Of locked doors and open minds, and helping make the connection

This is the as-prepared text of a sermon I delivered at Vance Memorial Presbyterian Church in Wheeling, WV on Sunday, April 12, 2015:

As you may know, the reason for my visit to Wheeling this weekend is tied to the spring meeting of the Westminster Foundation of West Virginia, an organization that was created more than 100 years ago to support campus ministry at state-supported colleges and universities in West Virginia. Pastor Chuck is one of the representatives on the Foundation board from the Northern Panhandle, and I am privileged to serve as president.

When I asked Pastor Chuck whether there might be an opportunity to lift up campus ministry here during my visit, one thing led to another, and so here I am in your pulpit.

Now one thing you should know about me is that I am part of that fast-becoming-extinct species called a “cradle Presbyterian;” I can’t imagine being anything else. I really do believe we’ve got it as close to right as humans can when it comes to “doing church.” Because I’m so Presbyterian, I’m also used to following the Revised Common Lectionary, which sets out a three-year cycle of Scriptures to be studied on Sundays. So when Chuck said, “Generally we use the lectionary readings but they may not tie in what the ministry of Westminster Foundation. Please do not feel bound to use them,” I immediately knew I’d feel at home here.

I always begin my sermon prep by heading to the lectionary. Of course the challenge comes when your assignment is to lift up something in particular. That’s when you’re in danger of seeing what you want to see in Scripture, and not what is actually there.

So how, on this second Sunday of Easter, when the locked room and Doubting Thomas is ALWAYS the assigned reading, no matter where you are in that three-year cycle, how was that going to relate to campus ministry.

Well, there’s this, John 20:29: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And, there’s this, 1 John 1:1-3: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

And, again from 1 John: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

From Acts 4:33: With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”

And finally, back to the Gospel of John, 20:21: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

So, when campus ministry is on your mind, it becomes pretty obvious – at least it did to me – that campus ministry is an important response to all those messages.

But many of you are probably of an age – as am I – that has a vision of campus ministry that is quite different from the reality of 2015.

If you’re on session, and you’re asked to support campus ministry, you may think that you should because it will mean more members for your church – in essence campus ministry as recruiter for future members. Well, maybe that’ll happen.

Or you may think that the reason you should support campus ministry is to provide an extension of your congregation on a campus somewhere, an outpost, if you will. Well, that could be an outcome.

But the real reason you should support campus ministry is the same reason you should support any ministry: there are people there who need to see and hear and feel the presence of the living Christ.

So let me tell you a bit about the programs supported by the Westminster Foundation.

We provide full-time, called and installed Presbyterian ministers to serve the campuses of Marshall and West Virginia universities. In both cases, we have enjoyed tremendous stability over the years and the individuals who have served in those roles have made a difference in the lives of the students, as well as the communities where they serve. The Rev. Dr. Shelly Barrick Parsons is our minister at WVU and the Rev. Ellen R. Dawson has just been named interim campus minister at Marshall following the 10-plus year ministry of the Rev. Dr. Dana Sutton.

At Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, we support the Connections college ministry of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, overseen by Ethel Hornbeck. And then at both Fairmont State UniversityPierpont Technical and Community College and at West Liberty University, we support the campus ministries conducted by United Methodist pastors the Rev. Maria Wiblin in Fairmont and the Rev. Debra Dague at West Liberty.

In addition, we maintain a relationship with Davis and Elkins College, but since D&E is not state-supported – but is in fact a Presbyterian school – we are just good friends.

The temptation, of course, is to judge the effectiveness of a campus ministry by the numbers of people who show up at a particular time, or perhaps the numbers who might come to an event at the nearby church.

But that, I submit, is the wrong measure. I for one, frankly, don’t care if any student who is touched by any of these ministries ever sets foot inside a Presbyterian church, or any church, for that matter – and that’s only a bit of hyperbole for emphasis’ sake.

The fact is college students need ministering to, and, if we are to heed Christ’s locked room words, we – you and me – need to show that “in [Christ], there is no darkness at all.”

So how do we do that? Let me tell you a bit about the MINISTRIES that are happening on our campuses – I think you’ll find two themes: food and fellowship. And, oh yes, one more: service.

Let me start with the one closest to us here: West Liberty’s Protestant Campus Ministry.

While student participation there has picked up – numbers do have some meaning, after all – Debra’s group has a monthly service project at Hope United Methodist Church’s Food Pantry. There is worship on Mondays, Bible study on Tuesdays, free lunch on Wednesdays and a fellowship dinner on Thursdays. Programs focus on helping the students see Christ in their everyday life, taking Christ into the world and being in “service” to the world.

West Liberty’s Protestant Campus Ministry – as do all of the ministries – works on building good relationships with other religious organizations on campus.

But even with all that activity – food and fellowship – listen to a recent report from Deb about what the ministry has been up to:

Within our board members we had a couple people that had lost loved ones. Kristi’s grandmother has passed and Sarah’s grandfather has passed. … Kristi asked that a donation be given to purchase Bibles for the Chapel. (West Liberty is unique in West Virginia as far as I know in that it is a state-supported school with a chapel on campus.) Kristi’s grandmother loved flowers and watching them grow and flourish. Giving the Word to students and watching them grow and flourish in it would be an honor to Kristi’s grandmother. Sarah has asked that we send the memorial to her grandfather’s church to purchase Bibles.           “

At Connections in Shepherdtown, there is also food of course, but spirituality is a theme of this ministry as that is one of Ethel’s strengths and fits with the community there. But there is also outreach: in February, the Connections folk took home-cooked meals, including pot roast!, prepared by church members and headed over to Charles Town where they shared the food with the homeless there.

At Fairmont, the weekly free lunch – and food pantry – draws an ever-increasing number of people. But you know what the best thing is – not that free food isn’t a good thing, especially if your diet consists of a lot of Ramen noodles? The best thing is that after the meal is finished, many of the students hang around just to talk, just to be with one another – all in an atmosphere of non-judgment, love and protection.

And the other thing about these meals: they are volunteer efforts, prepared by members of area churches who are willing to come down each week and provide this ministry to the students. It is both a display of the light that is in Christ and a testimony to the kind of caring we are all called to do.

Obviously, our largest programs are at WVU and Marshall.

Marshall is in a bit of transition with the end of Dana’s 10-year ministry. For years, the ministry has been known as PROWL, for People Reaching Out With Love. And that’s exactly what it was. The ministry is located at the Campus Christian Center – a building that is located smackdab in the middle of campus, but is owned by a collection of church groups – and has been home to a variety of campus ministries.

The Presbyterian-flavored one has become known as a welcoming place for all, whether it’s for students who come from much more conservative, even highly judgmental faith traditions, or no faith tradition at all. I personally know of many people who will tell you that until they experienced PROWL, and the Marshall ministry, they didn’t know that Christians actually could be welcoming to them or that there is a whole world of understanding about what it means to be Christian that goes beyond what they learned in their home church.

There also is a significant number of Presbyterian ministers filling pulpits around the church today who trace their call to be a minister to their days at Marshall.

The ministry in Morgantown is also changing significantly as we work with First Church-Morgantown to help the congregation realize its dream of providing a faith-based housing option to WVU students.

In the meantime, however, the Presbyterian Student Fellowship meets weekly for – guess what? – a meal and fellowship at the Campus Christian Center, an historic house owned by the Westminster Foundation on the edge of campus.

But beyond that, the students gather for various ministry projects – for example recently gathering to help prepare ceramic soup bowls for Morgantown’s hugely successful Empty Bowls fundraiser for hunger. Or they work on Habitat for Humanity projects. Or they serve periodically at First Morgantown’s weekly pancake community breakfast, which primarily serves the homeless. Or they gather with friends of other faiths to discuss their similarities – and differences.

Or they join with the Marshall students and others for a mission trip to Nicaragua or a trip to a conference at Montreat.

And, while I’m standing here in this pulpit, PSF students are back in Morgantown leading worship at First church, something they do every year. Shelly also preaches twice a year as the church works to strengthen its ties to the ministry.

One thing Shelly will also tell you about is her Facebook ministry. There are students who never come to an event, who in fact she may never see in person, but who she connects with on Facebook, and provides a “virtual” listening ear and ministry.

It’s a different world than it was even just a few years ago. Social media dominates the lives of many students, and it is a place where we have to be visible and active if we hope to be relevant.

I may have taken too long in a sermon to recount what is, in essence, just a list of things, but if a sermon is supposed to be “proclamation of the Word,” and it is, I feel OK in letting you know how the Word is being lived out and also proclaimed through campus ministry.

But there’s one more piece I want to lift up.

The Westminster Foundation recently received a $100,000, five-year grant from the Lilly Foundation to provide programs in Morgantown to help students discern how they are to live out their faith in their daily lives.

To me, this is hugely significant. Not all of us are called to be pastors, but as suggested by the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and stated outright in our application for the grant: “Our chief call is to live lives that show God to the world not only in ordained calls, but also in everyday life.”

This grant will enable Shelly, working through the PSF as well as Harless Center – a part of the faith-based housing I mentioned earlier – and First Morgantown, to provide a resource for the entire student body to consider faith and life. What does it mean to be a person of faith and to be a plumber? A banker? A lawyer? A teacher? A journalist? A clerk? A scientist? A soldier? A police officer?

I can’t think of anything that would make John Calvin happier than helping people make those connections.

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

You and I have not seen Christ, but we believe and campus ministry is one important way we can live out that belief today.

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

You and I benefit daily and eternally from that fellowship with Christ, so it is only right that we reflect it.

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

Christ calls upon us to love. There are many students on our college campuses who are struggling with their own identities, unsure of who they are, and where they are going, or who are being judged and even attacked for who they are. We are mandated to show the light of Christ to them.

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”

Food and fellowship – and service – are all testimony to the life we enjoy in Christ.

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

So we go.

To God alone be the glory, amen.

Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, college is often a time of struggle and discovery, turning away or turning to, learning or forgetting. Those years, often the first spent in new environments away from the familiar of home, can be the key to the rest of our lives and understanding our relationship to you. Please help us to find ways to show the light of Christ to all those who seek, whether they know it or not. We ask in the name of your Son, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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