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Center and Circumference

August 11, 2014

“Center and Circumference” Exodus 32:1-24; Philippians 4:8-9; Matthew 25:31-46 © 8.10.14 Higher Education/Collegiate Ministries Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the ‘90s, the band 10,000 Maniacs was fronted by singer Natalie Merchant. In one of their songs, she advised the listener: “If lust and hate are the candy/if blood and love taste so sweet/then give ‘em what they want. Hey, hey, give ‘em what they want. So their eyes are growing hazy/’cause they wanna turn it on/so their minds are soft and lazy/Well, hey, give ‘em what they want” (Drew/Merchant, “Candy Everybody Wants,” from Our Time in Eden).

“Give ‘em what they want.” In the Old Testament story, that was definitely Aaron’s leadership philosophy. Moses’ brother turns out to be the kind of person who goes along to get along, who really has no strong opinions one way or the other. He gives allegiance to whomever will pay his salary and help him meet his need for acclaim and power. He could be just as happy running a church camp or a death camp, Hopewell or Auschwitz. It matters not to him, because he never asks the ethical and moral questions. Just go with the trend, latch onto the moment, maybe baptize what you’re doing with a little God-talk. The people want a golden calf? “Hey, hey, give ‘em what they want.” And when called on the carpet for his actions, Aaron denies responsibility, distancing himself from the very people he helped to do wrong. “You know how they are,” he tells Moses later.” “They took off their gold jewelry, threw it in the fire, and wonder of wonders, out came this golden calf.” Don’t look at me. I just work here.

And then there’s Moses. Up on the mountain, he and God have been talking for forty days and forty nights about the life of the nation about to be born. Suddenly, the heavenly red alert starts blaring, and God tells Moses he better get on down to the foot of Sinai, ‘cause there’s some serious shenanigans going on. The people are worshipping the golden calf in the way their neighbors did; it was a keg party, a rave, and an orgy all rolled into one. By this time, God has had it; he’s fed up. Over in the divine armory, the lightning bolts are being readied; the fireballs are being heated up. One big blast from the mountain, and this sorry bunch of losers is history, just more sand to blend with the dunes.

Moses is angry and frustrated, too. That becomes clear later. But even when he gets boiling mad, it’s because he has so much investment in the lives of these people he was called to lead. On the mountaintop, Moses refuses to distance himself from his own, no matter what they have done or are doing. He puts himself squarely in the middle; that’s literally what it means to “intercede.” And he convinces God to relent.

The great deliverer is willing to put his own life on the line to get God to forgive Israel. He will stand with the people by standing against the culture and standing against God if he has to. And Moses will take the heat from both sides.

It seems to me that Moses and Aaron model two very different approaches to ministry in general, and campus ministry in particular. Let’s talk about individual campus ministers for a moment. I noticed during my years on campuses that some ministers could become quite popular by reinforcing common cultural assumptions in the name of Jesus. These cultural collegiate workers in subtle ways assured students and even faculty that it was really OK to give in to their prejudice and fear. In fact, it was the will of God that they be narrow-minded, exclusive, and even mean-spirited and cruel. Typically, such ministers rarely asked, much less insisted, that anyone think for himself or herself. Rather, they recommended parroting the official church line, whether it be liberal or conservative. “Hey, hey, give ‘em what they want.”

But there is another way, namely, the approach of Moses, that stays the course and refuses to bow to the pressure to be popular or to make numbers the primary goal of ministry. It will not shrink from asking the hard, big questions and challenging long-held assumptions and cultural biases. This kind of campus ministry, indeed this kind of leadership whatever the ministry, cares deeply about the long-term well-being of people, more than it is concerned for its own life. The leader, the campus minister, in this mold has an investment in the lives of people. He or she wants the gospel to shape students in creative and positive ways that will remain long after the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” have faded away and the real world concerns of finding a decent job, paying off student loans, and having and rearing kids become top priority.

Campus ministry in the manner of Moses is service at the center, between two worlds, as intercessor, intermediary, and interpreter. In that capacity, it brings generations together, helping them to understand and appreciate each other. The image here might be that of a spider’s web, with campus ministry linking the various strands. Not exact, but maybe it will do for now.

So a campus minister might one day be interpreting the needs of students to older leaders in a congregation or presbytery, trying to get some funding or even some interest. Another time he or she could be explaining the viewpoints of older generations to emerging adults, who maybe have no idea what WWII or the ‘60s were about or don’t much care. Questions from generation to generation that campus ministers field and help answer might be anything from what is it with those tattoos and piercings to why does the church spend so much energy on fighting about sexuality and money? Or maybe what do college students want anyway and how can I get my parents to understand that I don’t want to follow in their footsteps?

Campus ministry at the center also stands between church and academy. As someone (Dr. Tom Boyd) once said, it speaks a prophetic word to both, while being involved with both. With the church, campus ministry proclaims that God is not only present within the walls of a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. He is also in the pursuit of what is just, true, beautiful, and good. God is in the residence hall, the lab, the classroom; the fraternity house and the sorority rush; the library, the union, and the cafeteria, even the bar on Saturday night. God is part and parcel of the study of business or graphic design or math or engineering or veterinary medicine or law or nursing as well as music or poetry or philosophy or spirituality.

With universities, campus ministry keeps before administration and faculty the need for accountability and for reflection on the ethics of research, for example. Its presence on campus is an implicit reminder that God is the source of all wisdom and knowledge and calls us to be good stewards of those gifts. The standard question is “Just because we can do something, should we therefore do it?” But campus ministers also serve as a valuable resource to universities, helping students, faculty, and staff sort out complex questions and also working together on matters of common interest.

How might campus ministers offer such assistance? Let me share two examples. In the 1980s, Donald Shockley (the granddaddy of campus ministry) was the chaplain at Emory University. Aware that medical students were having difficulty with their feelings about dissecting human cadavers, Shockley began weekly visits to the medical lab, just to listen and watch. He found that his very presence somehow helped the students, and when he was absent, they noticed. A broadly ecumenical service was developed to end the course. In it, the students expressed the feelings they had suppressed and said a word of gratitude to those who had donated their bodies. Shockley said that his encounter with those students and their professors taught him that “the world is far more ready to receive our ministry than we are to offer it…. Our reluctance betrays an insufficient confidence in the grace of God, mysteriously present in all situations” (“In Quest of a Profound Courtesy,”

More recently, at this year’s General Assembly, Wayne Meiser, a top administrator at one of our seminaries, told about a program of Presbyterian House in Madison, WI. Together with campus minister Eric Liu, he sponsored a joint lecture on faith and service at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Civic Engagement.

“‘Out of this lecture—our work together—the university discovered how helpful it would be to have the chaplaincy office connected to its efforts for civic engagement,” Meiser said. “Liu has been able to hold conversations engaging both faith and service around youth violence—the university is now using his office as a resource for the entire campus community.’” He noted how “UKirk ministry sites and those in the network are learning how to move from service to advocacy around social justice issues important to campuses” (Paul Seebeck,

To stand with students, faculty, and staff in the midst of their lives can be a profound way to demonstrate the gracious presence of God. But if it lives in the middle, the center, campus ministry also reaches for the margins, the circumference. In fact, it is on the circumference that the true center of life lies. Because the message of the cross, the word about the Christ who gives himself to save the least and the left-out, that gospel is quite often an alien message in the culture of church and world that makes golden calves and dances before them. Campus ministry that points to the cross is very much an “eccentric” undertaking, off-center as far as the popular wisdom is concerned. Someone once termed this task “dancing on the periphery.”

But on the periphery, the margins, is where we find this Christ who is Wisdom, who is Truth, who is Beauty beyond compare, who is All in All. He is there in those he called “the least of these.” As my good friend Gerald Stephens once wrote: “I pray the church will understand that it will not meet Christ by way of prevailing in theological arguments. It will rather meet Christ when it rededicates itself to serving ‘the least.’”

Who are the “least,” the marginalized, the sidelined, on the college campus? At every school—including the W and MSU and Ole Miss and Delta State and ICC—there are marginal students. You’d be surprised who some of them are. It could be the woman or man who seems fine on the outside, but inwardly is a mass of conflicting emotions, brought on by a family or personal crisis, and they’re on the edge. Could be it’s the student whose biggest worry is about being safe, which is a huge concern in these days of gun violence and sexual assault on campuses. Or maybe the person on the margins is the first generation student, for whom college is exciting, but also bewildering and frightening. How about the non-traditional student in a class of 18-22 year olds, who in the words of one “feels older than God.” Or the young person who has had to borrow heavily to pay for a basic college education and is already worried and distracted about paying back that student loan. I could go on to mention those with emotional disorders, like Stephanie, who was in my group at the University of Montevallo; she was anxious about everything, but was trying to fit in. And then there are those who don’t want to be part of things or who for the life of them simply can’t say or do anything but something embarrassing. They get called names on Facebook and Twitter. They don’t have the right looks, cars, clothes; the right boyfriends or girlfriends, hobbies, homes or parents.

It is especially with all these, on the circumference, that Christ is present. And he invites us to join him in his care for those on the edge, the outside, in the background.

It doesn’t take much to stand with them. My first year at MSU, I heard Professor Tom Carskadon suggest 250 random acts of kindness toward students. Little things, really, that can make a big difference. As he said: “You don’t know what you don’t know about someone.” An e-mail, a chance meeting, a friendly word can turn someone from the edge, help them belong. Thad Holcombe, of the University of Kansas, once spoke about “radical hospitality” that breaks down barriers, like Jesus did. Sharon Daloz Parks, in her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams suggests offering real dialogue, mutual sharing, and an experience of common life serving with others.

The task of campus ministry is not only to stand with those at the center, but finally to call those at the center to reach for the circumference, and discover there another Center for their lives. Dr. Tom Boyd called it “the most decisive pertinence of all,” the cross of the Christ who places himself squarely in the middle and calls us to join him there until in center and circumference, the circle is complete in God’s perfect kingdom.


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