confirmation day 2016...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes from this morning when we said farewell to a beloved staff member, Mark, and welcomed five young people into membership through the Rite of Confirmation as well as a talented and gifted musician who came into membership, too. It was a full and rich liturgy and my heart rejoices. And now it is time to step away for a break. Thanks be to God.

Introduction
This is an important Sunday for me because, in all likelihood, you are one of the last classes I
will have the privilege and responsibility of teaching something about the way of Christ to in my ministry.  I’m getting near the end of my run, right? So while I’m not finished serving the Lord quite yet – and this congregation is not done with ministry either – things are definitely in flux.

+  I’m getting older, fewer and fewer people are interested in the disciplined ways of Jesus Christ in our culture, you are getting busier and busier, the demands on your families are increasing rather than getting easier. And, we as a congregation are starting to rethink what does the Lord require of us at this moment in time? It is an exciting and potentially holy time for all of us.

+ So, because I have come to love and respect each of you over the course of our time together, I’ve chosen what I consider to be the four most important passages from Scripture to talk about with you today, knowing full well that after the summer our paths will not cross very often.  I feel a unique responsibility to you and your families – and to the whole Body of Christ we know as the Church – to give you one more clear message about why all this church stuff matters.

Since the start of the new year we’ve talked about the Apostle’s Creed – the oldest poem about belief in our tradition – the gospel of Luke – the New Testament book with the most parables of Jesus – we’ve memorized the 23 Psalm – the best loved song in the Scriptures – and shared a few conversations about how confirmation is like a bar or bat mitzvah.  Someone asked me not too long ago:  is this year’s confirmation class READY to become members? Do they know what is required of them and how to do so responsibly?  And I have to tell you that all I could do was laugh, because the answer is NO – of course we’re not READY in a traditional, testing, let’s get all the right answers sense – but that would be true for ALL of us here.  Who is ever really ready to say:  Ok, Lord, NOW I’m all set to be your disciple? I get what grace is all about – I comprehend the mystery of the Cross – and I am fully prepared to die to myself so that I might live completely as a living sacrifice for you in the world!  None of us – now or in the past – are ever really READY.

Insights
But we ARE ready to take another step on the journey of becoming disciples – we ARE prepared (as much as we can comprehend right now) to say YES to following Jesus on the path of life– and we ARE aware that we do this by faith not sight. We trust God more than we understand God. We accept that now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face.  Confirmation in the 21st century, you see, is NOT about facts and information; it is about relationships, especially relationships built upon faith, hope and love.  So, I can’t tell you that these young people KNOW what it means to become a Christian. All I can say is that we’ve spent some time getting to know one another:  they’ve read and talked about the gospel according to St. Luke with their mentors and we’ve answered a few of one another’s questions trusting that that is sufficient for right now. But I do have one final lesson for this confirmation group and I predict it will take the rest of your lives to make it real, ok?

The first passage I want you to know about is Micah 6: 6-8.  Micah was a prophet in ancient Israel – so that would put him in the Old Testament – and he told his people that the heart of faithful living involved three essential commitments:  do justice, love compassion and walk through this world with humility.  Let me explain because you’re not going to get this anyplace else in your young lives:

Micah wants us to know that God expects us to live in ways that look like God to others. That means our words, actions, habits and worship are not to be shared as chore or a drag, but a joy.  God doesn’t love us grudgingly or because somebody made Her love us:  God loves us for the joy of it. So Micah tells us that the way we live should be equally joyful – and the best way to experience joy is to make life more joyful for other.  This is something that we don’t know how to do that very well all by ourselves. We need guidance and practice, we need encouragement and accountability – and we need a safe place to ask questions, make mistakes, be forgiven and discover what the real purpose of life is all about.

+ Some of you have wondered why you have to go to church on a regular basis, right? I’m really glad you felt safe enough and loved enough to ask that question so boldly.  And while we’ve tried to give you some answers, I realized that I never told you the real deal, so let me be clear:  you have to go to church regularly because you don’t already know everything there is to know – and you are a kid – not an adult. That’s the real reason: you are not yet in charge of your life.  You are part of a family – and you are part of a community – and families and communities have rules to help us live life as God desires.

Church is where we practice and remember what the Lord requires of us – and that means you
are required to go because you aren’t going to hear these truths any other place. You aren’t going to hear about doing justice according to God’s love when you get a job – or take a part in a dance or theatre group – because in that world you have to compete to be the best.  In that world the emphasis is on getting what you want. And while there’s nothing wrong with competition – it isn’t the only truth in creation – and it isn’t how God loves us. God doesn’t love us based upon how big our house is or how much money we’ve gathered or how important people think we are.  And if all you learn as a child is about getting your own way and operating according to the rules of competition, you will grow into a selfish, greedy adult – and there are already too many of them.

So, you come here to discover that God’s justice is about making sure everyone has a fair chance.  To do justice – mishpat in Hebrew – is a verb that means living in ways that make certain food, love, housing, hope and health are shared among ALL people. Not just those you know and like, but all people, the winners and the losers, the ones who deserve and those who don’t.  You come here also to learn about compassion – hesed in Hebrew – caring for those closest to you with tenderness rather than selfishness and going beyond your comfort zone with those you don’t know.  And you come here to practice humility – tsana in Hebrew – living like you don’t deserve anything more than anyone else.

That’s one reason you are required to come to church regularly:  to learn how to become a generous, tender and honest person, you need help. You won’t and can’t figure it out all by yourself.  So we ask:  what does the Lord require? And the answer is mishpat – doing justice so that everyone shares – hesed – sharing compassion to those most in need – and tsana – nourishing humility so you don’[t become an aggressive, loud mouthed bully. And if you are really paying attention, really on the ball, you’ll notice that the words from the ancient prophet Micah shape the mission statement of this church:  In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, reflect on our Christian faith, do just and share compassion. That’s one reason why you are required to come.

The second reason we gather together as church is to practice using our bodies and minds in ways that makes God’s love real to other people.  Over the past six months, I have gotten to know some of your specialties – a few of the things that make you different, unique and wonderful – for example: Cate is a dancer, Aidan is an athlete, Colin is a runner, Max is a thespian and Ella is a deep thinker. Each one of you is an excellent student, too.  I know, I talk to your parents – I see your pictures posted on Facebook – I pray for you almost every day in my quiet time at home.  So I know that you bring your best to your favorite activities. You know how to use your bodies to practice dance and theatre, soccer and running, learning your lines and singing or playing great music. 

What St. Paul is telling us in Romans is that to become a full human being you have to learn how to do the same thing with your physical bodies for God that you already do in preparation for a recital or a game or a concert or a play. In church you learn how to use your body as a servant – you feed the hungry, you carry the babies when they cry, you help the old people not slip on the ice, you sing Christmas carols for our friends in nursing homes, you write letters to congress to help them become more loving, you serve as liturgist, you bring food to someone who is sick and you help the homeless find shelter. 

And once you learn how to use your bodies being loving here, Paul says, then you do it out there:  you present your physical bodies – as well as your words and thoughts and habits and work – to the world as a living sacrifice – an offering – just like the prophet Micah told us.  Your life, you see, becomes a gift to God in the world that makes love and hope and justice and compassion visible. Now this is where Paul is blunt – and he doesn’t care if he hurts our feelings or asks us to do something hard – when he says that we aren’t going to learn how to train our bodies for compassion and justice just doing what we want to:  you didn’t learn ballet all by yourself or overnight – you didn’t learn to kick a soccer ball without practice – or sing or play the trumpet or run cross country like a champ just because you thought about it.  It took practice – and the more you practiced, the better you got at doing it well.

So Paul, who was one of the earliest Christians, tells us if we REALLY want a world that matters, a world that strengthens love and creates hope for all kinds of people, then we cannot be conformed to habits of competition only – we must learn how to let go of some of our selfishness through practicing acts of service to others. That’s the second reason why you are required to come to church regularly:  so that you practice becoming a holy non-conformist – who values love and tenderness more than winning. Here’s what I want you to do, Paul writes to us from prison: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking… because that will drag you down into everlasting immaturity. But grow up so that God brings out the best in you.

And the third reason you are required to get out of bed on Sunday mornings and drag your
tired, young body to church when you’d rather stay asleep is this:  you are not going to learn how to be still and quiet – you are not going to learn the way of prayer and trust – any other place in creation but here. It doesn’t happen at the Mall. Or at Ramblewild. Or plugged into your Smartphone. The words of Jesus are clear: come to me that is follow me and I will show you how to be refreshed without being worn out.  Did you hear how that word practice popped up again?  Practice being quiet, practice being gentle with yourself, practice listening for what you love the most, practice being a servant to others. Practice even being humble like the prophet Micah taught – and the more you practice, the more inner rest, peace and refreshment will become yours – from the inside out.

·    One of the hardest realities for me this year in our confirmation class was not the tough questions you came up with – I loved those – no, it was trying to find enough time in your schedules to get to know you.  You are a busy bunch of kids and we were rarely able to all be together at the same time. I think that it happened maybe… once?

·     So, I was able to share with you information – and talk with you one-on-one sometimes – but we never got to spend time together as a group.  And that made me sad because there are things to learn about the Lord that you can only do in a group.  Like practice being still and silent in community. We can’t change what was but that was something we gave up this year because life was just too full.

Conclusion
We do confirmation class – we come to church regularly – we take time in our personal lives for prayer to practice, to learn, to serve, to worship and to see that there is more to real life than just ourselves and what makes us happy. We practice being a community. We practice being silent. We practice listening to the Lord and singing songs of worship and love. We practice being young and old together – mentors and confirmands together – beginners and old-timers together. We live in an incredibly segregated world, but church shows us that it is possible to break down barriers and live into God’s justice and compassion through humility.  And now, because you are likely to be the last confirmation class on my watch, I want to be very, very personal for a moment.

Ella – I have come to value your quiet honesty so very much. You weren’t always able to be with us in the group for a variety of reasons. You lead a complicated life and you hold a lot inside. When you were able to join us, I was touched by how deeply you think about life and how deeply you feel things.  You are wise beyond your years and I pray that you continue to nourish the path of wisdom in your life.  You could be a great and tender teacher – and the world needs more wise souls like you. In your own way you call to my mind the words written about the mother of Jesus, Mary, who is often described as “quietly holding all things within and pondering them in her heart.” Stay strong and open, Ella, you have blessings to share.

Colin – I love the passion with which you grab a hold of life.  You throw yourself into the things you love wildly and enthusiastically whether that’s running or memorizing lines in the Christmas pageant. In this, you remind me of St. Peter, whom Jesus gave the nick name, the Rock. Now there’s an upside and a downside to being a rock:  a rock is solid and strong and creates a solid foundation; a rock can also become a bolder running down a hill that gets out of control. Jesus spoke about this to Peter often and by the end of Peter’s life he had learned to use being a rock for love and beauty and healing. That is my prayer for you, too.

Cate – you were one of the first children I met when we visited from Arizona – and you were so little and funny.  I remember eating hamburgers with your family at your old house and watching you get some kind of baseball bat thing going with your father – and all I could do was laugh because you kept spinning around and round trying to hit the ball that you looked like a little, female gyroscope. And now you are poised and graceful, a careful thinker who takes her responsibilities seriously even as you dedicate yourself to dance.  My prayer for you is that you come to know how important sharing your art is with the world. The philosophers say that beauty can save the world – it wakes us up and lets us see new possibilities – and you could become like the woman who anointed Christ’s feet with oil. That act, like dance, is extravagant; so shine on and shine brightly because the world came to say of this woman:  she did something beautiful for the Lord.

Aidan – my man!  We’ve been in this thing together for a long time!  When I first met you, you were about seven inches tall and had more energy in that little body than half the town of Pittsfield. When you loved something, you were totally into it and when you hated it…. Well you weren’t shy about sharing that either! And now you are a young man whom others look up to, a student who thinks deep thoughts and an athlete playing soccer all over New England.  I could be wrong but I think you have the soul and spirit of a poet, little brother, and I mean that: a poet. So let me encourage you like St. Paul encouraged his younger friend, Timothy, to cultivate your strength but never forget how to be tender, too. God needs both from you – and you have been blessed with both in abundance.

And Maxx – young man of incredible depth, big and sensitive feelings and an even bigger heart.  When I heard you sing “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” I went home with tears of joy.  You have blossomed so much as an artist, a musician, a disciple of Jesus and a joyful member of this congregation. You can light up the room, dude, when you want to.  My prayer for you is that as you explore your art deeper – your singing as well as your acting and performance on your instruments – that you know you are living into a sacred calling. Not everyone can bring joy to the world, not every can carry a tune, not everyone feels as deeply as you do.  I remember one time being out on Park Square with you collecting funds for the CROP Walk with John and Lauryn and your parents and brother and I thought:  this guy is St. Francis – he loves everything – and feels everything.  So I want to thank you for sharing some of yourself with us and tell you I can’t wait to see where the Lord takes you on your journey of faith.

People of God, this is a quirky bunch of confirmation kids – quirky and holy – and that makes sense because we are a quirky church and faith community.  Our quirkiness is a sacred gift – our smallness allows us the space and time to build trust and love as we get to know one another as Christ’s disciples – and it also stands as a tender symbol of sacred nonconformity in a world that insists that bigger is better. We know differently – and I give thanks to God for that knowledge. So, as we get ready to confirm this quirky confirmation class, I pray that you give thanks to the Lord, too for God has brought us together for precisely this moment in time. We are on holy ground, beloved, let us cherish and honor it with all our hearts.

Comments

janet andrews said…
James
your sermon was beautiful, and gave the congregation a a brief look inside these spiritual young people. It was a message for thinking and embraceing this incredible group. I will ponder many of your thoughts and respect these new revelations. It is a gift watching them grow, but a sadness as we leave their "little self" behind.
RJ said…
I agree, Janet. Many thanks.

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