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A Sort of Republican Banquet

I had the great privilege earlier this month of celebrating the 90th birthday of Martin Marty and the 20th anniversary of the Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion (at the University of Chicago Divinity School) by presenting the following paper at a conference to mark the occasions.  You will recognize the themes here and I hope also see how Marty’s work has influenced my life in higher education.

““God is good,” murmured the Imam as he stepped to the microphone, to which we people of diverse faiths and experiences responded in our hearts, “Yes, God is good, and this is not what our God intends for us.”

The occasion was a neighborhood meeting in 2008 following the murder of Ahmednur Ali, one of our Augsburg students – a young Somali-American who broke up a fight while he was tutoring children at the local community center and was gunned down outside the center.  The meeting was to address safety concerns in the aftermath of the shooting, and we all experienced first-hand the wrenching emotional impact of this shooting on our lives together.  Though we intended to talk about more security cameras and heightened safety patrols, instead we listened to urgent longing for community.  Instead of hearts breaking apart, the Imam broke our hearts open to a new path forward.  In that spirit, our community came together to rededicate itself to the well-being of our neighbors – yes, to more security cameras and personnel, but even more urgently to finding common purpose in the health, safety and well-being of our neighbors and neighborhood.

It is what has happened on our campus and in our neighborhood since this incident in 2008 that I want to describe briefly this afternoon, and in particular how Marty shaped my response to this event and gave me direction that orients my leadership at Augsburg University and in the world.

First, a brief autobiographical note that informs my contribution to this occasion.  I am an unusual Marty student (aren’t we all!).  I am not a historian of any stripe. I began at the Divinity School in 1978, first as a master’s student and then as a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society.  After finishing my doctoral exams, I was distracted by the opportunity to take on an administrative post in the development office at the University – a move that led me eventually through a succession of roles at the University and the Art Institute of Chicago, and further away from finishing a dissertation in ethics.  It was upon my return to the Divinity School in 1991 as the associate dean that then Dean Clark Gilpin challenged me to complete my doctoral studies – something about modeling good graduate student behavior, I believe was his point.  Given the time that had passed, none of my ethics faculty mentors were still at the Divinity School, so Dean Gilpin offered the most helpful advice I’ve perhaps ever received. Find someone who will help you finish. That is how it came to be that I am one of the 128 advisees on that card in Marty’s wallet! And I stand as just one example – as this afternoon’s program illustrates – of the diverse students Marty attracts and mentors and the influence they have across the academy, the church and the world.

I had the same experience many of you in this room enjoyed with Marty – summers on the porch in Riverside, thoughtful guidance on all things related to dissertation writing, provocative challenges to thesis and exposition – but our conversations weren’t about American religious history, instead they veered to the role of professions and institutions in American public life, in fact to our shared commitment to understanding how faith informs our roles in democracy. In that way, Marty helped me understand how my academic pursuits set a foundation for leadership in higher education and beyond – and my path forward has never been the same.

I am a social ethicist now in my 16th year as a university president, and I know that my calling as a leader in higher education has been shaped by several fundamental themes in Marty’s life and work – themes that I believe are at the heart of the Marty Center’s mission and programs.  Allow me to name three “compass points,” if you will, in Marty’s work that are relevant to my story.

In 1979, Marty penned an essay in The Journal of Religion entitled “A sort of republican banquet.” Borrowing William James’s concept of the republican banquet table, Marty offers a masterful overview of the dynamic ways in which faith and religion have played critical roles in the history of our republic. From the deism of the founders to DeTocqueville’s mid-19th century curiosity about how diverse faith communities tolerated each other to John Dewey’s “common faith,” Robert Bellah’s “civil religion” and Peter Berger’s “canopy of the sacred,” Marty suggests that the willingness (or not) of diverse faiths to come to the banquet table, share their particularities, engage in conversation and seek common purpose has been one of the markers of the well-being of our republic.  Stopping short of a normative claim, Marty concludes that “sightings” – or perhaps more fittingly, “seatings” – of the faithful at the banquet table are worthy of our abiding attention.

Hold that image for now – “a sort of republican banquet table.”

And then to Marty’s 1997 book, The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good, in which he seeks to name the threads of diverse myths, symbols and stories that enable us to craft a robust and vital body politic – not with some grand narrative of oneness or community, but with “associations” that come together in pursuit of, and grounded by, cohesive affections and sentiments. Imagine the common good pursued through an “association of associations.”

Another image to hold – “an association of associations.”

And finally to a more recent book, Building Cultures of Trust, Marty’s 2010 expansive argument for the need to restore trust in our institutions and systems – trust that makes possible the sort of common work that undergirds healthy communities and organizations and societies.  Here he both names the risks associated with building and restoring trust – risks many of us as leaders and citizens have experienced – while at the same time pointing to the need to build and rebuild trust from the bottom up, on the ground in everyday public life.

A final image – “cultures of trust.”

A sort of republican banquet table; an association of associations; and cultures of trust. I believe it is at the intersection of these themes that robust democratic engagement happens.  People of faith come to the banquet table, able and willing to share their diverse and particular stories when there is trust that deeply held beliefs will be taken seriously and that there is a foundation for moving forward together.

Now back to my story. Augsburg University, one of the 26 colleges and universities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is located in a Minneapolis neighborhood that comprises the most diverse zip code between Chicago and Los Angeles, where most of our neighbors are Somali-Americans, the largest Somali community outside of Mogadishu.

Ten years ago, someone broke the commandment, “You shall not murder,” and now I know why God gave Moses the great gift of these commandments. Offered in a specific context to the Israelites, God spoke these commandments directly to God’s people so that they might know that they were chosen, that God loved them, that God wanted them to flourish.  And in following the commandments, the Israelites would live into God’s will, God’s reign, God’s intentions for God’s people.

With a nod to my own faith tradition, Martin Luther also is helpful here in his explanation of the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” when he says: This means that “we are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way.”  Simple and yet so remarkably helpful.  To kill someone is about much more than the sinful act of murder – the law covers the murderer – it is about our neighbors and our neighborhood.  It is about the pain and fear and injustice – it also is about the compassion and consolation and remembering.  It is about God in our midst, allowing us to go on, keeping us strong even when we don’t believe we can go on because we are sad and desperate and frightened.  The commandments are about a loving God with us. A remarkable gift.

And it is God’s gift that I was firmly focused on as I led a mourning community in the midst of an anxious and frightened neighborhood.  Someone broke a commandment and now we lived in the aftermath.  It is clear to me that God does not give us commandments primarily to convict the sinner – we all get that, we’re broken, we don’t live up to the rules, we struggle to hold it all together.  God gives us commandments so that we might know the sort of lives God intends for us to live together.

What this has meant for Augsburg and our neighborhood during these past ten years is an agenda of work and conversation – I’m drawn to mid-20th century Roman Catholic political philosopher John Courtney Murray’s reminder that the Latin root of conversation means both to talk together and to live together – an agenda we pursue together at the republican banquet table, sharing our diverse stories as we associate, and building trust as we build a healthier, more just, more equitable and compassionate neighborhood.

And it happens in very practical, concrete, even mundane and ordinary ways – though often with extraordinary impact.  Four quick themes of our interfaith work and lives…

  • In our undergraduate curriculum, one of our required religion courses introduces our students of diverse faiths and backgrounds to the Lutheran Christian theological concept of vocation.  As our faculty report, these classes quickly turn into interfaith conversations as students share how the concepts they are learning (“thick” stories from our institutional tradition) relate, intersect and perhaps clash with their own beliefs.  A sort of republican banquet table right there in the classroom.
  • In our campus life, we have sought ways to clearly state the firm character of our particular faith tradition – daily chapel services, carrying the cross for university events, sharing how the charisms of our tradition shape our identity – while at the same time being hospitable and embracing of the diverse students we education – a Muslim chaplain in our campus ministry office and a vital Muslim Student Association, prayer spaces and dining options, orientation for residence life staff about interfaith issues, a new Hillel has been organized.  Building a culture of trust on campus and beyond.
  • In our institutional practices, our Board of Regents has adopted policies that embrace our commitments to hospitality and justice for those of diverse faiths.  We have integrated interfaith prayers, alongside our traditional Christian prayers, into our institutional rituals. A credit-bearing interfaith scholars program deploys students of diverse faith backgrounds as ambassadors of interfaith living across campus – seeking to share information about diverse faiths, build relationships between people of diverse faiths, and help shape positive attitudes toward those of different faith traditions. We monitor these efforts intentionally and vigilantly, knowing that we cannot leave the work to chance.
  • In our community engagement, we host (alongside two Lutheran congregations and two Muslim communities) weekly interfaith meals, conversations and service projects. The local Jewish federation has partnered with us to send our students to Israel for study trips. We have three Interfaith fellows (representing Jewish, Muslim and Humanist leaders) from the community serving as resource people on campus. We are seen more and more as a model for interfaith living by our sister colleges and universities who are learning from our work.  Lots of associations in association!

 

I’ll conclude here with a word of appreciation to Marty (90 years young!), The Marty Center and the Divinity School for now 40 years of forming my leadership in higher education and society. And I know that similar gratitude flows from a cloud of witnesses across the globe, for who Marty’s legacy has shaped the public understanding and practice of religion. I have the great privilege to witness to the power of “a sort of republican banquet table” – the lesson I learned from my teacher, Martin Marty – as we pursue the common good in the academy and in public. Perhaps even as we attend to the “seatings” at the banquet table – our good work as scholars – we are called more and more to take our own seat there on behalf of a more robust and vital republic and democracy.  May it be so.”

By Another Way

This was my first chapel homily of the new year.

Scripture: Matthew 2: 11-12 (KJV)

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver (From “The Summer Day”)

I love the fantastical story of the Wise Ones, who travel from afar to find the Christ Child.  Found only in Matthew’s gospel, the story is mysterious, cryptic, magical – and probably not true.  But who cares, because it is a story – like all good fiction – that draws us to a larger truth.  And I think that this larger truth is found in the two verses we heard from the story this morning: they find the child and his mother; they bow down in reverence; and then, directed by the Divine, set off by “another way.”

I am struck at the dawn of this Epiphany season, this time after Christmas when we mark the ways in which the gospel is proclaimed to the entire world, what it means for all of God’s faithful people to set off “by another way” now that we too have seen the Christ Child and been changed forever.

As Pastor Dave shared with us in yesterday’s chapel homily, this Epiphany season is a fitting time for us to answer poet Mary Oliver’s piercing question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  But I want to back up a few lines in her poem to explore why the question itself is important. As she writes, “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…Tell me, what else should I have done?” There is the question that haunts me this Epiphany.  What else should I have done?  What else shall I do now that God has entered human history in the person of a child, now that the Word has become flesh and dwelled among us, now that we have been changed forever by God’s loving and gracious act?  What else?

What else should I have done?  What does it mean for God’s faithful people to travel – at God’s invitation and direction – by another way?

First, we confess – Early in December, our annual Advent Vespers services began with this powerful prayer, crafted by Keith Watkins:

“Prayer of Confession” by Keith Watkins

God, we confess that ours is still a world in which Herod seems to rule:

The powerful are revered, the visions of the wise are ignored, the poor are afflicted, and the innocents are killed.

You show that salvation comes in the vulnerability of a child, yet we hunger for the “security” of walls.

You teach us that freedom comes in loving service, yet we trample on others in our efforts to be “free.”

Forgive us, God, when we look to the palace instead of the stable, when we heed politicians more than prophets.

Renew us with the spirit of Bethlehem, that we may be better prepared for your coming.

Amen.

Ours is a world that reveres power, that ignores wisdom, that afflicts the poor, that kills the innocents.  We are people who seek salvation in walling ourselves off from each other. We are a people who seek to get ahead by climbing over the vulnerable in our midst.  We long for palaces and other signs of wealth instead of the humble and ordinary ways in which God’s will is done.  We put our faith in human promises when prophets proclaim another way. We ignore the question that the Christ Child puts to each of us – what else should I do to live as God intends?

And then confident of God’s faithful promise of forgiveness and reconciliation, we move forward by another way.  Perhaps we listen to the call of prophets like African-American theologian Howard Thurman, who wrote this call to action:

“Now the Work of Christmas Begins”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Or perhaps our way forward – what we will do with our one wild and precious life – is to see the world with new eyes this Epiphany.

  • To say Yes when the world says No – did you know that research shows that it takes five affirming comments to overcome one critical word?  How will you say yes to your friends and neighbors, to those you disagree with, to the strangers in our midst, to the most vulnerable in our community, so that your affirming words might lift their hearts and bodies and spirits?
  • To seek abundance in a world marked by the cynicism of scarcity – do we understand that abundance is much more about how we overcome the fear and anxiety of having to share what we have than it is about having more?  There is plenty to go around – thanks be to God  – so how will we marshal the courage and imagination and resolve to share it wisely with all God’s creation?
  • To be beacons of hope and joy in a world filled with fear and darkness – recall that wonderful line from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.” Epiphany calls us to be the light of the world – to recognize that in all of its brokenness, all of its cracks, the world so needs the light of hope and joy that shines through us.

How about instead of New Year’s resolutions, our task as God’s faithful people this Epiphany season is to renew our baptismal promises – to explore what else shall I do, to seek another way home, to know that God in Christ Jesus has comes into our midst so that all of the world might be redeemed by God’s loving grace and our faithful service.  May it be so.

Standing Alongside Our Somali Community

Our hearts are broken by the tragedy in Mogadishu this weekend, as we walk alongside all those who are grieving. The attacks were the deadliest in decades and have affected communities around the globe, on our campus, and in our own neighborhood.  

This evening, Augsburg’s Campus Ministry and Muslim Student Association will offer a space for reflection and healing from 5 to 6 p.m. in Hoversten Chapel. All are invited for prayer, followed by fellowship and Somali tea. In addition, Jummah (Friday Prayer) will be extended to include prayers for Mogadishu. It will be held from 1:30 to 2:30pm in Hoversten Chapel.

We stand with all our students, alumni, staff, faculty, and neighbors who have lost loved ones during this time of grief and sorrow.

Supporting DACA Students and Our Nation

Over the Labor Day weekend, I received numerous communications from higher education leaders across the nation, calling on us to urge our elected representatives and policymakers to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and to pursue legislation to create more lasting solutions. Augsburg stands firmly in support of these efforts.

Throughout its nearly 150-year history, Augsburg has always engaged and taught the “students right in front of us.” In the early years, these students were from Norwegian immigrant populations. Over the decades, Augsburg has grown to serve a shifting profile of students of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

In the past 15 years we have had the privilege to meet the so-called “Dreamers,” remarkable young people who grew up in this country because their parents moved here to seek a better life. Our undocumented and DACA students have astounded us with their intellect, their work ethic and perseverance, and their service to our communities.

Since 2012, our DACA students have been able to enhance their education through work and study abroad opportunities — vital educational experiences not available to them before DACA was created. A decision now to curtail DACA would rob these innocent young people of their opportunity for education — a promise we have made to them — and it would rob our country of a generation of immigrant children who, like previous generations of immigrants before them, promise to make our country ever stronger and more vibrant.

We stand with our students, and we offer our resources to advocate for their education and their lives in this country. Our nation will only be strengthened by their talents and by our ability to create a positive, long-term policy solution to support them.

Paul C. Pribbenow

 

Resources for students:

Augsburg Diversity, Inclusion and Equity

Campus Climate and Advisory Team

Services for Undocumented Students

The Fierce Urgency of Now: A Call to the Community

Note: Augsburg President Paul C. Pribbenow issued a statement to the Augsburg community on August 17, 2017, in response to recent events in the United State and the world. His statement is below.

Paul C. PribbenowDear Members of the Augsburg Community,

Events in our country and around the world during the past several months have reminded us that the spectre of fear and prejudice and bigotry are very much present in our common lives. Whether it is violence in the name of white supremacy, rhetoric demonizing immigrants and refugees, policies discriminating against those of various sexual and gender identities, or the general rancor and polarization in our political discourse – all of this illustrates the need for citizens to come together with courage and resolve to fight back, to stand with love against hate and prejudice, to seek opportunities for genuine conversation and common purpose.

The Augsburg community is by no means immune from the dynamics of this volatile social situation. At the same time, however, dedicated and principled work over the past decade by faculty, staff and students has positioned Augsburg to be a model for how a community can navigate the throes of shifting demographics, progressive social mores and the polarizing fear and anxiety that characterize our public lives.  In fact, it is precisely because of Augsburg’s faith, academic and civic traditions that we are poised to show a way forward in the 21st century.

And now is the time for us to lead. As inspiration for the work we must pursue as a community, I have returned to the wise words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in his 1963 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, said “(W)e are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” Now is the time for urgent reflection and action.

King’s words were prescient:

“…our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform the world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood (sic). Together we must learn to live as (siblings) or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”

In particular, I am struck by Dr. King’s insistence that “…we are challenged to work all over the world with unshakeable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism.” Here, fifty years later, we must return to this very challenge, to what King called the need to celebrate our “world house,” comprising black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – to which we might add, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, straight and gay and more.

The Augsburg community is a microcosm of “the world house.” It is our rare and compelling call to live as a people united by ecumenical loyalties, called to illustrate for all to see how love for one another, what Dr. King called “the supreme unifying principle” claimed by all great world religions, might be the path forward in a world torn to its very core by the forces of hatred, prejudice and violence. The time is now.

Faithfully yours,

Paul C. Pribbenow

A University Embracing “Both/And”

A photo of proud members of the Class of 2017!
Proud members of the Class of 2017!

I am writing these notes on Commencement weekend when we have just sent the final graduates of Augsburg College into the world, full of promise and aspiration – as has been the case for almost 150 years.  As you will read in this issue of Augsburg Now, the change of our name to Augsburg University will become official in September and we will welcome the first class on Labor Day weekend.  We are busy preparing for this exciting new era for Augsburg!

For some, the name change may reflect a break with Augsburg’s past.  For others, perhaps this is a welcome acceptance of the need to embrace the future.  For the Augsburg community, however, the change is a remarkable opportunity to re-present Augsburg to the world – to tell a story that is about an abiding mission and identity shaped by faith, academic and civic values, and at the same time to point to innovative and urgently needed responses to our dynamic environment.  In other words, this change is about the pivot from “either/or” to “both/and.”  This is about embracing the best of past, present and future.  This is about Augsburg University.

The almost 1000 new Auggies who commenced into the world this spring reflect in their achievements and aspirations the foundation for embracing this change.

Across both undergraduate and graduate programs, the class of 2017 achieved academic excellence of the highest order, excellence that defines a university.  National and international honors for scholarship and service; exemplary undergraduate research that equips students for graduate work and professional opportunities; innovative community-building that strengthens democratic engagement; and a commitment to equity in education that promises to change the world.

At the same time, our newest graduates reflect the diversity that we expect in a university – diversity of ethnicity, thinking, life experience, identity and ability – diversity not for its own sake but for the promise of a more robust, healthy and just world.  As I watched our diverse graduates cross the stage, I could not help but be filled with hope in our future leaders who already have learned to navigate difference in ways that unite rather than divide.

In a final way, these newest Augsburg graduates offer a perhaps counter-cultural lesson about what makes for a great university.  Though some imagine a university as big and bureaucratic and faceless, Augsburg has a vision to be a new kind of student-centered, urban university – small to our students and big for the world.  The sense of community was palpable in our commencement ceremonies as graduates cheered each other and celebrated the relationships they have forged at Augsburg, life-long relationships that engendered achievement and success.  And propelled by those relationships, our graduates will indeed be “big for the world,” as they live Augsburg’s mission as “informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers and responsible leaders.”

Here’s to the power of “both/and” and the promise of Augsburg University!’

Lives that Speak

Paul C. Pribbenow
Augsburg College President Paul C. Pribbenow

Here is an excerpt from my Honors Convocation address this spring.

The title for my address this afternoon is a play on a meaningful Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.”  In his book of the same title, educator and honorary Auggie Parker Palmer recounts his own vocational journey.  Initially he interpreted “Let your life speak” to mean find the most inspiring causes and individuals in the world and seek to be like them.  But after many epic fails at that pursuit, he instead comes to know that “Let your life speak” means to listen to your own values and gifts and passions so that yours might be the life you were intended to live – not someone else’s.  And therein is the turn I want to make in my remarks to you on this special occasion.  Even as we gather here today to honor and celebrate you, I want to boldly proclaim that each of you has lived here among us with a life that has spoken loud and clear with exceptional intellect, hard work, and moral passion in the classroom, on campus, in the neighborhood and around the world.  You honor us with your lives that speak.

So, what lessons have we learned from your lives that will continue to shape Augsburg into the future?  I trust others gathered here will share why they believe you deserve to be honored, but here are four lessons I’ve gained from your good work here.

First, you’ve shown me over and over again how intellect and experience cannot be separated.  You embody the 20th century educational philosopher John Dewey’s idea that education is not preparation for real life, it is real life.  I was with a group of our students in 2014 at our campus site in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  We spent a couple of days visiting various sites – a bathing suit factory made possible by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an indigenous village where the residents lived with unhealthy and unjust conditions.  These were long and stressful days, full of experiences that challenged our hearts and senses and minds.  And I’ll never forget the moment as we were about to leave the village after a wrenching and exhausting day when one of our students asked for reflection time.  And even though a few of us groaned in our weariness, she didn’t want to leave the experience she had just had – as difficult as it had been – without seeking to understand, to reflect upon, to integrate into her own thinking what she had just seen and done.  This integration of theory and practice that is at the heart of an Augsburg education is not something to be taken for granted.  I visit lots of other colleges and universities in my work, and students often comment that they feel “under a bubble” while in school there.  There is no Augsburg bubble and we have you to thank for showing us what it means to be what MIT professor, Donald Schön, has called, “reflective practitioners,” those who practice the art of linking reflection and experience in every aspect of your life.

You’ve also taught me how to love this place.  The pride you have in this college and its place in the heart of the city is tangible in your spirit and t-shirts and good work to make this college and neighborhood even stronger.  From the time you first arrived for SOAR and were assigned to a neighborhood, you have been stewards of this place in myriad ways.  You have settled here and taken good care of what has been entrusted to us on this campus and in our neighborhood.  There are tangible results of your stewardship of this place in a Campus Cupboard to meet the needs of your fellow students, in your engagement on behalf of lives that matter, in more and more attention to our carbon footprint, and the care you have taken to create a safer and more vibrant neighborhood.  The novelist Wallace Stegner once wrote that the American psyche is in tension between what he calls “the boomers,” those who go into a place, use it up and then leave – and “the stickers,” those who settle in a place and work to renew it and make it better.  You have taught me again the importance of “sticking,” of staying and settling in. At Augsburg, we accompany and settle alongside our neighbors.  We pursue education in this place, equipping each other for lives of meaning and purpose.  We welcome each other in this place, sustaining a community of hospitality and mutual respect.  We love and are faithful to this place that has been our home for almost 145 years.

And you’ve taught me not to be afraid of the other, the stranger.  We live in a world of fear and violence and separation.  We too often marginalize the stranger, retreating to what the late sociologist Robert Bellah called “our lifestyle enclaves,” mingling with those with whom we share culture and skin color and income status, trying to find safety away from the uncomfortable, the unknown.  But, of course – as you have taught us well – retreating doesn’t work because the world only becomes more dangerous and polarized and frightened.  Here at Augsburg you have lived into a community of hospitality and justice that embraces otherness and difference, that faces the tensions and complexities of diverse perspectives and experiences, that seeks to engage what political theorist Michael Walzer calls a “thick” sense of life together, not trying to minimalize our differences but calling them into dialogue and mutuality.  Your class has been at the heart of this good work here at Augsburg and you’ve challenged all of us to face our privilege and biases and fears – and some days we get it right, on others we have so much more to learn – as we embrace the richness of life together in this remarkable community.  The late priest Henri Nouwen described our aspirations this way:

Hospitality is the creation of free space where a stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer space where change can take place ….The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and find themselves free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free to leave and follow their own vocations.

Finally, you’ve taught me to hope.  For more than 35 years, I have worked at colleges and for all of the messiness that often passes for daily life on a campus, I come back each and every day because of the hope you inspire in all of us.  It is hope despite the evidence on many days.  When His Holiness, the Dalai Lama was with us in 2014 at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, someone asked him a question about how he could continue to follow his path toward peace when the world was so violent and there was little evidence of a way forward.  His response was quick – “What choice do I have?  If I meditate on pessimism, I will die.  If I meditate on optimism, I will live.” It is not a naïve hope that you teach us – just wish for it and all will be well with the world.  No, you are well-educated individuals, fully aware of the complexities and uncertainties of life in the world – in society, in our environment, in the cosmos even!  And yet you hope and you get to work and good things happen.  In this way you honor the world you will surely change – as you have changed us in this college.

Repairers of the Breach

A photo of the Minneapolis skyline from an Augsburg dorm.
The spectacular view of the City of Minneapolis from an Augsburg dorm room.

Here is a homily I preached in our chapel this month…

Scripture: Psalm 122

 “Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together…For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”

“A city that is bound firmly together…”  I wonder if any of us can imagine what such a place, such a city, such a country or world would look like today?  The breach is wide.  We hurl words at each other without any intent to unite.  We claim our own facts.  We have lost all sense of the true meaning of “conversation,” whose Latin root means both to talk with each other and to live with each other.  Bound firmly together seems a far-fetched dream.

Our colleague, Harry Boyte and his partner Marie-Louise Strom, have recently challenged all us – citizens, people of faith, people who believe in education for democracy – in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “You will rebuild the ancient ruins…You will be called the repairer of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12). To rebuild the ruins, to repair the breach, they argue, we must seek to navigate the Manichaean divide that polarizes and paralyzes our common lives.  We must seek to find the words and actions that, while recognizing our differences, allow us to negotiate a way forward together.

I am a long-time student of a sociologist named Robert Bellah, who, with a group of colleagues, published an influential book back in the early 1980s titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  It is a compelling book for those of us who care about the social fabric of our country and who, at the same time, believe that we are called by God to be of service in the world.

Bellah’s most significant point in the book is that contemporary Americans have a first language that is very much focused on our individual lives and especially our economic well-being.  When we talk about what we do and why we do it, we tend to talk about how it helps me rather than how it helps the wider community.  Even our best work – our most faithful service – tends to be described in language that is individualistic.  Bellah argues that this first language is impoverished – it leads to the breach.  He then points out that we also have second languages – many of which are religious and theological – that have shaped our country and our experience, and that we need to recover these second languages in order to more meaningfully describe our lives together – we might say, to repair the breach.  Examples of this second language include words and concepts like covenant and stewardship and vocation – sound familiar?!

As I read our Psalm for this morning, I began to think about how Bellah’s challenge to recover second languages can be linked to the Biblical narrative.  As people of faith, perhaps our primary task as repairers of the breach is to return to sacred texts that define a way of being and living that is life-giving and justice-focused – that leads us to watch for God’s work in the world and how we are called to be co-creators of God’s reign on earth.  So here is my case study of recovering a language perhaps more adequate and faithful to our times – an old language, perhaps, but also a language that brings insight and clarity to our daily lives here at Augsburg.

If you pay attention to such things, you will know that the narrative of our Christian worship is very much linked to and based in the city of Jerusalem – the focus of Psalm 122.  From the time that Jesus turns his ministry on the path to Jerusalem – to the grand entrance into the city with palms waving his way – to the tragic events of Holy Week, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, his arrest and appearances before the religious and secular leaders, culminating in his crucifixion on a hill just outside the city – to the experience of the empty tomb on Easter morning – to the appearances of the risen Christ to the faithful in upper rooms – to Christ’s ascension – to the remarkable sending forth of the disciples to carry on ministry in Jesus’ name on Pentecost – the city of Jerusalem is the backdrop and the context for this remarkable drama that we know as the heart of the gospel.

And it is striking to consider the dynamic that plays out in the sacred city.  The city that calls strangers in.  The city that welcomes with great pageantry.  The city that is home to civic and religious leaders whose efforts often intersect and sometimes conflict.  The city where feet are washed and bread is broken together.  The city where disciples betray and deny their master.  The city that crucifies its prophets.  The city where redemption is glimpsed even when all seems lost.  The city where friends huddle in fear, seeking evidence that their work is not in vain.  The city that is the setting for remarkable diversity of language and culture.  The city that sends its citizens forth to follow their calls of ministry and service in the world.

The city that is the place where both the worst and the best of human experience occur side by side. The city of paradox.  The city that conspires and betrays and denies and crucifies – and the city that welcomes and aspires and redeems.  The city – where God is present in the midst of all the paradox and messiness.  “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”

This is Jerusalem, a city with abiding relevance to our lives of faith – a city of ancient and contemporary significance – and a city characterized by often messy intersections and tensions that illustrate for us the themes that play themselves each and every day right here in Cedar-Riverside and Minneapolis, in our city where we seek to be God’s faithful people, where we are called to be repairers of the breach.

So what lessons might we take from Jerusalem that are of importance to our own lives at Augsburg here in Minneapolis?  What is it about cities that we must understand as we seek to be God’s faithful people in this place?

Photo of Professor Joel Torstenson
Professor Joel Torstenson developed a framework for Augsburg’s role in the city.

My first answer to that question is summed up in a familiar verse from the prophet Jeremiah: But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare will you find your welfare.  (Jeremiah 29:7, RSV)  The first thing we must do is embrace our responsibility, our common calling to care for the city, to love the city and seek its welfare.  This is such an interesting challenge in the history of Augsburg.  A few years back, I worked with Auggie Juve Meza on an URGO project that explored the history of Augsburg’s relationship to its place and its neighbors.  One of the things that Juve learned in his project is that Augsburg had a difficult relationship with its urban location for a significant part of its history – at one time, we seriously considered moving the campus to Richfield – and even when that effort failed, it was 30 or 40 years before Professor Joel Torstenson and his colleagues developed a framework for Augsburg’s role in the city that sought to embrace the city as our home, as the place where we are authentically engaged in our mission-based work – this year, in fact, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that transformative shift in Augsburg’s life in the city.  It can be difficult to love Jerusalem or Minneapolis when they betray and crucify, when they are fearful and dangerous places – but love them we must, Jeremiah reminds us, if we are to do God’s work and find our own welfare.  We are called to love the city with all of its tensions and messiness – and therein we will find our own redemption.

My second point about cities is that we must be open to their remarkable otherness – the diversity of friends and strangers alike – if we are to do God’s work here.  The Psalmist reminds us that “the tribes go up” to Jerusalem and only then is it a city that “is bound firmly together.” I remember vividly one of my first forays into our neighborhood.  I was shepherded through Cedar-Riverside by the legendary Mary Laurel True, whose cell phone number is on the walls of most Somali homes and businesses in our neighborhood – because they know she will help!  Mary Laurel introduced me to good people whose lives and work intersects with the college.  We sat in one of the mosques in the neighborhood and spoke with the elders about peace and the God of Abraham; about our lives here together in Cedar-Riverside; about our children and the aspirations we have that their lives will be meaningful and successful; about the world and how frightening it can be to live with strangers; about democracy and civil discourse.  In other words, we spoke as fellow humans living together in the city.  On Good Friday, Jesus died on the cross alongside common criminals – who, like all of us – have strayed from the path of righteousness and yet Jesus included them in his final prayers.  On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in Jerusalem, giving them the wisdom and skills to engage with strangers of many languages and cultures, to pray together in new and strange vocabularies.  Today, we live alongside of immigrants from far and wide who share our fears and our aspirations.  In our diversity, God is at work and we are called to love these friends and strangers with whom we live in the city.

Finally, I believe that those who are called to God’s work in the city must learn from the work of the late Jane Jacobs, the legendary urban theorist, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities (originally published in 1961) was a clarion call to arms for all those who loved the diversity and energy of cities that was being ravaged by trends in architecture and city planning.  One of Jacobs’ main points was that the well-being of cities is defined primarily by common, ordinary things.  Common things like sidewalks, parks, defined neighborhoods, and a diversity of architecture styles and buildings of different ages.  These common, ordinary things, when thought about with the needs and aspirations of citizens in mind, will create healthy, sustainable and vital urban centers.  It is not about spending a huge amount of money, she warned, it is about “the innate abilities (of cities) for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties.”  It is about pageantry and ritual, about the small denials and acts of kindness, about meeting in upper rooms to wash each other’s feet and break bread together, about the tensions of daily life where the religious and secular intersect and sometimes conflict, about talking with each other even when we don’t understand, about being sent forth to do God’s work even when it is not clear where the work will lead us.  It is about, in other words, a reflective practice of city life – what we might call the genuine work of urban planning.

Jerusalem, Oh Jerusalem.  We pray for your peace.  Cedar-Riverside, Oh Cedar-Riverside. peace be within you.  We are called to repair the breach, to stand with our neighbors, to embrace the diverse and ordinary and messy nature of our lives together.  City of both the crucifixion and the resurrection.  City of stranger and friend.  City that calls us in and sends us forth.  City that marks out our lives of faith now as it did millennia ago.  City that reminds all of us that our welfare, our redemption, depends on how well we tend these sacred and holy streets and neighborhoods and neighbors.  City that is our home – now and for life eternal.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.