Raising the Curtain

The community of faith goes on… What we do here this morning requires a little bit of explanation, this “ritual” known as confirmation. In the Presbyterian church, it is our usual custom to baptize infants. And that’s the case with both Carter and Trent. The reason for this is simple: we know that God is at work in our lives long before we become aware of it. And so the parent – in fact, the whole community – makes the promise that we will do everything we can to encourage the child in the faith that we have inherited, surrounding them with signs and reminders of God at work in their lives.

What happens today in confirmation is that we ask these two young men if they will confirm the promises that their parents made for them at baptism.

There is a potential risk to all of this, however, as a story might illustrate best.

Maybe you’ve heard about the three rural churches plagued by pigeons that roosted in the rafters of their sanctuaries. The three pastors commiserated on their mixed success with pest control. The Lutheran pastor said, “Well, we had some success with this spray we got at the Ace Hardware. That kept them away for a week or so, but they’re back.”

The Baptist pastor was pleased that they had fared a little better: “We used our massive sound system from our contemporary service and played a series of sonic booms. That drove them away for about a month, but they’re back, too.”

The Presbyterian, however, was downright triumphant: “Well, my friends, we’ve solved our problem. The pigeons are gone.” His colleagues were stunned: “How did you do it?”

“Well,” he said, “We baptized and confirmed them, and we haven’t seen them since!”

Now – that’s not the track record of OPC. But I want to be clear about it: if we treat Confirmation like a graduation, then there is a temptation to act as though what we do here is mark an ending. The truth is that confirmation, or membership in the church at any age for that matter, is the beginning of the journey, not the end. It’s the raising of the curtain at the start of the play, as we learn our roles and try out our parts. Take note, all of you: if we ever think we can graduate from faith, then what we are saying is that we can reach a point where we know all there is to know about God.

The community of faith goes on, because knowledge of God is everlasting…

That continuity is what we touch on in the lesson from Acts this morning. The disciples have numbered twelve for some time. But once Judas betrays Jesus and takes himself out of the picture, they need to find a replacement. The lot falls to Matthias, the number is twelve again, and the disciples move out into the world as apostles and evangelists.

The community of faith goes on…and we, some two thousand years removed from that moment, are inheritors to that ongoing tradition.

What we do today is something that tangibly reaches back to that moment when Matthias steps into the spotlight. When we get to the actual moment of confirmation, we will invite forward all of you who have been ordained as ministers or elders to come forward and lay hands on them as we pray for them. It is something we do from time to time in our lives together; and for me, it’s one of the most visceral moments, a reminder of that community of faith stretching back. As we stand up here in ever widening circles, some of us can remember when others stood around us – at confirmation, at ordination – and the invisible hands of those saints who are no longer with us rest on our shoulders as real as memory allows. It’s as though those circles continue to widen further and further, going back into our shared history, until we arrive in that upper room where Matthias kneels with eleven hands laid upon him.

Of course, the church looks very different now from the way it looked then. It’s a theme we return to again and again here: the fact that we are part of an ever-changing church in an ever-changing world. And that’s the remarkable thing: while so many things have come and gone, the community of the faith goes on…

Some of you helped with one of the confirmation projects, which was a survey about faith and church. The last question was an open-ended one: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” My favorite answer was, “May I have ten more questions?” But all of the answers showed with powerful clarity one thing in particular: the life of faith is marked, most of all, by struggles and doubts. We, all of us, have questions about our ultimate purpose, about why suffering exists both near and far, about whether there really is anything beyond the life we know. Faith is not a panacea. It is not the easy answer to all of life’s questions. It is the very essence of the challenges that life gives us.

And that’s the hope for what we take away from being together today. The faith community goes on, not in spite of our questions, but because of them. We are here, together, because we believe that we are better because of it. It’s like an ember in the dying flame: outside of the fire, it can burn for a while; but it will burn longer when it’s amidst other embers. The church is called to be a community that struggles together. When one member rejoices, we rejoice with them. And when one member suffers, all suffer with them. Because we’re not the only ones in the mix: we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who stretch back into the centuries and remind us that the God whom we serve is eternal.

In a few moments, we are going to affirm our faith. And when we do, we will use words adapted from Carter and Trent’s faith statements. What I think they reveal to us is that, though the questions may change and the world may be different, we are stronger as a community of faith when we are together.

Friends, the world may be a different place than it was when the church was first born in ancient Jerusalem. And the church may look different as a result. But the Holy Spirit who gave us birth is eternal. The God of creation has been and always will be. And the Christ whom we serve calls us into a relationship with the divine now and forever.

And so, the community of faith goes on…Amen.