Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Why, Gustavus? Why?" (Brian E. Konkol)

* The following text is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on March 14, 2017. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

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“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Why Gustavus.

Hashtag.

For some #whygustavus might not mean much of anything. However, for those of us that navigate the complexities and perplexities of modern day social media, the “Why Gustavus” hashtag has become both famous and infamous. Ranging from stunning Sunday morning sunsets to stunning Saturday night secrets (yes, students, please remember that what you share is public!), people from far and wide post online about the amazing beauties and absurdities associated with the Gustavus community. Hashtag Why Gustavus (#whygustavus) is a social media gift that keeps on giving, not only because you never quite know what you are going to get, but at its core is a question that, in many ways, defines the totality of the Gustavus educational experience. The question of, “Why?”

A core question that guides and grounds our collective educational endeavor. Three letters, one syllable, but countless important pathways: W.H.Y. Why.

The question of WHY is one of the most succinct of all inquiries at our linguistic disposal, yet WHY remains one of the most underutilized of questions in our popular public discourse. This is unfortunate, because it is good to ask WHY, not only while enrolled or employed at a liberal arts college, but it is good to consider WHY throughout the totality of a purposeful life.

More specifically, as we reflect upon WHY we are all here today, on this particular campus, we first recognize that when it comes to choosing, attending, and (hopefully!) graduating from a college, we do often consider other questions, such as: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and HOW. We wonder WHO is going to fill the next incoming class, we wonder WHAT one might study while here, we ponder WHERE it all might lead, and of course, we do wonder about HOW it is all going to be paid for! Yes, we do ask WHO, WHAT, WHERE, AND HOW, but in the midst of it all we must consistently and vigorously ask the most important question of all, the question of “WHY”?

Why. Comma. Gustavus. Question mark.

Why?

And so, in light of the Scripture reading this morning from Matthew’s Gospel, we wonder WHY.

Why Gustavus? Why college? Why care about anything at all? Why?

In the 22nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is given a number of riddle-like questions by those seeking to trap him in a theological and political knot. First, the Pharisees ask Jesus about WHO should pay taxes to the emperor, and then the Sadducees arrive to inquire about HOW one should respond to a the plight of a widow. And finally, the Pharisees return to ask WHAT commandment is the greatest. To review: First, Jesus receives a question of WHO. Then, a question of HOW. And finally, a question of WHAT. But instead of falling into the “WHO, HOW, WHAT” trap, Jesus offers an answer that points to WHY.

Jesus is approached with defensive-thinking questions yet responds with a critically-thinking answer, and says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” And flowing from this brief yet bold response, we are pushed past our own “WHO, HOW, and WHAT” traps and are pointed toward WHY we are here at Gustavus Adolphus College: To live and lead in the midst of paradox and ambiguity, to be equipped for vocation, in service to the common good.

For liberal arts higher education in the Lutheran tradition seeking to act on the great challenges of our time, our strong commitment to living and leading in the midst of paradox and ambiguity in service to the common good is a collective and inclusive vocation that derives from Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is an all-encompassing social ethic that continues to reach out across boundaries in order to inspire reconciliation, transformation and empowerment to this day. Of course, this “great commandment” of Jesus is by no means exclusive to Lutheran colleges, but it is authentic to Lutheran colleges, thus as people who participate as partners in this particular college community, it is such roots that provide us with such a reach. When we are at our collective best, we recognize that it is because of these roots that we might dare to widen our reach.

So what does this all mean? For us, here and today, what does this mean? At this point in the semester when many are feeling fatigued and overwhelmed, is is worthwhile to remember our WHY. We must remember our WHY. It is our heart. It is what everything flows through. In doing so we remember that although WHAT is about results and HOW is about the process, WHY is ultimately about the purpose. And people without purpose are blind to their possibility. So before one can develop the discipline of HOW or even the consistently of WHAT, one must seek the clarity of WHY. And I would argue that our call to love our neighbor as ourselves provides all people of good will, regardless of religious or philosophical belief, an idea about WHY we are all here in the first place.

Why, Gustavus?

Why do we exist?

Why are we who we say we are?

Why do we do what we do? 

Perhaps, as we gather in Christ Chapel at the heart of this campus, we are shown once again that it is about learning to live and lead in the midst of paradox and ambiguity, through a vocational commitment to serving the common good.

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 and cynicism, we are reminded that our institution may be private and our learning may be personal, but our purpose is most certainly public. How can it not? Because regardless of WHO you are, and regardless of WHERE you come from, and regardless of HOW you got here, and regardless of WHAT you seek to study while here, we are reminded that a WHO, WHAT, and WHERE without a WHY will ultimately lead to wandering in the wilderness. And for such reasons, a college degree from this place is less about being a stepping stone to an entry-level job, but more about being a launching pad to an exceptional life.

And so, to conclude, there is no shortage of great challenges in our time. No shortage at all. 2017 seems to have launched a new age of new threats to the fullness of life. We seem to now be experiencing a coalescing of ideological forces of hatred, sexism, xenophobia, indecency and anti-democratic movements that are throwing overboard the values of decency, pluralism, truth-telling, compassion and simple common sense. And the result of it all is that we now seem to be dwelling in a toxic brew of isolation, ignorance, indifference, and injustice. In our time, extremism and relativism are displacing voices of reason, to the point that, now in the year 2017, even the act of thinking must be considered a revolutionary act.

There is no shortage of challenges in our time. However, before we might seek to clarify WHAT those challenges are, and before we consider HOW to act upon them, or before we even discern WHERE the challenges are and WHO is even up to the task, perhaps, the first, last, and enduring question, is to consider WHY we might dare to care about any of it at all.

Why, Gustavus?

Why?

Why do we exist?

Why are we who we say we are?

Why do we do what we do?

Yes, Gustavus equips students to lead purposeful lives and to act on the great challenges of our time through an innovated liberal arts education of recognized excellence.

But, why, Gustavus? Why?

Hashtag.

Amen.

Friday, February 10, 2017

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

This article was first published on the Huffington Post, 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.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Jesus was a Refugee. Jesus is a Refugee (Brian E. Konkol)

* The following text is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on February 7, 2017. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

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When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV).

The Spring Semester has begun, this is Day Two, January is now behind us, and the twelve days of Christmas are long past.

However, while most Christmas decorations are down, the deeper meanings of Christmas remain to this moment, as the wider implications of the incarnation most sure persist.

During the Christmas Season, the 1st Chapter of John’s Gospel reminded us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The World became flesh, and dwelt among us, as a child. And during this Season of Epiphany and beyond, we are reminded that it was not just any child born in Bethlehem, but it was a particular child. It was a particular child born at a particular time and in a particular place. For when Jesus arrived, this Son of God did so as a vulnerable infant who must spend his first vulnerable days being cared for by two vulnerable parents, struggling within a vulnerable situation. Jesus begins his life not in a home or a hospital or even a discount hotel, but as the 2nd Chapter of Luke’s Gospel reminds us, God breaks into the realities of our world through the broken harsh reality of an improvised – and impoverished – makeshift shelter, for there was no room for him at the inn.

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, as an outsider, an unknown, and as a social outcast.

As the 2nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel reveals to us, Jesus arrives into the world as part of a family who must quickly flee their familiar land. They must flee because they are threatened by a crusade of terror ordered by the sinister King Herod. And because of this vile and imperial tyrant, Jesus is left transported into a foreign land, through the desperate and difficult migration into Egypt.

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, as a refugee.

As one who was forced to leave his familiar surroundings in order to escape extreme persecution at the hands of a disturbing demagogue, Jesus was – by definition – a refugee. Jesus was both divine and undocumented, and such status should capture our collective attention, especially in times such as ours.

As we review the overarching narrative of the Bible, we recognize that Jesus’ refugee status was no minor detail, and thus no inconsequential side-note in our pursuit of theological understanding. On the contrary, Jesus’ immigrant identity is the opening note in the existential song that would become his life and his ministry. And at the same time, Jesus’ migratory character is a clear echo of the larger scriptural symphony that begins in the Book of Genesis. For that young refugee named Jesus grows into a respected teacher, well acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures, with its often-repeated refrain to welcome the foreigner, such as today’s preaching text from Leviticus:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV).

As a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus would have known such a text, as well as countless other migration stories. Jesus would have known about Adam and Eve, who were expelled from Eden, their homeland. He would have read about Noah and family, who were adrift without a destination. He would have heard about Sarah and Abraham, who were mandated to migrate. And of course, he would have known about the ways in which God’s people wandered for years through their collective exodus out of slavery and through their journey to the promised land. In total, Jesus himself was immersed in a sacred Hebrew text that repeatedly told migration stories and consistently called upon the people of God to promote hospitality and concern for the strangers in their land.

And so, because he was immersed in stories about migration, and because his own story was one of migration, it should be no surprise that Jesus spoke over and over and over again about hospitality to foreigners. Furthermore, it should be no surprise whatsoever, that according to the Gospel of Matthew, in Chapter 25, following three years of walking, talking, teaching, and healing, when Jesus concludes his ministry with one final lesson, he uses such precious moments to offer a message that puts the premium on whether or not we serve the so-called “the least of these” by “feeding the hungry,” “clothing the naked,” and welcoming the stranger in our midst.

As he journeyed toward the cross, it is as if Jesus wanted to share once more, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, as a refugee. So if you’re looking to dwell along God, you’ll find God among the most vulnerable, you’ll find God among the most marginalized, and you’ll find God among the most exploited and the most ignored.” Or, in other words, “If you’re looking for the face of God in our world, you’ll most likely find it on the OTHER side of the border walls we so often seek to build.”

And so, for people who identity as followers of Jesus in the here and now, we recognize that not only was he a refugee 2,000 years ago — but, Jesus is a refugee, today. 

Jesus was, and is, a refugee, because we see the face of God most clearly in the faces of those whose lives most resemble the life of Christ in our day and age. We see Jesus is the undocumented divine. The holy families of our time. Those seeking safety. Those seeking shelter. Those seeking care. The Word of God made flesh is present in each and every person who begins that long trek away from the economic, political, and social unrest of their homes. Jesus is present alongside each and every pregnant mother who defies the odds of physical and emotional dehydration. Jesus is present alongside each and every child that is more than ready to delight in a better future. And Jesus is most fully present alongside each and every tireless officer, case manager, and beloved volunteer who greets the stranger with open arms and compassionate hearts, as if they were meeting the Risen Christ himself.

So what does this mean? So how do we, today, here and now at Gustavus Adolphus College, as members of a college community founded by immigrants, go and do that which Christ calls us? How do we practice the radical hospitality so often cited in Scripture? How do we restore communities by resisting exclusion to name and claim diversity, equity, and embrace? How do we follow the path of Jesus by accompanying those whom Jesus would walk with today?

Perhaps the best insight to which we could do in the here and now, comes to us by returning to where we began, with the Christmas story itself.

In the 2nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when King Herod learns that a threat to his power was born in Bethlehem, he subsequently orders all male infants under the age of two in and around the area to be killed. This is, of course, a segment of the Christmas story that we so often seek to suppress while cozy and content with our gifts around the Christmas tree. Yet, what we should not suppress, is the lesson we learn from the so-called “Wise Men” of the story, those whose wisdom is made most known by defying the power-obsessed earthly authority of their day, an authority that has completely lost his mind.

In Chapter 2, verse 7, the “Wise Men” are confronted by King Herod, whom scripture characterizes as a narcissistic, insecure, lying, power-hungry, socio-path. And when this plutocratic manipulator learned that a threat to his power was born, he seeks to protect his power at all costs. But of course, when Herod tries to enlist the cooperation of the Wise Men in trying to detain and destroy Jesus, the wise men resist. And because of such prophetic resistance infused with holy wisdom, Jesus is allowed to live.

Scripture tells us that these “Wise Men” visited Jesus after his birth and bore gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet their greatest gifts were offered when they exercised wisdom and bore their own faith at the feet of Christ. For instead of uncritically obeying the horrific order bestowed upon them by the insecure and insidious King, the wise men wisely followed the light of God. And in following the light, they resisted the darkness, and Jesus lived.

The Word became flesh and continues to dwell among us.

May we follow the light and resist the darkness.

So Jesus might continue to live.
So we might continue to live.

Amen.

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NOTE: This sermon utilizes thoughts expressed by the leaders of Christian Theological Seminary (Indianapolis, IN), “Statement Condemning the Immigration Ban” http://www.cts.edu/about-cts/statement-condemning-the-immigration-ban.aspx

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Protest of Protestants is Justified (Brian E. Konkol)

This article was first published on the Huffington Post on February 2, 2017, and can be found at the following link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brian-e-konkol/the-protest-of-protestant_b_14577018.html

Nearly five-hundred years after Martin Luther awakened Protestantism with ninety-five theses, once again some are seeking to justify an influential truth: to be Protestant is to protest.

The resistance of injustice as a response to God’s “justification by grace through faith” sparked the Protestant movement in 1517, and such a commitment to protest continued to function as a foundational and prominent organizational tactic. For example, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 - essentially an imperial parliament - the established order sought to reduce conflict by suspending the 1521 Edict of Worms, which had declared Luther as a heretic and banned his writings. Many Lutherans interpreted the 1526 decree as a victory, but after the Emperor annulled the Diet’s decision of 1526, in 1529 a group of princes and representatives refused to accept the imperial revocation. Those allied with the new resistance movement, refusing to be bound by worldly authorities, became known as “Protestants”.

When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a “supreme power” that is destroying “true religion”, may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience. Altogether, while also filled with its own errors and abuses, Protestantism has served an important and positive social function for hundreds of years, both religiously and politically, by advocating for systems and structures that resist various manifestations of tyranny and promote diverse expressions of freedom.

There are currently about 150 million Protestants in the United States. These children of the Reformation possess the capacity to spark massive and life-giving social change if properly united and organized. While there are clear (and oftentimes conflicting) variations in theological and political belief (as was proven in our recent general election), that which does bind Protestants together is a common heritage of responding to God’s grace with mass protest against injustice. This commitment to personal and public renewal is meant to benefit all people of good will, regardless of religious and political identity. So the question becomes: When existing authorities seek to reduce ethical constraints, misappropriate funds for personal gain, legitimize lies, and establish forms of hierarchical rule that exploit and conquer through dishonorable policies, will Protestants honor their heritage and serve their prophetic vocation in society? Five-hundred years after Luther bravely protested as an expression of faith, will the caretakers of his legacy now allow a world order that is defined by division and manipulation? Will Protestants be seduced by the most deceitful and dominant of our day and age, or instead resolve to “bring good news to the poor...proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”?


In religion, politics, education, economics, and countless other facets of life, the mass protests of 1517 had a dramatic impact upon the past 500 years. This is most certainly true. Whether or not Protestants accept the responsibility of resistance in 2017 may come to define the next 500 years. For those of us who still dare to identify as Protestant, we take comfort in the belief that God will love and forgive us regardless of what we do. However, for those of us Protestants who also still dare to call ourselves citizens, we are challenged to know that history may not be so gracious.