Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Elephants, Grass, and Suffering: 2016 Convocation of Teaching Theologians (Brian E. Konkol)

The following text is taken from a homily given at the closing worship of the 2016 Convocation of Teaching Theologians, which gathered under the theme, “Lutheranism and the Famil(lies)”. 

This text was published with the Huffington Post on 10/25/2016 and can be found at:

Please note that the below manuscript was originally written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. This proverb from Kenya is as true and relevant today as when the words were first spoken, perhaps thousands of years ago. The statement reminds us that, when the most powerful among us conflict, the most vulnerable ultimately endure the most. 

This pearl of insight from the cradle of humankind, is - in many ways - a commentary upon our contemporary political climate in general, and our current election season in particular. Leaders of our ideological factions continue to make truth claims about how dangerous, irresponsible, foolish, misguided, unqualified and unpatriotic those of its opposition are. Furthermore, as our disappointing media once again converts potential civic education opportunities into sensationalized political pornography, those who suffer most from the cheap theater and expensive dysfunction of it all are those that continue to be placed on the margins of society. Because, “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

In the midst of what many describe as a political gridlock, the wheels of injustice have not stood still, and with each revolution of the Earth our scales of opportunity and prosperity continue to tip in favor of the most powerful and privileged of our planet. We now possess unprecedented local and global income disparity, increasing consequences of climate change, inequitable access to health care and suitable education, violent warfare across the globe, and near nuclear levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, ideological polarization, idolatrous imperialism, and violent discrimination based upon sexual orientation. And of course, then there is Donald Trump. He is a man whom my faith compels me to see as a Child of God, yet my faith also moves me to resist his message and methods as contrary to the Mission of God. As another timeless African proverb reminds us: “When the elephant sits on the mouse, the mouse does not appreciate your neutrality”. 

The 12th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel sharply reminds us that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”. As participants in a Lutheran church and tradition that claims to share a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”. 

These words from Scripture were stirring when first recorded and shared generations ago, but in such pivotal political times as now should especially sink deep, for we recognize that everything which begins in theology tends to end up in politics! Yet despite our theological claims which express the ways and means by which God is active in and through our civic configurations, we so often cite our religious commitments as an excuse not to engage publically in matters that most matter. 

There are countless reasons not to be involved in the potential poisons of partisan politics. However, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to remind us from the grave, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil... Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” As we now know, Bonhoeffer then knew, and yet he still paid, such costs of discipleship. Why not us? In response to all that we have been given as people justified by grace through faith, and in reaction to that in which we have been entrusted as stewards of this Earth and blessed caretakers of the faith, we are called not only to share a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, but also a living and daring suspicion of cheap grace. At this moment, when the history of fascism is rhyming once more, we that might dare to identify as Lutherans are especially called and equipped to consider whether or not we will practice what we preach and teach this time around. We cannot sit back and let the fullness of life be sacrificed once more at the altar of another golden calf.

So what does this mean? For starters, as people of faith, we recognize that whenever two or three are gathered, there are politics. This is a fact of life. Which in turn means, there are always political implications to our theological affirmations. Always. Which further means, as people called to participate in a missiological trajectory, informed by the Lutheran tradition, in which the wisdom of God’s Household (oikos-logos) is active in and through the ways in which we organize life in God’s Household (oikos-nomos), the ecclesial means by which such missiological ends takes place is - by its very nature - political, which ultimatley means it is not a question of if one is engaged, but more fundamentally a matter of how. 

So the question then becomes: If God in Christ seeks to provide the fullness of life, and if the political process clearly has an impact upon the fullness of life, then how do people of faith serve as the hands and feet of God in this world through political means, especially when policies are too often proposed that would have a disastrous impact upon far too many?

If politics, at its core, is about how we choose to organize our lives together in service to the common good, and if religion, at its core, is about how we are bonded together through a God that is good, then we let our full lives speak fullytheologically and politically, for the sake of life, and in the name of Jesus Christ. We cannot allow a world order that values dominance over cooperation, denies climate change, insults veterans, trivializes truth telling, threatens a free press, mocks the differently abled, encourages espionage, denigrates women, celebrates violence, dehumanizes immigrants, criminalizes Muslims, puts profit before people, and insists that black lives don’t matter. Furthermore, for those of us that care about the Church, we cannot allow a world in which Constantinian-like Christian conversions of political convenience leave us with a rejuvenated brand of Constantinian-type Christianity.

Despite our best attempts, we are not saved by theology, nor are we saved by politics. This is most certainly true. As Lutherans we ultimately place our hopes at the foot of the cross of Christ. Nevertheless, theology and politics do matter, as those that believe the theologically absurd are too often tempted to commit the politically atrocious. Which is why, as practitioners of Gospel proclamation, any amount of real or perceived silence from our platforms and pulpits in response to the absurdities of our days will inevitably lead to more atrocities in the days to come. In response to the amazing grace of God made known in Jesus, we recognize that silence itself in times such as these is both absurd and atrocious.

To think about this all is not enough. To talk amongst ourselves is not enough. We are called to inform others and be informed by others, pray and be prayed for, knock on doors, allow our doors to be knocked on, organize and empathize and strategize, make calls and stand tall, speak out and explore doubt, register to vote, help register others to vote, vote, encourage others to vote, and drive ten friends to the polls so they can vote! And in the midst of it all, with both humility and boldness, engage those who seem most unbearable, and ultimatley, accompany those we know are most vulnerable. Because, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. 

As Jesus sought to narrow the gap between what is and what ought to be, may the gift of the Gospel give us all the strength to meet this critical moment in time. May we be set free from the fear of what our collective prophetic voice might sound like. May we be set free for the courage required to let our full lives speak fully and put our faith more boldly into action. 

For the sake of all families. For the sake of all futures. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Manners Matter: A Sermon on Gratitude in a Season of Incivility (Brian E. Konkol)

The following text, published with The Huffington Post on October 14, 2016, is s taken from a sermon given in Christ Chapel on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) on October 9, 2016. As a part of Family Weekend celebrations, the worship service included musical selections from: The Adolphus Jazz Ensemble, Gustavus Wind Symphony, Lucia Singers, Christ Chapel Brass, Christ Chapel Ringers, and Choir of Christ Chapel. This sermon utilizes the work of Dr. David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, who wrote “Second Blessing”. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

Mind your manners.

Keep your elbows off the table. Don’t play with your food.
And please, don’t chew with your mouth open; it’s actually quite rude.

Don’t leave the fridge open. Don’t slam the car door.
Don’t throw empty cans and boxes all over the floor.

Please, don’t fight with your roommate. Don’t pull the campus cat’s tail.
Don’t read your classmates’ text or Email.

Don’t pester your professors. Don’t stick out your tongue.
And, whatever you do… Please, Please, Please… Don’t do what your parents did,
when they were so young!

Don't point and don’t yell when the music is playing. Do what you know you should do.
Write kind notes. Forgive others.
And of course, do not forget to say please and thank you.

Mind your manners. An admittedly amateur poem. Nevertheless, one that could be printed and pasted upside down on the shirt of each and every student here at Gustavus Adolphus College, so one can always look down and read it, over and over and over again! Why? So that all can be mindful of their manners. Why? Because, manners do matter.

Manners do matter. Whether its children spending the night at a friend’s house, or emerging adults being dropped off for college, or perhaps even young professionals in preparation for an important job interview, we tell those we care about to mind their manners. Because, those who care about us have told us to mind our manners. Because, manners – across the span of time – do most certainly matter. This is the case now. And yes, this was the case 2,000 years ago, even for Ten Lepers seeking to be healed by the Son of God, a narrative we heard about just a few moments ago.

In our lesson for this morning, from the 17th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a group of ten people. These ten are lepers. They are socially marginalized and branded as public outcasts. The ten approach Jesus with a passionate plea for healing, and in response, Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the local priest, promising by implication that the ten will be made well. And, indeed, as the ten travel they are made well, collectively cleansed of their debilitating infirmity. It is, quite frankly, quite awesome.

The narrative could have ended in that moment, However, it continues, and in verse 15, when one of the ten notices what has happened, he is mindful of his manners, and he turns back to express the particular manner of gratitude, falling at Jesus’ feet, to give thanks for all that he has wonderfully received.

At this point there are a few important notes to make. First, the other nine who did not return to give thanks are by no means the villains of this story. For those of us in the room who have never before been lepers (and I am assuming that this is most of us here today), I think it is safe to say that we should cut the nine lepers a bit of slack. They’ve earned it. Considering how difficult their situation had been, and considering how exciting it must have been to receive such a new lease on life, and considering how excited we get at that which is by no means even close in comparison, we should resist the temptation to make the nine who did not return to Jesus the label of ungrateful scoundrels. If we do, we are missing the point. Besides, the nine actually did exactly as they were told, and presumably also enjoyed the blessing of Jesus’ healing.

However, it is worth noting that the one who did turn back, the one who was mindful of a particular manner, which we might call the “manner of gratitude”, not only did this one see that he was healed, but he was – in many ways – blessed a second time, as if he had received the blessing once again. This is an important point. Not only was the one made well like the other nine, but in going back and giving thanks he was blessed once more, as in verse 17 Jesus invites the man to rise and go on his way, declaring that his faith has made him not only physically well, but fully and entirely whole. So what this means is that, not only did the one receive the blessing of healing, as did the other nine, but in recognizing his blessing and giving thanks for it – he received the gift of wholeness and even a taste of life in its glorious fullness. And this, for us, is an example of how and why being mindful of our manners does indeed matter.

Because, when manners matter, not only are we blessed, but we recognize our blessings, and in giving thanks, we in turn receive and share the all-encompassing gift of wholeness. In other words, the love of God will shine down regardless, as that is what amazing grace is all about! However, in being mindful of our manners, and in particular – being mindful of the manner of gratitude, in giving thanks for what one has received it is like receiving the gift all over again, so that it can be shared. Which again, is one of the many reasons why, manners matter.

Manners do matter, which is worth noting, especially on days such as today. Because, we seem to be living in a time when more or more people are of the belief that manners simply do not matter. Whether it’s giving thanks for what we have received, or countless other examples of when we have opportunities to give for others, we are living at a time in which being mindful of manners and being committed to so-called political correctness is viewed as an annoying sign of weakness, and all too often we are told that harsh and brash bombastic blustering, without concern for anyone else, is some sort of badge of bravery. We are living at a time when a disturbing number of people argue that it is perfectly acceptable to be unapologetically rude, just as long as being rude is speaking one’s mind, whatever that even means.

Instead of giving thanks for the countless gifts that we receive each and every day by seeking to share such giftedness with others, we are now being told that it is perfectly acceptable not to care about anyone or anything else. We are told it is fine to destroy the planet. We are told that it’s OK to insult veterans, trivialize truth telling, and threaten the freedom of the media. We are told that it’s fine to mock the differently abled, encourage espionage, and celebrate violence. We are told that it is justifiable to dehumanize immigrants, criminalize Muslims, put profit before people, and insists that black lives don’t matter.

And, in the past 48 hours, my God.

We have been told that it’s OK to denigrate women, and we have been told that sexual harassment and assault is acceptable if you’re famous. And not only that, but we have recently been told that a lifetime of grotesque and unapologetic sexism, and the ongoing and unabashed endorsement or rape culture, is somehow suitable if you’re running for president. As a parent and husband, and as a follower of Jesus Christ, it makes me want to vomit. As of late, we have been told that it is perfectly OK to not strive to be a decent human being, just as long as you are trying your best to get what you want.

We have been told that manners do not matter.

So the question is: How did we get to this point? How did we get here?

One can persuasively argue that being mindful of one’s manners and embracing so-called political correctness has become the complaint of choice for those who simply do not like diversity and equity in our global human family and Earth Community. For men who fear their power is being taken over by women, for white people who fear their racial privilege is slipping away, and even for Christians who are afraid to see their religious freedoms extend to those not committed to their particular creeds. In the midst of it all, in a diverse and inequitable human family that is as fast-changing as ours, there is indeed a debate to be had about how we should best interact with each other. And human nature being as it is, it is a difficult debate.

However, as Jesus clearly affirmed in the 17th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, being a community works best when we have respect for one another, when we choose to be civil with each other, and when we commit to being inclusive of each other, to avoid unnecessary offence, and to behave in ways that provide the totality of the human family with diverse and equitable opportunities. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus models this radical hospitality by crossing boundaries, wandering into the places and spaces he is told by some not to go, and healing people whom the world has wanted to dispose of – all for the sake of bringing life in its fullness, not only for one, but for the totality of all. Because, that is – ultimatley – why manners most matter.

Manners are about more than using the right salad fork or not slurping when finish your drink. Manners matter, because as Jesus revealed, people matter. Communities matter. Life matters. And when we consider the larger or more universal manners that matter most, how we treat others reveals whether or not we actually care about others. Because, at the heart of good manners is the good heart of a good individual seeking a good life. And a good life is only possible when we recognize that the hopes and dreams of others are intimately and intricately bound with the hopes and dreams of one-self.

Peter Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, remarked that manners are like the traffic lights for life. Manners are like the traffic lights for life. On the road, traffic lights turn a world full of diverse vehicles moving in diverse directions into an equitable system that allows everyone to get where they hope to be going. Therefore, as Forni remarked, "The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction”, or in other words "(Manners) make it so that we don't crash into one another in everyday behavior." And as is illustrated in our Gospel lesson for today, if manners are indeed the traffic lights of life, then gratitude is perhaps the most noble manner of all.

As was shown in our Gospel lesson for today, the manner of gratitude draws us out of ourselves and pours us into the great and glorious ensemble of life, and in doing so, we are set free from fear and set free for one another. This is what motivated the one to return to Jesus, because he realized he was more than a Samaritan, and he was more than a marginalized outcast. He learned to see what Jesus had already seen, that he was a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful, just simply for being. This is what the other nine missed. By not practicing the manner of gratitude, they did not see their good fortune, and did not voice their blessing, and in doing so they missed out on also being made whole.

And so, what does this all mean? For us, here? Today? It means that perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at our world once again. Is it filled with troubles? Yes. But, it is also filled with blessing? Yes, indeed. Our world is filled with families that care for each other, colleagues who work hard and work well with each other, educational institutions where teachers care about their pupils and students who are eager to live and learn. We have a form of government that is far from perfect yet strives to honor the dignity of its citizens. We have relief and advocacy agencies that seek justice, good neighbors who support one another, a community of faith where the Word of God is preached and the life of faith is nourished and the Mission of God is advanced. And of course, we have beautiful music to help us through it all. Thank God!

And so, yes, this world is full of both blessing and challenges. Today, and beyond, when we are mindful of the manner of gratitude, the blessings ultimatley multiply, and the challenges that we collectively face no longer seem so frightening or insurmountable. As the cup of God’s grace overflows, it touches the ethically thirsty spaces and spiritually dehydrated places of our world, so dearly in need of hospitality and wholeness.

And so, as the 150th Psalm reminded us moment ago, as we continue to celebrate this morning and far into the future, and as we continue to live with and for each other, today and beyond, let us be mindful of the manner of gratitude, and in doing so:

Let us praise God for all that we have received, through words and deeds. Despite all the reasons we have not to!

As the Psalmist reminds us, let us praise God in the sanctuary and and on the streets…

Let us praise God for all that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do.
Let us praise God with trumpet sound;
Let us praise God with lute and harp!

Let us praise God with tambourine and dance;
Let us praise God with strings and pipe!

Let us praise God with clanging cymbals;
Let us praise God with loud clashing cymbals!

Let us praise God!

Despite the cynicism, negativity, and apathy…
Despite the temptations, urges, and false motivations…

As the Gospel promise compels us:

Let us praise God with theatre, dance, and liturgical drama…
Let us praise God with the Adolphus Jazz Ensemble!
Let us praise God with the Gustavus Wind Symphony and delightful Lucia Singers.
Let us praise God with the Christ Chapel Brass and glorious Christ Chapel ringers.
Let us praise God with the Choir of Christ Chapel,
Today, tomorrow, in mind, body, and spirit.

And let us do so, both inside and outside of this chapel.

Despite all the reasons we might have not too, this morning and beyond, let all that breathes praise God, so that all may breathe with God.
This is our prayer. We trust it is God’s desire. Amen.