What is confirmation? Having been raised Baptist, I'm genuinely curious about this. Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to direct Confirmation Camp for our United Church of Christ's Conference. I mean, leave it to the UCC, the denomination that says, "God is still speaking," to place a Baptist-reared minister in charge of teaching young people about confirmation.
On the first morning of camp, I asked that question, "What is confirmation?" And immediately the responses came: "It's when you join the church." "It's learning more about your faith." "It's when you accept the vows you made at your baptism to follow Christ." "It's taking the decision your parents made for you about the Christian faith and claiming that decision for yourself."
And while the confirmands and adults shared their responses, I noticed this one boy sitting in the back of the room not saying anything. His body language made it obvious that he didn't want to be there. Finally, when the responses slowed down, I asked again, "Anybody else? What is Confirmation?" And the boy in the back of the room said, "A waste of time."
Young people have the gift of an unrefined honesty that exposes things for what they are. So I held onto his comment. If it's true that confirmation can be a waste of time, how so?
In this scripture from Matthew's gospel, Jesus has given his disciples authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal people. He's given them the charge to share the bold goodness of the gospel. And now he's giving them instructions for how to go about that good work. It's a rite of passage moment. Spoken in terms of confirmation, it's a confirming moment.
The disciples have been with Jesus long enough at this point to know what he's about, what he stands for and what he will not stand, and what it will take to follow him from this point forward. And now hearing these instructions from their Master, the disciples are given the opportunity to confirm this Jesus, to say 'yes' to what the UCC's "Statement of Faith" calls "the cost and joy of discipleship," or to denounce him--to call it a day and head home.
I wonder, if Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John and the rest of them had heard Jesus' instructions and declined his invitation to go out and share the good news of the gospel, wouldn't everything that they'd been through with Jesus to that point be a waste? Wouldn't everything that they'd learned from Jesus--about the love of God for all people regardless of who they are or where they come from, about how the spirit of the law always supersedes the letter of the law, about the dignity and wellbeing of God's people always being above any religious doctrines or social taboos--wouldn't all of that become just a waste of time?
I'm wondering that same thing about church. With more and more people leaving the church or seeing no relevance in going to church whatsoever, and with so many mainline Protestant congregations declining in number and closing their doors, I wonder, "Has church become a waste of time? How so?"
We Christians--the ones who claim to follow Jesus--when we go to church, we hear those same instructions about a life of discipleship. It's in church that we sing Jesus' assuring words about God's eye being on the sparrow. It's in church that we learn about how following Jesus might have the consequence of suffering, even to the point of death, but that we are always in God's hands. It's in church that we hear Jesus' invitation to pick up our cross and follow him into every area of this world's brokenness. It's in church that we pray for the salvation of our lives by losing them for the sake of Christ when we say those words together, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." And it's when worship ends and we leave the sanctuary and go out into the world that we are presented with confirming moments, moments for us to confirm or deny the Jesus that we experience in the church building. But when that confirming moment involves risk, how quickly we are tempted to dismiss what we experienced at church.
A ministry in our community invites our church to open its doors to families who are homeless, to provide them with food and lodging for a few nights; and we hear Jesus whisper that when he was a stranger and we invited him in by offering such hospitality to the least of these, but we worry about liability issues. What if a child gets hurt running around in our sanctuary? What if these strangers in our church building mess up the rooms that are set aside for classes on a Sunday morning? We don't want to suffer that risk.
In our household, a family member talks at the dinner table about Christianity being under attack. Everyone around the table listens intently to this person's scathing commentary about atheists and people of other faiths being condemned by God and about how we Christians should stay away from those people if we care at all about saving our religion. And then we hear the whisper of Jesus saying that he was not sent into the world to condemn and that following him calls us to love one another so that the world will realize by that love that we are his disciples. But if we speak up, if we voice that whisper out loud at the dinner table, it might draw an irreconcilable line between us and our beloved family member. It might turn us against each other, and our household cannot accept that risk.
In our church, a longtime member graduates from the local seminary. The fact that she identifies as a lesbian was never a source of concern, but now she wants to take the next step in her calling and be ordained for ministry by the church. Then comes the whisper of Jesus reminding us that we don't choose him any more than we can choose the ones who serve him, but Jesus chooses us and appoints us to go and share the good news of the gospel. But if we ordain an openly gay woman, we might lose church members and their financial support. We might be cut off from certain organizations that give us funding. The church as we know it might die, and our congregation can't afford that risk.
William Sloane Coffin has a benediction that I often borrow: "The Lord bless you and keep you, and the Lord's face shine upon you and grant you grace; grace to risk something big for something good."
If there is any truth to the notion that the mainline Protestant Church is in decline, I believe it's only to the extent that the church is in decline outside the church building. When the things we hear whispered in the sanctuary are not proclaimed from the rooftops by our actions in the world, when what we learn about Jesus in the church is not embodied by our deeds in the world, then even the biggest endowment fund won't halt the church's decline, because the church is not our buildings that we protect from the risks of suffering and divisions and even death--the church is the embodiment of the gospel. The church is the people who embody Jesus Christ. Anything less is a waste of time.
When it was time to take our group picture at Confirmation Camp, I happened to be sitting next to the boy from the back of the room. His body language showed that he'd warmed up a bit to the whole camp thing, but he maintained his unrefined honesty. The photographer told us to smile and the boy said, "Look at me! I'm smiling like a preacher on TV! Look at my white teeth! Give me your money!" The boy from the back of the room was something of a prophet. Here he was denouncing the church's comfort with fluff, crying out to anyone with ears to hear about what he sees as hypocrisy.
The boy may have just been making sport of the flashy televangelist, but what I heard was a young person's exposure of the church that hears distinct whispers about justice and mercy, forgiveness and healing, inclusiveness and love, and then keeps those powerful truths stored away in a sanctuary. I heard the voices of so many people in the world begging for the church to do something more and to be more authentic to Christ's instructions: "Take up your cross and follow me. Lose your life for my sake and you will find it."
Not long ago, I attended a meeting that was open to the public at Texas A&M University. A student named Levi was presenting on his experience with reparative therapy and his research of so-called ex-gay ministries. To a room of roughly 50 people, Levi talked about being raised in a Christian home, being actively involved in his church's youth group, and devoting his life to following Jesus. Levi said that when he came out to his parents, they made him attend camps where the young people were told that they needed to stop being gay or they would go to hell. At one of the camps, someone Levi knew committed suicide and another attempted the same. Levi initially tried to be straight, but the more he noticed his camp counselors and peers alike struggling to maintain a façade, the less he could believe that Jesus would condemn him because of who God made him to be.
When reparative therapy failed to change Levi, he suddenly had enemies in his own household. His parents kicked him out. Somehow, Levi was able to finish high school and then get into Texas A&M. Levi's brother also attends A&M, but when they cross paths on campus, Levi's brother still won't acknowledge him.
During the Q&A, someone asked Levi, "After all that, do you still identify as a Christian?" I heard his answer as a powerful confirmation of Jesus when Levi said, "You know, when I came out to the people at my church and they disowned me, that was really tough. Losing that community was tough. But, yes, I am a Christian."
Here was the testimony of a young man who knew suffering, who knew about family turning against him, who knew about life as he knew it dying; yet in the face of it all, he never forgot the instructions of the one he continues to follow: "Have no fear." Here was a disciple of Christ; and although we weren't in a church building, Levi had taken us to church.
Why do we turn against the ones like Levi in our midst? Is it because of some infallible interpretation of Scripture? That's a symptom, sure. But it goes deeper than that. Homophobia is what informs our reading of Scripture, not the other way around. If we turn to the Bible with fear, then all we will find are ways to defend our privilege, ways to maintain our self-preservation, ways to survive. If we turn to Jesus' instructions with fear, then all we will find are comforts that are whispered to us in the dark and then forgotten.
But Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him, because in taking on the cost and joy of discipleship, we lose our fearful lives in Christ and save them in the process. If we who claim to follow Jesus would confirm this truth outside the sanctuary, then the world might start to see those churches we attend as not so much of a waste of time after all.
Would you pray with me? Good and gracious God, thank you for opening our hearts and minds to your Word. May they remain open to the confirming moments you place before us every day in this world that you call good. May the sword of Your son, Jesus Christ, cut away the fears that grip us until we are set free to say 'yes' to you and set free to confirm your daily invitation to love you with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to be fearless in loving our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.