Opening Homily for the 156th Academic Year

President Bergman delivered this homily at opening convocation in Christ Chapel on September 5, 2017.
Posted on September 5th, 2017 by

Romans 12:9-18 (NRSV)

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Genuine Love

Now, may the words of my mouth,

and the meditations of our hearts together in this place,

be pleasing to you, O God.  Amen

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul speaks about love.  More specifically, he speaks about “genuine love”.

I tend to like people who set a high bar; people who set a high standard in their expectations of self and others, who seek excellence in everything they do.  The apostle Paul sets a high bar for his friends in Rome when he says, “Let love be genuine.”

In other words, let love be completely sincere, totally authentic, no hint of hypocrisy, absolutely no phoniness, and no pretense whatsoever.  This is genuine love, and it certainly also sets a high bar for us today.

Here we are, together in Christ Chapel, celebrating the beginning of a new academic year at Gustavus Adolphus College.  This is always an exciting and notable day, a chance to begin another chapter in the history of this institution.  And, as of 8 o’clock this morning, the starting gates have opened, and we are off and running!  This is a time when we, as members of a community, can collectively re-commit to our mission, our core values and our vision.  And so, I ask you today…Is this concept of genuine love something that we as a community can aspire to?  Can we take these words about genuine love that were written centuries ago, lift them off the written page and put them into action here at Gustavus Adolphus College?  I say, with unreserved boldness, that the answer is a big “YES!”

Allow me to unpack several of the ways that Paul counsels his friends in Rome and explore how his imperatives about genuine love might apply to us today as individuals and as a community.

First, he tells us that genuine love means “hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good.”  A number of Bible translations actually use even heftier language than hate, saying that we must abhor evil or loathe evil.  We are encouraged to actively push away evil and hold fast to what is good.  Regarding goodness, Paul tells us to cling to goodness, to stand firmly on the side of goodness in all things, to be wholly and completely devoted to that which is good.

We are living in a time when we are challenged almost daily by words and deeds in this country and around the world that are focused on hate and violence.  We see the immediate effects of evil in places far away and also close to home here in St. Peter, Minnesota.  The ripple effects of evil impact us at the deepest level of our soul.  We may even feel helpless at times, uncertain about how to respond.  And yet, if we are to be resolute in our commitment to justice and to one another, respond we must.  Altogether, we have almost 3000 members of the Gustavus campus community, and I believe that together, we can make a difference.  By embracing the good in each other, displaying a welcoming attitude toward all who are here, and standing strong in the belief in our shared humanity, our community can be a beacon of goodness to the world.  This is genuine love in action.

Paul goes on to tell us to be devoted to one another in the way that brothers and sisters demonstrate mutual affection and warmth for each other.  And, on top of that, he tells us to “outdo one another in showing honor.”  Now just imagine what a great competition we could set up here at Gustavus!  Prizes could be awarded for the best demonstrations of warmth and affection for fellow members of the community, and special gold stars given to those who truly outdo others in showing honor, respect, and dignity toward their colleagues.  And, of course, all this is done in a sincere way.  Not fake, not superficial, but truly from the inside out, with 100% authenticity.  In all seriousness, what a vision this is – a community where mutual affection and warmth are the norm and where everyone seeks to outdo each another in showing honor.  Yes, this is genuine love in action.

Paul next goes on to tell us that we must “never be lacking in zeal” and always be “ardent in spirit” as we work in service to God and others.  Now, I don’t know about you, but “zeal” is not a word in my everyday vocabulary, nor can I remember a time I used the phrase, “ardent in spirit”.  What, then, does it mean to show zeal and to be ardent?  Once again, Paul uses words that stretch our thinking.  Zeal and ardor are words that push us well beyond enthusiasm, eagerness, and earnestness.  They connote an unflagging energy, a fervor, an uncommon intensity.  I think Paul uses zeal and ardor to describe people with a fire in their belly, people whose hearts are ablaze with passion; people who throw themselves into their work and their calling.  If people with zeal and ardor come together in community, their voices of goodness and love will undoubtedly be greatly amplified.  This is genuine love in action.

Let me finally speak about one more exhortation from this passage about genuine love.  Paul says to the Romans, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”  Living in community means sharing in the joys and successes of others, and, equally importantly, showing empathy for those who are enduring suffering or sorrow.  We are called to notice how the people around us are feeling – to rejoice with those who experience blessings in their lives and to share heartfelt sympathy and understanding when they are hurting.  Celebrating the joys and feeling the grief of others, when compounded across the community, will echo far beyond the ring road and potentially across the world, creating a force that can break down walls and spread goodwill everywhere.  This is genuine love.

And so, today and tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that, let us set a high bar for ourselves and follow the teachings from the apostle Paul, who urges us to “let love be genuine” by…

Hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good;

loving one another with mutual affection;

outdoing one another in showing honor;

never be lacking in zeal;

being ardent in spirit;

rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep.

My fellow Gusties, as we commence a new academic year, may we, as individuals and as a community, seek to be agents of genuine love.  May we be inspired to be our best selves in all we do, called to work with uncommon zeal toward the common good, committed to justice, and seeking excellence in all of our endeavors. 

May God grant us grace and peace this day and always.



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