Confirmation, Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2:1-13, Sermons

Working Out Our Salvation

(A sermon for Proper 21A/Confirmation–Sept. 25, 2011–Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32)

It’s been several years since Lucy and I first started talking about it. We’ve discussed the pros and cons, considered the proper timing, looked up how other people are doing it, wondered about the best age, worried that we waited too long, but now the time has finally come.

On Friday, after school, we went to the mall and Lucy had her ears pierced.

For the next six weeks, she’ll have to clean the piercings three times a day using cotton balls soaked in a special antiseptic solution. She’ll turn the earrings gently and keep the little gold studs in place. For the next six months she’ll also need to wear some earrings all the time.

It’s all written down so that there can be no mistake about what to do.
Instructions make some things much easier. By following these, Lucy will almost certainly have a positive outcome to the ear-piercing experience. She’ll go on wearing earrings for many years to come, perhaps for her whole life.

I just hope she’ll be wearing them to church.

Confirmation is a funny rite of passage. In the Congregational tradition, and in the United Church of Christ, we most often baptize infants, and when our young people reach an age of academic and intellectual capability, anywhere from 7th grade or so to high school, many churches offer the opportunity to be confirmed. It’s not a requirement for membership in our churches, though, and many of us who are adult members of a UCC church have never been confirmed at all. And unfortunately, some young people look at Confirmation as more of a graduation, freeing them from going to church, which is really not the intention at all. The intention of this rite of passage, the purpose of Confirmation, is the affirmation of Baptism. It’s the moment when a young person claims for, in this case, herself, the identity of faith named by others when she was a baby. Lucy has heard me talk about baptism many times; that’s the fate of the theological offspring. She knows I view it as an acknowledgement of something that is already true: that the child being baptized is beloved by God.

We, the gathered body, witness this truth, and we promise to support the child and the parents, recognizing that we may be acting as stand-ins for some other congregation who will do the actual work. For Lucy, who started out at Woodfords Congregational Church, there have been four others where her mom was the pastor or the interim minister, and now in our newest church home, she comes to be confirmed. Once again the congregation will offer prayers and support. Kristi has been her mentor, engaging in conversations over the past year about the Bible, and the history of our faith and the way we understand God and practice our faith today.

But the truth is, Lucy, like any young person being confirmed, has a choice about whether to go beyond what we say and do today.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus is parrying a rhetorical attack by the chief priests and elders of the Temple. Since we saw him last week, he has entered Jerusalem, and over the next eight Sundays, we’ll be hearing the stories that happened in the first Holy Week, the things he taught in the days before his arrest and crucifixion. This moment comes early in the week. In this chapter he turns over the tables of the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, and then he curses a fig tree that fails to give him fruit, and in the midst of that display of the most human emotion we see from him in Matthew’s gospel, the leaders challenge him. By what authority do you do these things? He is upsetting the status quo, and they want to hear the reason why from his own mouth.

He answers a question with a question, which they don’t dare answer, and then he tells them a story about two brothers. Both are sent by their father to work in the vineyard. One says no, but later thinks better of it and goes to work. The other says yes, but doesn’t go. Which one obeyed his father? This time they answer, and it’s the right answer. It’s the one who went to do the work who did the will of his father, not the one who gave the right answer without any actions to back it up.

Now, I want to be clear. It’s possible to live a life of faith without ever saying the words Lucy will say in a few minutes. It’s also possible to make the promises very sweetly and never live into them. That was Jesus’ indictment of the religious leaders. They knew the right words to say; they just didn’t bother to work in the vineyard. But there are more choices than just those two!  Lucy can answer the questions asked of her today and act on them.

This, by the way, goes for the rest of us, so we might want to listen to them carefully.

It’s important to remember that we make the promises, whether we’re being baptized or confirmed or becoming members of a local church, we make the promises about how we will live with the understanding that doing so requires God’s help. The qualities we are urged to express in Paul’s letter to the Philippians do not come easily.

Even Jesus, who took on our form and lived a human life, lost his temper, and while his indignation in the Temple was surely righteous, his anger at a fig tree proves his humanity.

If it could happen to Jesus, surely we all need help to live a life that pleases God.

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete,” wrote Paul. “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:1-4, 12b-13, NRSV)

It’s part of our Congregational tradition to work out our own salvation, to do the things we did at all our Confirmation classes: to consider the stories of Jesus and the historic understandings of our Christian faith, then to use our own intellect and experiences of God to inform the way we will live our lives as faithful people. The work does not end at Confirmation. What we hope is that our conversations have laid the groundwork for choosing to live a life of faith.

We confess to you that while you may find guidance in the Bible and in the church for how to live it, there is no one simple list of instructions. And we acknowledge that it’s more complicated than choosing between the gold studs and the Hello Kitty earrings with the hypo-allergenic stainless steel posts. Hello Kitty is *cute.* We *love* Hello Kitty. But do we want to wear Hello Kitty for six weeks, everywhere? Maybe if we’re 5, or 8, or excessively whimsical.

And Lucy, if you were excessively whimsical, I would love you just as much.

I know, though, that you have considered God seriously, and today you make a commitment to make the choice and to do the work.

We work out our salvation by naming our relationship with God and responding to it for the rest of our lives. We work out our salvation by keeping our hearts and minds open for the moments of illumination that will come along the way. We work out our salvation by seeking the streams of live-giving water to be found in the life of a Christian community and in service to others outside those bounds. We work out our salvation by choosing, with God’s help and by God’s grace, “to will and to work” for God’s good pleasure.

We work out our salvation with “fear and trembling,” because it is only right to cultivate an awed awareness that we are loved by the Creator of all that is; by the Christ who lived and died with us, because of us and for us; and by the Consoling Spirit still and always present among us. And if we want our young people to believe the promises of our faith and to live into the vows we’ve made for them, if we want the shiver of wonder to be palpable, we must open our hearts, too.

May it be true for all of us, on this Confirmation Sunday, that we confirm the promises we’ve made in the past, that we affirm that we are God’s own, and that we commit ourselves to go on, throughout our lives, working out our salvation. Amen.

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