Friday, February 6, 2015

The Exorcism of our Economism (Brian E. Konkol)

* The following transcript is from a sermon given at Stanford Memorial Church, on the campus of Stanford University (Stanford, California), on February 1, 2015 for the Office for Religious Life. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices (which are preserved below in full) were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee (Mark 1:21-28).

To the Office of Religious Life, I thank you, for the opportunity and responsibility to speak today.

To the public worshipping community here at Stanford Memorial Church, with hopeful expectation, I thank you - in advance - for the generosity of your attention this day.

And of course, to the God that binds us together, I especially thank, for the gift of my weekend liberation from the snow and cold of Minnesota that I am enjoying this day!

And so, with honor, humility and freshly thawed-out fingers and toes, we begin. And as we do, I invite you to join me in a moment of prayer, with words inspired by the late-Franciscan Priest, Father Thomas O’Neil, former Chaplain of Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, whose ministry and memory I wish to honor on this occasion. Let us pray:

Youthful and spirited God, fill our minds with sacred curiosity and a holy devotion for learning, open our burning hearts with compassion for the liberation of all creation, shape our formative wills to do what is right and just, and bless us always with a desire to create alongside you and make all things new. This is our prayer, we trust it is your desire. Amen.

My office on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College is located sixty-four miles to the south from the Vatican City of North American merchandising, known throughout Minnesota and beyond as “The Mall of America” (not pretentious whatsoever!), but can be more accurately described as a sacred cathedral of commerce.

The Mall of America. A Holy Land of retail.

From trendy stores (...and yes, we do have trendy stores in Minnesota!), to posh and prim cafes and gargantuan amusement rides – all of which charge no sales tax of any kind. A super shopping center filled with strange resident slang of the North such as “Uff-Da”, “Don’t ya Know”, and “You-betcha”, all of which is melodically mixed with the veracious vernacular of visitors from far and wide. A massive mall with five-hundred stores covered across four miles of store front footage, all located within five million square feet of gross building area. A monstrous Mecca of the Marketplace, which receives tens of millions of visitors each year, and in doing so, generates billions of dollars in annual revenue.

All together, this so-called Minnesota “Mega-Mall” is a prosperous and popular place for a plethora of people, and it is not difficult to discern why. Because, the seductive sights, the soothing sounds and the sensational smells of such a striking sales synagogue, all seek to sink into some of the most significant yearnings of the modern day spirit. Which is why, one can argue that, the Mall of America is, for many, a religious site.

With its symbols and rituals, with its passionate pilgrims searching to fill a hole in their souls, with its high priests that build and protect their temple at all costs, and with its devout adherents paying homage to their ultimate concerns through the liturgical rhythm of purchase and sale: The Mall of America is an allegory of modern day popular religiosity. For the mega-mall represents, in many ways, the various means by which production and consumption has become our worship, because gross domestic product has become our god, and as a result, “economism” has become our most popular and prosperous religious tradition.

Economism, a term used by numerous social theorists across the generations, can indeed be considered a highly organized and deeply flourishing popular religion. As theologian John B. Cobb wrote at the turn of our current century, a commitment to the creeds of economism encourages people to believe that economic growth will directly solve any and all of the world’s most pressing problems, and ultimately, provide the resources needed to pursue any and all of our most important values. Or in other words, the dogmas of economism require that the structures and systems we set as stewards of God’s household, are all designed in such a way that our faithfulness is judged primarily on our contributions to the cultivation of gross domestic product, as if our salvation is somehow determined by the divine-like desires of the so-called invisible hand of the marketplace.

And I speak of such matters on this Sunday in Epiphany, because, similar to the ways in which the unclean spirits were confronted and cleansed in our Gospel lesson for this morning, it is important that we - as a matter of faith - name and disclaim that which seizes the spirit of our society in our day and age. And quite frankly, although the spirit of economism has become so prevalent that we often fail to perceive it, let alone confront it, as a matter of faith, when we do perceive it, we are called to confront it! Because, to appraise human value and community well-being based solely upon economic growth is an explicit and oppressive form of dehumanization, and is thus, directly in contrast to our most treasured of theological affirmations.

And therefore, similar to the 1st Chapter of Mark’s Gospel, our theological affirmations should have personal and public implications. Thus, we too - in this time and place - seek an exorcism from our economism, and therefore, a restored vision of being for all as we know it.

Yes, we do seek something new! We live at a time when an increasing number of people work at jobs they don’t like, to buy things they don’t need, all in order to impress people they can’t stand! We seek something new, because we do live in a day of systematic dehumanization, because that is what our economism does. In specifics, economism leads to what Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne called “mechanistic dehumanization”, a way in which powerful systemic processes slowly and significantly strip away the dignity of human life, and in doing so, turn us against one another – and ourselves – in a never ending fight. Which means, in turn, that such mechanistic dehumanization breeds our personal and public enslavement, for in our search to produce and consume far beyond our natural limits, we are the ones who end up being both produced and consumed. For ultimately, although it all may leave an elite few with a few more possessions, we are ultimately left possessed, by an un-economy that is un-fair, un-just, and un-sustainable, that requires us to be un-healthy, un-happy, and simply un-human.

But thanks be to God, the sun does shine on the first day of February! And in the spirit of this Season of Epiphany, the God that continues to be revealed in Jesus continues to thaw-out our spirits on this glorious day!

Because, in what can be described as life-changing amazing-grace in the context of how many tend to connect Christianity with our dominant economic culture, the biblical narrative records Jesus of Nazareth as coming into the world as anything but an economic stimulus package! As shared throughout the pages of the New Testament, Jesus was born in a barn as a homeless refugee to an unwed teenage mother amidst the stink and slop of farm animals, which would undoubtedly earn Jesus the label of “economic liability” in our current GDP-obsessed and possessed day and age.

Yet as the grace of God incarnate, Jesus amazingly humanizes the mechanistically dehumanized! He consistently challenges the “culture of having” with revolutionary “Good News of being!” And in doing so, he reveals what it means to be most fully human in the image and likeness of God, and what it therefore means to be valued participants in the peaceable and beloved Community of God: That is fair, just, and sustainable, and frees us to be healthy, happy and most fully human.

Which in turn means, the God made known here today in word and sacrament, ushers in a dramatic and prophetic repeal of how we far too often determine human value and social well-being, for we are given good news, as we are shown not only that all humans are sacred and valuable, but once again we are promised that being a community is about far more than merely what we buy from - or sell to - one another.

Which finally means, that in response to the divine acceptance we celebrate in this space, the rules of God’s household, (the oikos-nomos), should be more informed by the wisdom of the household, (the oikos-logos), for the sake of (the oikoumene), all that exists in this glorious household, so that we can be set free from the need to have, and set free for the ability to be.

And this, I believe, is what is taking place in our Gospel text for today.

In the 1st Chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus travels to Capernaum, which alone is both noteworthy and significant, as Capernaum served as a distinguished economic center in that particular social context, with its proximity to a major east-west trade route, and therefore, a political center for the empire of its time. It is no coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth was drawn to such a site, because as Erich Fromm writes, from the onset Jesus’ ministry was a protest against the “having structure” of society.

As one born into an occupied state and raised within a social system that defined him as being far outside the appreciated elite, within the very first chapter of this earliest written synoptic Gospel, Jesus intentionally and urgently travels to Capernaum, where “the structure of having” had grown to the point of being a defining characteristic of both work and worship. With full intention to reshape his audience with spiritual disobedience, Jesus travels into this 1st century “pre-modern-mega-mall” and he directly confronts that which props-up their particular culture of commodification, and as we hear in the text: All are amazed.

All are amazed! For at the very onset of his ministry, Jesus abruptly strikes the chains that enslave by exorcising the economism that he encounters. He resurrects the inherent dignity of human identity. He disobeys the economic culture of conformity. He offers a bold and holy alternative vision for what the community of God can be. And as the text reveals, all in his presence were amazed. And today, as we too are confronted with what it really means to be, we too are amazed by what it all means.

We too are amazed at what this all means, because, as he did in Capernaum years ago, Jesus defies docility this day, he cuts deep into the dominant dehumanizing declarations of our contemporary society, Jesus reaches into the systemic and structural spirits that seek to submit us and our society, and we too are set free to be: Though the faith that we are accepted, we are forgiven, and we are recipients of value and mercy regardless of who we are, regardless of what we have done, regardless of where we are going, and regardless of where we have been. And thus, our various contributions to society are a response to God’s grace, rather than our feeble and tormented attempts to earn it.

Which further means, as people with a restored vision of human value, we are given the freedom to consider “holy alternatives” to the dominant status quo of how we far too often determine our social well-being. More specifically, as Cardinal Reinhard Marx affirmed on this campus just weeks ago, because all beings are valued, and because all lives matter, regardless of what one does or does not have, instead of allowing ourselves to be judged and structured based solely on the market value of all goods produced, as a matter of faith, we should utilize indicators and systems that promote genuine community and authentic peace, by taking into account a more holistic, inclusive and affirming view of all life.

Or, to go against my (passive) Minnesota Lutheran proclivities and put this all just a bit more bluntly: The religion of Economism is ultimately an unclean spirit that seeks to possess our society. It turns our malls into cathedrals and our cathedrals into malls! And while it convulses and cries out with a loud voice whenever it is challenged, as a matter of faith, we must silence it and drive it out, for the sake of life in its fullness.

Which means, as we determine the structures and systems that guide our society, as a matter of faith, we are called to more fully take into account matters that most matter. Or in other words, because God does love the world, and because economics profoundly shapes and impacts the world, as a matter of faith, we are called to set rules that put people above profit throughout our world, and in doing so, promote the quality of life with economics that actually promote that which makes life most worth living.

And so, to close where this all began, when I fly back to Minnesota in the very near future, to a job I love alongside students I adore, on a college campus sixty-four miles to the south from the Vatican City of North American merchandising, I will be reminded that although we all should be moved to make various contributions to our society, as a matter of faith, we should resist the temptation to kneel at the altars of acquisition and assembly both in the malls and in the cathedrals. Because, as Mark’s Gospel reveals, life is ultimately about being something rather than simply having something, as we are “human beings” created in the image and likeness of God, and not “human havings” created in the image and likeness of the market.

And in order to pursue such aims, there is a holy alternative to the unclean spirit of our economic conformity. For instead of enslaving others and ourselves in the search to make more, and rather than trying to justify ourselves through the quest to consume more, we are given a holy alternative of compassion and generosity that affirms the humanity of others - and ourselves - in response to the assurance that all people are of infinite value. We are given a holy alternative that reveals the critical difference between human needs and wants, and in doing so, we are all inspired to want to embrace the crucial need of life-giving deeds that build up rather than tear down. We are given a holy alternative to affirm the life-freeing incarnational reality that we do not need valuable things in order to be valuable beings, nor do we need to produce and consume more and more goods in order for our society to be more and more affirmed as good.

And ultimately, because the Gospel shows us the “being” is greater than “having”, we are given a holy alternative by which we all may embrace the security, strength, and genuine freedom to refuse to allow our personal and public worth to be possessed by the select few, for we are ultimately possessed by, the peace that surpasses all understanding, the good news that, by God’s grace, we are always being made new.

In conclusion, please know that I thank you and I thank God for the opportunity to be with you this day. I am honored to be with you. Until the time we meet again, may God continue to bless you and keep you, and may God’s face continue to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God continue to look upon you with favor, and give you peace. Today and always. Amen.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Torture of our Hypocrisy (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners God's Politics Blog on December 17, 2014, and can be found at

Hypocrisy is woven into the founding fabric of our nation. While engaged in the systematic theft of land and structural oppression of native populations, our so-called founding fathers also proclaimed “certain unalienable Rights” as “self-evident truths”, and at the same time actively participated in the brutalities of a multinational slave trade. The moral vision articulated in the Declaration of Independence was indeed commendable, but our federal fixation with destruction and acquisition was by no means preventable. As the English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in 1776, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over hisaffrighted slaves.” Hypocrisy was - as it continues to be - the homage our vices pay to our virtues.

While hypocrisy is an inescapable reality of our human condition, the open endorsement of such hypocrisy is unjustifiable, yet we continue to find clear and present evidence of such justification. Over the past decades our U.S. State Department has condemned Iran, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and numerous others for their use of torturous techniques such as waterboarding, stress positions, forced standing and nudity, threats of harm to person and family, sleep deprivation, use of loud music, prolonged solitary confinement and the seclusion of prisoners in small spaces. However, the recently released U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detention and interrogation program revealed that the U.S. has done exactly to others what we have so adimately condemned of others. In other words, if hypocrisy is a mask, then not only does our nation seem to wear one, but our faces have clearly grown to more fully fit into it.

The consequences of our hypocrisy are both countless and dangerous. When a gap exists between principles and practice, between promise and performance, and between rhetoric and reality, then our mass lies becomes massively normalized, and in turn our society slowly bleeds to death from a
case of collective delusion. As Frederick Douglass remarked in 1852, "Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future." In spite  of the best efforts of such public prophets, we remain bound to such a torturous future, because we continue to condone what we condemn, and such widespread hypocrisy is our most serious weapon of mass self-destruction.

While moral perfection was, is, and always will be unattainable, we must continue to chase it, for in doing so we might grasp a greater taste of integrity. As a nation that frequently and forcefully calls for transparency and accountability among other countries, we must be held to the highest of all available standards, such as “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Regardless of how aggressively and repeatedly our national leaders have broken our moral compass, and no matter how much we as citizens have maintained the status-quo patterns of denial and defense, we must passionately and persistently demand the fruits of integrity - from others and ourselves - in order to effectively serve as global leaders in the advancement of justice and freedom. Contrary to those that merely want to push forward and forget the past without proper penance, the opportune time has clearly arrived for a renewed advanced moral interrogation upon the United States of America. As a nation that strives for - and often achieves - greatness, we must pause, wonder, and ponder, for not only should we be disturbed with what we have done, but even more so, we should be increasingly concerned with what we may become.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When Decemberism Crucifies Christmas (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners God's blog on November 18, 2014.

One of the dominant dogmas of the season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to contribute toward economic growth.
This is what happens when Decemberism crucifies Christmas.
One may define “Decemberism” as a state in which the value of human life is determined exclusively by our personal rates of production and consumption. We notice this condition most often, of course, in December. In other words, Decemberism is the predominant religious tradition of the so-called “holiday shopping season”, and the significance of Christmas is consistently crucified as a result. As Victor Lebow states, “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”. In striking contrast to the Christmas ramifications of God’s incarnation, to be a human of any value in our current context is closely connected with supply and demand, even if it all leads to our personal and public self-destruction.
To appraise human value based solely upon production and consumption, as Decemberism does, is an explicit form of dehumanization. In specifics, “mechanistic dehumanization” is a way in which powerful systemic processes – such as our enormously productive and consumptive economy – strip away the dignity of human life by plugging us into mass mechanisms such as Decemberism. In other words, our culture of obedience to the so-called invisible hand of the market has a direct impact upon our sense of personal value (not to mention our public health), for the desire to belong and be validated in society seems directly related to whether or not we make offerings to the gods of gross domestic product. And so, because the highest rates of selling and spending typically occur during the final months of the calendar year, and due in part to our longing for communal acceptance, the Christmas season is - in many ways - a period of mechanistic dehumanization, for economic participation seems to be the accepted price of our personal justification. To call this all an unintended consequence of Jesus’ birth may be one of the greatest understatements in all of Christian history.
In what can be described as a sad and sheer case of irony in the context of how many tend to experience the Christmas season, the biblical narrative records Jesus of Nazareth as coming into the world as anything but an economic stimulus. As shared in the New Testament, Jesus was born in a barn as a homeless refugee to an unwed teenage mother, which would undoubtedly earn him the label of “economic liability” in our current day and age. Yet as God incarnate, Jesus revealed what it means to be most fully human, as he embodied grace, mercy, and compassion for others, especially the poor and marginalized. And so, the birth of Jesus anticipated in Advent and celebrated on Christmas and beyond reveals a dramatic repeal of how we often determine human value in our contemporary economic culture, for in Jesus we are shown not only that all humans are valuable, but once again we are promised that being human is far more than what one is able to produce and consume. In contrast to our state of Decemberism, the arrival of Jesus on Earth shows that all people - regardless of their economic vitality - are of divine value, contribute to society, and are fully deserving of lifelong worth, care, and respect. As a result, the “joy to the world” we receive this Christmas is not a good or service to be produced or purchased, but a divine gift of radical affirmation and universal human worth.
While economic activity is indeed a significant characteristic of human life, the biblical Christmas narrative reveals that such activity does not define human lives, despite what our Decemberism too often declares. As a result, people of all traditions – both religious and secular – should be concerned with the ways in which such Decemberism is spreading, for not only does it all seek to crucify Christmas (and increasingly so, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and even Veterans Day), but it disregards the dignity of all who participate in its oppressive practices. In other words, Decemberism breeds enslavement - even in a so-called free country, for in our search to produce and consume beyond our natural limits, such a search ultimately owns us, and in the process we are the ones who end up being both produced and consumed. As mourned by Elile Gauvreau, “I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest, to make money they don't want, to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like.”
The time is upon us to embrace what it truly means to be human and resist the dehumanizing pressures of Decemberism that often seduce us into economic decisions that are contrary to our personal and public well-being. While it may be tempting to kneel at the altars of acquisition and assembly, in doing so we forget who we truly are, lose track of what matters most in life, and in turn crucify our collective conceptions of human value. As a result, instead of enslaving others and ourselves in the search to make more, and rather than trying to justify ourselves through the quest to consume more, perhaps the time has come to journey toward Christmas not with an outpouring of economic hyperactivity, but with acts of compassion and generosity that affirm the humanity of others in response to the assurance that all people - including ourselves - are of infinite value. Perhaps the time is upon us to recognize the critical difference between human needs and wants, and in doing so, want to embrace the crucial need of life-giving deeds that build up rather than tear down. Perhaps the time is upon us to affirm the life-freeing incarnational reality that we do not need valuable things in order to be valuable beings, nor do we need to produce more goods in order to be more affirmed as good. And ultimately, perhaps the time is finally upon us to have the security, strength, and genuine freedom to refuse the desire to always produce and consume something new, but instead live inspired though the good news of Jesus, and in doing so, always be made new.
In contrast to the common messages often announced during the so-called holiday season, a more provident proclamation of affirmation and restoration can be heard breaking through the noise. Through the birth of Jesus we are set free from the chains of our Decemberism, because the story of God’s incarnation continues, and in such liberated living we are truly being human, this season and beyond. God is with us, for us, and within us, regardless of how others often perceive us. This is the good news. A more valuable and lasting gift does not exist, and thanks be to God, this offering of grace, love, and acceptance is offered to us all, today and always, totally free of charge.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Path of Accompaniment: Presence and Presents (Brian E. Konkol)

The following is a transcript from October 12, 2014, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of a Service of Holy Communion for Family Weekend, the following sermon considers Matthew 14:13-21.

Let us pray. Help us to live, O God, with the grace of falling leaves, the serenity of old trees, and the excitement of roots that reach deep. Help us to know, O God, that living and dying are one, that life is precious, beautiful, limited, and nothing good is ever lost. Help us to see, O God, in the ways of this season, the sway of your word, and a way for ourselves. Amen.

Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome, to this day. And what a beautiful autumn day it is, in a beautiful autumn season it is!

A season when we appreciate the creativity of creation to rise above the ordinary categories of life and death. A season when the leaves are falling and the air is cold and crisp, and we feel a clearing from the skies of the heaviness of the hazes of summer. A season when we hear the dry rustle of plants and grasses, and hear a crackling from the earth that tells of the withering of life. A season when we hear a different voice within, and know that life is settling down for a well deserved slumber that foreshadows the resurrection of spring.

It is autumn in Minnesota, and more specifically, an autumn day. And what a day it is!
On the Gregorian calendar this day is October 12, 2014. On the Christian liturgical calendar this day is the 18th Sunday after Pentecost. But of course, on the Gustavus Adolphus College academic calendar, this day is the High Holy Festival Sunday of Family Weekend!

And what a beautiful Family Weekend day it is!

A day that concludes a week-end of days in which families from near and far come to campus to experience a small taste of what it is like to live and learn longer-term on the so-called hill. Which means, this is also a day that concludes a week-of-days in which first year students washed their clothes, threw away unflattering cans and bottles, bathed (with the use of water!), bribed their roommates into silence, and even cleaned their rooms, perhaps for the first time since their families dropped them off during the last weekend in August.

It is a good day!

So to all the parents, grandparents, guardians, and all who self-identify as family in the house this morning, welcome and thank you, for you have inspired the annual autumn clean-up here on the hill! Please do know that you all have been in my prayers, as I have personally asked God to ensure you do not receive too many surprises from your host student this weekend! If you have already, or if you do in the next few hours, please know that we do worship here in Christ Chapel at 10:30am every Sunday, and you are always welcome back at any time. We would love to have you.

To all the students in the house this morning who are being visited by their families, welcome, and good luck! Soon and very soon, students, you will enter in the sacred Sunday afternoon stage in which long goodbyes are the painful Minnesota-nice norm. Kyrie EliesonChriste Elieson. Nevertheless, I am thankful, students, that you and your families are here together, and I am pleased, students, to see you freshly shaved and showered, and based upon what can be heard by the Residence Life staff, it is good to know that your freshly cleaned rooms are looking fantastic! Students, you also have been in my prayers, as I have personally asked our gracious God to ensure you do not give out too many surprises to your families this weekend! And if you have, or if you do, please do know, that we do worship here in Christ Chapel at 10:30am every Sunday, and you are welcome back any time!

In the midst of it all, on this Sunday autumn morning gathered here in Christ Chapel, since spiritual content is indeed informed by our social context, the spiritual content of the next few minutes of this message will indeed be shaped by the social context of Family Weekend here at Gustavus Adolphus College, because this weekend is indeed an exciting time, but it is also a comical and even conflicted time.

It is the way it is.

This is the way it is because this season of life includes a full collection of classic life-transition induced ambivalent awkwardness for both students and families. This weekend, Family Weekend, is a microcosm of a life season in which so many of you are currently within, which includes – among other things – the holy tension of communication and control that plays itself out as students transition from childhood to adulthood and how their families try to best assist in it all.

It is a comical and conflicted time for students and families in this life season. When students move from childhood to adulthood in these college years, on the one hand, families are often trying to hold on to that child that once was, but on the other hand, families are trying to let go to allow the young adult to emerge. On the one hand, students can be heard crying for more freedom from their families, but on the other hand, they want tuition and mobile phone bills paid for by their families! On the one hand, families want to see their student grow-up, and students want to be treated as grown-ups, but on the other hand, both families and students persist in activities and beliefs that, despite the best of intentions, ensure that such growing-up is thoroughly stunted.

And what happens through it all is that, this time, this season known as the college years, is a comical and conflicted time that includes, among other things, a political negotiation process between family and student and a psychological negotiation process within family and student, because as a student grows from 1st year to graduate, there is a pushing and pulling, a hanging on and letting go, a dependency and independency, and in turn, a not-always-so-smooth transition between childhood and adulthood for the student, and a not-always-so-smooth transition away from dependee for the families, and in turn the holy, hectic, and sometimes heated experience of living into a new relationship between students and their families.

This is a season of change. Therefore, this is a season of complexity. As the autumn leaves die and fall to the ground in the hopes that something new will be reborn in the spring, this is often how it goes for families and students during the undergraduate years. Even if we are tempted to try and keep all things as they are, like wanting to tape the autumn leaves back to the trees to try and prevent winter from arriving, whether we like it or not, relationships change, and so do we. And with every change there is loss, and there is gain, there is death, and there is life, and because of it all, there is the joy and pain of always being made new.

But thankfully, our Gospel lesson for this morning helps us to navigate it all. Because, one can argue, that this comical and conflicted season of life transition is exactly what was taking place as Jesus journeyed with his disciples and sought to empower them for the time in which he would no longer be with them. As we examine how Jesus journeyed with those around him, then we – as students and families – can better learn how to live into this season of life and relational transition around us. As Jesus was able to find a middle ground between apathy and dependency, he showed the critical difference between giving a present and simply being present.

Now, in the 14th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, verses 13-21, often known as the “Feeding of the 5,000”, the text identifies one clear physical issue, and one clear spiritual issue, with the physical issue – of course – being the need to feed and the spiritual issue as the need to lead. And as the text reveals, although the physical issue was eventually resolved, the spiritual issue was left severely unsolved.

For example, after the physical needs of the crowd become known, in verse 15 the disciples try to make excuses as to why they should simply send the hungry away, and then after Jesus instructed them to provide food for the crowd in verse 17 the disciples again try to find a reason as to why they should not take responsibility. In other words, like children, the disciples floated between the “I don’t care” of apathy and the “I can’t do it” of dependency. And while it can all be seen as an epic fail on the part of the disciples, Jesus used it as a teaching moment, knowing that failure is often the best breeding ground for instruction.

So in verse 18 Jesus organizes the crowd, he takes the gifts of the crowd, and then in verse 19, Jesus blesses these gifts, and then gives the gifts of the people back to the people, and as verses 20 and 21 reveal, all ate and all were filled, about five thousand men, besides women and children.
It is a profound act. A miracle some would say. But not for the reasons that we often think.

The feeding of the 5,000 is a profound act because Jesus found a middle ground between apathy and dependency, and in doing so, Jesus modeled the practice of accompaniment for the sake of empowerment. In other words, it was a lesson in how being present is the best present one can give.
Now, a common interpretation of Matthew 14 is that the miracle of Jesus is that he somehow ordered extraterrestrial bread from the heavenly menu in order to meet the immediate physical needs of the crowd of five thousand or more, and doing so, cover-up the five-thousand or more inadequacies of the disciples. Many of us have heard the narrative interpreted in such a way, as if Jesus saw a need and met a need. But this simply is not the case, because quite frankly, that would have been a stupid miracle. Jesus providing extra-terrestrial bread from the heavenly menu in order to compensate for the maturity inadequacies of the disciples would be like family members doing homework for their students. It may fix the immediate problem, but over the long term, it is both dangerous and destructive.

Jesus realized that his role was not simply to provide free presents for the disciples, but Jesus sought to freely be present with the disciples in order to prepare the disciples to live more free. Jesus practiced what Latin American liberation theologians call “accompaniment”, from the Latin “ad cum panis”, which literally means “to go with bread”. Which is why, for Jesus, it all was not about giving hand outs, but it was about journeying together with your hands out.


To journey with others in solidarity and mutuality, not with dependency and/or superiority, but to experience life together in a way that all may live into the responsibilities they receive through the opportunities they have been given.


To let go of the relationship between giver and receiver and take hold of the covenant between communal companions.

To recognize that just because something is different does not neccesarity mean it is deficient.

To know the critical differences between relief, development, and advocacy…

To affirm that other generations are not failed attempts at being like yours…


To practice accompaniment as Jesus did is to affirm that all people in all places are unique manifestations of the Holy Spirit, created most appropriate for that particular place and that particular time. And as a result, to embody accompaniment is to resist the temptation of simply giving out presents for others, but to embrace the responsibility of being present with and for others, for the sake of others.


There is a common pedagogical proverb which tell us that: “If you give a fish that person eats for a day, but if you teach the person to fish they eat for a lifetime”. This may be the most commonly misused metaphor of all time. Because, even if you teach someone to fish, none of it matters if that person does not know how to find the pond. Jesus knew this, and that is why Jesus did not hand out bread and fish for the 5,000, but he put his hands out for the 5,000, he blessed the crowd, and they accompanied one another, and in doing so, all were fed and led – both physically and spiritually.

Jesus practiced accompaniment, and we are called to do the same. Because accompaniment takes place when we know when to give a fish, when we know when to teach to fish, and when we know we need to ensure that all people in all places have access and direction to the pond. This is what took place in Matthew 14, and this is how we are called to interact with one another, because quite frankly, that is the way of Jesus.

The promise of being present in order to empower.

Not the promise of doing our work for us…

Not the promise of sheltering us from failure…

Not the promise to giving everyone a ribbon for participation.

The promise to be Emmanuel, God with us, in the autumn of our lives, through the winter and in the springtime.

And this is the Good News. The promise that God in Jesus accompanies us, by grace through faith, in solidarity and in mutuality, so that we may be reconciled with God and each other, so that our world may be transformed from a crowd into a community, and so that we may be empowered through the Holy Spirit in order to participate in it all. So that our gifts are animated, so that our gifts and the gifts of others may be facilitated through service, and so that we all may be adequately agitated through prophetic witness for the sake of life in its absolute fullness throughout the world.

This is the Good News.

Whether we are parents, grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, guardians, and/or friends, as God in Jesus accompanies us, we accompany one another to prepare one another to live complete lives. Not to be dependant upon one another. Not to seek independence from one another. But to accompany one another for the sake of one another.

And so, to end where we began.

In this season of autumn we are reminded that life is not merely full of change, but life is change. Because, God is not simply with us in the change, but God is change. So as the leaves fall and the temperatures cool, we are reminded once again that summer is past and there is nothing we can do to bring it back. Because you cannot stop the future, you cannot rewind the past, and the only way to learn the secret of the seasons is to simply press play. And so goes the seasons of our own lives.

The transition from conception to birth.

The transition from birth to life.

The transition from childhood to adulthood.

The transition from simply being needed to simply needing to be.

Life is change because God is change.

And with every change there is both death and life, and there are few better examples than what happens in the undergraduate years between students and their families. Because with each passing day, something new emerges, and with it, something else is let go. But thanks be to God, for those who are afraid of what may emerge on the other side of change, we are reminded not only that with life comes death but that with every death comes life, and with every Good Friday comes Easter, and with every tomorrow comes the possession of new possibilities.

And so, to all the students and to all the families, as you continue to see your relationships change in the years ahead, may God help you to live with the grace of the falling leaves, the serenity of the old trees, and the excitement of roots that reach deep. May God help you to know that living and dying are one, that life is precious, beautiful, and limited, and nothing good is ever lost. And in doing so, may God help you to see in the ways of this season, the sway of the word, and a way for ourselves.

God bless you all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

A recording of this message can be found at the following link, starting at 25:10

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Thoughts for White People, from a White Person (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN) on September 5, 2014. The online version can be found at

I am white. Most of the people near my house are white. This is the way it is for most of us white people in the United States, and as we continue to be shown, the consequences are both critical and numerous.

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits all forms of housing discrimination, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that millions of instances occur each year, thus the phenomenon of residential segregation continues to be a common facet of modern-day life. To put it simply, white people tend to live by other white people, and it is the way it is by no accident. For example, segregated neighborhoods are often reinforced by the practice of racial “steering” by real-estate agents, or when landlords deceive potential tenants about the availability of housing or perhaps require conditions that are not required of white applicants. In addition, lending institutions have been shown to treat mortgage applicants differently when buying homes in nonwhite neighborhoods in comparison to their attempt to purchase in white neighborhoods. As a result of such practices, white people tend to live in a state of residential separateness, for as the most recent U.S. census data confirm, genuine racial integration is — for the most part — alarmingly rare.

In addition to the systematic housing prejudices listed above, there are also a number of personal behaviors that have led to our current state of affairs. More specifically, white people seem to prefer housing located by other white people. As a result, far too many white people are willing (and able) to pay a premium to live in predominantly white neighborhoods. Therefore, equivalent housing in white areas commands a higher rent than in others, and through the process of bidding up the costs of housing, many white neighborhoods effectively shut out people of color, because those without white skin are more often unwilling (or unable) to pay the premium price to buy entry into such white neighborhoods. As a result of such white flight and isolation, not only do we witness a rise in racial ignorance and indifference, but it also leads to increased injustice in the form of disproportionate hostility directed at people of color.

If we affirm the shared value and distribution of basic human rights among all citizens, then an implication is that every member of humankind — regardless of skin color — is supposed to share a common dignity. The result is a connection of collective humanity that is expressed through companionship in community. In other words, not only does white housing isolation lead to increased levels of homicide within all so-called communities, but it leads to the homicide of community itself, as our white cultural conception of kinship is far too constricted. As a result, we should embrace the state of being connected as companions, for in doing so we are more likely to understand than ignore, serve rather than sever, walk alongside rather than push up against, and of course, speak with instead of shoot at.

There are many white people who wish to bring an end to residential segregation. For such people there are no simple solutions, yet one can argue that some of the most important steps are remarkably straightforward. We need to share life together. Black, white, brown and every shade in between, we need to be together. We need to struggle together. We need to celebrate together. We need to learn together. We need to live together. We need to speak boldly to one another. We need to listen humbly with one another. We need to enroll children in the same schools, set appointments with the same doctors, walk in the same parks, shop in the same aisles, serve in the same police forces, reside in the same streets and sit next to each other in the same places of worship. We need to be human beings together, because it is only together that we can truly be human. For in belonging to each other in such ways, we are more likely to expand our narrow notions of community, put aside the labels of “us” and “them” and instead see others — and ourselves — as we all truly are.

If we that are white people are open and honest with ourselves, we would recognize that many of us simply do not know many people with a different color of skin. In addition, we would admit that many of us are afraid, which is why many of us direct violence — directly and indirectly — toward people of color. We need to be real about these realities, and we need to take responsibility for what it means to be white people in the United States. This is not about guilt and shame, but it is about truth and reconciliation. We can move past so-called racial tolerance, go beyond our segregated residential comfort zones, and actively seek out cross-cultural and cross-class interactions, relationships and, most important, communities. As we learn to be accompanied by others across various lines, we will surely lose much of the power and privilege we have come to know over the past hundreds of years, but such loss is necessary for us all to gain what it truly means to be free. We as white people need to allow ourselves to be moved into something new, so our isolation and fear can be transformed, we may have “we” redefined, and we all can be fully restored into what the human community is supposed to be.