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Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices from ''A Great Towering Church''

Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices from ''A Great Towering Church''

by William H. Willimon (Editor)

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Many of America’s greatest Protestant preachers—Paul Tillich, William Sloane Coffin, Barbara Brown Taylor, Fleming Rutledge, Peter J. Gomes, Billy Graham, and others—have spoken powerfully from the pulpit of the “great towering church” that is the spiritual and architectural center of Duke University. This collection of fifty-eight of


Many of America’s greatest Protestant preachers—Paul Tillich, William Sloane Coffin, Barbara Brown Taylor, Fleming Rutledge, Peter J. Gomes, Billy Graham, and others—have spoken powerfully from the pulpit of the “great towering church” that is the spiritual and architectural center of Duke University. This collection of fifty-eight of the most notable sermons proclaimed from that pulpit commemorates the seventy-fifth anniversary of the groundbreaking for Duke Chapel. It is a sweeping panorama of sermons selected and edited by Bishop William H. Willimon, Dean of the Chapel for twenty years and one of the most widely read writers on preaching in America.

Opening with the sermon preached in June 1935 at the dedication of the Chapel and closing with one by Willimon delivered at the beginning of the 2003–4 school year, this volume presents Protestant Christianity at its most eloquent and prophetic. Some sermons are pure meditations on biblical texts; others are period pieces in the best sense of the term, reflecting on such contemporary concerns as civil rights, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the wars in Europe, Vietnam, and Iraq. Willimon provides a brief introduction to each sermon, commenting on the work and thought of the preacher. Diverse in subject and style, the sermons collected in this volume are a treasure for those who love fine preaching, a resource for those studying the history of homiletics, and a light to rekindle the memories of those who have worshiped in the Chapel over the years.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The most impressive thing about the collection is the way that the Word of God may be heard and experienced through it. Although I have studied preaching through the ages, I am amazed—and grateful—for the way the sermons in this book can grasp my heart and mind and make me want to be more faithful in my discipleship.”—O. C. Edwards Jr., author of A History of Preaching

“These sermons are as rich and diverse and striking as the deep colors of the stained glass in the towering church in which they were preached. They display the craft of preaching through which Light shines. You will cherish this collection of sermons faithfully shaped, imaginatively crafted, artfully expressed.”—Hope Morgan Ward, Resident Bishop, Mississippi Area of the United Methodist Church

“These sermons recapitulate the nature of mainline preaching in the twentieth century and ponder aloud the place of Christian faith in a major ‘secular’ university founded in part out of a strong Protestant faith.”—David L. Bartlett, author of What’s Good about This News? Preaching from the Gospels and Galatians

“This book will be invaluable not only for people who love good preaching or who teach preaching, but for anyone wanting better to understand the last seventy years of Christianity. Each of the sermons is introduced by wonderfully witty and insightful remarks by Reverend Willimon. These alone are worth the price of the book.”—Stanley Hauerwas, author of The Hauerwas Reader

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Duke University Press Books
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New Edition
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7.10(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.16(d)

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Sermons from Duke Chapel


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3483-5

Chapter One

The Cathedral and the Campus

Dedicatory Sermon-Eight-thirty in the evening June 2, 1935


The theme to which I wish to invite your attention tonight is "the Cathedral and the Campus," and the text is in the Book of Proverbs, the ninth chapter and the first verse, "Wisdom hath builded her house."

Does the campus of a modern university have a place for a cathedral? It depends of course upon what you mean bya cathedral. If you mean the central church of a diocese, with the throne of the bishop, then of course you cannot associate a campus and a cathedral. But the great Oxford Dictionary, which has made slaves of us all, throws, I think, a little extra light on this word cathedral. It quotes an English writer of 1643 who says: "Let England then keep the honor to be the cathedral of other nations." And this sentence is quoted in connection with a definition of the word "cathedral" as signifying "a chief center of authority and learning." In this sense surely there is a place for a cathedral upon a campus-"a center of authority and learning." In any event it is in this sense that I shall speak tonight about the cathedral on thecampus.

There is something very extraordinary about stone, about buildings. Indeed there is something very extraordinary about everything. Get a few sounds together, as Browning has said, and you will have not another sound, but a star. Get a few bits of material together and you have something of such rare and exquisite beauty, of such gracious and glowing loveliness, that it seems that it can scarcely be associated with the materials which together have somehow wrought this strange magic of beauty, this gracious loveliness, this summoning grandeur so solidly buttressed in material things.

Now what is the cathedral on the campus? It is to be seen as a kind of glorified, solid monument of that authority and learning for which the university stands. It is the material symbol of the ideal elements which give unity to life. Personally I should want the cathedral on the campus somehow to reach out arms wide enough, if I may put it so, to give every human being who comes within its walls a home for his highest ideals. However hard we may be, however cynical, however bitter our experiences may have been, however proud we may be in our belief that we have tossed away those ideals we once possessed, there is in us some exquisite glorious thing, which cannot quite be destroyed by cynicism or covered up with mud, and when that thing speaks in our hearts, we know that just that ideal is what gives significance to life. I know how we sin against this inner ideal; I know how we toss it aside; I know how we say it is quite impractical. And yet around some strange, quiet corner of experience life does manage to give its final testimony. And so whatever our religion, or lack of religion, we confront a blazing ideal whose authenticity we cannot honestly deny. And in the name of just this ideal the cathedral is constantly speaking with a kind of imperial power.

I should like the cathedral on the campus to utter a note which would give to every person who comes into it the feeling that his own-her own-rarest mood and the cathedral belong together. Mrs. Edith Wharton describes one of her heroines very briefly by saying that she carried about constantly a face which expressed her rarest mood. The thought of having a countenance which perpetually expresses one's rarest mood is arresting enough. Most people know the discomfort of faces which suggest anything but their rarest mood. Did you ever think what it means to have on the campus a building which captures the rarest, the most radiant mood of the university and gives it permanent expression in stone? Did you ever think what it means to have a building which is all the while telling you of the poetry of the dreamers who hoped great things for the university-the ideals of those who were not caught in the clutches of a mechanistic interpretation of life, but believed in truth and goodness and beauty as the goal of the human adventure?

Surely you need to keep in your heart the perpetual challenge of the university's rarest mood. If you recall the history of the greatest universities in the world you will see this matter in clear perspective. The ancient city of learning which is Oxford University has had a checkered history. Since the twelfth-century gathering of students it has known golden centuries and centuries which were not golden. But the golden times have defined the university. Cambridge University has not always been dominated by Platonists, but the Cambridge Platonists give the true note of the university. In all the vicissitudes of human understanding it is good to have on the campus a building which says: "This sort of rare and radiant beauty was in the minds and was splendid in the thought of those who made this university." What those founders really wanted was to be contributing to that subtle something, which is not in the body, which is not hard and sordid and selfish, but which reaches out friendly arms to all the world, and which comes to the world with eyes on fire with golden expectation, with a heart warm with belief in the great things you may do with life.

Indeed, unless this is true, why have a university? Unless there are ideals which give unity to life, why have such a place as this? Whatever a man's views of thousands of disputed things this should be the first great experience in the university's cathedral. A man should be brought out of his ordinary hard complacency and as he feels the exquisite meanings of life, which are expressed in the great building, he should hear a voice which is saying: "What you have for a moment in your own heart now I am keeping here for you all of the time."

I have a photograph or two in my home-I will not say of very beautiful people-but each photograph captures a kind of splendor of something more than physical, something lofty which is possessed by these friends of mine. Once in a while I take out these photographs. And as I look at them I recall the things these great and good friends are expecting of me. That is what this building is saying. Choir, transept, nave-all are saying to every student, "Duke University expects you to build your life into forms of nobility and beauty. Do not dare to base your thought of life on a lower standard. Do not dare to conceive of your life on a lower level." And all that this glorious building is saying really has to do with that invisible cathedral which the human spirit builds and of which the cathedral stone is a symbol.

In the next place, the cathedral on the campus ought to be the expression of real values, a material symbol of the values which give significance to human experience. As a matter of fact knowledge is a terrible thing. Intellectual power is a terrible thing. For knowledge may be made the instrument of evil purposes, and intellectual power may give strength to dark and sordid enterprises. Socrates, you will remember, had two pupils, Plato and Alcibiades, almost equal in intellectual power. Sometimes I think that Alcibiades was diabolically clever. You may have heard the story of the day when as a young man Alcibiades was talking with Pericles, then the most powerful man in Athens. The younger man with expansive assurance was telling the older how Athens ought to be governed. For a while Pericles listened with a twinkle in his eye. Then, becoming rather tired of the self-confidence of Alcibiades, he said with obvious irony: "When I was your age, Alcibiades, I used to talk just as you are talking now." Without a moment's hesitation Alcibiades replied, "Oh, Pericles, how I should like to have known you when you were at your best!" Whatever a clever mind could do for a man was done for Alcibiades. Plato took the training of Socrates and gave a soul to Athens. Alcibiades, the product of the same training, betrayed Athens and for all his intelligence proved a knave and a fool. Knowledge may be misused. Knowledge may become the very instrument for wounding civilization, for stabbing friendship, for assassinating virtue, for breaking down every noble and splendid thing in the world. So this is the problem of the university-the saving of knowledge from prostitution to evil purposes. It is a good old word, that word "salvation," and knowledge needs salvation badly enough. How is knowledge to be saved? We must have on every campus a building reminding us of those values, loyalty to which will bind all knowledge to noble purposes in life, and will make us safe in the possession of those vast powers of control over nature which modern discoveries have brought within our reach. Values! Values! There is not a kidnapping which tears our heart, there is not the explosion of a machine gun on our pagan city streets, which does not represent the tragedy of technical knowledge unrelated to permanent values. And the university which knows only the realm of knowledge and does not know the realm of values is doomed. There must be one spot where the mighty miracle is wrought by which knowledge is turned to a sense of values, and values direct us in our use of knowledge-the values which give significance to life. This the cathedral on the campus is all the while doing. It reminds us by every subtle quality of its pointed arches; it reminds us by every support of its buttresses, it reminds us through the sense of distance and of height, of those intangible realms of value without which civilization is but a name.

The cathedral on the campus is an expression of the principle that it is the very nature of the material to wear the livery of the spiritual. As you sit in a university chapel like this one you feel the marvelous fashion in which the material may take on an almost incredibly spiritual grandeur and a grace and loveliness of rare and exquisite beauty. The principle involved is of the most far-reaching character. We are not to think of the material as belonging to a world which is antagonistic to the spiritual. We are to think of the material as in its very nature to be used by the spiritual for its own high purposes. At this point we have often gone wrong in our interpretation of life and of religion. Perhaps the Puritan tradition has had its effect here-but however that may be, somehow the fear of the beautiful, as if beauty were necessarily corrupting; somehow a fear of life in the world, as if it could not be bent to high purposes; somehow a suicidal asceticism has come like a strange poison through some of the noblest things of religion.

The material should express the spiritual. Life is not to be torn apart at this point. You are not to hate the body; you are to shoot it through with the glory of the moral and the spiritual. Everything indeed which has to do with this world is an object for the mastery of spiritual power. Of course that is what this chapel is saying every moment. You come here all alone, you sit in the nave, you look at the great heights, and somehow through the material this miracle has been wrought, and the inexpressible beauty of the spiritual life glows in your mind, becomes incandescent in your imagination, and exquisite in your thought. And this is a symbol of the fashion in which all physical experience is to come at last to spiritual meaning. How many people could have been saved from heartbreak if they had understood that.

Whenever a boy or girl takes the wrong track, that boy or that girl has most tragically lost the key to the golden chest in which the real meaning of physical experiences is to be found. The physical life is a sacrament and it is not meant to lose its connection with spiritual meanings.

In my twenty-five years in the pastorate I used to have occasion to go into homes where a tiny child had just arrived. Sometimes, knowing the parents, I would wonder a little about it all. Then I would go into the house and the baby would be introduced to me. I would look into the mother's face and I would see a transformation. How did it happen? God has a way of whispering into the hearts of the most careless girls marvelous secrets when they become mothers. You cannot go through life's characteristic experiences without feeling around many a corner that you have looked into the eyes of God. The very genius of the material is to be linked with the spiritual, to be the vehicle of the spiritual.

This is what Jesus meant when He took the bread and said, "This is my body." In one tremendous act He claimed the material as the symbol of the spiritual. If we had understood that, many things in our lives would have been different. Even our social and industrial and political life would have possessed a new spiritual quality. I never go into a great cathedral-like the Minster of York, or one of those old European cathedrals echoing with the sobs of wounded hearts in many a century, shining with the bright hopes of eager young people who lived hundreds of years ago-but I remember that it is the very genius of the material to express the spiritual.

The cathedral on the campus is to be the symbol in stone of that harmony without which life becomes "a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing." Francis Bacon spoke of the one good custom which might corrupt the world, and John Galsworthy has reminded us that small and mutually exclusive loyalties may have devastating effects. Life must be organized into the sort of harmony where individual loyalties find their place in larger loyalties and these in still larger loyalties, until all our knowledge and all our purposes unite in a noble completeness. We can turn our backs upon the thought of harmony if we will. And if we repudiate it, life will break us. We will be putting a poison into our life which, by and by, will do its desperate work.

And so we need to be reminded all the while of that dream of harmony in whose presence we are a little abashed, and in speaking of which we become oddly self-conscious. We need to be reminded of the bright crimson of the new day, of the iridescent sunset, of the strange beauty of the moonlit ocean, of the beautiful things we have seen in human faces, of the sudden revelations we have seen in wistful eyes. We need to be reminded of that harmony without which we cannot really live. Of course, it is rather like bringing coals to Newcastle to say this in the South. For this is the part of North America where there has been a fuller and firmer sense that life itself should be made a beautiful art than anywhere else in this republic. And if I may say so there are some of us in other parts of the country who are counting on you. We think of southerners as those who make living an art. We are not quite comfortable with those from the South who come north and seem to be completely absorbed in learning our commercial cunning. It is your service to the republic to keep alive something very precious and beautiful which was at the very heart of the life of the Old South. And we must all learn that what Beethoven did in his great compositions we have to do with life itself. The thing for which we really live is the achievement of harmony. So there is a noble fitness about the cathedral on the campus. It is like a stately presence which, seeing the wistful longing for harmony in our eyes, speaks to us words of high encouragement, as it says, "Do not give up that dream."


Excerpted from Sermons from Duke Chapel Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

William H. Willimon is Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. From 1984 to 2004, he was Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University. Willimon is the author of dozens of books, which together have sold more than one million copies. His book Worship as Pastoral Care was selected as one of the ten most useful books for pastors by the Academy of Parish Clergy in 1979. An international survey conducted by Baylor University in 1996 named him one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. Willimon lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

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