There’s an old story that many of the adults have probably heard, but I imagine it will be new to some of our young folks here with us today. One morning, three pastors got together for coffee. As they talked, much to their surprise, they discovered that all three of their churches had problems with bats infesting their steeples. The bats were making a terrible mess. “I got so mad,” said one pastor, “I took a shotgun and fired at them. It made holes in the ceiling but didn’t bother the bats at all.” The second pastor said, “I tried trapping them alive. Then I drove fifty miles before setting them free. But they beat me back to the church.” The third pastor said, “Well, we did have a problem, but we managed to solve it.” “What did you do?” the others wanted to know. “I simply baptized and confirmed them,” he replied. “We haven’t seen them since.” For those of you here as our confirmands this morning, I hope you know that this is not the desired outcome of our class. Just sayin’.
Confirmation is a rite of passage. When we look at the big picture of life, Confirmation is one of those stages that is actually more important than it might seem. Some old wag once said that the seven stages of life are: “spills, drills, thrills, bills, ills, pills and wills.” According to that scale, Confirmation would fall somewhere between drills and thrills. This year, you might feel we were long on drills and short on thrills. But once the class is complete, we do hope that our confirmands won’t act like bats and disappear. Our hope is that you will understand your confirmation not as graduating out of the church, but as being welcomed into a deeper relationship with God and the church; a more meaningful level in the lifelong journey of faith.
Faith, as much as anything, is what we’re really about around here. A few years ago, a book came out by a man named John Westerhoff. It was called, “Will Our Children Have Faith?” The book is about the nature of religious education in light of the challenges of modern life. He wrote,
“Recall the question asked in the Gospel of Luke: ‘When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?’ Surely, he will find religion (institutions, creeds, documents, artifacts and the like), but he may not find faith. Faith is deeply personal, dynamic, ultimate…. Religion is important, but not ultimately important. Educationally, religion is a means not an end; faith is the only end. Faith, therefore, and not religion, must become the concern of Christian education.”
Now the first time I read that, back in seminary, it made a lot of sense to me. But what I’ve discovered over the years is that religion is all we really can teach. Faith is a relationship between a person and God, and it’s not transferable. I can tell you about my faith. I can tell you why I love the church and why I decided to commit my life to Christ. I can certainly encourage people in their own faith journeys. I can help set up opportunities to work on it. But that’s really about as far as I can go. I can’t give you faith. All I can do it try to help you find it for yourselves. To paraphrase what Morpheus tells Neo in the old Matrix movie, all I can do is show you the door. Whether or not you go through it is up to you.
Faith can’t be forced. No matter what it says in Matthew, the truth is, we can’t “make” disciples. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. One of my favorite old stories is about Emperor Charlemagne, back in the 8th century. On the battle field, whenever his army was victorious, he would have his soldiers herd his defeated enemies into a nearby river or lake and baptize the whole lot of them. Of course, they had no idea what was happening. Just imagine, someone shoves you into a pool, and when you come up spitting and sputtering, he says, “I just made you a Christian.” Pretty bizarre.
It should be obvious that we can’t force or bribe people into being Christian? I would hope that someday all Christians will realize that making people feel guilty, or threatening or frightening people into the church doesn’t work very well either. If we truly care about passing along what we believe, the best we can do is to invite, and encourage and welcome, to witness and practice our faith, to hope and pray that those we love will find their way to a love of God and a life of faith and service. While we’re at it, it’s helpful to understand that faith itself is never going to be “one size fits all.” One of the things I dearly love about our United Church of Christ tradition, is that we recognize and accept and welcome everyone, knowing that faith is deeply personal, and in some ways will always be unique to the individual.
One of the things we always do as part of Confirmation, after we’ve talked about the basics of Christianity, is to invite the confirmands to write up statements of their own faith. I always find it moving to hear how our young people describe the belief that is growing in them. Without identifying or embarrassing anyone, I’d like to share a bit of what our confirmands have written.
Joining the church to me means being supported by people in the church and learning more about the bible and become closer to God. When I was younger, I never understood why I had to go through the things I went through, and God sat there and let it happen. But if I took away anything from coming to this church and Confirmation it is that God is always by your side no matter what you’re going through in your life and he has a plan. God has a plan.
Throughout my time in conformation class I have realized many things about myself, some of which were inevitable and some that I never expected. This experience was something that I didn’t know if I was ready for, but in time I knew that it was the path that I not only needed but wanted to go down. My one goal in my time in the church was to learn, learn more about God, and Jesus, and just about how this religion could turn a rag tag sinner into someone of faith. So now as I look back at what these classes have brought to me, I know that my learning isn’t over, it’s just beginning. (Used with permission of the confirmands)
Beautiful, aren’t they. I’m proud of you guys. You’ve done a lot more work this year than you probably realize. One way or another, I know you will go on sorting out what it means to be a person of faith. I hope you will always find the church a meaningful and welcoming place to do so.
But this morning, I want to push you, and all the rest of us, just a bit further. The truth is, what we say we believe is one thing. The real proof of our faith though, is how we behave, how we live it out. After two thousand years of Christianity, there are lots of stories we can tell about people who have chosen to live out their faith in wonderful and inspiring ways. One of my favorites is the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was Professor of theology at the University of Berlin in Germany in the 1930’s. At the time German Christians were divided over how to respond to Adolph Hitler. One group allied themselves with Hitler, they wanted a “pure” German nation and a “pure” German church. They formed an official German church that supported Hitler and banned Jews from holding official positions in the Church. Bonhoeffer could not go along with this anti-Jewish, Aryan race vision. With others, he set up an underground church which explicitly refused to support Hitler’s Third Reich vision. It was an extremely dangerous thing to do. In 1937 Bonhoeffer was fired from his job and fled to London.
Two years later, Bonhoeffer was faced with a choice. He’d been offered one of the most prestigious theology appointments in the world––lecturing at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He could accept this position, remaining safely out of the conflict. Or, he could return to Germany to head up an illegal, underground seminary for the churches who refused to go along with Hitler. He decided his faith would be meaningless if he took the safe way. He headed back to Germany. What he found was that Hitler’s leadership had become so evil that he abandoned his commitment to non-violence. Bonhoeffer became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot failed, and in 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested. In prison he wrote and led worship services for his fellow prisoners, until he was executed by the Nazis on April 9th, 1945, only one month before the end of the war.
Through all this, what distressed Bonhoeffer most was that so many Christians sold themselves out to Hitler’s evil vision. He was stunned that people who called themselves Christian could so completely betray Christ. How could they even pray in a church that banned Jews from holding office, he wondered. His experience convinced Bonhoeffer that religiosity in and of itself was worthless. It didn’t matter how fervently a person believed in Jesus, how many times each day they prayed, how earnestly and sincerely they sang hymns on Sundays. In the end the measure of true spirituality is not how we are in the church, but how we are in the whole of life. In the end, Bonhoeffer wrote, the measure of our spirituality is to live in the world as a man or woman who is for others.
That’s what Jesus did. He lived in the world for others, and if we’re going to call ourselves his followers, that is the scale by which our own faithfulness will be measured. Thank God none of us is faced with the choice Bonhoeffer had to make. But still, what was true for him is just as true for us. A faith that is not lived out in our lives will never be worth very much. Timothy Kelly, the onetime Abbot of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, put it this way, “How one lives one’s life is the only true reference to the validity of one’s search.” That is to say, how we live our lives is what determines whether or not our faith is real. The challenge for all of us, is to live what we say we believe. It is to strive to become the people God wants us to be. To me, that is what making disciples is finally all about; making true disciples of ourselves, living the faith we claim when we agree to become Christians.
Let me leave you with one last statement of faith. This one comes from Helen Keller:
I believe that we can live on earth according to the teachings of Jesus, and that the greatest happiness will come to the world when [we] obey His commandment “Love one another.” I believe that we can live on earth according to the fulfillment of God’s will, and that when the will of God is done on earth as it is done in heaven, every [one] will love [all people] and [treat] them as [they] desire [to be treated.] I believe that the welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all. I believe that life is given us so we may grow in love, and I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of a flower––the Light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence. I believe that only in broken gleams has the Sun of Truth yet shone upon [the world.] I believe that love will finally establish the kingdom of God on earth, and that the cornerstones of that kingdom will be liberty, truth, [fellowship], and service. (modified for inclusive language)
And I would only add.