Monday, September 21, 2015

Do Not Be Afraid? A Homily from Christ Chapel (Brian E. Konkol)

* The following transcript is from a homily given in Christ Chapel, based on Matthew 14:27, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minn.) on September 21, 2015. Please not that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices (which are preserved below in full) were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid? How can we not be afraid?!?!

The next excruciating exam is right around the proverbial academic corner. The next game, the next race, the next match, the next opponent is on its way. The next week-day. The next week-end. The next difficult decision. The next cultural collision.

How can we not be afraid? How can we not be afraid?

The first year of college. The last year of college! The twists and turns infused throughout four years of college. The questions and concerns about what is supposed to happen after college!
My oh my! How can we not be afraid?!?!

The questions. The concerns. The pressures to learn. Am I smart enough? Am I cool enough? Are my jeans skinny enough? Does my supervisor like me? Do my colleagues respect me? Does anyone like me? Do I like me? Do I know me? Who is me? Is that even a properly stated question?

How can we not be afraid?!?! How can we not be afraid?!?!

On and off campus, and across campus, and within campus. Discrimination, prejudice and exploitation. Ignorance. Indifference. Injustice. Indignation. Warfare, both near and far. Conceal and carry, on the street and even in our cars. Violence, both visible and in secret, both large and small. And of course, Presidential Debates, Lord have mercy! The most terrifying of it all!

How can we not be afraid? How can we not?!?!?!

How can we not be afraid, when the world so often seems to be a terrifying place? How can we not be afraid, when we are surrounded with terrified and terrifying people? How can we not be afraid, when fear surrounds us? How can we not be afraid, when fear sinks deep within us?

Today, here and now. To all gathered here in the center of campus: Faculty, Staff, Students, Administrators, Community Members. In the quiet depths of your own hearts and minds, I propose that the key question is not “if” you are afraid, but rather the real question is “what” you are afraid of. At this time. In this place. Deep in the private places and secret spaces of your heart and mind: What are you afraid of, here, and now? What are you afraid of?

Perhaps you are afraid of the next test, whether it is in the classroom or not, whether it is expected or not. Perhaps you are afraid of what the scoreboard might reveal, whether it is on the playing field or not, whether you emerge victorious or not. Perhaps you are afraid of not being respected, whether it even matters or not. Deep down. It is not a matter of “if”. It is a matter of “what”. So the question is: What is it?

Perhaps you are worried about financial debt? Perhaps there are relationships that are not going to way you wish? Perhaps you are afraid of whether or not you will have a job after June 1st? Perhaps you are afraid of having your beliefs changed or your opinions altered? Perhaps you are afraid of just being wrong or having to say “sorry”? Perhaps you are afraid of what everyone else might say about you? Perhaps you are afraid to pause for a moment, because of what the silence may reveal about you? Perhaps you are simply afraid of what might happen if you do not make your life count, or even worse, you are afraid because you have no idea what that even means.

And as we ponder such questions in the confines of this chapel that bears the name of Christ, some would say that doubt is the opposite of faith, yet I am convinced that such is not the case. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, as fear is the more natural and dangerous antithesis, as fear is not only that which paralyzes us, but in doing so, fear so often guides and directs a vast amount of our decisions on a day-to-day basis.

You know it, and I know it. Deep down. If we pause from our crazy busy insanity to actually consider why we are so "crazy busy", we would recognize that our daily decisions are not merely guided by our core values, but what we do each day is so often in response to our core fears.

Because fear is the fuel that so often moves us all.

For example, if one were to conduct a campus-wide survey to learn our most common fear, it is safe to conclude that failure would be near the top of the list. The fear of failure. Our most common and debilitating of fears, and thus, the source of so many of our everyday actions. Which is quite odd, as most of us do have firsthand experience of the fear of failure. I know I have! As Dr. David Obermiller reminded the Class of 2019 at the President’s Dinner a few weeks ago, “We are products of our many spectacular failures”. And to this, I say, “Amen”. And I say, “Amen” because we all have experienced numerous bouts of spectacular failure, yet the irony is that, although we all have experienced it, we remain quite frightened of it, despite knowing full well that perfection is a destination that cannot be attained.

Yet, in daily life, we fret over falling short, we agonize about disappointment, and perhaps most of all, because we know all too well, that communities are often far too unforgiving and both passively and aggressively judgmental, we sometimes lose sleep from the potential social shame of failure-induced embarrassment. In other words, we are afraid of failure more many reasons, but perhaps most of all, we are afraid because far too many communities shame failure, especially those such as college campuses, in which the walls do seem to speak.

Yet our brief Gospel text for this morning pierces into us and makes our hearts burn, as it shares four simple yet powerful words that are as countercultural and revolutionary as ever:

“Do Not be Afraid”.

And in such words we receive an affirmation this day, that at a time in which we fear failure, to be faithful in response to the prospects of failure is truly a revolutionary act.

So the question emerges. Once we name and claim our fears, what if we dared to embody such faithful fearlessness?

What if we, as a campus community, made a collective commitment to give up the fear of failure? What if we decided that we would no longer be afraid? And in doing so, what if we encouraged one another to do the same? From athletes to artists to administrators to academics to activists. Can we imagine it? What would it take? What would it mean? What if we were not afraid to risk being the most authentic versions of ourselves? What if we were not afraid to let our lives more fully speak? What if we were not afraid to say what we mean and actually mean what we say? What if we refused to allow the passive whispers and aggressive shouts of colleagues and classmates to prevent us from taking the chances required to live into our vocational pursuits? What if support replaced shame when someone among us inevitably fell short?

What if we were not afraid? What if?

How would it impact our decisions? How would it shape our identity? How would it alter our values? How would it transform our lives?

Or, if we examine the context of our short yet stirring bible text for this day, like a foolishly faithful disciple stepping out of the boat and onto the water, what if we too could one day realize that failure it not when we sink, but failure is when we are too afraid to step out of the boat in the first place.

Which means, as those that promote excellence and community, perhaps today we can radically recognize that our collective pursuit of excellence is not about winning or achievement or being better than someone else (as that is actually quite easy to do), but rather, to be EXCELLENT means being a community that encourages one another to not be AFRAID, and in doing so, display a willingness to step out of our own boats of secluded and deluded safety to see what the future might bring, and in doing so, provide others with the strength and encouragement to do the same.

It means NOT being afraid of the next exam, next game, the next race, the next match. It means NOT being afraid to laugh and cry and confess and forgive. It means NOT being afraid of the opportunity or responsibility around each corner. It means NOT being afraid of those ideas, and those people, that are different from you. It means NOT be afraid of taking the first step, even when we do not know where they journey may lead. It means NOT being afraid to love openly and dance through life as if no one was looking! It means NOT being afraid to actually stand up for what you believe in.

And perhaps most of all, it means NOT being afraid to let the light of God burn bright in each and every one of us.

And so, as we depart this sacred space this day, we hear the words of Jesus, who says: “Do not be afraid”, because the light of God shines bright through your life, your thoughts, and your aspirations.

Do not be afraid!

No matter who you are. Where you are, or how you are. By God’s grace, you are enough, as you are.

Do not be afraid!

From the classroom to the boardroom to the recital hall to the court to the field to the course. No matter what you have done. No matter what you have left undone. No matter where you are going. No matter where you have been.

Do not be afraid.

Because the Good News of Jesus Christ is that, ultimately, there is no grade.

Because you are free to be you this day, and by God’s abundant and amazing grace, no one, and no-thing, can take you away from being most fully you.

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

Thanks be to God. This day and always. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Coming Out of the Closet: A Sermon from Christ Chapel to welcome the Class of 2019 at Gustavus Adolphus College (Brian E. Konkol)

* The following transcript is from a sermon given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minn.), to welcome the incoming Class of 2019 on September 6, 2015. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices (which are preserved below in full) were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye. 

It was 15 years ago when I came out of the closet.

It was December, of the year 2000, and I remember that fateful occasion as if it were yesterday.
It was a few days after Christmas during my senior year of college. I was terrified. I was beyond nervous, and as a result, I wondered what my friends and family would say when I shared the unexpected news.

“What would my teammates say?” I wondered.

“Would my roommates treat me differently?” I pondered.

“Would I be ridiculed? Would I be accepted?” There was no way to know for sure.

And of course, what about my girlfriend?!?!?! While she clearly had her ongoing suspicions, she certainly had no idea that our relationship would take such a dramatic turn.

My questions were countless.

My fears were endless.

But I had to come out.

I could hide in my closet no longer.

And so, after a great deal of delay and long nights of nervous and meticulous planning, I finally decided to “come out of the closet” and share what I had been keeping secret for quite some time. Beginning with my girlfriend, then my parents, brother, sister, and eventually friends, roommates, and teammates, I shared the news:

I wanted to be a pastor!

That is it!  I am out! Goodbye closet! Don’t come back!

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. And the news was out. Goodbye closet. Enough of the hiding! Enough of the pretending! This is what I wanted to do. That is who I wanted to be.

And yes, it felt great, to come out.

And yes, it felt awful to come out.

Because, as to be expected, I received mixed reactions when I did eventually come out.
While my parents were confused and a bit surprised with my news of call to pursue ordained ministry, they accepted it with delight, and expressed joy that I was coming to grips with what I believed was best for my life. And yes, my girlfriend at the time (who just so happens to now be my wife!) was incredibly supportive, and of course, we both thanked God that Lutheran pastors are indeed allowed to marry!

In total, I was surrounded with a great deal of support when I “came out” about my faith and desire to be a pastor. Yet, I must admit, there were some who simply did not know what to think. For example, my college roommates wondered whether or not we could keep hosting our keg parties with a future pastor in the house. I, of course, assured them that my Lutheran proclivities would allow it. :) My basketball teammates were a bit uneasy about their foul language on the court, and once again, I shared with them Lutherans are keepers of a great heritage of spicy language :)

And more specifically, what I remember most about those final months of college was that nearly every conversation had something to do with the idea of future plans. Which meant, my announcement to attend seminary instead of law school became quite public quite frequently, and the reactions to such news was quite increasingly diverse. And while some would simply comment with pleasant Midwestern passivity and simply leave it at that, I remember being fascinated with how many people would open-up with stories of their own faith and experiences with organized religion.

Yes, during my senior year of college, when I shared the news that I wanted to be a pastor, over and over again, whether it was in the quiet of a library or loud chaos of the weekend, my college contemporaries would approach me and explain their questions surrounding the nature of God and their opinions about faith. And as I think back, I remember being confirmed in my sense of call, because I realized how many people had a deep yearning to consider the “big” questions of life, such as:

“Who am I?”

“What kind of life do I want to live?”

“What do I believe?”

“How will I contribute to this world?”

And through it all, it was during those times during the end of my college experience, that I recognized that most of us do possess a burning desire to go far deeper than the all too common surface level conversations and relationships that flood our world. And I like to imagine that this desire for meaning and purpose is still true.

As human beings of this day and age, I like to believe that we want meaning rather than just monotony. We want purpose to our lives rather than that terrible feeling that we are simply passing through. We want something more substantial than our all-too-common superficial small talk. We want lives that are profound and filled with possibilities!

And here on this college campus, we want to make our lives count, but even more so, we want to understand why.

And so, my friends, as we begin the 2015-2016 academic calendar here at Gustavus Adolphus College, and as I reflect upon my nearly 15 years of life since “coming out” about my faith and call to ministry, we hear our gripping Gospel text: “The Harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”.

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

And as we hear these words, we wonder what it might actually mean. On the one hand, to say the "harvest is plentiful" is not too hard to affirm, as most of us would observe that there is much work to do in our world, because of course, the world simply is messed up and needs a lot of work.

The harvest is plentiful? Who could disagree with that?

There are roughly one billion people on our planet who live in relative prosperity, yet many other billions who scrape through life in spirit-destroying poverty. The harvest is plentiful… for although some structure their lives to seek larger flat-screen televisions with hundreds of channels or DVD screens in a gas-guzzling SUV, there are others who are forced to walk miles to provide a clean cup of water for a thirsty loved one. The harvest is plentiful… as we possess local and global income disparity, climate change, inequitable access to health care and suitable education, as well as dangerous levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, political polarization, earth-destroying economism and violent discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The harvest is plentiful because the world is plenty messed up. And in the midst of it all, one wonders: Where are the workers who might step up and step forward and be the hands of God’s work in this very messed up world?

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. So what do we do about it? What do we do?
When we hear this text from Matthew’s Gospel, we are tempted to blame the shortage of so-called workers in our messed up world on the reality that we are messed up people! We say, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, therefore people are to blame!

And while there may be some merit to such an argument, I believe there is ultimately another more nuanced and contextual explanation worthy of our attention. Perhaps the workers are few in our messed up world, not because people do not want to help, but the workers are few in this day and age because of an understandable frustration with a messed up church.

The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few… And perhaps the workers are few, because people cannot imagine how to fix a messed up world through such a messed up church. And for those of you that may want to snap your fingers in agreement, please know that I have sat in those shoes. And perhaps that is why I was afraid to share my sense of calling with my friends 15 years ago.

Quite frankly, 15 years ago, as a college senior perhaps I did not want to share that I wanted to be a pastor because, although I wanted to follow Jesus, I did not want to be associated with the negativity that is too often associated with Christianity.

I was firmly in the closet, but why? Looking back:

Perhaps I did not want to be considered anti-science...

Perhaps I did not want to be judged as homophobic…

Perhaps I did not want to be associated with right-wing politics…

Perhaps I did not want others to assume I was hypocritical, racially segregated, illogical and oppressive to women.

And of course, perhaps I simply did not want to be considered uncool.
I believed in Jesus, and I wanted to serve, but perhaps I hesitated because I simply thought that far too many Christians were far too messed-up, and I did not want that stink to rub off on me.

And now, years later, I realize that I was right!

The followers of Jesus are messed up!

And I am come to realize that I am proof of that!

But thanks be to God, now I realize that it was never about being perfect. It was never about trying to be pure. And it was never about trying to live up to some standard of religious excellence that I simply could not achieve.

What I now know that I did not know then, was that it was about grace, not guilt. It was about forgiveness, not fault. It was about death and resurrection. It was about recognizing that I too was another messed-up follower of Jesus, and that was OK, because I was justified by grace through faith, and in response to such unconditional, accepting and inclusive love, I was reminded that God has a long history of using messed-up people to fix a messed-up world through a messed-up church. And in receiving a more mature understanding of the Christian faith, I was set free from my fear, and set free for the gift of faith.

So what does this all mean for us today?

As I stand here, I strongly believe there are many who have a deep attraction to the way of Jesus, yet I also believe that just as many people are unclear about whether or not they wish to identify with the challenges of organized religion and complicated reality of the Christian Church.

I believe there are many who greatly enjoy the amazing fellowship received when surrounded by those who are accepting and loving, but the same people are unsure of whether or not the Church can truly serve as such a space.

I believe there are many who are willing to sacrifice and struggle against the oppressive powers of the world, yet would rather find ways to pursue these opportunities in ways which avoid the structures and hierarchy of organized spirituality.

Today, in this place, and at this time, I know without a shred of doubt that there are those who wrestle with massive questions surrounding spirituality, faith, and diverse concepts of God and communities of faith. And I know this, because I am one of them.

My friends, I too struggle. I too doubt. I too wonder if any of this matters at all.
And in doing so, I suppose in some ways I will always be like the student with countless questions surrounding what one truly believes and how it should lead to attempts at faithful action in the world.

And so, while I realize some would rather have a chaplain who declares total certainty on all things spiritual and religious, that simply is not me, nor will it ever be. I am a member of the journey with you rather than someone who falsely claims to have experienced the destination long before you. Which means, I too am a beggar looking for bread, I am "becoming Christian", and in the process of being brought out from a diversity of closets on a daily basis, by God’s grace, accepting who God has created me to be, and in doing so, accepting each moment what it is that God is calling us to collectively do.

And so, my friends, both new and renewed, I invite you this day, to know that you are always welcome in this place, Christ Chapel, wherever you are, whoever you, and however you are. No matter what.

Whether you believe or do not…

Whether you agree or do not…

Whether you are evangelical or atheist...

You are welcome in this place.

Whether you are Asian, Black, Latino, Native American or White…

Whether you are female, male, or transgendered…

Whether you are 2 days old, 20 years old, or 102 years old…

You are welcome in this place.

Whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual…

Whether you are Democrat, Republican, neither, unsure, or don’t care…

You are welcome in this place.

Wherever you are been...

Wherever you have going...

Whoever you are…

Whoever you are coming...

You are welcome, by God's grace, to come out of whatever closet you may be hiding in.
Because Christ has set you free.

And here, in the Chapel that bears his name, you are allowed to be you. Here, you are accepted. Here, you are equipped. Here, you are empowered. This day and always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.