This message was given on Reformation Sunday when we celebrated the Rite of Confirmation for three young people in our parish, though the names have been changed. The Rite of Confirmation marks the occasion when young people, having completed a period of deeper study, make a public affirmation of the covenant God established with them in baptism.
The reading for this day was from John 8:31-36, including the verse: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Micah, Michael and Michelle, the sermon today isn’t just for you; it is for all of us gathered here. And this day isn’t just about you; it is about the God who came to the world in Christ Jesus and invites us all to his table. But you nevertheless occupy an important place in our worship today.
When we look upon you, we look with all kinds of emotions and thoughts. We see fine young people and hope all the best for you. We see bright and talented young people and trust and pray that your lives will add goodness to the world. We see young people growing up and know that life is often hard and wish you could escape life’s sorrows. We see young people with roots in the church and hope that faith and the church will always be woven into the warp and woof of your lives. We are witnesses of your confession today. And we are the community that lifts up prayers on your behalf.
Over these last three years we have sought to engage you in learning and reflecting on the scriptures, and we have walked with you through Luther’s catechism. We have sought to give you some sense of how important these two things are.
Although the catechism is born out of a very specific moment in the church’s life, it has been seen by generation after generation of believers as a profound and simple presentation of the faith. As we have explained, it is not a little book of doctrines; it is rather a kind of preaching of the faith. It proclaims to us what God requires of us and also what God has done for us. It’s purpose is not to teach us a set of concepts, but to form us as believers whose trust and allegiance is to the God who formed the world in love and wants still to walk with us as God walked with our first parents in the garden. Its purpose is to bear witness to the presence of God in our lives and in our world, and to the promise of God to bring all things back to himself.
It may sound terribly simplistic to say – although it is not at all simplistic in fact – that God formed us in love and destined us for love and calls us to walk in love. The morning of the world is perfect communion with God and the evening of the world is perfect communion with God and between them stands the call and invitation to live that communion now, to be witnesses of that communion, to be agents of that communion.
This is not a simple path to follow. That is why we walk it together. That is why we root ourselves in the scriptures. That is why we come again and again to God’s table. In all the challenges of life, these things keep us centered in this vision of who we are as human beings, what is the meaning of life, and what is the destiny for which we were formed.
Today you promise to walk in that path. And your public affirmation of that path reminds us all of the importance of our own spiritual journey.
Not too long ago I met some friends at the Old Pro in Palo Alto to watch a football game. The tavern has these long tables with chairs on either side, and we were seated on one side of the table so we could see the game we were watching. We ordered some beverages and a pizza. And while we waited for the pizza, we ordered some truffle tater tots. The tater tots are one of those things you wouldn’t normally imagine ordering in a restaurant, but they really were quite tasty and addictive.
We had eaten about two thirds of the tater tots when a young woman and her friend sat down on the other side of our table. She saw the tater tots on the table – we had been serving them from a basket onto our plates – looked at me, reached across the table and, with her fingers, took a tater tot from the platter and popped it into her mouth. I looked at her in wonder and she give me a smile that was not exactly flirty, more pleased with herself, as if proud of her audacity. She turned to talk to her friend and then, a minute or so later, helped herself to another. Eventually she and her friend finished off the rest of the platter of our tater tots. When all that was left on the table was the pizza, the friend asked if they could have the two remaining pieces. I said no. Those, at least, I wanted to take home. But at least she asked.
These young women were apparently Stanford students and hardly desperate for food. One of my friends thought they were drunk, but that wasn’t apparent to me. I was fabulously curious about why this young woman thought she had a right to help herself to our food. And I really wanted to engage her to understand it. But it was too loud in the tavern to have that kind of conversation.
I still wonder why she thought she could help herself to our food. Was it because she was cute and knew she was cute and was used to getting (or taking) what she wanted? Was it because she was a privileged young woman and considered it her right? Was it because we were older and she thought we would let her get away with it? Because I didn’t reach out and pull the food closer to us, did she think that meant permission? I don’t understand why anyone, drunk or not, would cross that kind of boundary to take food that had not been offered. To be honest, I don’t even know why someone would want to eat off someone else’s plate.
But I was both fascinated and deeply troubled – not just by the behavior of this young woman, but, for want of a better phrase, by the state of her soul, the shape of her inner life, her spiritual center. The question I wanted to ask her is “What does it mean to be a human being?” How are we supposed to live? How are we supposed to treat one another? What gives life it’s meaning and joy? Because she seemed so preoccupied with herself, so full of herself, so trapped in herself.
And what kind of world would it be if we were all like her?
It seems to me there is a thread connecting this young woman with Martin Shkreli and the Epi-Pen CEO and the head of Wells Fargo. Actually, it seems to be much more than a mere thread. It weaves through our current political campaign. It weaves through the decision of Republican leaders to do everything they could to make Obama a one-term president. It weaves through the fact that the senate will not hold hearings to confirm as moderate and respected a judge as Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. It weaves through the people who drink and drive, and text and drive, and run the red lights up here at El Monte and Foothill.
It’s a thread that runs through our use and abuse of the natural world around us. It’s a thread that runs through the treatment of African-Americans by certain police officers, a thread that runs through the White Supremacy movement. It’s a thread that allows that young Stanford swimmer to take advantage of an unconscious woman. It’s a profound and disturbing spiritual poverty.
It’s not new to human society. There is a profound spiritual poverty in the bombing of Aleppo and the beheading of prisoners, and the kidnapping and selling of schoolgirls. There’s a profound spiritual poverty in the creation of ghettos and death camps. There’s a profound spiritual poverty in the brutality of the crusades and inquisitions, in the enslavement of peoples, in the use and abuse of women, in the great crimes and ordinary cruelties of daily life.
When we say that we were created in love and destined for love and called to live a life of love we are speaking of a very profound spiritual vision. The world around us may look rich, but it is often poor. And we are the bearers of a great and priceless treasure. Micah, Michael and Michelle, we are proud that you choose to stand with us in this great spiritual vision. And we pray that you may know all of its riches and bear them faithfully to the world.