Duke student worked long, hard on the sermon she delivered Sunday

jprice@newsobserber.comFebruary 23, 2014 

— Hannah Ward’s first – and probably last – sermon had been written. And rewritten. And rewritten again, with input from several experts in the DukeDivinity School.

She had practiced it in front of a speech professor repeatedly, and alone three times.

Now all the Duke University student, 22, had to do was deliver it. To an audience of hundreds, in one of the most imposing settings imaginable for a first sermon: Duke’s massive, cathedral-like chapel.

Oh, and her sermon was about being perfect.

Once a year the chapel honors undergraduate students by letting one deliver a “student preacher sermon” in the iconic chapel.

The honor goes to the student whose sermon, submitted without the author’s name, is chosen as the best by a panel. Any undergraduate can enter, and the sermons are judged on relevance to that Sunday’s scripture, delivery and appropriateness of subject matter for Duke Chapel.

Ward was raised by her mother, Susan, a family counselor in Asheville. She’s Lutheran now, but when she was younger she went to a lot of different churches, “the spiritual-life journey thing,” she jokes.

“I really love worship service and love services and listening to sermons, so I’ve heard quite a few,” she said.

That served her well when she decided to write one, said Charles Campbell, a professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School.

Along with Campbell, her support team included Meghan Feldmeyer, director of worship at the chapel, and Christine Parton Burkett, a visiting professor of speech at the divinity school.

So by Sunday, the text was solid and she had a sense of how she needed to deliver it.

Ward is a religion major (and psychology, too), but plans to become a doctor rather than a minister. That’s why this will probably be her only sermon, at least from a pulpit.

And she wanted to make it a good one, not just because it was such an honor, but because she is such a fan of good sermons and believes they should matter.

By Sunday morning, she had two fears left: simply not being able to perform well, and, from a spiritual standpoint, not being able to reach her audience.

“I think there are good things at the heart of my message, and my job in the sermon is to try to deliver them in a way that’s understandable, that gives people something to think about later,” she said.

Being the student preacher looks like a high-pressure, lonely honor. The pressure is real, Ward said, but it’s mainly internal. And it’s not entirely a lonely task. “It’s really the most amazing experience because you have that strong support team behind you,” she said.

At least, until it’s just you looking out at the cathedral.

The service began at 11 a.m., with Ward, in a white robe, with cross around her neck, sitting behind the choir.

After the gospel lesson came the recessional, and while the audience was focused on the cross moving down the center aisle, Ward into slipped into the pulpit with her notes and looked out at a sea of pews and seats.

Somewhere in the crowd were the friends she had invited, along with fellow members of the Undergraduate Faith Council that she helped found, and her mom, who had driven down from Asheville along with her godparents and three godsiblings.

She was somehow able to notice the beauty of the chapel, with its airy vaults, thousands of organ pipes and seemingly acres of stained glass windows with biblical scenes. An odd peace settled into her. Then it was time.

“How would you describe the perfect person?” she started.

The sermon she had worked on for so long was an exploration of perfection, both in the eyes of God and from a secular standpoint, something she felt particularly apt for life at Duke.

She started well, her tone measured and confident, and early on Ward got in her first joke:

“And I don’t know about you but my perfect dentist is someone that feels content NOT to ask me questions while my mouth is gaping open and stuffed with gauze and polish residue.”

With perfect timing, she paused and the audience filled the moment with laughter. They were with her.

Then it came. A sharp tickling in her throat, and her voice clenched. She needed to cough. She coughed.

She battled on. The coughs keep coming, but somehow her voice returned, strong and expressive, after each bout.

|“The wonderful beauty of that statue does not come when the sculptor adds a feature from his design, but rather when its true beauty is revealed by getting rid of its rough excess,” she said. “And it’s no different with us. Beneath that rough edifice we have built around ourselves, that wall we have erected.”

Her voice gave out again and a choir member handed her something.

“…We hide our true essence,” she started again. “The true essence that is dependent on cough drops to deliver a sermon.”

Then the coughs came further apart and finally stopped.

The power came back into her voice and she closed in on the ending, the chance to drive home what she wanted people to think about as they walked out, and maybe even later in the week.

Finally she was there.

“Who among you is willing to take that chisel and hammer and break away the calluses, shed the dust, relinquish the coverings?” she said. “Who is willing to love their neighbor simply because they are here? Who will lace up their shoes and go the second mile? Who will tell the truth and deliver justice and feed the hungry and clothe the poor? Not sure you have the strength right now? Don’t worry …”

In the pews, several people leaned forward as Ward paused again, the master of her timing, the master of her sermon.

“… I hear practice makes perfect.”

It was done, an imperfect sermon, but in the end a perfect one as well.

Price: 919-836-4526

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