The Diocesan Confirmation Service is a liturgical event for individuals to be confirmed or received into The Episcopal Church, or to reaffirm one’s baptismal vows. It is held twice a year in the spring and fall at Washington National Cathedral. Individuals seeking to be confirmed, received, or reaffirmed should be in conversation with their parish priest
The Diocesan Confirmation Service is a liturgical event for individuals to be confirmed or received into The Episcopal Church, or to reaffirm one’s baptismal vows. It is held twice a year in the spring and fall at Washington National Cathedral. Individuals seeking to be confirmed, received, or reaffirmed should be in conversation with their parish priest.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
I’m honored to be here, to pray with those who are to be confirmed, received, and are reaffirming their faith, and to worship God with all the congregation of St. John’s, Beltsville. Before I say more, let me express my gratitude to your good rector, the Rev. Joseph Constant, for his ministry, and the good clergy, staff, and lay leaders who serve alongside him. I also want to thank those who serve in diocesan leadership from St. John’s. As a congregation, you are a blessing to us all.
I’d like to speak directly to those who will soon stand before God to make a public affirmation of faith. Today is meant to be an occasion of blessing for you, as you publicly state your commitment to live as a follower of Jesus. This isn’t an endpoint for you in faith, as if you were graduating from Sunday School, or having learned all you need to know about following Jesus through a six-week course. This is one moment–an important one–in a lifelong journey of faith. Like any journey it will have twists and turns, unexpected circumstances and new opportunities, and most significantly, the ongoing invitation to grow in your knowledge of God, grow your sense of God’s love for you and your love for God, and deeper appreciation of how God is guiding you toward the fulfillment of your life’s purpose.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whom some of the young people being confirmed today had the opportunity to meet a few years ago, likes to tell about the time when he, as a teenager, was having a bit of conflict with his father, who happened to be an Episcopal priest. The Presiding Bishop admits he was a rebel in those years, and also lazy. And in a moment of frustration, his father said to him “You know, son, God didn’t put you on his earth merely to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.” His father reminded him that he had a God-given reason for being alive and he needed to figure out what that purpose was. Our Presiding Bishop never forgot father’s words, and it helped him take his life more seriously, as the gift that it is, and the responsibility he had for living it well, as God would have him live.
Today we are all holding you and your precious, singular lives before God. When you come forward and I pray for you, I will ask that God’s Holy Spirit may be revealed to you in personal and powerful ways over the course of your life, so that you know without a shadow of a doubt that you are precious in God’s sight and here on this earth for holy purposes.
Yesterday when we met, I encouraged each of you to stay close to Jesus, and in particular, to make a regular practice of reading and meditating on his life and teachings that are recorded in the New Testament. In the Bible, there are four accounts of Jesus’ life, each with a distinct perspective on this man whose entire life–his birth, his teachings, the way he interacted with others, and his death and rising from the dead–that gives us a window into the heart of God. As the Apostle Paul says in one of the letters of the New Testament, “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s important for you to know his story, not just as a body of information, but as a means to be in relationship with him. As you read and meditate and question and discuss his teachings, Jesus will speak to you. You will hear him, not always, but at significant times in your life, speaking to you through the words of Scripture, as if they were written for you.
I’d also like to underscore something we talked about yesterday, and that is the gift of Christian community. While there are always challenges in any community, and no church is perfect, one of the great benefits of being part of a congregation like St. John’s is that you get to spend time with some truly remarkable people, whose life and faith are inspiring. And you have the opportunity to learn about other Christians who through their example show us what it looks like to live and love like Jesus.
Today we remember one such person, arguably the most influential Christian leader in the history of the United States: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow is a federal holiday to honor King, the closest Monday to the day of his birth, which was January 15, 1929. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his 93rd birthday yesterday. As it was, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 when he was 39 years old.
I don’t know how much you know about Dr. King’s life. He is now recognized as the spiritual leader of what we call the Civil Rights Movement, a sustained effort to overturn laws and customs in this country that deprived African Americans of basic civil rights and gestures of human decency. In many parts of the United States, it was illegal for African Americans to sit in the front seats of buses or trains; it was illegal to drink from the same water fountains as white people. It was perfectly legal in Washington, DC to deny persons of color the right to purchase a home in certain neighborhoods, including the neighborhood I live in now and I daresay some of the neighborhoods you live in. All that changed in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the leadership of people like Dr. King and thousands of people who insisted on change. King was one who insisted, in the name of Jesus, that those protests be non-violent and dignified.
Looking back, this country honors King as a hero. But during his lifetime a lot of people hated him and what he stood for. He had to endure all manner of threats against his life and his family. It must have been so disorienting, for he was also a celebrity. Where he spoke, thousands of people would show up to hear him. He inspired a generation to believe that people of different races could live together in peace and goodwill. Yet in the eyes of some, he was the most dangerous man in America.
Today I’d like to tell you two stories from King’s life that give you a sense of his spiritual connection to God, and how he drew his inspiration and strength from Jesus’ life and teachings.
This first comes from a time when Dr. King, as a very young pastor, was chosen to be the leader of what was called the Montgomery Improvement Association. This was the group that organized a bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, Alabama to protest laws that made it illegal for Black people to sit with whites, and relegated them always to seats in the back. That boycott lasted over a year, which meant that African Americans had to find other means of transportation to work (very few owned cars). A lot of people did a lot of walking.
On January 27, 1956, near midnight, King was sitting at his kitchen table alone. He couldn’t sleep because of his worry and fear. He knew that as a leader he was in way over his head. Everyone was exhausted, and the boycott strategy didn’t seem to be working. He had good reason to be afraid, because he had received numerous abusive calls and death threats targeting him and his family. The latest call had come earlier that evening, with a sinister voice assuring him they would be sorry if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery within a week.
With his head in his hands, Martin Luther King, Jr. bowed over the kitchen table and prayed. Later he would say that his prayer started like this: “Lord, I am afraid. I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
In that moment, he would later say, he experienced the presence of the Divine as never before. It was as if he could hear a voice saying: “Stand firm, Martin. I am with you and will never leave you. Trust your instincts and carry on.” He rose from the kitchen table a different man, with a new sense of confidence, ready to face whatever came.1
I want each of you to know that when your life is really hard and you don’t know where to turn or what to do next, you can pray the way Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed. Tell God everything that’s on your heart. Then wait and listen for what comes to you. It may be that God will say something similar to what God said to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Stand firm. Trust your instincts. It may be some other word: Ask for help. Call someone you trust. Or perhaps It’s time to let go. But whatever you hear–and it may not be hearing, exactly, but a sensation of God’s presence–you will know that you are not alone. God is with you and for you. Moments like these are the foundation of a life of faith, upon which everything we say and do in church is built. Without that foundation, nothing else makes sense.
The second story comes from the end of King’s life, the night before he was assassinated. He had come to Memphis, Tennessee to lend his support to the sanitation workers of the city. These were people who collected garbage from homes and businesses, and they were on strike for better wages and safer working conditions. All the front line sanitation workers in Memphis were Black. They were paid what could only be described as starvation wages, and the trucks they drove were so unsafe that workers routinely lost limbs, and two men had recently died. Yet the city leaders refused to make any concessions. Like the Montgomery bus boycott years before, the sanitation workers strike went on far longer than anyone anticipated. The mood in the city had turned violent. The white leadership made it clear that King was not welcome.
No one in KIng’s family or inner leadership circle thought it was a good idea for him to keep going back to Memphis, but he went anyway, three times within the course of a month. He had a lot of reasons for going to Memphis, but in the last speech of his life, he spoke of the most important, which had to do with Jesus and his teachings.
Before thousands of people who had gathered to hear, King reflected upon one of Jesus’ most famous parables. This is what he said:
One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. Instead of answering the man directly, Jesus told a story about a certain man traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho fell among thieves who beat him, took his money, and left him for dead. Two religious leaders came down that road at different times, saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side—they didn’t stop to help. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down off his beast, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to be concerned about his brother.
Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the two religious leaders didn’t stop to help the man. At times we say they were on their way to a church meeting, and they had to get on to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonies was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. It’s a winding, meandering road, conducive for ambushing. And you know, it’s possible that the priest and Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And so the first question the priest asked, the first question the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”2
King took his cues from Jesus and his teachings, choosing to do what he thought was loving and just. What happened to King will happen to us when we, too, take Jesus’ stories to heart and try to apply them in our lives. We become more like him, with love like his, compassion like his.
It is an easy life, being a follower of Jesus? No, but it’s a life worth living, a life with purpose, and a sense of his presence with us, and the guiding light of his teachings. It’s a life to which you are now saying yes, and we reaffirm our commitment to follow him alongside you. Stay close to Jesus, and remember we are right here by your side.
1As told in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simone & Schuster, 1988).
2Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope, 284-285.
Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, ‘All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden sceptre to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.’ When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Luke 9: 18-25
Let me begin by thanking those who are about to stand for confirmation, reception into the Episcopal Church, or to reaffirm your faith. The rest of us are here because of you, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. I’m also honored to welcome and introduce my friend and colleague, Bishop Bud Shand.
It is our privilege to pray a word of blessing as one of you comes forward. While the words themselves are the same, the blessing is utterly unique, whatever it is that God wants you to receive. You may not hear or feel anything when we pray, but the blessing is there for you and will reveal itself in time.
I chose the Scripture passages for today to highlight two particular dimensions of a life of faith. The first text comes from the Book of Esther, one of the oldest books in the Bible. It tells of a moment in a young woman’s life when she had to be brave, to do something that she didn’t think she could do. Because of her position in the King’s court–how she got there is a story unto itself–she had the opportunity to speak to him and ask him to stop an evil plot to kill all the Jews in the land. Esther didn’t think she could do it. But then her uncle spoke to her with some of the most powerful words in all the Bible: Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for a time such as this.
So, too, for us, there will be times when we need courage, because it’s our turn to step up to the plate, whether we feel ready or not, and do whatever it is that we alone must do. God created us for such moments and is there with us in them. There is strength and courage beyond on our own for us to call upon. More on that shortly.
The second passage from the Gospel of Luke–one of the four biblical narratives of Jesus’ life–tells of the time when Jesus asked his followers what other people were saying about him. They told him that people were saying all kinds of things (some things haven’t changed). Then Jesus asked, “And what about you—who do you say that I am?”
That’s a question for anyone who, for whatever reason, feels drawn to Jesus’ life and teaching and wants to be part of a community that bears his name. Simon Peter’s answer: You are the Messiah of God has a particular meaning of salvation for him and his people. What it means for you or me to claim Jesus as Savior, or as Lord, or as God revealed to us in human form, or however else we might conceptualize him, is our own question to answer. How we strive to follow him and his teachings is what constitutes a lifelong journey of faith. It never grows stale, unless we allow it to. More on that in a moment as well.
The heart of what we are doing today is outlined in your bulletin in the section that reads “the Baptismal Covenant.” In the time I have left, I’d like to turn to it and reflect on its meaning with you. Remember that the word “covenant” simply means contract, or agreement. In Confirmation and Reception, we return to the promises made at our Baptism, which for most of us happened when we were infants or children when others made those promises on our behalf. Or maybe we made them ourselves, and we want to recommit to them again, which is something good for all who consider ourselves followers of Jesus to do.
Here’s the main takeaway of all that I’m about to say: While all of the questions in the Baptismal Covenant ask if you believe certain things, and as a result you are willing to commit to doing certain things, equally, if not more important, they also describe some of the ways that God shows up for you, how Jesus wants you to draw you closer, so that you might know him and experience his love. They describe how the Spirit of God, working in and through you, enables you, like Esther, to be brave when it matters most, because in that moment God invites you to tap into a greater courage that you can’t muster on your own.
In other words, this enterprise we call the Christian faith isn’t all up to us. One of the easiest ways to grow discouraged or stale in our faith is to assume that it is all up to us. And it’s not.
The first three questions all start with the words Do you believe? Do you believe in God, believe in Jesus, believe in the Holy Spirit? The answer we are given to recite comes from what’s known as the Apostle’s Creed, believed to be the earliest written summary of the Christian faith.
The word “believe” in this context doesn’t mean that we have no doubts or questions, that it doesn’t mean having what some call blind faith, taking something as true just because someone told you it was true or that it was written down somewhere. It’s more of a heart question–where do you and I place our trust?
So the first question is asking if you’ve had sufficient experiences in life to put your trust in this mystery we call God–the source of all life, or in the words of the Creed, the Creator of heaven and earth. Has the power, the mystery, and the wonder of life sufficiently touched you that you have some sense that there is a source of life, a source of goodness, a source of energy and strength that is beyond you, beyond us all, a source that we call God the Father, or in less parental, masculine imagery, God, the Creator. If not, where can you experience that? If so, where can you experience more of it, and so live with a greater sense of God’s presence in your life.
The second question is another version of what Jesus asked “who do you say that I am?” For many, this is a more challenging question than the first, because there are so many caricatures of Jesus, and so many people who claim him as their own and yet live in ways that any atheist can see are antithetical to Jesus’ teachings. To be sure that’s true of every Jesus follower to some degree, because we all fall short of his example. But some of the distortions are so offensive that it can be challenging to separate them from the essence of the man and his spiritual presence in the world now–which is one of compassion and sacrificial love, forgiveness and grace.
Have you sufficeintly experienced Jesus as a companion, friend, source of forgiveness and mercy, and as one whose teachings about love, forgiveness and justice inspires you, such that you want to put your trust in him? Have you heard him call your name? Not everyone in the world does, and there is no sin in that. But if you haven’t and you’d like to, where might that happen? If you have, how and when did it happen? How have you been inspired by the example of other Jesus followers and are drawn to the light that they see?
I was speaking to a colleague not long ago who told me of the time he decided to walk the entire 530 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela by himself. The Camino is an ancient Christian pilgrimage route across northern Spain that draws people from all over the world, all faith persuasions, and some with no faith at all. Most are seeking something on the journey–healing, clarity of life purpose, a sense of adventure.
This particular priest, who is about my age, went after an experience of deep wounding in the church–he was really struggling, not so much with his faith, but how badly he had been hurt. On the path, he met all manner of people who were struggling, too, most of them from the growing ranks of the spiritual-but-not-religious. He had dinner one night around a campfire with a group of young people, and when they learned that he was a priest, they wanted him to talk about Jesus.
“Jesus chose to love without exception,” he told them. “And with his last breath he forgave those who were killing him. I want to learn how to love like that, and that’s why I follow Jesus.” I want to learn to love like that, too. And I believe that Jesus wants us to receive that kind of love and forgiveness, and then to help him pass it on. We can’t share what we’ve never experienced ourselves. Where do we go, what do we do, to experience more of his love?
The third do you believe question points us to what Christians call “the Holy Spirit,” the part of God that moves in and among us, like wind and breath, and makes possible all manner of connection and empowerment. How have you felt that Spirit? Was it like Esther–giving you courage to do what you didn’t think you could? Can you place your trust in the power that lifted you? How can you open yourself to receive more of it?
Experiences of faith are at the heart of our affirmations of faith. If our experiences are tepid or inconsequential, our affirmations will be, too. My prayer for you, for all of us, is that we might be opened to experience God’s love, revealed to some through the presence of Jesus, and this amazing power beyond our control but that sometimes works in and through us in ways beyond what we could ask for or imagine.
The next five questions then, which on the surface read as things we commit to doing, actually describe the means God uses to reach us, and help us grow in faith because of how we have been inspired, strengthened, and transformed. If you want to know where and how to experience more of God, of Jesus and the Spirit, here are a few answers, embedded in these questions to us:
Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? This is about being part of a Christian community–showing up for worship, for opportunities to learn, for meals shared at one another’s’ tables, and here, at the sacramental table when we remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends. This isn’t a roll call, but a reminder that in community, we can experience God speaking to us, moving us in ways that give us strength and courage and help us to grow in faith. When we show up, things can happen–a word, a song, a smile can be exactly what we need; an opportunity, a chance to love someone else, to learn something new.
Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord? This is the question that acknowledges our struggles to do what’s right and how often we fail. While it asks what we will do, the context is what God wants to offer us in the moments of our failing, which is forgiveness and mercy, the grace to make amends, and begin again. Speaking for myself, the times when I have felt truly forgiven–either by God or by another person–are among the most humbling and transformative experiences of my life. My faith in God soars as a result. That’s what God wants for you, for all of us, in our moments of regret and guilt–to know mercy and forgiveness, to be shown a path toward a different way to live, and opportunities, in time, for reconciliation with those we’ve hurt. Such experiences also help us become more forgiving when others hurt us.
The last three questions all point us to the ways we experience God, and the presence of Jesus, in relationship to one another. Jesus was really clear about this. The implication of each question is that we are to do these things: to walk our talk–to be a person of integrity; to treat others as we want to be treated; and to respect all people. Again, the context is what God wants us to experience through the love and kindness of other people–that God’s love, Jesus’ forgiveness, the Spirit’s power comes to us through the actions and words of other people, and to be open to that.
Going back to the example of Esther, there will be times when God will call us or somehow place ourselves in really hard situations for the sake of other people. The situations can be large or small, for the benefit of one person or for many. Sometimes, when we stand in the gap of human need and our inadequate response, we experience God’s power working through that situation and offering in ways we could never have imagined. Or in the face of human suffering–others or our own–our hearts break, and in the breaking they grow larger, more compassionate, with greater capacity to love without agenda, to give without expecting anything in return.
What I want you to hear is this incredible invitation, this call from the heart of God, to you, into a relationship of love, into a life of great purpose and joy–and also sacrifice and commitment. Yes, there are promises for you to make and to do your best–which will never be perfect–to honor. But Gods’ love comes first, and the desire to draw you closer, day by day, and enable you to become more like Jesus in your capacity to both give and receive love.
Now there are three questions that only those being confirmed, received or who are reaffirming their faith must answer. They are stark questions of renunciation of all that is evil and of recommitment to follow Jesus. It’s the Prayer Book’s way of asking what kind of person you want to be, and whose lights you choose to follow. If you want to follow Jesus, rest assured that he has already called and chosen you. And that no matter what happens, and how many times you fail in any endeavor to love as he loves, he’ll be there to help you get back up and start again.
A final word about the blessing you are about to receive. It’s already there for you, and in you, and surrounding you. Today is simply an invitation to receive. We’re all here cheering you on and thank you for the opportunity to receive something of that grace and love for ourselves.