Sunday, November 25, 2012

SERMON: A Search for Self in a Season of Stuff (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio and a written transcript for "A Search for Self in a Season of Stuff", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on November 18, 2012.

With Mark 13:1-8 as the central preaching text, this message focuses on the costs of Black Friday, liberation of Good Friday, and the search for identity in the midst of consumerism and materialism in the USA.

A Search for Self in a Season of Stuff (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the God's Politics Blog on November 9, 2012, and can be found at

Once there was a crowd of about 2,000 shoppers gathered for the early morning opening of a local Wal-Mart.

It was the morning after Thanksgiving Day in Valley Stream, New York, an occasion commonly known as “Black Friday” throughout the United States.

As the opening hour of operation approached, the crowd grew quickly in size, but it also increased with anxiety and anger, as many had waited throughout the cold and dark night, some as long as eight hours. The masses were more than ready to move into the warmth, brightness, and seasonal buying bliss of their neighborhood Wal-Mart. 

When the store manager finally unlocked the front entrance, the massive and eager crowd erupted with energy and passionately pushed into the store like a tidal wave.  In doing so, through the sheer physical force of mass purchasing power, the swarm of shoppers broke through – and eventually broke down – the Wal-Mart doors. 

During this early morning surge of customer momentum the crowd trampled a 34-year old Wal-Mart employee who had stepped into the path of the storm.  As paramedics would later confirm, the incident resulted in the first recorded Black Friday-related death. 

According to eye-witness reports, as the crushed employee lay on the ground gasping for life, the mob of shoppers in search of sales appeared unconcerned for her well-being.  In specifics, the crowd of customers refused to halt their furious stampede, not even when Wal-Mart staff and volunteers tried to intervene.  All together, the avalanche of bargain hunters seemed to value their pursuit of products over the life of another human being. 

The Wal-Mart shoppers complained that they had waited in the cold and dark for far too long, and because of their state of discomfort and strong desire to take advantage of the Black Friday discounts, they were not willing to delay their customer cravings any longer, regardless of whether or not someone was injured.  In fact, even when police officers arrived on the scene and attempted to revive the injured employee, shoppers continued to pour into the store in mass numbers, some even shoved and pushed aside the law enforcement personnel – and the dead employee – in their quest for low-priced treasures.

In reaction to this disturbing Black Friday tragedy, some common responses are shock, disbelief, and even a sense of collective indifference.  We often conclude that such extreme cases are so far beyond the communal norm that they should not be taken seriously, and as a result, we try to resist any knee-jerk overreactions.  

However, if we move past the temptation of mental and emotional disconnect, not only do we recognize that such Black Friday stories are more frequent that we like to admit, but they also reveal a great deal about our society.  In other words, the first recorded Black Friday-related death is indeed an extreme example, but it should not be disregarded or casually cast aside, for the calamity is – in many ways – a predictable consequence of an increased nationwide obsession with consumerism and materialism.   

While November and December are supposed to center on celebrations of Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas, the emphasis has shifted with each passing year toward a collective carnival of capitalism, or in other words, a Season of Stuff.  In doing so, instead of an extended focus upon gratitude, expectation, and the amazing grace of God made known through the birth of Jesus, we focus upon production and consumption, and thus our identity is shaped not by the love of God, but rather, whether or not we consistently contribute toward economic growth.  In other words, within a Season of Stuff our self-worth is often dictated by an ability to surround ourselves with possessions, which in turn leads to a never-ending search for more.

As people of Christian faith we recognize that our identity is not defined by contributions to capitalism, nor is it found in the search and/or sum of stuff, but it is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  In contrast to the thousands of corporate and political messages we receive each day, and regardless of the economic and partisan forces firmly placed around us, we embrace the freedom that comes from being created, liberated, and sustained through a God that loves us regardless of who we are and no matter what we have done or left undone.  While countless forces may try and persuade us to see our identity as directly related to the marketplace, through Jesus we are far more than the stuff we are surrounded with, and our sacred worth and divine dignity is firmly secure in God’s outpouring of unconditional love.

As we approach Black Friday and the opening of our annual Season of Stuff, the time is upon us to resist the stampeding forces that often trample upon our personal identity and public reality.  The time is upon us to reclaim who we are as Children of God, diagnose the tragic symptoms of consumerism and materialism, and recover the holiday season as a period of gratitude, peacemaking, and gracious giving for the sake of others.  

We are far more valuable than the stuff we are surrounded with, and our compassionate connectedness within local and global communities is far more important than the exchanges of capitalism.  And so, may we resist the long shopping lines and obsession with financial transactions, and instead replace such efforts with an outpouring of service and love for the sake of others.  The time is upon us to proclaim who we are as one human family, reclaim the coming months for what they are meant to be, and in doing so, receive the fullness of life, freedom, and amazing grace of God given to us – free of charge – with each passing day.

Friday, November 16, 2012

INTERVIEW (VIDEO): Lessons of Global Service (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link contains a short video from an interview I gave at Carthage College (Kenosha, WI) for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Summer Missionary Conference.  Among other things, I was asked to reflect upon lessons learned during global service in Guyana and South Africa:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

SERMON: Clubs, Churches, and the Community of God (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides audio and a written transcript for "Clubs, Churches, and the Community of God", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on October 21, 2012.

With Mark 10:35-45 as the central preaching text, this message focuses on the decrease of religious affiliation in the USA, stewardship, and the critical differences between "clubs" and "churches" within the Community of God. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Accompanied by Nones (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog on October 25, 2012, and can be found at:

It was December of 2000.  I remember the occasion as if it were yesterday.

It was a few days after Christmas during my senior year of college.  I was quite nervous, and I wondered how my friends and family would react.  How would my basketball teammates respond?  Would my roommates treat me differently?  And of course, what about my girlfriend?  She had no idea our relationship would take such a dramatic turn.

I could hide no longer.  I had to be honest with who I was.  And so, after a great deal of delay and long nights of nervous planning, I finally decided to share what I had been keeping secret.  Beginning with my girlfriend, then my parents, brother, sister, and eventually friends, roommates, and teammates, I shared the news: After a significant amount of prayer and discernment, I was no longer planning to attend law school following college graduation, but instead, I wanted to attend seminary in order to become an ordained Lutheran pastor.

As to be expected, I received mixed reactions.

My parents were confused and surprised, as they – like most people – had not perceived me as “religious”, especially not to the point of pursuing ordination.  Nevertheless, they accepted the news with delight and affirmation.  In addition, my girlfriend (who is now my wife) was wonderfully supportive, as well as my brother, sister, and closest friends.  On the other hand, others were not sure how to react.  My friends – mostly uninterested in religion – wondered about future plans, basketball teammates were a bit uneasy, and even the campus priest and a few professors had an assortment of reactions.  While a number of people were anxious and apprehensive, those within my closest circle of friends accepted the announcement with open arms.  I continue to thank God for such a wonderful web of support.

What I remember most about those final months of university was that nearly every conversation was focused on various plans for the future.  And so, my surprise announcement to attend seminary was discussed frequently, and the reactions were delightfully diverse.  While some would respond with awkward pleasantries, I was fascinated with how many countered with their own experiences of religion.  Over and over again, whether it was the quiet of a library or loud chaos of weekend house parties, young women and men would explain their fascination and questions surrounding God, opinions about faith, and reasons for why they do (or do not) affiliate with a religious tradition.  It was during these times that I actively listened as much as possible, for most of my conversation partners had not discussed religion in a long time.  Through it all, the various interactions about faith and religion usually ended with mutual affirmation, a strong sense of respect, and a feeling that previously held assumptions were reconsidered and/or removed.  It was breathtaking.

As I reflect upon the initial announcement of my path to attend seminary, I believe one of the greatest gifts I have received is the consistent companionship of those who are unaffiliated with any religious tradition.  While I have served as an ordained pastor for over six years, many of my personal interactions are with those who fall within the 20% of U.S. citizens who are “religiously unaffiliated”, and while such individuals are in no way hostile, their frustrations and insights serve as a significant voice to inform the ways that I serve as a religious leader.  Through it all, because pastors are often surrounded with a choir of like-minded believers, one of the most important lessons I have learned through my friendships is to keep hearing the “big questions” that are too often left unconsidered.

While many are alarmed by the decline of religious affiliation in the USA, I believe the so-called “nones” are in many ways a blessing to the future of religion.  While I will always appreciate the important insights gathered from fellow Christians and Lutheran companions, over the past years I have also learned a great deal from those who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or affiliated with “no religious in particular”.  While I may not always agree with the views presented to me, I believe that God works wonders when people come together in a genuine manner to listen, learn, and consider ways to confirm our connectedness and seek creative methods to bring about common priorities.  In the end, what is often realized through such interactions is that God is much greater than any of the ideological limits we attempt to employ, and that God’s love is far more comprehensive than anything we can possibly comprehend. 

As I write this reflection there are numerous women and men who continue to wrestle with massive questions surrounding spirituality, faith, diverse concepts of God, and the ever-changing role of religion in the 21st century.  I pray for such individuals, for in all reality I continue to consider myself one of them.  While I thank God for the opportunity to serve as a Lutheran pastor, and I praise God for the incredible congregation I now serve, I believe that faith in Jesus requires us to keep hearing the “big questions” surrounding who God is, what God does, and how God works through religious communities in our incredibly complicated world.  While some would rather have a pastor who declares total certainty on all things religious, I believe it is those who proclaim absolute knowledge that often create the most damage, thus I would rather be a fellow sojourner on the journey than someone who falsely claims to have already experienced the destination.  And so, I thank God for all the amazing women and men – regardless of their religious affiliation – who have accompanied me on the journey of faith to this point in my life, and as I continue to “come out” within new circles of “nones”, I pray for God to keep moving each and every one of us – regardless of religious affiliation – toward a daring embodiment of love, peace, grace, and reconciliation throughout the world.