Weekly Eucharist: August 28, 2013

Rev. Dr. Jenny Copeland

Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14

First Weekly Eucharist of the 2013-14 academic year

 

I’ve been to some weddings this summer; maybe you have too.  So, I know wedding banquets—receptions we call them now—are interesting affairs.  The table seating is quite complicated and placement of the tables tells you everything you need to know about who’s who at the wedding.  The head table is for the bride and groom.  Sometimes the bridesmaids and groomsmen, but I officiated a wedding a few weeks ago where the bride and groom sat all alone at the head table.  In either case, the rest of us, family and guests, can generally judge our importance to the bride and groom by how close our table is to their table.  We know where we are supposed to sit based on numbers and nametags.  A high table number not only gets you close to the bride and groom; it also gets you first in line for the food.

This would not so much be the case for the wedding banquet Jesus is referencing in today’s gospel.  Things were probably a bit more chaotic for this wedding.  Weddings and banquets lasted for much longer, days even in those days, with people coming and going all the time.  Lamps running out of oil—see Matthew 25; stewards running out of wine—see John 2; and grooms being duped by the father-in-law into marrying the wrong daughter—see Genesis 29.  It’s a mess.  No one knows where to sit.

Think of that mess when you hear Jesus say:  “when you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…”  Jesus could be helping us save face.  In all that chaos without nametags and table numbers, you might think you’re best friends with the bride and should be sitting close to the head table.  But you’ve only known the bride for the years you were in college together, even if these are some of the most intense years of your life.  What about all those cousins she grew up with every Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, visiting grandparents, celebrating anniversaries?  What about those teammates from high school who won the state championship in the 10th grade, or the two best friends from kindergarten?  It is true that you’re close to bride, but are you that close?

Here’s a way to make sure.  Sit down low; sit at the back of the room; sit where no one else wants to be; and wait to be invited closer to the front.  Wouldn’t that be a lot more fun than plopping down at Table 2 only to be told, “Oh so sorry.  My third cousin once removed has to sit there.”  Heck, in North Carolina, you can marry your first cousin; but who even knows their third cousins?  It would be embarrassing to have to give up your seat for the bride’s great-grandmother’s brother’s great-granddaughter’s daughter.  That would be a third cousin once removed…  I think…

By talking about wedding reception seating arrangements, Jesus is really teaching us about humility.  Humility?  We’re going to talk about humility here at Duke?  “Duke Humility” would be a great answer for your high school English teacher’s question:  “Who can give me an oxymoron?”  We all should raise our hands and say, “Duke Humility.”  All joking aside, Duke is not a humble place.  We strive to be the best medical center, have the best sports teams, assemble the best student body.  And we should.  But because of this, because of being told by Christoph Guttentag every year at freshmen convocation just how great we are, it’s sometimes hard to understand what Jesus is talking about.  How does humility fit into a place like Duke with a slogan like “Outrageous Ambition”?  Fun fact:  I was an undergraduate here when then President Terry Sanford coined the phrase “outrageously ambition.”  Dear old Uncle Terry…

How do we think rightly about humility in the middle of ambition?  Jesus knows how hard it is to think rightly, so he focuses on some basic behavior—things to do that we don’t have to think about:

  • Sit there, not here.
  • Invite those folks to dinner, not these folks.

What we do can become who we are, if we do it long enough.

John Wesley offered similar advice to his early circuit riding preachers who were sometimes confused about complex theological matters.  He said to them, “Preach faith until you have it.”  Wesley is saying, “Speak faithfully, behave faithfully, until you become a faithful person.”  Jesus is saying, “Do humble things until you become a humble person.”  Jesus and Wesley want us to form good habits that lead to faithful behavior.

Jesus does not want us humble for humility’s sake, but humble because this is an accurate representation of God’s desire for our lives.  It helps us remember that all these things we have—intelligence, meal plans, medical care, national champions, may all be things we work to achieve, but we can only work at them because we have God-given ability enabling such work.  Our ambition, outrageous though it be, is carefully contained within the humble acceptance of God’s good gifts.  Since humility does not come naturally to us in this place of the great oxymoron, we have to consciously practice it.

  • Sit there, not here.
  • Invite those folks to dinner, not these folks.

It’s a simple thing.  Sometimes I think we want our faith practices to be really hard, so we can toil over them, get the desired results, and then rest on our laurels.  We want it to be like all those hours we spent studying for the SAT or ACT and were rewarded with a perfect score on the critical reading section.  But then once we got our perfect scores, we never looked at the test study guide again or attended another Kaplan review session.  Faith is not a goal we reach and then move on to the next thing:  GREs, MCATs, LSATs.  Faith never comes to an end.  It’s the continuous patterning of our lives.

Some of us who reveal in challenge and accomplishment want our faith to be some kind of endurance test with a climatic ending.  Something like:

  • The Apostle Paul writing from his prison cell in Rome
  • Bishop Polycarp being burned at the stake for refusing to worship Caesar
  • David Livingstone crisscrossing the continent of Africa until he finally dies from malaria
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer hanged in a Nazi concentration camp

We want to do great things and Jesus tells, “Just sit here at the back of the room.”  Turns out we can’t be burned at the stake until we’ve learned to sit at the back of the room.  Most of us won’t have the chance to be burned at the stake anyway, but we can all think more carefully about what it means to sit at the back of the room.

What it doesn’t mean is we sit there with an ear cocked toward the front, waiting for a summons to move up.  We sit at the back of the room because this is the place where we encounter God.  God is always the host of the banquet, checking on our comfort, offering us the best bites, ensuring that everyone feels included.  We receive this hospitality, even at the back of the room, especially at the back of the room.  And if we’re asked to move up closer to the front it’s not because we’ve accomplished anything, it’s because God is calling us to a new place and offering us the chance to learn a new faith habit.

Until that happens we stay at the back and practice being humble until being humble is a way of life.  We practice inviting people to dinner who can’t return the favor until hospitality without expecting anything in return is a way of life.  We practice being faithful until acting faithfully is a way of life.  Sometimes we even practice without knowing what it will look like when we finally become the way we’ve been acting.  Today we get to practice eating at a banquet, this banquet where all you can do is sit at the back of the room and receive, receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation.  And you will be blessed.  Amen.

 

Jennifer Copeland

United Methodist Chaplain, Duke University

 

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Weekly Eucharist: January 9, 2013

The gathering of the dispersed. That’s what this scripture reading from Isaiah is called in those quaint little headings our Bibles use to divide scripture into manageable sizes. The gathering of the dispersed. We have been dispersed all over the country, some in places all over the world, like Costa Rica.

Isaiah is talking to the people of Judah who have not been all over the world, but mostly in Babylon, 500 miles away—as the crow flies. It’s a long way from Babylon back to Jerusalem, like walking from here to New Haven, CT, to go visit your friends at Yale. And the Israelites actually take the long way home so they can stay near the rivers and not die of thirst, making their trip nearly 800 miles long. So, it’s more like going all the way to Kennebunkport, ME, to visit the Bushes, Yale alumni that they are.

The Israelites are not in Babylon for a friendly visit; they are in Babylon because they were conquered by that country a generation earlier and carted away as exiles. But like most of scripture that’s really good, Isaiah is not talking only to them. He could be talking to anybody who has been away for any number of reasons. He could be talking to us. We have been dispersed because Duke closes the dorms over the Christmas Break. I still call it Christmas Break because this is a Methodist school after all. When my parents were in college they had to come back and take finals after Christmas, so it really was the Christmas Break and not the semester break. And if we lived in Australia, it wouldn’t be winter, so we couldn’t call it the winter break. We’d have to call it the Christmas Break. Christmas just ended 4 days ago…and until today, we have been dispersed.

Like any scattered community, as we contemplate gathering, we have great expectations.

  • Everybody still has a 4.0 for the semester.
  • No one has missed a single Wesley Worship.
  • Both basketball teams remain undefeated.
  • And the winter solstice has passed; the light is coming back.

Isaiah spends a lot of time talking about light in this passage. You might want it to be a metaphor, but for people who lived in a land of deep darkness—Isaiah 9— on them light has shined. This is not just a metaphor; this is winter. On Dec. 21 there were 9 hours and 43 minutes of sunlight; but it was cloudy, so there weren’t really that many minutes when it was light. The sun set officially at 5:06, but it was already getting dark by 4:30. We have been in darkness, literally.

It is the literal darkness that gives the metaphor meaning, so when Isaiah tells us way over in Chapter 60, the reading for this week, “your light has come,” we know what that looks like.

  • It looks like the days getting longer one minute at a time.
  • It looks like my friends coming back to town, one person at a time.
  • It looks like the first day of classes, the first weekly Eucharist, the start of something new, with all the potential and possibility that comes at the beginning.

In the beginning, the first thing God did is say, LIGHT, and light happened. Light points ahead, even while nothing that happened before this moment will disappear.

  • Israel-Judah was still sacked by Babylon.
  • Those grades you made in the fall are still your grades.
  • That gift you didn’t get for Christmas this year…well, maybe next year.

The past doesn’t go away, but when the “light shines in the darkness”—John 1— the future looks brighter. We’re in the Season of Epiphany right now; in fact, this is the Old Testament lesson for last Sunday, the Day of Epiphany. You may know that in most parts of the world the Day of Epiphany is way more important than the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas Day. Christmas Day is pretty specific—birth of the baby Jesus—but Epiphany is far richer, calling out for us deeper meanings of Jesus as Lord and Savior, broader understandings of light returning both literally and metaphorically.

People who wrote scripture didn’t make such neat and tidy divisions between what was happening in the world physically and what was happening in their souls spiritually. It was all part of a whole. People who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder can tell you something about the whole, about what happens when the sunlight goes away and how they feel when it starts to return. Light matters. That’s why Isaiah makes the direct connection between the gathering of the dispersed and the return of light.

There’s another very important aspect to this light described by Isaiah. When it illuminates you, people can see you. When people see the light, they come to it. When people come to the light, they are also illuminated. So, we are not passive light recipients. We are also active light reflectors.

You would expect a good Methodist to say that:

  • Light dwelling, light shining
  • Personal piety, social holiness
  • Right belief, right action

Let your light shine. Makes me want to burst into song: “this little light of mine…”

What does it mean in the dead of winter to know the light is physically returning? What does it mean for us on the first day of class that we are physically gathering? It means, we’re back, the same way the children of Israel came back from Babylon. Their return signaled something true about God and about them. Like the circling beam of a seashore lighthouse, word got out and moved around the countryside. The nations around them heard and believed, this God is for real. We thought they were goners for sure, but they’re back.

Nobody thought we were goners; we only went home for Christmas. But as we come back we have the same opportunity the people of Israel had in the 4th century before the common era. We have the same opportunity the people of God have had from the beginning of time. We have the opportunity to live as those blessed by the light. We can do that with some very simple acts:

  • Count blessings instead of list short comings
  • Talk about opportunities rather than complain about omissions
  • Make time for doing nothing rather than fill our lives with nothingness

These are practical tips for reflecting light, but the truth is, we can’t reflect anything we don’t absorb into the depths of our souls. The light is shining on us. God has provided this illumination. Even when everything about our lives looks and feels dark, we have this certainty.

Is it too simple for us to say, what we do is what we think? If we think God has gifted us with light, gathering us back together to celebrate and worship, then what we do becomes automatic. We simply react as those for whom the light has come.

Arise and shine, for your light has come. Amen.

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Weekly Eucharist: September 19, 2012

17th Sunday After Pentecost

Rev. Dr. Jenny Copeland

Sermon on Proverbs 31:10-31

 

Don’t you find it interesting that wisdom is always personified as a woman?  I’m just saying…  But truthfully, wisdom is feminine because the nouns are feminine, Hebrew and Greek being those kinds of languages that assign gender to things.  We all know a table is just a table, but in Spanish a table is a girl, la mesa.  We all know wine is just wine, but in German the wine is a boy, der wein.  So, while we all know any human can be wise, in both Hebrew and Greek, wisdom is a woman.

It’s not my plan to shoot feminist theory allusions throughout the sermon, but only to point out that like most hard to grasp concepts, wisdom is one of those ideas where it helps to have an example.  What does a wise person look like?  Tell me about a wise person.  Show me a wise person.  And the writer of Proverbs says, OK, here you go; here’s what a wise person might look like.

It’s a long list of attributes.  It is, in fact, a description of the perfect woman from the 4th century Before the Common Era in Ancient Mesopotamia.  She’s probably not quite perfect for today, but she is still very accomplished.  And yet, if we look closely, we’ll soon discover that no one has time to do all these things.  In fact, to excel at only one of the skills listed in this poem would take the better part of one’s adult life.  Take this one:

“She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.”

Do you have any idea how long it takes to clear a field—no bull dozers here.  They’re still clearing that lot beside the Bryan Center, where they’re going to put yet another building on West Campus, and they have bull dozers.  It’s not something we could do when we get out of class tomorrow afternoon.  Then we have to cultivate the vineyard.  My favorite Bordeux comes from a 5th generation vineyard in South France.  Owned successively by 5 generations of women, interestingly enough, no doubt wise, who have cultivated this vineyard as their life’s labor.  For five generations.  If the “capable wife” of Proverbs has decided to claim vineyard keeper as her vocation, she won’t have time for anything else.

And yet, we are told that “she puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.”  In other words, she spins her own thread, which implies she weaves her own cloth, which implies she makes her own clothes.  I do a little sewing in my spare time, not as much as I used to or as much as I’d like to, but enough to know it takes time.  And I don’t even make the cloth, much less the thread.  I buy the cloth, lay it out on the dining room table, cut the pattern, and sew up the seams.  My handiwork can be seen in the alb I wear on Sundays.  I even sewed the chevrons on the sleeves of my black gown after Duke gave me another piece of paper with the University seal and my name on it.  I don’t have any idea how long it would take to spin enough thread to weave enough cloth to make even this stole.  But I know for a fact it took a very long time just to make the stole.  If the capable wife of Proverbs is a seamstress who weaves her own cloth from the thread she spun, she’s a busy person.

So, the point of this description of the capable wife is not to offer a laundry list to all women about what it takes to be the perfect wife.  It’s not even really about being a wife at all or even a woman.  It’s about being a wise person who focuses her life or his life on God’s ways.  It is less about the specifics of what we do with our lives and far more about how we do them.  It’s a question of vocation—a much bandied about term especially on this campus.  But be clear:  a vocation is not a career and a vocation is not a job, though it can be both.

The wise person, personified in the last chapter of a book on wisdom, exemplified by a 4th century BCE feminist, is really just a person whose life’s work is loving God.  A wise person is a person whose life’s work is loving God.  We’ve lost track of that very simple notion of Christian vocation by glorifying people like me—professional God-lovers.  And I’ve got it easy:  cozy office, plush campus, smart students.  How much better would it be if I loved God from a missionary post in Afghanistan or a chaplain’s office on the oncology ward?

Regardless of the location we professional God-lovers revel in our sacrifices.  You know I moonlight in the Divinity School where I chuckle to hear students on full scholarship studying at one the premiere universities in the world, talk about what they’re sacrificing.  I have a housing allowance, a pension plan, and health insurance.  The salary is a bit below average, but as I have said repeatedly the health insurance is worth everything else rolled together.  This is not a life of sacrifice.  This is a life of me doing what I love to do and being lucky enough to get paid for it.

Professional God-loving is good work if you can get it, but it’s no better than any other work you can get.  Sure, there’s some bad work out there, don’t get me wrong.  John Wesley defined bad work as anything that exploits your neighbor and Jesus defined your neighbor as everybody, so you’ve got to be careful how you make your money.  But my point is, when you love God, the spillover of that effect will give you wise work.  If it doesn’t, you won’t be able to sleep at night.  If you love God and you do work that hurts other people, you’ll be an unhappy person; you’ll be dissatisfied.  Your life will become compartmentalized because what you believe in your heart is not reflected by what you do with your hands.  And that is a very bad way to have to live.

So, whether we follow the example of the perfect feminist from the Ancient Near East or somebody a little closer to our own expectations of gainful employment, the vocation given to us remains the same.  Love God and your neighbor in all that you do, even when you earn a paycheck.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

Jennifer Copeland

United Methodist Chaplain, Duke University

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Weekly Eucharist: September 12, 2012

16th Sunday After Pentecost

Rev. Dr. Jenny Copeland

Sermon on Mark 8.27-38

Lectionary Texts

 

Losing Ourselves

 

Study hard while you’re in college and you’ll get a good job and be able to support yourself.  Or study hard while you’re in college and you’ll get into a good graduate school or professional school, and then you’ll get a good job and be able to support yourself and pay off the student loans from grad school.  Wouldn’t you say that being able to support yourself when you get out of college is pretty important?  Who of us wants to graduate from college and move back home?  Meanwhile, statistics show that half of recent college graduates, going back to 2006, lack fulltime jobs.  Half the people who graduated from college in the last 6 years don’t have a fulltime job.  This doesn’t mean they had to move back home, but they’re probably not buying their own houses either.  I am proud to say that every Wesley senior from the class of 2012 has some kind of fulltime thing going on and some of them are even real jobs.  The others are real internships and real missionary assignments, and those count just as much.  Not one of them moved back home.  Not that there’s anything wrong with moving home; I’ve done that once.

But after this investment of time and energy, we really do expect to stand on our own two feet when we get out of here.  Standing on our own feet will bring other expectations to the table as well.  We’ll need a place to live; we have to buy food because the grocery store doesn’t take food points; we’ll probably start taking care of our own cars—insurance, maintenance, and whatnot—if you don’t already do that.  So, it’s not just about getting a job; it’s about living a life.  Most of us probably expect to buy a house some day because owning your own home is still the American dream.  We will have to start our retirement nest egg—I know you can’t imagine that, but you will retire some day and they say social security won’t be here much longer.  Maybe we’ll have health insurance, but that depends on how you vote in November…

I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know.  In fact, you could probably add to my list of maxims for self sufficiency and security.  It’s the norm for who we are:  middle class Americans.  Whether you’re lower, middle, or upper middle class; I think we’re all somewhere in the middle.  Bill and Melinda Gates’ children aren’t in Wesley yet, though the oldest is a junior in high school, so the Wesley Adjusted Gross Income could change in a couple of years, if Harvard doesn’t get her.  For now, we’re mostly middle class and self sufficiency is our norm.

That’s why it’s so hard for us to figure out what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  The more popular interpretation of this upside down way of life, is just spiritualize it.  Assume Jesus is really talking about heaven:

When we all get to heaven, what a singing and rejoicing there will be.

When we all get to heaven, we’ll sing and shout the victory.

So, losing your life is about doing all the right things to get to heaven, right?  Only our theology teaches us that we can’t do anything to get to heaven, that in fact when we start trying to earn our place in heaven, we lose it faster than ever.  Could be, that’s what Jesus meant.

Of course, I’ve never been one to lose a lot of sleep dreaming about heaven.  I’m more interested in realized eschatology—one of Bryant’s buzz words—that means, heaven right now.  Why should we wait until we die to experience heaven?  I’ve been in heaven several times; some I could share with you, some I probably should not, especially since my mother reads these sermons every week…  Heaven is not the end of the journey.  Heaven is breaking into our lives every day.  It is always right here.  Heaven—better defined as “the experience of grace”—is pure gift, given to us through the generosity of God.  All we have to do is accept it.

For those of us trained in self sufficiency, used to earning good grades, finding good jobs, living good lives, we have a hard time NOT working for something.  We are list makers and test takers; we are calendar keepers and job seekers.  And Jesus is telling us:  “Those who want to save their life will lose it.”  I think this may be one of the hardest ideas in the Christian faith for us to wrap our minds around.  Resurrection—piece of cake—we don’t know how it happened, but we believe it.  Salvation, though, that’s hard to figure.

Think of the ways we save our own lives.  The most seductive are probably money and power.  The money part would fit with some of the things I said earlier about saving and investing; making sure we have enough to take care of ourselves, making sure we don’t have to move back home.  The power part is more subtle and shows itself through dogmas like national security, war on terror, tough on crime—forms of protection that range everywhere from home security systems to the strongest military force in the world.  The more money we have the more protection we can buy; money and power are always in collusion.  Those are the things we think will save us.

When Peter names Jesus the Messiah and then Jesus turns around and announces:  “the Messiah, the Son of Man, must undergo great suffering, and be rejected,” we get a glimpse into the saving/losing scenario.  For sure, Jesus could have saved his life; that was established in the opening scene of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus and Satan duked it out in the desert.  The disciples were ready that night in the Garden of Gethsemene; they had their swords out and Jesus said, “No more of this.”  No more homeland security; no more war on terror; no more get tough on crime.  Really?  Come on, Jesus, what’s your defense?  How do we save ourselves?

This is a crisis moment in our lives.  Jesus presents us with a choice.  Crisis doesn’t just mean chaos and instability, though a moment of crisis can feel that way because we’ve got to make a choice right now.  By definition we cannot stay in the moment of crisis.

  • Who do YOU say that I am?  Decide right now
  • You are the Messiah.  Peter decided.  So far, so good.
  • The messiah must undergo great suffering and be rejected.  The Messiah must lose…
  • No Jesus, that won’t work.  We have to reclaim what is rightfully ours; we have to protect ourselves.  We have to show them who’s boss.
  • You are setting your mind on human things, not divine things.  If you want to follow me—focus.  Those who want to save their life will lose it.

Decide:  You don’t have to follow Jesus; you get to chose.  If you sit here and refuse to make a choice, then you have in effect decided not to follow him.  There is no room in a crisis for indecision.  Jesus is on the move, so to follow him, you’ve got to move.  If you don’t move, you’ve not followed.  And that’s OK, because that’s what free will is all about—the freedom to say no to the freedom that Jesus offers you.

If we choose to start moving, to follow Jesus, we don’t know for sure what we’ll lose.  I currently own my own house and I save for retirement.  I had the same class you did on self sufficiency and independence.  But if I have to choose between Jesus and the house; I’ll give up the house because in choosing to follow Jesus I have in fact already given up the house and the pension plan, even the health insurance—which these days is probably worth more than everything else added together.  If we decide to follow Jesus, we lose our lives and we focus on divine things, divine things that are right here in our midst.  If you want to know what those divine things look like, then look at Jesus.  Look at him right here in this moment, calling us to the freedom that only Jesus can offer, the freedom of losing our selves to save our lives.  Amen.

 

Jennifer E. Copeland

United Methodist Chaplain, Duke University

 

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Asbury UMC Worship: September 9, 2012

Student Welcome Sunday at Asbury UMC

15th Sunday After Pentecost

Rev. Dr. Jenny Copeland

Sermon on Mark 7.24-37

Lectionary Texts

 

Three Strikes and You’re Out

 

If you know anything about baseball, you know that with only one strike the batter is still in pretty good shape verses the pitcher.  So, in the game of life when we’ve got one strike against us, we’ve still got a chance to get a hit, maybe even a homerun.  Things start to look a little more doubtful with two strikes, especially if it’s no balls and two strikes.  We have to be very careful at this point because the slightest misstep could cause us to trip and fall.  We can’t take as many chances as we might have taken before—no swinging away in hopes of connecting for a homerun.  Better to play it safe and just make contact with the ball, try to get to first and then figure out the next move from there.  And finally, of course, with the third strike we are out of chances and must make the walk of defeat back to the dugout.

You’re a girl.  Strike one.

You’re a foreigner.  Strike two.

You’re sick.  Strike three.  You’re out.

Yes, I used to be an umpire.  So, I know how to bang ‘em out.  The daughter of the Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin doesn’t have a chance.  She is out.  Syrophoenician is a polite way of saying illegal immigrant.  They came across the border looking for better jobs, looking for a better life; trying to escape hunger, homelessness, hopelessness.  It was tricky for them from the beginning being female and foreign.  When the little girl got sick—possessed by a demon Mark says, a description that might mean anything in a modern medical journal, but means only one thing to the mother and child—she’s sick.  When the little girl got sick, there was no way out.

Meanwhile, Jesus has come to Tyre to rest.  And rest he needs.  Just the day before he fed five thousand people and then walked on water that night to catch up with the disciples.  Earlier on this day he tussled with the Pharisees and we all know what that’s like.  So, he needs to rest.  What’s in Tyre that he would choose this place for his sabbatical?  There’s history with those people from Tyre, those Phoenicians.  Remember Jezebel, wife of Ahab, fierce opponent of the prophet Elijah?  She’s from Tyre.  Of course, that was when the country was strong and independent, a fierce rival for the strong and independent nation of Israel.  Those days are long gone by the time Jesus retreats to this peninsula region.  Both Tyre and Israel now belong to Rome and Phoenicia is a footnote in the history book.  Jesus is probably here because he thinks no one will need him.  And our Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin is on shaky ground.  Two strikes, remember?  The little girl; she’s already out.

Or is she?  Here comes her mother swinging away, risking it all for the chance to hit a homerun.  The English translation doesn’t do this woman justice by saying, “she begged” Jesus to help her daughter.  What she really did was make a scene by yelling at him in the street and then following him right into the house where he was staying.  That house, where he came because he thought no one would know him.  They know him now because she’s calling him out for ignoring her.  And it gets worse.  The next thing Jesus does is insult her:  “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Yes, Jesus just called this woman’s daughter a dog.  So would you and I.  He doesn’t owe her anything; she is pushy and demanding, and now she’s blown his cover.

But she is a person of deep, deep faith and that is precisely the kind of person Jesus wants to meet.  He tussled with the Pharisees earlier in the day—not his kind of people:  traditionalists, narrow minded, fact checkers.  Jesus said as much to their faces quoting Isaiah and calling them hypocrites.  Now he has someone right in front of him that is his kind of person, pointing out to him that he might be slightly traditionalist and maybe a little hypocritical.

This is not a learning moment for Jesus.  Jesus knows these truths already, but what changes here is the definition of who will be numbered among the faithful.   Turns out the Good News, the Gospel, εὐαγγέλιον, is not just for the people of Israel.  Other people are tuning into this station as well and they believe what they hear.

The kingdom of God has come near?

The kingdom of God has come near.

The kingdom of God has come near!

It’s not hopeless after all.

“The demon has left your daughter.”

The woman got what she wanted, which is ultimately what Jesus also wanted for her.  Her daughter is made well.  She has a new count.  She belongs in the game.  She is restored to wholeness.  It’s what any of us want; a sense of belonging, a sense of wholeness.  The belief that we matter.

Have you any idea how many people don’t believe they matter?  On the Duke campus, our Counseling and Psychological Service Center (CAPS) can barely keep up with the demand of students who flood their waiting room trying to figure out if they matter.  Not mattering on the Duke campus masquerades as anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse, eating disorder, depression, effortless perfection.  These are demons and many of our students are possessed by them.  These are demons that need professional attention, the touch of a healer, and our university goes to great lengths to put people in places where they can offer this healing, to help our students understand how very much they do matter.

It is so hard to get into Duke University now that only eleven percent of the people who apply are accepted and all who are accepted don’t enroll.  It’s no longer about being qualified; plenty of the over 31,000 who applied are qualified.  It’s more like winning the lottery or maybe being that lucky bassoon player from Wyoming or tap dancer from Mississippi, congratulations to any bassoon players and tap dancers in the congregation today.  Congratulations to everyone who has enrolled at Duke.  No matter the reason, if you got into Duke, you deserved it.  But there are a lot of people who didn’t get into Duke who deserved it as well.  Given that the students who matriculated both deserved it and achieved it, you’d think they would understand how very much they matter.  And yet the selectivity seems to have the opposite effect and students worry about whether they really are good enough and whether they really should have gotten in.  I spent my entire freshmen year thinking that …well…a few years ago.  Three Duke degrees later I’m starting to think I deserved it.  We all have our demons of insignificance.

Out on the streets of Durham some of the demons that translate into insignificance masquerade as food insecurity, homelessness, lack of  health insurance.  How we can we convince a second grader that she matters to this city when she has nowhere to live, no food to eat, and no doctor to see?  Maybe her parents should get a job with benefits—as if…  But in the meantime, how do we show the child she matters.  Many of our neighbors are possessed by these demons.  These demons need professional attention, the touch of a healer. Volunteers all over this city go to great lengths to offer antidotes to social insignificance, to help our city’s children understand how much they matter.

What does it finally take for any of us to believe that we matter?  Is it our accomplishments; diplomas; awards?  Maybe it’s a good job with a good salary; or maybe we need a really good salary to feel like we matter.  Perhaps it’s a loving parent or adoring children; maybe it’s a boss who respects us or employees who like us?  What would it take for you to know that you matter?  What would it take for you to be made whole?

You know, there are two healing stories in today’s gospel lesson.  The first story is about an unnamed woman from the wrong side of town who believes Jesus can help her daughter.  The second one is about a deaf man with a speech impediment.  Of course, people who are deaf almost always have a speech impediment, especially if they have been deaf since early childhood.  We learn to talk by hearing others talk; if you can’t hear, you can’t talk.  You start to form words by watching the lips of people around you, but you don’t know if the way you sound, sounds like the way they sound because you can’t hear how you sound.  So, you mumble a lot because your tongue doesn’t know what it’s supposed to do.  How awkward!  Small children who struggle to form words are cute; adults who struggle to form words are embarrassing.  We usually think they are mentally challenged, assuming that if they can’t talk they probably can’t think either.  But maybe they just can’t hear.  Maybe there was absolutely nothing wrong with this man who came to Jesus except that he couldn’t hear.  And that was enough to make him insignificant.  Only one strike against him and he’s hopeless.  For him to think he matters, he only needs to speak clearly, but this will never happen until he can hear.  Healing for him takes the form of hearing.

Healing will assume as many different forms as there are those of us seeking it.  There is no one-size-fits-all.  What we can know for sure is wholeness will not come through the external markers of college acceptance, career success, salary bonuses, or even accolades and awards, desirable as those may be.  Wholeness comes through the deep seated realization that we are called into communion with the one in whose image we are created.  And because of that image we will always have another chance to take our turn at bat.  Because of that image we will always matter.  It’s always a new game, so…

Batter up.  Play ball!  Amen.

 

Jennifer Copeland

United Methodist Chaplain, Duke University

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Wesley Worship: September 9, 2012

15th Sunday After Pentecost

Bryant Manning and Caitlin Tutterow

Lectionary Texts

Armenia Break Trip Team Report (Powerpoint Presentation)

 

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Wesley Worship: September 2, 2012

14th Sunday After Pentecost

Kaitlyn Batt and Kathleen Perry

Lectionary Texts

 

Social Holiness – Kaitlyn Batt

 

The concept of grace is central to the Christian faith.  Grace is a free gift from God that enables us to respond to Him and others in a loving way.  Let’s think of grace as “when you get what you don’t deserve”.  Or, as James put it in tonight’s reading, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change”.  God’s grace evokes a response from us, and there are two ways in particular that we might characterize this response.  These are Christian principles that John Wesley referred to as social holiness and personal piety.  These are ways in which all Christians live out our faith and grow spiritually.

We talk a lot about social justice, or social holiness, and we wanted to take some time to discuss what that actually means, and how we as the Wesley Fellowship pursue social holiness as a community.  Let’s define social holiness as Christian friendship with the world in which we do three major things—prioritize relationships, pursue justice, and practice peace.

The idea of relationship is the key.  We’re not interested in simply “doing our good deeds” or getting our community service hours in.  Poor people are not our projects to be “fixed”.  Rather, we recognize that we need friendships with the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the marginalized because they are prophetic voices in our lives.  For example, when we are in close relationships with these people, we start to question our own affluence and wealth.  Perhaps we start to ask questions like, “Do I really need so many possessions?” or “Could I be more generous with my money or my time?”.  Friendships can put pressure on our lifestyle choices, and when the pressure causes us to think critically about what we need and how to be in right relationships with the world around us, that pressure can be a very positive influence on our spiritual growth.  We use the term “poor” to describe a group of people, but relationships challenge us to consider what “poor” really means, and to see the ways in which we are all “the poor” and the ways in which we are all “the rich”.  Social holiness is ultimately about relationships, because relationships, particularly with those people coming from a very different form of life than we might be used to, help us to grow spiritually, broaden our sense of community by breaking down the “us and them” barriers, and allow us to see the world more like God sees it.  After all, when we interact with others, we’re really interacting with Jesus.  In Matthew 25:35, Jesus says, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”.

The second aspect of social holiness is justice.  We cannot truly pursue justice without first seeking relationships with those suffering from injustice.  The verse from Matthew that I just read helps us to define what justice really means.  Justice, in the Christian sense, involves bringing others and ourselves closer to Jesus.  It isn’t about rules and laws and punishment, but rather about being Jesus to those around us.  In that relationship, we can begin to understand the trials and struggles of those that suffer.  The passage we read from James says “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”  We must be doers.  By pursuing justice, we bring God’s reign to Earth.  In this, we respond to God’s grace to us by sharing it with others.  We help to provide space for people to become who they’ve been called to be by speaking truth and standing up for what is right.  We pursue justice by standing in solidarity with those that have been marginalized, ignored, or laughed at and facilitating reconciliation.

Reconciliation brings us to peace, another major component of social holiness, and thus a way in which we respond to God’s grace.  Peace is not a passive state, however.  We actively seek to be in peace with our neighbors, whether that means actively resolving conflict and fixing broken relationships, spending time in fun and fellowship, or simply coming together for a meal.

Social holiness thus invites us into a more intimate relationship with Jesus and others, and this is when we begin to experience what peace really means.  The book Friendship at the Margins says it quite well—“In drawing closer to Jesus, we discover that we cannot love him without loving others . . . as we love and live among those most likely to be overlooked—those who are poor, hungry, despised, imprisoned, or sick—we find ourselves in intimate relationship with Jesus.”

Creator God, you call us to love and serve you with body, mind, and spirit through loving your creation
and our sisters and brothers.  Open our hearts in compassion and receive these petitions
on behalf of the needs of the church and the world.  Let us now move into a time of sharing joys and concerns with one another.

Redeeming God, visit your people and pour out your strength and courage upon us, that we may hurry to make you welcome not only in our concern for others, but by serving them generously and faithfully in your name.  We raise up all of those here tonight with concerns on weighing on their hearts, and ask that you be with them and their loved ones.  We thank you for the joys we’ve experienced, and pray that the Wesley Fellowship will continue to be a place of hope and healing for all those searching for a community to be at home in.  Amen.

 

Personal Piety – Kathleen Perry

 

That phrase, “intimate relationship with Jesus” is a phrase that people normally associate with what we would call personal piety.  Piety brings to mind images of devout believers constantly on their knees in prayer, or and small groups passionately discussing a verse of Scripture. But to talk about personal piety in a more full and appropriate manner, we need to use a definition that can speak to the nuances of what it means to be in intimate relation with the living, incarnate Christ.  Let’s define personal piety as growing in a friendship with God that enables you to love God, others and yourself more fully.

God:

So what does it mean exactly to love God? This is a topic that humanity has pondered for millennia, and so our description here will obviously be incomplete.  But in speaking about what it means to be in relationship with God and love God, there are a couple of points that are important to keep in mind.

Our relationship with God is also characterized by a sense of reverence, awe and fear that sets it apart from our other human relationships.  By fear, we do not mean that we are scared of God, but rather that we approach our relationship with the respect for the majesty of the Creator.

That being said, being in relationship with the Creator of the universe is going to by its very nature a unique relationship, different from any sort of human friendship that we have.  One of the unique aspects of a relationship with God is that we can grow in that relationship through participation in ritual.  In the Deuteronomy passage from today, the text says: “But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children“ (Deut. 4:9). Those worship rituals (prayer, Scripture reading, hymns, communion) that we participate in serve as places where the Holy Spirit can mold us and shape us into the type of people that can call themselves the Church.  Just as the Israelites were commanded to tell the story of their redemption to their children and their children’s children, so we are commanded to internalize our Christian story, whether that is through Scripture, prayers, or some other way, so that we can be molded into more like what we were called to be, that is, the children of God.

Others:

Personal piety is often spoke of like the only part that is important is the vertical relationship, or in other words, that it is all about “me and God”.  While the spiritual practice of solitude is a beautiful and ancient one, sometimes the role that other people can play in our personal piety is overlooked.

While personal piety is about our relationship with God, it is also about us and other people and their relationship with God.  The practices of personal piety also needs to happen in community so that other people are part of our walk with God. In this way, we can encourage each other and our friendships will be rooted in our mutual Christian communion.

In today’s Scripture, James says: “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”.  The social holiness that Kaitlyn just talked about is intimately tied and cannot be removed from our personal piety or rather, our relationship with God.  Those “generous acts of giving” are only possible when there is that relationship with the “Father of lights” so that the Holy Spirit can work through our actions. As we discussed earlier, social holiness is part of our response to God’s grace.  As such, it is an incarnation of the spiritual lives of Christians and cannot be separated from the practices that draw us closer to God.  Personal piety informs and inspires social holiness, and social holiness in return, enhances our personal piety.

Ourselves:

We were created as children of God.  That is our true identity. It is by being in relationship with God that we can start to learn what that true identity is and what it looks like for each of us.  Through discovering who we really are in Christ, we learn more about ourselves and who we were meant to be, and therefore, are able to know and love ourselves more fully.

Part of the college experience is about discovering who we are and where our passions and vocations lie.  As Christians, this discovery process needs to lie within the framework of learning how we can best devote the rest of our lives to God.

One of the ways in which we discern our vocation in Wesley is through small groups.  Before you leave today there will be an opportunity to get information on long-term small groups for the rest of the semester but right now we’d like to break up into some small groups to go more in depth about these concepts and to talk about how we see them in our own lives.

Group Questions:

  • In what ways do you think that social holiness is necessary to the life of an individual Christian?
  • In what ways have you participated in social holiness in the past?
  • In what ways have you been most impacted by participating in social holiness?
  • In your own spiritual life, what ways have you seen social holiness and personal piety interact with one another? In what ways have they seemed separate and disconnected? Why was that?
  • What does personal piety mean to you? What practices most speak to you?
  • When in your life have you felt like you were most growing in your personal piety?
  • In what ways are you looking to grow in your spiritual life/how do you feel you can best do that over this next year?

 

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Weekly Eucharist: August 29, 2012

14th Sunday After Pentecost

Rev. Dr. Jenny Copeland

Sermon on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Lectionary Texts

 

Well, have you had enough rules for one week?  Especially if you’re a first year student.  Here, you thought you were getting away from home, your first taste of real freedom, no “adults” looking over your shoulder—never mind that those adults always reminded you to do your homework, which helped you make good grades, which helped you get to Duke…  But mostly adults are recognized for all the things they tell us we ought not to do.  Jesus knows how you feel.

Rules, rules, rules, here come the Pharisees, although I dare say, even a Pharisee probably can’t invent as many rules as you have encountered in New Student Orientation from the Division of Student Affairs, whose name has changed yet again, though you wouldn’t know it unless you’ve been at Duke as long as I have. Regardless of their name, they are the rule mavens.

  • Rules about where to eat.
  • Rules about drugs and alcohol.
  • Rules about firearms and explosives.
  • Rules about how to tailgate.  Or not to tailgate.

On and on it goes until after awhile, you’d rather be back in high school.  Well, maybe not high school, because they even have rules about our clothes.  At least here boys can wear the baggiest pants they own and girls the shortest shorts without a teacher tapping you on the shoulder…

As far as dealing with people and their rules, Jesus does know how you feel.  Today’s story finds him in yet another conversation with the Pharisees, the rule mavens of the first century.  Today, they’re bothered by hand washing, or the lack thereof.

Why do your disciples…eat with defiled hands?

Interesting way to phrase the question, isn’t it?  As if Jesus is not sitting right there at the same table with the same disciples eating with the same defiled hands.  But you know those Pharisees, always standing on hospitality.  “His hands are dirty too, but let’s just ask him about the disciples.”

They don’t mean, of course, did you wash your hands before dinner?  Most of us learned that one in kindergarten.  They mean have you undertaken the ritual cleansing that is essential for purity before the consumption of nutritional sustenance?  Oh, and did you wash all the stuff you’re eating, too?  And the pots and pans and plates and cups you’re using?  No?  How gauche.

It’s quite a process really, preparing to eat.  We get only a brief lesson from Mark’s description of what has riled up these Pharisees.   He mentions:

  • Hand washing,
  • Food purification, and
  • Utensil cleaning

But none of this is about hygiene.  This is about purity.

What’s at stake regarding purity?

Let’s consider the watermelon we had at our cookout on Sunday evening.  The inside of a watermelon is clean; the rind protects it and when we cut it open, the inside of the melon is about as sterile as food can be.  Maybe the knife was dirty, but unless we first dragged it through an E. coli biology experiment, there’s not enough of that knife blade touching the fruit to make a germy difference.

But the watermelon could be still impure for a host of reason we have yet to consider.

  • If the farmer planted the seeds on the Sabbath, impure watermelon.
  • If the farmer harvested the melons on the Sabbath, impure watermelon.
  • If the watermelon came from the first tenth of the harvest and wasn’t properly separated for the tithe, impure watermelon

Any of these things could be wrong with the watermelon, but how would you know, innocent bystander, trusting guest of Methodist hospitality?  Well, you can’t know, so you must take precautions.  You must only eat watermelon that has been certified Sabbath secure.  You must only eat watermelon that has been carefully counted and catalogued as NOT part of the tenth.  And just in case the watermelon you are about to eat, slipped by the impurity inspectors, if you sprinkle it with a little holy water purchased from the purity police, it will be pure.  Think of this water as purity insurance in case we bought a watermelon planted on the Sabbath, or whatever.

But here’s the real truth of the matter and this is what frustrates Jesus so much.  All these purity regulations cost money, which is fine if money is not an object for you.  But when money is a problem, or at least a mild concern, you have to choose whether to buy organic at Whole Foods or day old store brand from Food Lion.  At Food Lion there are not as many rules about when water melons are planted or harvested or tithed.  And so they cost is a little less.  The watermelon, by the way, tastes exactly the same.

Peasants from Galilee, where Jesus is debating the Pharisees in today’s reading, have money problems.  So do the working poor in Durham.  They can’t pay extra for purity certified watermelon.  They can’t buy purity insurance for their generic brands.  They can barely buy anything.  And that’s what Jesus is trying to tell us today.  When our rules are enforced just for the sake of the rules, regardless of their impact on those around us, it may be time to reconsider the rules…

The purity codes define who is welcome at the table.  Table fellowship is fundamental to the ethnic and national identity of Israel.  It’s how they tell themselves apart from the other nations, especially when they’re being occupied by another nation—Rome.  But now their rules have become obstacles to people within their very own community who can’t afford to live by the rules that fence in the tradition.

Tradition is not a bad thing.  Purity is not a bad thing.  But when tradition and purity become ends unto themselves, detrimental to the very people they are meant to protect and support—the tail is wagging the dog.  For Jesus it’s very simple—those who live into the reign of God are pure in heart.  Those who exclude the pure in heart are themselves defiled, even though they follow all the rules.

If we look at the list of “evil intentions” catalogued by Jesus we don’t find very much that can be addressed by planting and harvesting on the right days or even giving the first tenth to the Lord—maybe avarice, a fancy word for greedy, addresses the tithe.  But even people who give away a tenth of their possessions can be greedy with the other ninety percent.  Jesus is talking about our intentions, our ability to see the world through the lens of faith.  The faults he lists are primarily crimes of power and exclusion, anathema to God because God is a force of reconciliation and inclusion.

Rules of exclusion are easy to invent and even easier to enforce.  You can probably think of a few while you’re sitting right here that your own denomination enforces.  If you can’t, see me after worship and I’ll point them out to you.  Much harder to think about how the rules might be subverting reconciliation and then harder still to work to subvert those exclusionary rules.

All these judgments we make about each other’s behavior—did you wash your hands?—will always be exclusive—my hands are cleaner than your hands.  Better that we judge ourselves against God’s righteousness and question whether we have set a table and filled it with good things worthy of those whom God has called to the heavenly banquet.  Once we accept that dinner invitation and come to the banquet, judgment becomes very simple.  We only have to judge whether there is enough room at the table for everyone whom God has invited.  And God invites everyone.  So move over and make some more room at the table.  Amen.

 

Jennifer E. Copeland

United Methodist Chaplain, Duke University

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Duke Chapel Selects 2012 Student Preacher

Kathleen Perry | Photo by Angela Zhou

DURHAM, NC – Duke University junior Kathleen Perry has been selected to give this year’s student preacher sermon at Duke Chapel.

Perry is a Chapel PathWays Scholar and active member of the Duke Wesley Fellowship who is pursuing a major in religion and a global health certificate. She will give her sermon during the 11 a.m. worship service on Sunday, March 18.

Perry’s sermon, “Healing Bitter with Bitter,” is based on Numbers 21:4-9. The sermon was selected after being reviewed and nominated by a committee that included representatives from the chapel and Religious Life staff.

“Kathleen’s sermon provided a thoughtful and clever interpretation of a peculiar passage,” said Meghan Feldmeyer, the chapel’s director of worship. “Kathleen has something significant to share with the chapel community in this sermon, and I’m glad she’ll have the opportunity.”

Each year, Duke Chapel selects a student to preach on Student Preacher Sunday. The selection process is open to any undergraduate who wishes to submit a sermon. Criteria for selection include relevance of sermon to that Sunday’s Scripture, sermon delivery and appropriateness of subject matter for a chapel service.

Duke University Chapel Sunday worship services are open to the public and webcast live at www.chapel.duke.edu.

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Press Release: NCMA Awards

UNITED METHODIST CHAPLAIN, JENNIFER E. COPELAND, AND THE DUKE WESLEY FELLOWSHIP
RECEIVE NATIONAL AWARDS

The National Campus Ministry Association recognized Duke University’s United Methodist
Chaplain and the Duke Wesley Fellowship, United Methodist Campus Ministry, with the
organization’s top two awards this year during their annual conference at the University
of California Berkeley. The Rev. Dr. Jennifer E. Copeland, United Methodist Chaplain for
Duke University and Executive Director of the Duke Wesley Fellowship, was recognized for
Outstanding Ministry in Education. The Duke Wesley Fellowship received the award for 2010
Campus Ministry of the Year. It’s fairly rare for both awards to go to the same location and not
only did Duke receive these awards, but Dr. Copeland was noted as the “unanimous” selection.
Copeland is a three time graduate of Duke University (BA ’85, MDiv’88, PhD’08) and has worked
as Duke’s United Methodist Chaplain since 1999. Before returning to Duke, Copeland served as
a parish minister in South Carolina and as the United Methodist Chaplain for Furman University
and Converse College.

The Duke Wesley Fellowship is a campus unit of the United Methodist Church. Students
meet regularly during the week for worship, service, and fellowship. Their primary worship
gatherings are Wesley Worship each Sunday evening and Weekly Eucharist each Wednesday
afternoon. In her nomination letter for Copeland, the Rev. Nancy Ferree-Clark, formerly
the Associate Dean of Duke Chapel, Senior Pastor of the Congregation at Duke Chapel,
and currently Senior Pastor of Federal Way UMC near Tacoma, WA, wrote of the wealth of
opportunities the Duke Wesley Fellowship offers for community building, faith development,
and mission outreach. “I [have seen] many talented, highly committed campus ministers come
and go. I cannot think of any others who could match the standards set by Jennifer Copeland in
her ministry with the Wesley Fellowship at Duke University.”

Copeland said of the award received by the Wesley Fellowship, “This award is especially
significant for college students who receive so many competing narratives about what is
important during this time in their lives. Students of the Duke Wesley Fellowship have gone
forthrightly about the work of responding to God’s grace for almost 30 years on the Duke
campus, in the surrounding community, and across the world, usually with little fanfare.”

The National Campus Ministry Association is a professional organization educating,
encouraging, and equipping those engaged in the practice of ministry in higher education.
Organized almost fifty years ago, membership is open to anyone engaged in ministry on
a college campus, full or part-time, clergy or laity. Core values of the association include
promoting integrity, ethics, and accountability, supporting communities defined by ecumenism,
professional and spiritual growth, and honoring the intellectual enterprise.

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