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.

Accompaniment.

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.

Accompaniment.

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…

Accompaniment.

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.

Accompaniment.

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
https://gustavus.edu/podcasts/chapel/2011/2014-10-12%20Family%20Weekend%20Worship%20Chaplains%20Brian%20Konkol%20and%20Siri%20Erickson.mp3