Sunday, December 15, 2013

SERMON: "An Invitation to Reconciliation" (Brian E. Konkol)

The following is a transcript from December 15, 2013, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of an Advent Worship Service of Holy Communion, the following sermon considers Matthew 11:2-11.

Over the past week the attention of the world has focused on the Republic of South Africa, in order to celebrate the life of its former President, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, known locally - and affectionately - as “Tata Madiba”.

When he died on December 5th at the age of ninety-five, the South African government declared ten days of public mourning, which concluded this day, December 15th, as his body was laid to rest just a few hours ago in his homeland of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

And so, to mark the historic nature of Mandela’s death, we do so with an Advent-related lesson about how this global icon helped bring South Africa back to life. This lesson begins about 100 years before he was born, with a group of European settlers called the Voortrekkers.

The Voortrekkers were a group of white-skinned settlers, mostly of Dutch, French, and German descent. In the early 19th century this group left the southern coastal region near Cape Town and moved hundreds of miles inland, and they did so in order to establish independent republics in protest against British colonialism. However, as to be expected, as the Voortrekkers sought land, the land they sought was by no means vacant, and clashes with South Africa’s black indigenous people were inevitable.

The white Voortrekkers and the black Zulu people of South Africa began to clash over rights to the land, but eventually, in order to put an end to the violence and reach some semblance of an agreement, in 1837 the Voortrekker leadership engaged in negotiations with the Zulu king. And eventually, the Voortrekkers and Zulus agreed upon terms for land distribution, and together they signed a treaty in February of 1838.

However, during a truce ceremony to mark the land distribution agreement, the Voortrekker entourage was killed by the Zulus (for reasons that continue to be debated by historians), a renewed battle between the Voortrekkers and Zulus lasted for months, and numerous lives on both sides of the conflict were lost.

On one specific occasion, which took place on December 16, 1838, nearly 175 years ago, about 10,000 Zulu warriors attacked the Voortrekkers, but the severely outnumbered Voortrekkers – with the advantage of gunpowder – successfully warded off the Zulu army. More specifically, according to some historical accounts, on that December day only three Voortrekkers were wounded, and more than 3,000 Zulus lost their lives - in what was later called the “Battle of Blood River”.

As a result of the Voortrekker victory that day, and because of promises they reportedly made to God before the battle, Dec. 16 was later instituted by the South African Apartheid-era government as a national public holiday, to be known as the “Day of the Covenant” and in 1982, it was renamed as, “The Day of the Vow."

On the other side of the South African political and racial spectrum, and in more recent times, Dec. 16th is also remembered as the historical anniversary of the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, translated as “Spear of the Nation”, also known as the armed military wing of the African National Congress (ANC). More specifically, Umkhonto we Sizwe was co-founded by Nelson Mandela, who was 43 years old at the time, and the group carried out an assortment of bombings of civilian, industrial, and infrastructure sites as a form of civil disobedience against the apartheid-era government. And while the tactics of Umkhonto we Sizwe were initially geared toward sabotage, they gradually expanded as ANC members engaged in urban guerrilla warfare.

Through it all, Umkhonto we Sizwe was classified as a banned terrorist organization by the South African government - and they did so with the political, financial, and even military support of the United States of America. However, in the midst of it all, December 16th continued to be celebrated among the black citizens of South Africa as the birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the date stood as a source of social inspiration for liberation from apartheid-era rule.

Now, to review…

With these historical details in mind, Dec. 16 could be remembered as a date of extreme violence and deep racial division within South Africa. Whether it was the Day of the Vow in 1838 or the start of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, both occasions commemorated on December 16th could symbolize deep cruelty and harsh brutality.

However, with the advent of South African democracy in 1994, and with the election of Nelson Mandela, although Dec. 16 retained its status as a national public holiday, instead of having the white population celebrate the Day of the Vow and the black population celebrate the birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe, December 16th was given a redefined purpose of multi-racial historical significance. More specifically, instead of celebrating a victory in war or recognizing the founding of an armed unit, the first democratically elected government of South Africa, under the leadership of a former political prisoner, recommissioned Dec. 16 as “The Day of Reconciliation”.

As President Mandela declared on December 16, 1995, the occasion was meant to promote a “decisive and irreversible break with the past”, to declare a shared allegiance to justice, non-racialism and democracy”, and to promote a common “yearning for a peaceful and harmonious nation of equals.” In what can now be described as a dramatic social conversion as a result of a historic post-apartheid national conversation, the newly redefined public holiday is celebrated with each passing year, and tomorrow, on December 16th, once again - for the 18th time - South Africans of all skin colors and political persuasions will commemorate “The Day of Reconciliation”.

With the people of South Africa who celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, and with all those around the world who seek a world of peace, we can say “Thanks be to God”.

But not only that, as a community of faith gathered around word and sacrament at this time and in this place, we collectively wonder: “So what does this mean”?

So what does this mean… For us?

To start with, we recognize that The Day of Reconciliation to be celebrated tomorrow in South Africa is appropriately placed within the Christian liturgical Season of Advent, and we can make the connection, for just as South Africans celebrate the 16th of December as a day of reconciliation, the Season of Advent is meant to serve as a liturgical reminder of the ways in which God’s presence heals wounds and redefines relationships. Which means, in many ways we could call this Season of Advent God’s “Invitation to Reconciliation”.

In other words, as the people of South Africa reconstructed their national holiday to embrace a transformed identity, the Season of Advent invites us to be made new through the birth of Jesus, and thus moves us to promote restored relationships, transformed social structures, and empowered people, as is written in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation."

The Ministry of Reconciliation.

Or, in the words of South African theologian John De Gruchy, “...a process in which there is a mutual attempt to heal and overcome enmities, build trust and relationships, and develop a shared commitment to the common good”. More specifically, John de Gruchy states, in line with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and liberation theologians, that the ministry of reconciliation is first an action and a movement before it becomes a theory or dogma, and reconciliation is something celebrated before it is explained. Which means, reconciliation is first and foremost a gift of God, and then it is a social task through the courage to struggle for human forgiveness and repentance in our relations with our neighbors. Which therefore means, reconciliation is at the very core of what God is about in our world, and reconciliation is what we anticipate in this Season of Advent.

In this time before Christmas, we anticipate God’s gift of reconciliation in the world, made known to us in Jesus, in which we are shown the ways in which the deep brokenness of the world can be made whole, and the wrongs of our existence can be made right through the world. Which reveals, reconciliation is a past gift from God, which we experience here in the present with God, and which leads us into a future not yet fully realized but fully trusted in because of God.

And because of it all, we say: Thanks be to God.

For this is what God is “up to” in our world, and because of it, we receive an invitation to reconciliation...

In the midst of our divisions, anger, and estrangement…

In the midst of our bickering, complaining and pointing fingers…

In the midst of the various ways that we incarcerate ourselves with ignorance and indifference and by allowing resentment to corrode its container...

By God’s grace we are made right with God, and in doing so we are invited into a reconciling journey of transformation and empowerment, toward a new future of communion with God and all people, which we can name an all-encompassing vision of human flourishing.

Yes, we have received an invitation to Reconciliation…

Which includes lament, truth-telling, confession, and pain…
But also includes forgiveness, absolution, freedom, and justice…

It includes letting go and moving forward…
It includes the boldness of being humble...

And perhaps most of all, as was shared in our Gospel lesson this morning, it includes a radical process by which:

“...the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And so, what this all means is that, while the Season of Advent is viewed in various ways, one method is to perceive it as God’s invitation to reconciliation, for such personal and public reconciliation is dearly needed in our present day and age. For if we need anything in our world, we need reconciliation, and we need it ever do deeply.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we dwell in arguably the most divided period our planet has ever witnessed, as we observe income disparity, unequal access to health care and suitable education, as well as dangerous levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, environmental injustice, political polarization, xenophobia, and discrimination based upon sexual orientation.  

We witness division between nations, to the point that it becomes international news when two world leaders simply shake hands.

We witness division within nations, as our so-called public servants are more interested in keeping their jobs than actually doing them.

We witness division in our school children, to the point that some bring guns into the classroom and attack their teachers and classmates.

We witness division within religious communities and between religious communities…
We witness violence and warfare… We witness resentment over petty differences...

And yes, we witness division on college campuses such as ours, to the point that some would not even look each other in the eye, and some would rather shut others up than allow all to be heard.

Yes, you know and I know, at times it seems as if our world is simply filled with hate, and our actions are too often fueled by fear.

But there is Good News.

There is Good News, for in the midst of all these dangerous divisions, we do not seek new theories or strategies or latest self-help guides. But we receive Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and with him we receive an invitation to reconciliation, for the sake of transformation and empowerment, by the grace of God, and for the sake of the world.

We are invited to replace our acts of violence and estrangement with God’s peace, so that our divisions are removed in favor of unity, and our daily acts of exploitation are altered by a sustained pursuit of fairness and justice around the world and in our own backyards. And in doing so, our relationships may be redefined, our identities affirmed, and our communities more fully restored.

And so, to conclude, we do so as we began, mindful of what is taking place about 10,000 miles to the east.

When Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island Prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration, his words and actions were, in many ways, a surprise. What many of us tend to forget is that, when Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, relatively young man who had founded Umkhonto we Sizwe and was labeled as a terrorist by the South African government, as well as our own. But when Mandela was released nearly three decades later, not only did he refuse to speak of revenge, but he told others that his mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. And as he rode the ferry from Robben Island back to Cape Town after 27 years of imprisonment, he realized that, in order to accept his own invitation to reconciliation, he would need to leave his resentment and anger in his prison cell, for if he did not, then he would still be in chains.

As he told those around him, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies." Which means, “ be free in not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.

And so, my dear friends, during this Season of Advent, may we accept the invitation to reconciliation that has been placed before us. We have been made right with God through Jesus, we respond by putting divisions aside and recognizing the importance of living in ways of peace, forgiveness, and justice.

For as Tata Madiba and countless others have shown throughout our history…

There is no future without forgiveness…
Enemies can be transformed into companions…
We can admit our own faults without fear...

And there is no such thing as community without a sustained commitment to truth and reconciliation.

And so, may we embrace our invitation to reconciliation, not merely on the Day of Reconciliation tomorrow, but in this Advent Season, and beyond. For it is in this journey that we receive life in its fulness, the peace that surpasses all understanding, and a glimpse of what it means to be alive.

May God bless you, this day, and always. Amen.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Being Human in December (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics blog and the Chaplains blog of Gustavus Adolphus College.

A predominant message of this holiday season seems to be both loud and clear: Our value as human beings is often dictated by our capacity to consume.

While the average North American consumes approximately twice as much as fifty years ago, we are significantly less satisfied with the quality of our lives, which is – of course – contrary to the mass “this stuff will make you happy” messages we receive on countless occasions each day. Nevertheless, we continue to embrace a culture of consumerism, for we consume at staggering rates, not only in an attempt to make right our perceived wrongs, but also because we are led to believe that such devotion contributes to the well-being of society. 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 summary, according to the most vocalized narratives that impact contemporary life, to be a human of significant value in North America – especially during the month of December – is to be a committed and consistent consumer, even if it leads to our personal and public self-destruction.

To appraise human value based upon rates of consumption is, in many ways, a form of dehumanization. In specifics, mechanistic dehumanization is a way in which powerful systemic processes – such as our “enormously productive economy” – strip away the dignity of human life by plugging us into a globalized mechanism of production, consumption, and waste. In other words, our culture of consumerism – and the pressure to faithfully adhere to it – 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 consume more stuff. And so, because the highest rates of consumption typically occur during the final weeks of the calendar year, and due in part to our longing for communal acceptance, December is – in many ways – a month of dehumanization, for mass consumption seems to be the accepted price of social admission.

In what can be described as an ironic twist in the context of how many tend to experience December, the biblical narrative from a Lutheran perspective records Jesus as coming into the world as anything but a prime candidate for spending power, yet as God incarnate, Jesus reveals what it means to be human. As shared in the New Testament, Jesus was born in a barn as a homeless refugee to an unwed teenage mother, which would earn him the label of “economic liability” in our current day and age, yet Jesus embodied the characteristics of human dignity, respect, and compassion for others. And so, the birth of Jesus anticipated in Advent and celebrated on Christmas reveals a dramatic repeal of how we often determine human value in our contemporary consumerist 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, consume, or waste. In contrast to our current social conditions, the arrival of Jesus on Earth shows that all people – regardless of their economic status – are of divine value, contribute to society, and are fully deserving of lifelong dignity, care, and respect. As as result, the “joy to the world” we receive this December is not a good or service to be purchased, but a divine gift of radical affirmation and universal human worth.

As the final month of the calendar year comes into full swing, the time is upon us to embrace what it means to be human and resist the dehumanizing pressures 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 altar of accumulation, in doing so we forget who we truly are, lose track of what matters most in life, and become enslaved to the ongoing search for the next biggest and brightest thing to stuff into our already cluttered lives. In other words, consumerism breeds bondage – even in a so-called “free country”, for in our search to own more stuff, the search for more stuff owns us (in addition to the countless exploited workers who often produce the stuff), and in the process of consumption we are the ones who end up being 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.”

Instead of incarcerating others and ourselves in the search for more, and rather than trying to justify our human existence and relationships through the quest to consume, perhaps the time has come to wait for Christmas not with an outpouring of spending, but with acts of generosity and compassion 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 reality that we do not need valuable things in order to be valuable beings, nor do we need to acquire goods in order to be affirmed by God as good. And ultimately, perhaps the time is finally upon us to to have the security, strength, and freedom to refuse the desire to always consume something new, but instead live inspired, and in doing so, always be made new.

In contrast to the more prominent messages often announced during the holiday season, a more provident proclamation of affirmation and restoration is heard breaking through the noise. We are set free from the chains of consumption, for we are being made new, today and always, and in such liberated living we are truly being human, this December and beyond. While some may try to convince us otherwise, a more valuable and lasting gift does not exist, and thanks be to God, this gift of grace, love, and acceptance is offered to us all, today and always, totally free of charge.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Everyone Poops (Brian E. Konkol)

The following presentation was offered on November 19, 2013, during the Gustavus Adolphus College “Building Bridges” fall preview event, a student-led social justice movement, which gathered under the theme, “Disposable Communities? Demanding Environmental Justice”. Alongside Professors Richard Leitch, Laura Triplett, and David Obermiller, my brief thoughts focused on how theology can provide a critical lens by which injustice is interpreted and the struggle for sustainable life is promoted.

Everyone Poops.

As Taro Gomi so brilliantly proclaims in the breathtaking children’s book: Everyone Poops: “All living things eat, so… Everyone Poops.”

The End.

Or, is it? Is that “The End?” Is that all there is to the story of poop?

While some would like to believe so, this evening we gather to say, “no”. Because, the mere proposition that everyone poops cannot, should not, and therefore will not, be the end of the story, as the subsequent logical question is, of course: If everyone poops, then where does it all end up? Where does it eventually go? And ultimately, in our present day context of globalization and so-called disposable communities, if over seven billion people poop, then who, out of that seven billion, is ultimately up to their eyes in it, and who has no choice but to deal with it?

And this all leads us to the follow-up, and perhaps even more critical question, surrounding the need to question: “What exactly are we talking about when we are talking about poop?”

What is poop?

I offer the question, because for me, as one of the Lutheran tradition, I wish to respond by offering an alternative to the common premise of Everyone Poops. For when we speak of poop, and when we make the claim that everyone does indeed poop, we are not simply and solely speaking about the material that comes out of our bodies. To the contrary, it is also – and perhaps even more – about the ways in which we as humans materially waste each other by what we do with our bodies.

In light our “Disposable Communities” theme for this evening, and in the context of demanding environmental justice, we are tempted to view Everyone Poops in a strict physical sense, or under the umbrella of gastroenterology and/or sewage distribution around the world. However, I would like to start by making the case that everyone poops not simply as a physical reality, but as a theological assertion. Or, to put it differently, as a statement of theological conviction within the Lutheran tradition, I believe we are all imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and we simply cannot help ourselves from defecating on one-another.
For example, from large scale genocide to small scale gossip… From mass murder to everyday acts of aggression and hatred… From systemic economic exploitation to the appalling denials of ecological destruction…

Each day, through our words, deeds, and various other capacities, we as humans do things to one another that is nothing short of defecation.

It is not to say that we are not good people, but it is to say that even good people cannot help themselves from doing terrible things. In the Lutheran tradition we call this Simul justus et peccator – in that we as humans are simultaneously saints and sinners, meaning that even the best person among us is capable of wrongdoing, and even the most wicked among us has the capacity for good works. Which means, from a Lutheran theological perspective, we can make the case that everyone does indeed poop, for we all – at some point or another – harm others, and also, we all know what it is like to be harmed by others.
And so, the question therefore becomes one that Lutherans have asked for generations: So What does this mean?

If everyone poops, and if we know from experience that the poor and marginalized of our world are the the ones most often pooped upon, how do we even begin to respond? How do we seek justice in a world in which far too many are treated as disposable? And perhaps most of all, how can we seek solutions when we know that we are also a significant part of the problem?

For the next few moments I will briefly outline a theological proposition in response to our current social position, and I will do so with a concept from the New Testament, commonly called koinonia.
The essential meaning of koinonia is that of “communion by intimate participation”. The word koinonia appears nineteen times in most editions of the Greek New Testament, and can be translated into terms such as “fellowship”, “sharing”, “participation”, and “contribution”. More specifically, koinonia is a derivative of the word “koinos”, which is a word for “common”, which makes koinonia a valuable approach to building community, as koinonia embraces a strong commitment to “kalos kagathos” (καλοκαγαθία), meaning “good and good”, an inner goodness toward virtue, and an outer goodness toward social relationships.

And so, what koinonia means for us, in the context of our theme for this evening, is that since everyone poops, we all are fully honest and open with the reality that we all are a part of the problem, but also part of the solution, for every life anywhere is connected with all life everywhere. Which means, injustice anywhere is felt by everyone everywhere, and kindness bestowed upon anyone anywhere has a ripple effect upon everyone everywhere.

And so, what this all means is that, when some communities are viewed as disposable, we all are at the risk of disposal, and when some are lifted up, we all rise alongside them. Which therefore means, the search for global justice requires far more than the common approaches of relief and development, but what is required is a systemic change that occurs through sustained koinonia, which happens through mass levels of engagement for the sake of restructuring society for the sake of those most vulnerable.

This process involves consciousness raising, transforming laws and policies, trade rules, and corruption, and daring to live out the sociological implications of one’s theological affirmations.

And so, my friends, there is clearly far more that can – and should – be said this evening (and I will leave it to the more distinguished speakers this evening to fill in the cracks that I have most certainly left!). However, in this brief time I have to speak, I simply wish to conclude with the following:

For years I have been told that if you give someone a fish they will eat for a day, but if you teach them to fish they will eat for a lifetime. My response is that it all does little good if we all continue to take dumps in the pond.

And as citizens of a country that is well known for its ability to defecate in a lot of ponds – both near and far, we should especially make time for pause, reflection, and even confession, and then proceed to resistance, reform, and even revolution.

In other words, we cannot overlook the fact that, we live in a nation that has been “building bridges” across numerous so-called borders for a long time, but sadly, those bridges have been built in order to transport our so-called waste to the so-called other side while taking what we want from others back to our so-called side.

But my hope – and my prayer – is that through an embrace of koinonia, and in the practice of communion through intimate participation, we will one day come to the realization that in our world today there is no such things as “the other side”, for there is ultimately only one side, and we all are living  on it. Which therefore means, our role may not be to build bridges, but to take over the bridges that are already in our midst, so that our bridges will be used to promote good will instead of merely generating dollar bills.
In the end, my friends, if we are truly called to love our neighbors as we wish to be loved ourselves, and if all people in all places should be viewed as our neighbors, and if justice is what love looks like in public: Then we have some work to do.

As human beings we are not merely passive characters in a grand story that has already been written, but we are active co-authors of a narrative that continues to unfold in front of our eyes.

Which means, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to shape and share our future.

We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to ensure that no one is disposed of, because each and every life on this planet has dignity and value.

We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to fill our lives with deeds that matter instead of wasting them away in the search for momentary comfort and entertainment.

We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to resist the pressures to conform to the rat race of consumerism and instead promote life in its fullness for all people and in all places regardless of gender, color, nationality, sexual orientation, religious affirmation, and political affiliation.

We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to say enough is enough, as the time for justice is right about now.

And so, I thank God for this opportunity to be with you this evening, and I look forward to living out my responsibilities alongside you.

May God bless you and all the good that comes through you. Amen.

SERMON: Born Priviledged (Brian E. Konkol)

The following is a transcript from November 21, 2013, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of the “Daily Sabbath” fall semester rhythm, this homily examines a variety of biblical texts in order to consider the nature and consequences of social privilege.

Today is my birthday.

I was brought into this world on November 21st, 1978, at 3:47am.

While I celebrate this occasion like many tend to do here in North America – with cake, cards, and consolation – I am also involved in a great deal of soul-searching existential consideration, which includes reflection on the past, mindfulness of the present, and wonder about the future.

More specifically, this day I look back to the exact moment I was born, at 3:47am thirty-five years ago, and I am continually reminded of how I was given something at that exact moment that I did not deserve but continues to pay dividends, even to this day. In other words, this year, once again I am reminded of how the advantages I was given at the exact moment of my birth continue to get cashed in, day after day, even to this day.

For example, at 3:47am on November 21, 1978 it was determined that the color of my skin was white, then, the physician looked between my legs and assigned my gender as male, and as he did, the first and primary language spoken to me was English. In addition, my body was deemed to be relatively healthy and abled, my orientation – although it was not yet publicly known – was heterosexual, and the citizenship given to me was that of the United States of America.

And so, to review, at 3:47am on November 21, 1978, I was born as a white- skinned, able-bodied, soon to be English-speaking, heterosexual, male, documented U.S. citizen. Which means, from my first moments of life, I inherited characteristics and features that placed me into an exclusive members-only group of people, because I was born as a person placed squarely on top of our social pyramid of privilege. Which means, on a day like today, and in a world such as ours, I cannot help but reflect theologically on what it means to be born as a person of privilege. In doing so, my hope is that as I reflect on my thirty-five years of privilege, you may be sparked to reflect on the years of yours.

However, before we go any further into this stream of consciousness, the first task is to review what we mean when we speak of privilege, as the term is often misunderstood and even more often misused. And so, first things first, when we define “privilege”, we look at two defining characteristics: First, a “privilege” is something that is inherited. Second, a “privilege” is that which benefits some at the expense of others. In other words, as was shared with me this past week by Pearl Leonard-Rock in the Diversity Center, who quoted Peggy McIntosh: “privilege” is an “…invisible package of unearned assets which one can count on cashing in each day but about which was meant to remain invisible.”

As some would argue that privilege is like running the 100 yard dash with a 50 yard head-start, this morning I am mindful not only of my own privileges received at birth, but as a person of faith, I am left wondering how people of privilege – such as myself – are compelled to view God through the theological lenses of privilege. More specifically, I wonder: How do people of privilege – like myself – view God differently than those who do not share my place on the pyramid of privilege? Or, we might consider, since our social context undoubtedly has a heavy impact on our theological content, we are forced to wonder: “How privilege shape the way we view God?”

Along these lines, on December 1st we will enter into the liturgical season of Advent and begin preparations for Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth. As we do, we do so mindful that Christian history is filled with attempts by the privileged classes to co-opt not only this particular season of the Church Year, but also the entire Christian theological enterprise, all in order to illustrate the historical person of Jesus as being aligned with the assets of the advantaged.

In other words, ever since God created us in God’s image, the privileged – like myself – have been trying to create God in ours.

From Constantine in the year 312, to modern day prosperity Gospel preachers, we recognize that countless people from across the generations have constructed images of God from the context of privilege, and in doing so, seek to justify their social advantages as some sort of predestined blessing (…that all others are somehow supposed to accept as being part of God so-called plan!). In doing so, while many in our current day and age have become rather successful as trying to portray God as a white- skinned, able-bodied, English-speaking, heterosexual, male, documented U.S. citizen, the Gospel narratives provides a far different story for us to hear.

As was recorded in the Gospels, and as many have articulated – especially throughout the southern hemisphere, God took what many deem “a preferential option with the poor” through the birth of Jesus. In doing so, years later at the onset of his ministry Jesus displayed such a preference through an accompaniment with the socially underprivileged, as he said in the 4th Chapter of Luke that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he was anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As a result of placing a particular priority on the underprivileged, the community of faith that followed in The Way of Jesus rallied in a similar sense of social and spiritual solidarity, in a commitment shared in the 2nd Chapter of Acts and in many ways detailed in Galatians 3:28, which reads: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.
And so, for us today, once again the Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, for once again we are reminded that God enters directly into our human-contructed pyramid of privilege, tears it down, creates us into something new, and in doing so, reminds us that all are One:

There is no longer white or black….
There is no longer disabled and abled…
There is no longer male or female…
There is no longer documented or undocumented…
There is no longer gay or straight…
There is no longer offender or offended…
There is no longer old or young…
There is no longer Democrat or Republican…
There is no longer home-owner or home-less…

There is no longer any of these sources of identity because, at the end of the day, no matter who we are or what we have done, and no matter where we are going or where we have been: We all are One through God’s abundant grace, justified not by our own works, which is why who we are, is ultimately grounded in who God is.

And so, my friends, while we continue to live in a society that unjustly rewards some – like myself – at the expense of others, the God made known to us in Jesus exposes and crucifies such circumstances. In doing so, we are convicted, resurrected, and set free from the lures of privilege and we are set free for the sake of others in order to tear down the structures that allow some to keep cashing in on the wide variety of chips they never even earned. Which means, although our identities are undoubtedly informed by our various particularities, we are by no means defined by them, nor are we helplessly determined by them, for we are ultimately marked and sealed by the God who calls, gathers, and sends each and every one of us outside of ourselves for the sake of life in its absolute and beautiful fullness.

As we continue to receive the amazing grace of God this day and beyond, may we learn to understand the ways that privilege continues to incarcerate our lives and warp our world. In doing so, in response to God’s continued activity, may we boldly expose and crucify the structures that bring profit to some and death to others.

Since all are fully valuable in God’s eyes, and because we are bound together in one global community, may we strive to bring life in its fullness for all, regardless or the labels given at the moment of one’s  birth, so that all – through God’s grace – may have life with dignity and worth.