Friday, October 14, 2016

Manners Matter: A Sermon on Gratitude in a Season of Incivility (Brian E. Konkol)

The following text, published with The Huffington Post on October 14, 2016, is s taken from a sermon given in Christ Chapel on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) on October 9, 2016. As a part of Family Weekend celebrations, the worship service included musical selections from: The Adolphus Jazz Ensemble, Gustavus Wind Symphony, Lucia Singers, Christ Chapel Brass, Christ Chapel Ringers, and Choir of Christ Chapel. This sermon utilizes the work of Dr. David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, who wrote “Second Blessing”. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

Mind your manners.

Keep your elbows off the table. Don’t play with your food.
And please, don’t chew with your mouth open; it’s actually quite rude.

Don’t leave the fridge open. Don’t slam the car door.
Don’t throw empty cans and boxes all over the floor.

Please, don’t fight with your roommate. Don’t pull the campus cat’s tail.
Don’t read your classmates’ text or Email.

Don’t pester your professors. Don’t stick out your tongue.
And, whatever you do… Please, Please, Please… Don’t do what your parents did,
when they were so young!

Don't point and don’t yell when the music is playing. Do what you know you should do.
Write kind notes. Forgive others.
And of course, do not forget to say please and thank you.

Mind your manners. An admittedly amateur poem. Nevertheless, one that could be printed and pasted upside down on the shirt of each and every student here at Gustavus Adolphus College, so one can always look down and read it, over and over and over again! Why? So that all can be mindful of their manners. Why? Because, manners do matter.

Manners do matter. Whether its children spending the night at a friend’s house, or emerging adults being dropped off for college, or perhaps even young professionals in preparation for an important job interview, we tell those we care about to mind their manners. Because, those who care about us have told us to mind our manners. Because, manners – across the span of time – do most certainly matter. This is the case now. And yes, this was the case 2,000 years ago, even for Ten Lepers seeking to be healed by the Son of God, a narrative we heard about just a few moments ago.

In our lesson for this morning, from the 17th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a group of ten people. These ten are lepers. They are socially marginalized and branded as public outcasts. The ten approach Jesus with a passionate plea for healing, and in response, Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the local priest, promising by implication that the ten will be made well. And, indeed, as the ten travel they are made well, collectively cleansed of their debilitating infirmity. It is, quite frankly, quite awesome.

The narrative could have ended in that moment, However, it continues, and in verse 15, when one of the ten notices what has happened, he is mindful of his manners, and he turns back to express the particular manner of gratitude, falling at Jesus’ feet, to give thanks for all that he has wonderfully received.

At this point there are a few important notes to make. First, the other nine who did not return to give thanks are by no means the villains of this story. For those of us in the room who have never before been lepers (and I am assuming that this is most of us here today), I think it is safe to say that we should cut the nine lepers a bit of slack. They’ve earned it. Considering how difficult their situation had been, and considering how exciting it must have been to receive such a new lease on life, and considering how excited we get at that which is by no means even close in comparison, we should resist the temptation to make the nine who did not return to Jesus the label of ungrateful scoundrels. If we do, we are missing the point. Besides, the nine actually did exactly as they were told, and presumably also enjoyed the blessing of Jesus’ healing.

However, it is worth noting that the one who did turn back, the one who was mindful of a particular manner, which we might call the “manner of gratitude”, not only did this one see that he was healed, but he was – in many ways – blessed a second time, as if he had received the blessing once again. This is an important point. Not only was the one made well like the other nine, but in going back and giving thanks he was blessed once more, as in verse 17 Jesus invites the man to rise and go on his way, declaring that his faith has made him not only physically well, but fully and entirely whole. So what this means is that, not only did the one receive the blessing of healing, as did the other nine, but in recognizing his blessing and giving thanks for it – he received the gift of wholeness and even a taste of life in its glorious fullness. And this, for us, is an example of how and why being mindful of our manners does indeed matter.

Because, when manners matter, not only are we blessed, but we recognize our blessings, and in giving thanks, we in turn receive and share the all-encompassing gift of wholeness. In other words, the love of God will shine down regardless, as that is what amazing grace is all about! However, in being mindful of our manners, and in particular – being mindful of the manner of gratitude, in giving thanks for what one has received it is like receiving the gift all over again, so that it can be shared. Which again, is one of the many reasons why, manners matter.

Manners do matter, which is worth noting, especially on days such as today. Because, we seem to be living in a time when more or more people are of the belief that manners simply do not matter. Whether it’s giving thanks for what we have received, or countless other examples of when we have opportunities to give for others, we are living at a time in which being mindful of manners and being committed to so-called political correctness is viewed as an annoying sign of weakness, and all too often we are told that harsh and brash bombastic blustering, without concern for anyone else, is some sort of badge of bravery. We are living at a time when a disturbing number of people argue that it is perfectly acceptable to be unapologetically rude, just as long as being rude is speaking one’s mind, whatever that even means.

Instead of giving thanks for the countless gifts that we receive each and every day by seeking to share such giftedness with others, we are now being told that it is perfectly acceptable not to care about anyone or anything else. We are told it is fine to destroy the planet. We are told that it’s OK to insult veterans, trivialize truth telling, and threaten the freedom of the media. We are told that it’s fine to mock the differently abled, encourage espionage, and celebrate violence. We are told that it is justifiable to dehumanize immigrants, criminalize Muslims, put profit before people, and insists that black lives don’t matter.

And, in the past 48 hours, my God.

We have been told that it’s OK to denigrate women, and we have been told that sexual harassment and assault is acceptable if you’re famous. And not only that, but we have recently been told that a lifetime of grotesque and unapologetic sexism, and the ongoing and unabashed endorsement or rape culture, is somehow suitable if you’re running for president. As a parent and husband, and as a follower of Jesus Christ, it makes me want to vomit. As of late, we have been told that it is perfectly OK to not strive to be a decent human being, just as long as you are trying your best to get what you want.

We have been told that manners do not matter.

So the question is: How did we get to this point? How did we get here?

One can persuasively argue that being mindful of one’s manners and embracing so-called political correctness has become the complaint of choice for those who simply do not like diversity and equity in our global human family and Earth Community. For men who fear their power is being taken over by women, for white people who fear their racial privilege is slipping away, and even for Christians who are afraid to see their religious freedoms extend to those not committed to their particular creeds. In the midst of it all, in a diverse and inequitable human family that is as fast-changing as ours, there is indeed a debate to be had about how we should best interact with each other. And human nature being as it is, it is a difficult debate.

However, as Jesus clearly affirmed in the 17th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, being a community works best when we have respect for one another, when we choose to be civil with each other, and when we commit to being inclusive of each other, to avoid unnecessary offence, and to behave in ways that provide the totality of the human family with diverse and equitable opportunities. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus models this radical hospitality by crossing boundaries, wandering into the places and spaces he is told by some not to go, and healing people whom the world has wanted to dispose of – all for the sake of bringing life in its fullness, not only for one, but for the totality of all. Because, that is – ultimatley – why manners most matter.

Manners are about more than using the right salad fork or not slurping when finish your drink. Manners matter, because as Jesus revealed, people matter. Communities matter. Life matters. And when we consider the larger or more universal manners that matter most, how we treat others reveals whether or not we actually care about others. Because, at the heart of good manners is the good heart of a good individual seeking a good life. And a good life is only possible when we recognize that the hopes and dreams of others are intimately and intricately bound with the hopes and dreams of one-self.

Peter Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, remarked that manners are like the traffic lights for life. Manners are like the traffic lights for life. On the road, traffic lights turn a world full of diverse vehicles moving in diverse directions into an equitable system that allows everyone to get where they hope to be going. Therefore, as Forni remarked, "The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction”, or in other words "(Manners) make it so that we don't crash into one another in everyday behavior." And as is illustrated in our Gospel lesson for today, if manners are indeed the traffic lights of life, then gratitude is perhaps the most noble manner of all.

As was shown in our Gospel lesson for today, the manner of gratitude draws us out of ourselves and pours us into the great and glorious ensemble of life, and in doing so, we are set free from fear and set free for one another. This is what motivated the one to return to Jesus, because he realized he was more than a Samaritan, and he was more than a marginalized outcast. He learned to see what Jesus had already seen, that he was a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful, just simply for being. This is what the other nine missed. By not practicing the manner of gratitude, they did not see their good fortune, and did not voice their blessing, and in doing so they missed out on also being made whole.

And so, what does this all mean? For us, here? Today? It means that perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at our world once again. Is it filled with troubles? Yes. But, it is also filled with blessing? Yes, indeed. Our world is filled with families that care for each other, colleagues who work hard and work well with each other, educational institutions where teachers care about their pupils and students who are eager to live and learn. We have a form of government that is far from perfect yet strives to honor the dignity of its citizens. We have relief and advocacy agencies that seek justice, good neighbors who support one another, a community of faith where the Word of God is preached and the life of faith is nourished and the Mission of God is advanced. And of course, we have beautiful music to help us through it all. Thank God!

And so, yes, this world is full of both blessing and challenges. Today, and beyond, when we are mindful of the manner of gratitude, the blessings ultimatley multiply, and the challenges that we collectively face no longer seem so frightening or insurmountable. As the cup of God’s grace overflows, it touches the ethically thirsty spaces and spiritually dehydrated places of our world, so dearly in need of hospitality and wholeness.

And so, as the 150th Psalm reminded us moment ago, as we continue to celebrate this morning and far into the future, and as we continue to live with and for each other, today and beyond, let us be mindful of the manner of gratitude, and in doing so:

Let us praise God for all that we have received, through words and deeds. Despite all the reasons we have not to!

As the Psalmist reminds us, let us praise God in the sanctuary and and on the streets…

Let us praise God for all that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do.
Let us praise God with trumpet sound;
Let us praise God with lute and harp!

Let us praise God with tambourine and dance;
Let us praise God with strings and pipe!

Let us praise God with clanging cymbals;
Let us praise God with loud clashing cymbals!

Let us praise God!

Despite the cynicism, negativity, and apathy…
Despite the temptations, urges, and false motivations…

As the Gospel promise compels us:


Let us praise God with theatre, dance, and liturgical drama…
Let us praise God with the Adolphus Jazz Ensemble!
Let us praise God with the Gustavus Wind Symphony and delightful Lucia Singers.
Let us praise God with the Christ Chapel Brass and glorious Christ Chapel ringers.
Let us praise God with the Choir of Christ Chapel,
Today, tomorrow, in mind, body, and spirit.

And let us do so, both inside and outside of this chapel.

Despite all the reasons we might have not too, this morning and beyond, let all that breathes praise God, so that all may breathe with God.
This is our prayer. We trust it is God’s desire. Amen.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Our Religion of Economism is Bankrupt (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published with the Huffington Post on September 5, 2016, and can be found at the following link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/our-religion-of-economism_b_11865930.html?

In both religion and economics, absurd belief too often leads to atrocious action.

While the consequences of misguided belief are well-documented in the study of religion, we rarely use comparable standards to critique the religious-like faith bestowed upon our current economic system. We believe that economic “growth” is the single most important key to unlocking the sacred doors of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, the facts of the matter and narratives of the masses reveal a far different picture. As our globalized fiscal cycle is now calibrated to impose repeated tragic failures, and because it seems to legitimize inequality and destruction of the Earth as virtuous and inevitable, the time is long overdue to expose the false beliefs and oppressive impact surrounding our contemporary economic edifice.

Our present condition, often known as “neoliberal capitalism”, which rose to prominence through Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, seeks to transfer control of the global economy from public to private sector under the belief that such a transition will produce a more efficient government and improve the livelihood of all nations. Through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO), neoliberal policies are currently imposed - often without civic consent - upon much of the world, to the detriment of both people and the planet. As Naomi Klein accurately stated, “our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life”. Through massive tax cuts for the rich and methodical annihilation of trade unions, the neoliberal movement has led to massive consolidations of power and privilege, thus multinational enterprises - motivated by profit and mostly unaccountable to any electorate - use their strong financial influence to push governments into deregulation-orientated policies for the steady flow of products, currency, and factories. While such strategies have created tremendous financial wealth, the distribution of positive and negative consequences is increasingly disproportionate, and the current world population of seven billion is mostly controlled by an overlap of a few hundred billionaires.

As Jim Wallis correctly indicated, we possess an “un-Economy” that is un-fair, creates a world that is both un-stable and un-sustainable, and leaves the far majority of global citizens totally un-satisfied. Why do we continue to believe in such a damaging arrangement? The negative consequences are both ethically alarming and empirically clear, yet similar to the ways in which some people of faith are conditioned not to interrogate their longstanding religious customs, it appears that far too many citizens are forcibly encouraged not to examine the basic practices of our dominant and destructive economic structure. Furthermore, just as there is sparse awareness of alternative approaches to the organized religion of certain faith traditions, there is insufficient knowledge of diverse methods in the realm of economics. For too many of us, we simply cannot imagine another way. In the midst of it all, our collective and blind faith in the divine-like invisible hand remains strong, and we relate to it like an omnipotent deity that must be piously and repeatedly praised and pleased. As a result, one can persuasively argue that we are increasingly “Economistic”, as production and consumption has become our communal worship, because rising gross domestic product is our salvation, the market is our god, and “Economism” is now our most popular and prosperous religious practice.

Economism, a term coined by Joel Kassiola in 1990 and later used by Paul Ekins and Manfred Max-Neef in 1992, is our most organized and flourishing popular religion. As theologian John B. Cobb wrote at the turn of our current century, religion is ultimatley “whatever binds the multiple aspects of human existence together”, and faithfulness to the holy creeds of economism redefines citizens into consumers and affirms competition as the defining characteristic of all human interactions. In doing so, Economism requires people as homo economus to believe that economic growth will somehow directly solve any and all of our most pressing problems, and ultimately, provide the resources needed to pursue any and all of our most important values. The dogmas of economism require, both directly and indirectly, that the structures and systems we set are all designed in such a way that our faithfulness is judged primarily in financial terms, as if our deliverance is somehow determined by whether or not the invisible hand is worshipped and pleased. Our ultimate concern, therefore - especially in times of difficulty - becomes a narrowly and erroneously defined notion of public health and personal wellbeing, and our prayers are most zealously offered to the real god of our communal devotion: the almighty market.

During a previous time of economic transition, Victor Lebow stated that “our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption ... we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.” Is this a redeemable description of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? As is the case with other destructive beliefs and practices, in order to break free from such chains we must recognize consequences and propose alternatives. Thankfully, resistance and revolution is already happening, as more people are awakening to the knowledge that what they have been sold in recent decades is contrary to what reality can actually deliver. In addition to the popularizing of democratic socialism, we also hear more about a “sharing economy” or the “commons” and “peer production”, all in order to shape our society around innovative and life-giving metrics such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and Economic Bill of Rights. By providing such means to organize and assess our global household, together we might re-learn how to define human interactions not by what we buy or sell to and from one another, but through a collective affirmation that our lives ultimately do belong to each other.

Our religion of Economism is bankrupt, yet the spirit of our human community is overflowing with abundance, and a more liberating collective faith can point us toward a more authentic flavor or freedom. The rules which were made can also be unmade, and the ill-advised trust that supports such repressive rules can also be rejected and transformed. We are better together when we share a vision of a more benevolent and balanced economic order - based on representative planning and cooperative market mechanisms - to achieve an equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a nourishing environment, sustainable development, gender and racial equity, and non-oppressive relationships. The scales which blind us to such emancipating truths must fall off our eyes, to imagine and ignite new ways of being, and to experience the gift of life in its fullness. Since our beliefs do indeed lead to our actions, the most important step forward might be to believe that such a way is indeed possible.

The 52nd Nobel Conference, “In Search of Economic Balance”, will take place at Gustavus Adolphus College from September 27-28, 2016. For more information, including tickets and livestream viewing, see https://gustavus.edu/events/nobelconference/2016/

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Choosing a College for a Common Good (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published on the Huffington Post on August 4, 2016, and can be found at the following link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/choosing-a-college-for-a-_b_11295676.html?

Before asking “where” or even “how much will it cost”, perhaps it is most worthwhile to first consider “why” when choosing a college.

Why college? For starters, one should challenge the common assumption that campuses are mere four-year corridors to higher wages, elevated social status, and comfortable lifestyles. A reputable college degree often leads to such outcomes, yet higher education is supposed to provide something far more valuable. Since “civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe”, as H.G. Wells argued, then personal education should ultimatley lead to public transformation, thus the aim of college should be to think and act free for the sake of serving a common good.

“The common good” is why one should choose a college.

The contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone’s advantage”. This notion includes earning a fair income through meaningful employment, and also incorporates social systems, institutions, and settings that benefit the good of all people. Examples of the common good include an accessible health care system, effective and affordable education, safety and security, peace among nations of the world, a just legal and political organization, an unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing and fair economic system (which includes minimal burdens surrounding student loans and longer-term debt). As such structures, institutions, and settings have a direct impact on the wellbeing of all in society, it is no surprise that virtually everyone and everything is linked to how well these structures and institutions function. There are few vocational pursuits that fall outside the realm of the common good, thus (not coincidentally) there are few employers not interested in potential employees that are equipped to think and act in such virtuous and valuable ways.

North America is filled with excellent institutions of higher education, and selecting a college is one of the most important, exciting, and difficult decisions one will face. There are numerous factors to consider surrounding available classes, extracurricular options, campus culture, housing, possible career path, and of course, total financial cost. The context of such a decision should impact its content, and in challenging times such as ours some questions can take a higher priority than others, such as: Where will I live into my full potential by learning to engage ethical issues, build peace, act for justice, explore faith and values, develop as a leader (and discover how to develop others as leaders), be empowered for service and advocacy, grow in both knowledge and wisdom, transform conflict, honor human worth, and celebrate the diversity and unity of community? Perhaps most importantly, where is a college that will provide life-long opportunities to repeatedly live into the “why” one attended college in the first place?


Why college? At a time when our local and global communities are increasingly connected yet ideologically isolated, diverse yet distant, and filled with hope and optimism yet also panic and aggression, higher education is one of the best public and personal investments possible, as colleges remind their communities (and communities teach their colleges!) that we all belong to each other, and we need each other to become ourselves. As the African proverb reminds us, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This embrace of education for a common good honors our personal opportunities and embodies our public responsibilities, which means selecting a college is less about the professional ladders one seeks to climb, and more about the public chains one wishes to break. For such reasons, when choosing a college “where” and “how much” are indeed critically important to consider, yet “why” should be at the forefront, as one should expect far more than a stepping stone to an entry-level job, but instead yearn for a launching pad to an exceptional life.