Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Yesterday, the son of some dear friends of ours celebrated his bar mitzvah. It was a wonderful day, full of friends and family and 12 and 13 year olds. Rabbi Boraz, recognizing there were a fair number of Gentiles in the congregation, explained things as we went along. Our friends’ son did a great job reading Hebrew, singing prayers, preaching. He was surrounded, he and his brother, by a congregation of elders who were welcoming him into the community of faith. Then, last night, I finished reading a book by one of my favorite Minnesota writers, William Kent Krueger, set in the boundary waters of the Quetico/Superior wilderness between Minnesota and Canada. In the closing scene, another young boy, this one of the Anishinaabeg Tribe of the Ojibwe, received the honor of telling the story of his great uncle’s sacrificial death at a ceremonial fire ushering his great uncle onto the path of souls. It was unusual for the honor to go to one so young, but the Elders recognized wisdom in the boy, so they told him to tell the story. And today, we are confirming eight young people into the Christian faith and family, laying hands upon their heads, saying prayers for them and welcoming them into membership of this church. Three very different religious rites of passage in just over 24 hours – all of them very different and all of them very much the same. In all three of these rites of passage, there is a strong community surrounding the young people, a community made up of family members and friends, of course, but also the community of people who participate in a larger family, defined by choice and common religious commitment and representing all those saints who have come and gone before us. In all three ceremonies, there is the recognition that though the passage into adulthood is not finished with the conclusion of the ceremony, still, each of these young people is already a fully formed individual, unique and beautiful. In all three ceremonies, there is a deep hope, a yearning almost, that the values we cherish, we who are quite a bit older, are being received, accepted, even cherished in them. In each ritual, there is the assurance that the stories of our faith will live on beyond us. And in each ritual, there is the presence of God, the Spirit of love and tenderness, the Spirit of wisdom and justice, present in this ceremony. In the bar Mitzvah, God’s presence was symbolized by the uncovering and unrolling the scrolls of the Torah. In the Ojibwe ceremony of remembering and story-telling, the Spirit of God is symbolized in the smoke of the fire. And here, with us, the presence of God is symbolized by the laying on of hands, and the surrounding of each young person with the immediate community of love and support, since we believe that wherever there are two or more gathered, God is there as well.
God knows we want so much for these young people – and for all young people for that matter. We want you to be happy – but that’s not quite the right word, is it – no, we want you to be at peace with yourselves, to know, really know deep down in your bones, that you are loved for who and what you are. We want you to be able to find within yourselves the strength to resist injustice and hatred - to stand beside – right next, shoulder-to-shoulder, to someone - anyone who is being bullied. We want you to be grateful for beauty and to recognize beauty all around you – in a particular phrase of music, in the perfectly executed stroke through water, in the collection of words in a poem, in the smell of a fall day, in the
sight of a tender new shoots of green through the last layer of snow. We want you to connect with someone when you are feeling desperately alone. We want you to stay alive.
If we could make you clean your rooms without a fight, that would be a nice side benefit. If we could keep you from getting your feelings hurt, believe me, we would. And, I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s just in our DNA to embarrass you in front of your friends. Get over it.
We want you to believe in God. We want you to challenge yourselves to look deep into the stories of our faith and not be satisfied with the answers that are too easy and glib. It’s alright to pass by the things you don’t believe – to leave them beside the road, but when you toss those things aside, remember to be respectful of others who will pick those things up and cherish them close to their hearts. As for you, as you dig deep and even deeper into your own hearts, eventually you’ll come to a place that is something like a cliff – an edge over which you can’t see anything. You’ll feel something, a hope, a yearning for assurance. Here’s the thing, you won’t get it unless you take a flying leap into that unknown. It’s sometimes called a leap of faith. Some people take it without having dug very deep into their religious convictions. They think the leap of faith is all about whether Jesus appeared to his disciples after he died, or whether a star actually guided kings to the stable. You can take the leap at that shallow place if you need to, but I’ll tell you something, if you take the leap too early or before you really need to take it, your faith will always be as shallow as the digging you stopped doing. The leap of faith isn’t about whether the miracles are true or whether Christianity is the only path. No, the leap of faith we want you to take (and don’t worry if it’s still a long way off – some people never get there) is the leap that you’ll need to take when all the religion you’ve been taught comes to a stopping place, and you’ll need to decide if you trust God or not. I believe you can, of course, trust God, I mean, but you’re going to have to find that out for yourselves.
In the story of the early church from the book of Acts, the Apostles, those good-hearted believers who were inviting people to become Christians, hoped and prayed that they were strong enough and convincing enough to make the new believers into congregations. In some cases they were successful. In lots of cases they were not. But when they were persuasive, it wasn’t because they demanded obedience or outlined a set of rules to live by. No, I’m convinced they were successful when they showed by their own lives that they trusted God every time they came to an ending, a path that stopped at the edge of a cliff. The story tells us that “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. And all who believed were together… And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Day by day. That’s what we really want for you, after all. We want you to live day by day, waking in the morning hopeful, going to sleep at night in peace. We want your days to be filled with learning, with laughter and perspective. We want you to grow to love the stories of the faith, because we love them, and we want you to love what we love. And we want you to learn to love everything and everyone God loves. That won’t all happen by 11:00 this morning, and that’s ok. We’ll be here tomorrow, and the next day. We’ll be here next Sunday, and on Recovenanting Sunday, and World Communion Day, and the second Sunday of Advent, and Epiphany. We’ll be here when Lent begins again next year, and on Good Friday, when we remember Jesus was executed. We’ll be here on Easter and when next year’s confirmands stand before us to make their promises. We’ll be here every day. And now, so will you - not literally, of course - but joined into this Body of Christ. Welcome. We’re so very, very glad you’re here. Amen.