* 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, Minnesota) on September 21, 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.
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.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs at http://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol