In the Diocese of Newark this Easter season, I confirmed 377 people into the Episcopal Church; 142 of them were adults. I am deeply grateful to the Cathedral congregation, which hosted six different confirmation services. In response to several requests, I am sharing the sermon I gave at each of the services.
Thank you for being here this morning. Thank you for the journey you have taken to get here; and thank you for the promises you are making – and you know you are making some promises here – to yourself, to your family, to your church – to me your bishop – and especially to God; that your faith is important to you – and you are confirming your commitment to that faith and your commitment to living out that faith in a world that needs your faith. Thank you for that. And I want to personally thank you for being here – because as you confirm your commitment you are reconfirming my faith. I think that is probably the case for most, if not all of us who are here to support and sponsor you, and in my case – to confirm you. Your presence, your commitment – your desire – which may be a burning flame or a simmering ember – is inspiring and empowering to the rest of us. Your commitment is making a difference.
As are your questions. With all of the groups I have met with in preparation for this afternoon, I invite people to ask questions. With the adults, they ask them verbally – and with the young people, they write them down anonymously. One of the wonderful things about the Episcopal Church is that we invite questions. Deep questions. Hard questions that don’t have easy answers. The church invites the questions because they challenge us to go beyond quick and facile answers to the ultimate mysteries of life and death. And I can tell you from years of experience that the questions lead to more questions – which then leads to deeper truth and mystery – and a greater appreciation for the breadth of God’s blessing and grace.
And in every group of young people I have met with over eight confirmation seasons now (over 100 different groups), there is always a question about heaven and about hell. What is heaven? Where is hell? And more directly – what do I need to do to guarantee getting a ticket into heaven – and what do I need to do – or not do, to avoid being sent to hell? And we talk about this for awhile – and somewhere along the line I say that I have been to heaven. Which immediately makes me even more weird than just the guy who wears the goofy hat and carries the big stick. They have already figured out that I am not a saint, so that can’t be the reason I have been to heaven. I tell them heaven is a condition – of being connected to one another and God in love. That has happened to me with my family at Christmas (not every Christmas, but a lot of them) at the Eucharist – not every Eucharist, but a lot of them. And I tell them that they have probably been to heaven as well – moments when they are deeply connected to one another and God. These moments of heaven don’t last long, and it is important to pay attention to them.
Heaven is for real – which I know is the title of a best-selling book and a newly released movie. I haven’t read or seen either one, but I can say that heaven is for real – and, and this is important – you don’t have to be deathly ill or dead to go there. You just have to pay attention – in the here and now. Pay attention. Honor the gift – and give thanks for it. And these heaven-like moments will keep coming. And I suspect – actually I believe, that when we die the connection with God and each other in love will be deep and will continue – on and on and on.
And then I tell the young people that I have seen hell, which is heaven’s opposite. And it is not because someone has told me to go there: Mark, go to hell. Although that has happened to many of us a few times. Hell is the opposite of heaven; it is a condition of being so separated from God and each other because of anger, fear, hate or grief. Or all of the above. We have all seen pictures of hell, especially these past couple of weeks seeing the faces of stricken families in Nigeria who are waiting for the kidnapped girls. The intense grief keeps them so separated from God and each other. And in those moments, hell is all they know.
Some of us have moments of hell. I have been there a couple of times – and each time it felt as though the hell would never end. That the grief, anger, hate or fear would swallow me up forever.
It didn’t. It hasn’t. And it won’t. Jesus made sure of that. The powers of the world – who put Jesus to death, figured that the hell they were going to put Jesus through would permanently separate him from God. That he would get swallowed up in anger and fear. And not just Jesus – but they figured that the crucifixion would keep everyone else separated from any possibility of love carrying forth.
They nearly succeeded. But Hell did not prevail – because God was with Jesus. Through the hell of all of it – God was with him. God is with us.
We need to find these moments of heaven, those glimpses and blessings of Easter. Find them, trust them – and build our lives on them. Why? So we can go to hell. That’s right, so we can go to hell. Today’s Gospel says that we should take up our cross and follow Jesus. And where did Jesus go? He went to places of grief, fear, anger and hate. Over and over again. Jesus went to places and people who were in hell. We are expected to follow him there – and let people know that the separation, the fear, the anger and hate – that’s not all there is. It may feel like it. But it is not all there is. Heaven is for real. Now.
It doesn’t mean that we have to go to Uganda or Syria – or some other dangerous place or the most forlorn place. Sometimes it means going up to the kid in the cafeteria who has been picked out and picked on for being weird – and sits alone day after day the hell of rejection – and saying hello. And meaning it. More than just once. Making a connection of hospitality and hope.
Make friends with nobodies, the modern translation has it in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the second lesson this morning. I have a problem with the translation. In God’s eyes, there is no such thing as a nobody. Everyone is somebody. But – and I remember this well, I was taught in middle school that there are nobodies – and for you to have any social standing at all, you need to avoid them. Let them sit alone in the cafeteria.
That may be how it works in middle school, but that is not how it works in the Gospel. Nobody is a nobody.
This is now your job – to remind people that they can never be a nobody. Ever. You are confirming your job today. If you think this is graduation, I want you to bail out now. You are confirming that you have been hired to do a job with Jesus. That you will follow Jesus. To bring this connection, this gift, from heaven – into places of hell. It’s your job. You won’t get a salary for it. But by doing your job you will receive a measure of freedom, joy, blessing and peace by following Jesus that you will get no other way. Freedom for yourself, and your ministry may bring a measure of freedom and glimpse of heaven to someone else.
And you need to keep coming back to the church – to the altar, to be reminded that Jesus went to hell and back. And the gift of life – which we receive in the bread and wine, is really a gift of heaven. That we need to carry out into the world. Which is our job.
In a few minutes, each of you will kneel before me. I will place my hands on your head or take your hand (depending on whether you are being confirmed or received) and I will say a blessing. And you will be confirmed. It will take about 25 seconds – a little more if you are nervous and can’t remember your name. And you may wonder – did anything happen? I can say yes; the rest of us can say yes – that something powerful and important happened. The Holy Spirit descended and confirmed your job. It may take a while to realize the power and importance of all this – it can be a time release sort of thing. But the Spirit of Christ will always be hovering about you. This job is always waiting for you. A job with incredible benefits.
Several weeks ago I was at the memorial of the Oklahoma City bombing, as part of a national Episcopal Church conference on “Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace.” On April 19, 1995, 168 lives were taken in what was then the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil (9/11 eclipsed that). It was a tragic experience of hell for the whole country, but especially for the people of Oklahoma City. Some of you are too young to remember the bombing, but my guess is that all have heard of it. At the end of the museum tour a survivor of the blast told her story. She said that on that day she was in hell. No question about it – she was in hell. And from that terrifying experience she still struggles with Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD); but she, and indeed most of the city, live with a purpose: of remembering the tragedy, recounting the story and sharing what each survivor has learned. “Be aware,” she said; “be of use – and be grateful”. She was all of that. Her awareness, usefulness and gratitude transformed her experience of hell into a deep hope – into a glimpse of heaven. A hope that we couldn’t help but take away with us. She was doing her job – sharing her hope – which she discovered in a real hard way. And let me tell you, her witness made it a whole lot easier to do mine.
A couple of years ago I visited Robben Island, located just beyond the harbor of Cape Town, South Africa. Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison, because of his work against apartheid. Our guide was a former political prisoner, who was jailed alongside Mandela. He said that during their captivity, the prisoners sent secret notes to one another – sharing information about what was happening on the mainland – and maintaining a level of hope in what otherwise was a caged hell. He also said that a year before apartheid ended, the prisoners knew that apartheid was doomed. They knew it from their notes – but more from their undying hope. He said that the guards knew apartheid was doomed as well.
What that visit taught me is that evil cannot be sustained. Hell will not prevail. Mandela’s witness – and the witness of thousands, if not millions of others – provided a glimpse into heaven – and new life – and kept hope alive.
Heaven emerges out of hell. New life arises out of death. That’s the promise of Easter. Your confirmation is confirming your commitment to live into that promise, by taking up a cross and following Jesus. He needs your help. You have been the necessary gifts of hope and peace to do your job. Thank you for accepting it.
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