Sermon – May 20, 2018 – Pentecost and Confirmation Sunday

            This is my third year here at St. Matt’s and this is the third time I’ve preached on Confirmation Sunday. Every year, I’ve started my sermon nearly the exact same way and today is nothing different. See, I love Confirmation but it’s a day in the church that is often misunderstood. So, before I go too much further, let’s make sure we’re on the same page.

            First, Confirmation is NOT a graduation from church— it’s not a ceremony in which we celebrate that we finally are finished learning and have everything Godly figured out. Confirmation is not a test of one’s faith, or even what you’ve learned. It’s not about memorizing something that you will forget in a couple weeks. And finally, Confirmation is NOT, and stay with me here, it is not a statement of faith or belief. Instead, we set aside this special day for our 8th graders to celebrate and affirm. In Confirmation, our students have the opportunity to publicly affirm their baptism— to affirm and to remember that God has been with them from the very start: through their years of learning in Sunday school, confirmation, and in the learning and growth that will continue through high school and into their adult life. Confirmation is a day to affirm and celebrate that what was promised to the disciples is still true for us today— that we would be sent an advocate, the Spirit of God, to accompany us throughout our entire lives.

            Today our 8th graders publicly affirm that God is indeed up to something in our world. And not only this but that God is up to something through them. Today we do not ask our confirmands to affirm what they believe but how God believes in them so much that God will never let them go.

            In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus promises his disciples that he will never leave them. Though he would soon physically depart from this earth, he would send an advocate—the Spirit— to accompany them throughout their lives and ministries. This Spirit, however, doesn’t just show up out of nowhere. This Spirit, the Holy Spirit, has been present since before the beginning of time. In the beginning this Spirit moved over the waters at creation and brought life out of chaos. This same Spirit descended onto Jesus when he was baptized in the River Jordan and named as God’s beloved son. This same Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness and sustained him as he was tried, tempted, and harassed by evil. This same Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost like a flame, making them to understand things that at one time seemed impossible, causing them to be so overcome by the presence of the divine that others witnessing it thought that they were drunk. This same Spirit is promised to us. This same Spirit lives and moves in our lives in ways that we cannot always understand.

            The term that gets attached to the Holy Spirit in scripture is paraclete— here our reading today it is translated as advocate but it’s also often translated as comforter, intercessor, consoler, helper, one who is close beside. In the Hebrew Scriptures it is most commonly compared to breath. Isn’t that a great image? Through the Holy Spirit, God is as close to us as our breath. Today as Dylan, GG, and Honora affirm their baptisms, they will also affirm the work of this Spirit. They will affirm how the Spirit was at work in them when their parents or sponsors held them tight in their arms and told them of God’s unconditional love, even if they did not know of it yet. They will affirm that the Spirit that descended on them in their baptism is still present in their lives today, just as Jesus said it would be— comforting, consoling, helping, sending, and showing up in all sorts of unexpected places. And let me tell you, the lives of these young people have shown me the work of the Spirit again and again.

            Leading Confirmation is one of the greatest gifts I’ve get to experience in the and each class has teaches me something different. This year, our class of 13 represented 9 different schools. These students represent different backgrounds, cultures, interests, extracurriculars, and many different personalities. These students would have no business knowing each other if it weren’t for our time together. Yet, when welcoming the class of 5th graders at the end of the year they said things like, “We’ve all gotten really close and you will too, we’re all really open.” “Don’t be afraid to be yourself, no one is going to judge you here.” Speak your mind.” “We are like a family.” This, this is the Spirit at work in the lives of these young people. Just like those who gathered on Pentecost could understand each other despite being from many different backgrounds, and nations— this Spirit has brought these young people together as siblings in Christ.

            On another Sunday, I asked our class to talk about their own gifts— what they’re good at, or how they are unique. Collectively, we were all struggling to name those things for ourselves but then something happened and we started to name those gifts for each other. “You are quiet but I know you’re always thinking about something deep,” Said one student to another. “You can always make me laugh.” “You are really good and making people feel welcome, just as they are.” “You are kind.” “You are a leader.” “I always appreciate what you have to say.” “You are good at inviting people.” We ended up going around the room, naming the gifts of each person there. That’s the Spirit at work in the lives of these young people. The Spirit that equips, names, and helps us see the good in one another.

            In the past three years, I have lost almost all of my hair due to Trichotillomania. About a year ago, when my hair stopped growing back I came to the decision to shave it all off. Though I appeared confident on the outside, I was terrified what people were going to think, what people might say, or how I might have to explain or talk about something that was particularly difficult for me to talk about. The only true place I ever felt comfortable not wearing a wig, besides my own home, was when I was working with our students. The first day I showed up without hair I was met with an enthusiastic “Pr. Maggie, I love your new haircut!” This is the work of the Spirit. In a particularly difficult time in my life, the Spirit showed me comfort, embrace, consolation, and grace through my students and I am so thankful for that gift.

            Students, you are already doing ministry. We, the church, just often forget to tell you that you are. You do far more ministry than I or any other church staff. You know more people—you know the hurt, challenges, and joys that your peers face. You are on the front lines; you are on track teams, honor societies, basketball courts, and at the rink. The people you interact with are opportunities to share your own unique ministry— caring, welcoming, and affirming others. We need you. But just when you think this task is too much to ask, remember how the Spirit is already at work within you. That Spirit of God that was moving through you from the very beginning will continue to see you through until the very end.

            So, Dylan, GG, and Honora, I will say to you again today those same words that you heard in your baptism: You are a beloved child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. You are defined by this love.  The world will try to tell you otherwise—that you are to be defined by your accomplishments, your body, your gender, your ability, but we, your congregation also made promises at your baptism and make a promise today to remind you. We will remind you of this truth, of how God sees you fully as you are and loves and calls you just the same. We will promise to work with you for justice and peace, to learn with you and grow with you, because we are never done with this work. And we will cheer you on and empower you in your leadership because the spirit that Jesus promised his disciples is the same spirit that continues to move and work in each of your lives today. Church, this promise is for you, too.

            There will be days when we all stumble. There will be days when we show up to worship unsure of God’s presence in our lives. The good news is that the Holy Spirit, our advocate, is stubborn. There may be days, or months, or even years when we may wander away— times when we question our purpose, or wonder if this faith thing is even worth trying at— still this Spirit will not leave us behind. We will always be drawn into something bigger— God will always be offering out a hand, the Spirit always nudging us into a fuller relationship with the divine.  In all of our worries and doubts, fears and forgetfulness, Jesus still says, “I will not leave you abandoned”— this is a promise we can trust.