Repairs in Duke Chapel inspire new dean's sermon

jmurawski@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2012 

— Duke University Chapel’s newly-hired superstar preacher Luke Powery found inspiration for his Sunday sermon in an errant limestone tile, about the size of a pancake, that dropped dove-like from the chapel’s vaulted ceiling and closed down the 77-year-old Gothic cathedral for a safety inspection.

For only his second sermon in a high-profile job, Lowery had to make do by adapting his oratorical gifts to the serviceable stage of Page Auditorium. His world-class 100-member choir and orchestra, which bestow a sense of holiday pageantry to every service, settled for a pair of electronic keyboards instead of the usual booming pipe organs that reverberate through Duke Chapel’s 6,700 tubular stacks.

Powery’s theme: "Small Blessings."

"We should not underestimate the power of something just because it is small," Powery intoned from a portable pulpit, framed by two simple candles. "Think about it: One little piece of stone falls from the roof of Duke Chapel and look at what happens: We’re worshiping in Page Auditorium. And all of the pews of the chapel are removed."

Powery, Duke Chapel’s first African-American dean, grew up in a Holiness-Pentecostal church and rose to graduate from the universities of Stanford and Princeton, serving ecumenical appointments in Switzerland and Canada before arriving in Durham this month.

His arrival to Duke Chapel had been something of a sensation, a black preacher leading a nondenominational Southern congregation in an austere cathedral-like setting. The 38-year-old music student, theologian and author of two books describes his dynamic preaching style as "bringing together high church folks, low church folks and no church folks."

Powery’s chariot is capable of swinging low and soaring high, his sermons qualifying performances unto themselves, spanning the humble and the sublime.

Powery’s sermon included erudite references to linguistic terrorism, intellectual interpenetration, a dialogical dance, and the ethics of antiphony between silence and speech.

But he also spoke of his 10-year-old niece, who died from a rare auto-immune disorder that gradually sapped her energy as she continued to fill her diary with prayers for others.

"Her IV needles were her nails, her hospital bed her cross," Powery said.

The Duke Chapel congregation became a movable tabernacle Sunday, originally planning to worship on the greensward adjacent to the chapel, but at the last minute forced indoors by rain to conduct services in the auditorium

Only about 500 people turned out for Powery’s sermon, about half the typical Sunday audience at Duke Chapel. Church officials attributed the low numbers to the wet weather and ongoing renovations at Duke Chapel, which for many provides sanctuary and refuge that is inseparable from the worship service. The chapel’s 118 pews have been removed to make room for a lift bucket to elevate inspectors to the top of the vaulted ceiling.

Robin Arcus, a Duke Chapel member for about a decade, said God can be worshiped anywhere, but some settings are more conducive than others.

"That’s what sanctuary is — something that is set apart from the ordinary," said Arcus, whose husband David is one of Duke Chapel’s two organists.

Powery concluded his sermon on an inspirational note, setting aside his scholarly persona and its esoteric lexicon and urging congregants to put small blessings into practice, to become the falling tiles that necessitate an inner cleansing.

"Sharing a meal with someone yearning for friendship," Powery began.

"Saying ’good morning’ to someone to acknowledge their humanity, rather than just walking by," he continued.

"Sending a small note of encouragement to someone struggling with depression may actually alter the course of someone’s life.

"Wow. Something small can really be a big blessing."

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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