is one of life’s most significant milestones, an event to be marked with celebration, and a nod of gratitude to one’s Creator however you define that.

 Remember? When you were new at MC? Each of you heard me say at a Meet Maryville or Great Beginnings or new student orientation that “here at Maryville College, we believe each of us is on a spiritual journey, and we want to honor and support your particular journey, whatever it is and wherever it leads you.”

So, shall we agree on this afternoon, that the 2016 Maryville College Baccalaureate Ceremony is but the latest stop on our spiritual journey together?

As for me, my particular spiritual journey echoes the teachings of Jesus Christ, and throughout my life I have sought to reflect Christian principles. But I am also a Christian who believes that others may be on different paths to God, and in my life and relationships, I search for those spaces that we are in accord; where we put aside conflict and contradiction and discover in each other, the face of God.  

For this occasion, then, I have chosen a universal concept that I believe binds rather than divides us on our spiritual paths to God, and that theme is one of LOVE. I ask you to bear with me on this topic, because in this time of acrimony and distrust and fear and hate, LOVE is simply worth thinking about. Paul Tillich said, “In every moment of genuine love, we are dwelling in God and God in us.” 

So let’s go looking for God by considering Love, grace, and kindness as I share with you ideas and principles I have learned from students, colleagues, and LIFE during my 25 or so years at Maryville College.

Hence, my title: “LESSONS OF LOVE FROM MC AND ME”.

Let us pray: Creator God, I am here only to be truly helpful. I am here to represent you who sent me. I do not have to worry about what to say or do, for you who sent me today will direct me. I am content to be whatever you wish knowing that you are here, right now, among us. I wait, we all wait, on you.   Amen 

Before I begin, we must first consider the meaning of the word LOVE. You already know that many languages employ a mass of words, a complex framework of phrases, to describe the many meanings we English speakers attach simply to the word…. LOVE.

So I venture forward in this topic with the full awareness that the word LOVE is limited and flawed, and yet, it is what we have and depend on to communicate a plethora of meaning and feelings.  

Our own love lessons begin early; first as infants when we bond with our parents, and then through family relationships where we learn self-esteem and empathy. From our first friends and then our first loves who open our eyes to new circles and cycles of love.

We learn love lessons from the important caretakers and teachers in our lives: coaches, extended family, other moms and dads, school teachers, youth leaders, and mentors. 

Eventually we leave home for college where we find roommates (you know, the one you thought was weird on the first day and grew to love over the next few weeks…or …vice versa.) And professors, and team mates…

And, then, there is the love you share with the friends who are sitting beside you right now; whom you will know and love (trust me on this) for the rest of your lives.

SO MUCH LOVE….. 

So, here we go: “Vandy’s 20 Lessons in Love, Grace, and Kindness”: 

Lesson 1:  A wise mentor said to me years ago that in all we do, we are motivated either by love or fear. Think about that for a moment…. Love…. or fear. Love inspires, nurtures, connects.    Fear dishonors, separates, and sometimes attacks. Be motivated by love.  Do not be afraid.

Lesson 2.  But if you are afraid; if you have reason to fear, ask yourself… “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Sometimes the worst outcome is terrible and heartbreaking. But most of the time, what we fear as the worst possible outcome isn’t catastrophic but rather a detour. Some of you are terrified right now because you are graduating from college tomorrow afternoon, and you have no idea what you are doing in three months, or six months or two years. Right? So, what IS the worst thing that can happen? Really? 

Each May, I watch worried graduates (and their parents)  leave this place because they don’t know precisely where they are going. But, what I have learned is that if they simply let go of the fear and the paralysis it causes…if they just look around expectantly, miracles and blessings appear. Opportunity abounds. Once again: Go into the world with love and courage.

Lesson 3:  AND don’t avoid scary things! In fact, if you tend to avoid scary things, start doing something every day that scares you, because you will become more brave, more confident. And as your courage grows, your capacity for love and grace and kindness expands as well. …..And, besides…. “what IS the worst thing that can happen?”, right?  Think about that.

Lesson 4:  You know those bumper stickers about doing random acts of kindness? Forget those! Don’t be random in your kindness and grace; be intentional and focused. Make thoughtful choices everyday about where you will put your love and resources. And do it for the rest of your life. 

Lesson 5:  Make every place, group, situation you are in, however temporarily, better for your having been there. Let me repeat that:  MAKE EVERY PLACE YOU ARE BETTER FOR YOUR HAVING BEEN THERE.  I enjoy messing with students who complain to me about a class or a professor by asking “Hmm?....So….what exactly are YOU doing to help out in that class. I mean it sounds like that professor could use some support. What are you doing?”  That blows their minds….to think that they might be responsible for their own environment, their own experience…in a class, or a team, in the work place. Listen!  Don’t passively lurch through life, whining because it isn’t better!  if something isn’t working, get in there and FIX IT!

Lesson 6:  And what about that Maryville College Covenant?     altogether now, the three tenets of the Covenant are — “scholarship, respect, and integrity!” You already know that those three words were thoughtfully chosen years ago by Maryville College students to describe what they believed was essential in a caring learning community. Just those three powerful words….  

Language IS powerful …and our Covenant reminds us of that.

A few years ago, the campus was rocked by a student incident of racism and violence. People suffered emotionally and physically because of hurtful, racist language and the violent response. I remember confronting a student about his use of the particular racial epithet—you know, the really bad one—and he insisted that he had never used it before in his life, and that he was provoked beyond reason, and the words just came out. I thought about that for a long time, and I talked with several of you about it, because I was so deeply troubled by the incident and his response.

 And here’s what I came to understand and my lesson for you:

Words of hate and disrespect don’t suddenly pop out when provoked! They are either inside of you or not. If hurtful, hateful language IS in your heart, get it out. If you are even capable of giving voice to that language, GET IT OUT. And replace it with words of grace, kindness, and love.  

Lesson 7:  The lessons of love we find in a campus community that values diversity and inclusion are essential to a liberal arts education in a democratic society. Maryville College has existed, since its founding, not only to educate hungry learners, but to expose you and each other to differentness so that we may all be better citizens and more effective leaders.  

I thank those of you in this place who have taught me these love lessons of diversity. I have learned so much from you who are different from me. And I have been smacked so many times as my own bias, stereotypes, and assumptions are revealed and proven wrong.  45 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I never imagined the faces of diversity that we recognize today. And, frankly, my generation has failed to realize a society where differentness is an asset, an opportunity, instead of a dreaded problem.

There are those of you, sitting here today, who have gently, patiently, urgently pushed me when I needed to be a more loving citizen in the world. MY experience has been deeply enriched because of your differentness, and I hope it has been so for you. 

And as you leave this place, I hope that you have learned to expectantly seek out those who are different instead of avoiding them.

Lesson 8.  Judging is not loving. Being judgmental sucks our energy and limits our experience of the world. It voids any possibility of love, grace, or kindness. Recognize in yourself the tendency to be judgmental and do something about it.

Lesson 9:  Figure out the difference between sex and love, and do it quickly before you do, or you suffer, any more damage.

Lesson 10:  Marriage is a glorious institution of mutual support, intimacy, love, and grace. Some of you have met your life partners at MC. Others have years to go to find that one. Take your time with this. Love is, indeed patient.

Lesson 11:  Speaking of relationships, we spend a lot of time trying to get other people to do what we want them to do.  Motivating others is a human need. But, remember this: People do things for their own reasons, not for yours!  If you really want to motivate someone, love them first and you will figure out the rest.

Lesson 12:  Be quiet and listen. Observe yourself with others.  Are you talking too much? At the end of the day, do you know what the other people around you were thinking, needing, caring about? If not, you are probably not listening. And stop relying on electronic device speak! Practice conversation. Speaking…. listening…. loving…. It’s all connected.

Lesson 13:  Sarcasm is rarely a good idea. It is frequently a tool for those of us who are a little socially awkward or who need to be the cleverest person in the room, often in an effort to mask our own feelings of inadequacy. I know, I use it. 

But, you see, there is a difference between being sarcastic and being ironic. Jesus’ comments were often ironic, in order to make a point. But sarcasm occurs at the expense of another. And, therefore, it’s not a good idea. Observe yourself, and if you find that your comments are generally sarcastic, consider the effect you are having on others. 

Lesson 14:  Some of you are graduating and leaving with an addiction. Simply put, undergraduate school is fertile ground for abusing porn, video games, prescription drugs, alcohol (mostly alcohol), and illegal drugs. If you are in this space this afternoon, and you know that this describes you, understand two things:   1) others know it about you as well—it’s not a secret, AND 2) now is the time to do something about it. Remember, live in love, not fear.

Lesson 15:  Go outside. Every day, 365 days of the year. Sniff the air. Look at the sky. Find something that is living out there like a tree or a bird. Be quiet. Better still, go to the woods. Get yourself completely out of sight of anything human made. You will find yourself out there. You will find God.  Do it every day.  

Lesson 16:  Throughout your life, look for mentors, and allow yourself to be mentored; because, no matter how high you climb, there is always someone wiser, cleverer… that YOU should pay attention to. Using your energy to LEARN from others around you is so much smarter than using your energy to be the smartest person in the room. Besides, there will always be someone smarter. Relax, and learn from them. This, too, increases your capacity for love and grace.

Lesson 17:  Everyone has a song. Seriously. Even if you do not fancy yourself a musician or a lover of music …. There is a song, there is music, that is yours. It may be sounds from your childhood. It may be old rhythms and melodies that you don’t even recognize, but they are there in your mind.

Plato said, “Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the minds, flight to the imagination.”

 Your music may be metal…or Celtic harp, African jazz. Or hip hop. It may be blue grass, or Bach, or Gregorian chant…. electronic…. acoustic… vocal… instrumental…. percussion, keyboard…. string…. reed… horn… kazoo!

Every day, be sure to listen to your song, and DANCE. If you haven’t tried it, you can’t imagine how good it is to move to your song. Listen…feel it…and dance. Music is the metaphor of our lives. Don’t ever think you or your music is better than anyone else’s. It just yours.

Lesson 18:  For heaven’s sake, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”. Uncertainty is blessed, and owning it is the truest sign of Godly humility. “I don’t know, but we will find out” are eight of the most powerful, show-stopping words in the world. You can disarm a board room of experts or a classroom of eighth graders.” You should try it.

Lesson 19:  Identify sacred spaces as you move through life…. those corners of the world that make you feel more intensely, quiet you down, and sooth your spirit. It may be on the back pew of a church…. on a soccer pitch…. in a mountain stream or on a mountain top…. on a yoga mat…. or at your mama’s kitchen table. You know you’ve found a sacred space when you feel safe there… or full of wonder… or happy. Your mind clears. And a prayer is close on your lips.

Lesson 20:  Finally, and probably the most important lesson of all: KNOW TODAY THAT YOU ARE LOVEABLE AND YOU ARE LOVED. We, in this room, sitting behind, in front of, and to the side of you have seen you at your best and worst, as you have muddled through these growing years, and we love you so.  

I LOVE YOU. I have seen the face of God in your faces. I have seen you care deeply, work hard, laugh, suffer, serve, help others, and show mercy. I have also seen you make mistakes and do some pretty stupid things along the way. But, today…it is OK. Because….in spite of the mistakes…and the bad decisions, there is and always will be grace. God’s Grace.

You may know the story of John Newton, the Englishman who wrote the words to “Amazing Grace”. Newton lived from 1725 to 1807, and he was a bad dude, a juvenile delinquent who was drafted into the Royal Navy to straighten him out. It didn’t work, and after the Navy, he used his seafaring skills to get a job in the slave trade and eventually commanded a slave ship. Over time, and by the grace of God, even wicked John Newton became appalled by the nature of his business, left the trade, and entered the ministry where he spent the rest of his life reflecting on the horrors he had allowed and the forgiveness of his Almighty God.  In 1773 he penned these words, and they are my final Lesson of Love for you today:

Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound)

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,

I have already come.

Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far

And grace will lead me home.                                  

 MAY IT BE SO.


Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”