|Today’s scripture readings:
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Confirmands, I have a secret to tell you about myself: I hated confirmation. So if you’re sitting there thinking about how much you hated confirmation, too, and how relieved you are to be done, take a good look, because this could be you in a few years. God has a funny sense of humor and maybe you too will be a pastor someday.
Actually, when I say I hated confirmation, “hate” maybe isn’t the right word. The word “hate” implies that I had strong feelings about it. “Apathy” may be a better word. “Apathy” means I didn’t care that much about confirmation at all. My heart just wasn’t in it. In fact, confirmation meant so little to me that if you ask me what confirmation was like for me or what I learned or what we did every Wednesday, I honestly couldn’t tell you. I have almost no memory of confirmation. Did I have to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism? Maybe—I honestly don’t remember. I guess when I read the Small Catechism many years later in pastor school it looked vaguely familiar, so I must have at least read the thing at some point. What else did I learn in confirmation? I really don’t remember. Confirmation was something I did, but it didn’t mean much to me.
Maybe you’re wondering how you go from being totally uninterested in confirmation to, not that many years later, becoming a pastor. I’ll tell you more about that in a little bit. But here’s a preview: It has something to do with a series of experiences I had after confirmation that felt like encounters with the divine—encounters that kindled a fire in my heart and fanned the flames of my faith.
Today’s Gospel lesson is one of my all-time favorite Bible stories. Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to a nearby town called Emmaus. It’s evening on the day Jesus rose from the dead, and these two disciples are talking about what they’ve just experienced. They’re confused, afraid, and, more than anything, they’re sad. They had thought Jesus was the one who would save the Jewish people by leading them in a rebellion against the Roman Empire, their oppressors. Clearly, Jesus had failed. The rebellion was thwarted, and Jesus was sent to the cross to die. So here they are, walking to Emmaus, dejected, wondering what’s next.
Suddenly a man appears with them on the road. It’s Jesus, but of course they don’t recognize him, because they think he’s dead. They have a conversation. The stranger, Jesus, asks them, “Why are you so sad, anyway?” And then the two disciples tell him about everything that has happened. They tell him, “We’re sad because we had thought Jesus was the one who was going to set us free. But then the religious authorities had him arrested and put him to death. And now we’re really confused, because just this morning some of the women went to his tomb and found it empty. They came back with a story about some angels who said he is alive. Now we don’t know what to believe.”
Jesus, the stranger on the road, begins to explain to them why everything needed to happen as it did. The Bible story doesn’t really say exactly what Jesus actually told them. But I would guess he said something like this: “Answering violence with more violence never gets us anywhere. Turning the other cheek brings shame to those who try to do us harm. Loving our enemies dismantles the power of hate. Don’t you see? Sometimes giving in to death is the way we discover new life.”
Jesus continues on the road with the disciples to their destination, and when they arrive Jesus shares a meal with them. He breaks bread, blesses it, and gives it to them. And in the breaking of bread, the disciples realize they are in the presence of Jesus. At that moment, Jesus vanishes from their sight. And the disciples, filled with wonder, say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us and teaching us?”
“Were not our hearts burning within us?” Have any of you ever had that experience, where it felt like your heart was burning? Maybe on one of the mission trips the past couple summers, or in a holy moment with your small group or with your mentor, or on one of the confirmation retreats? Have you ever felt that holy fire kindled in your heart?
I have. And I think that’s why I’m standing here in front of you as one of your pastors today.
The summer after I was confirmed our church youth group decided to attend the ELCA Western States Youth Gathering in Seattle. Tens of thousands of Lutheran youth from all over the western United States came together to hear from some big-name speakers, take part in some workshops, worship together in a giant arena, and do service projects around the city. I signed up for the trip—not because I was excited about the churchy stuff we would be doing there, but because I had always wanted to visit Seattle. And, the group was planning to travel via Amtrak, which sounded pretty fun to me. That was the real reason I signed up for the trip: I wanted to experience the train and I wanted to visit Seattle.
Something happened to me on that trip that I wasn’t really expecting. I distinctly remember sitting in this giant stadium hearing from a speaker named Mike Yaconelli. He was a charismatic pastor with all sorts of energy and passion, and what he had to say changed my life. He talked about how Jesus spent his time with people everyone else rejected. He explained that the Christian church is supposed to be a place that is open to everyone, especially people who most often hear that they don’t belong. Now, I was a kid who often felt like an outsider. I hadn’t figured out yet that I was gay, but apparently some of my classmates had, because there were a couple of bullies who mocked me and made fun of me constantly. And sitting in this stadium full of people in Seattle, I felt like this guy was talking directly to me. He was standing there telling me that Jesus hung out with people who didn’t fit in, with the people others ridiculed and condemned. I think this is the first time I can remember that someone explained Christianity to me in a way that made a difference to me—and it lit a fire in my heart.
After that, I started paying more attention in church. I started hearing messages like that all the time—messages that kindle a fire in my heart. I remember one time hearing an older person in my congregation talk about why Holy Communion means so much to him. He said Communion is the only place in the world where everyone who comes forward gets treated equally. It doesn’t matter who you are: whether you’re rich or poor; whether you’re part of the powerful elite or someone living on the streets; whether you’re a kind, loving person or a total schmuck. When we go forward for Holy Communion, everyone gets the same amount of bread and wine, no exceptions, no questions asked. He said that at Communion, we model the kind of world God wants for all of us—a world where everyone gets to eat and drink, not because we deserve it but because each of us is a beloved child of God. And I realized that’s why it’s so important that we keep coming back to Holy Communion, so we can remind ourselves again and again that this is the kind of world God wants for us—a world where everyone has a place at the table and everyone gets fed. Every time I take part in Holy Communion and watch everyone come forward to receive bread and wine, that’s what I’m thinking about. No matter who you are, no matter how undeserving you might feel, there’s a place for you at the table. Holy Communion kindles a fire in my heart.
These days, I have that experience pretty regularly—that feeling that my heart is on fire. Sometimes it takes the form of warm fuzzies that come from a holy encounter with another person—like when I visit someone in the hospital and have a chance to pray with them, or when I get to be with a couple celebrating the birth of a child, or when someone else calls me and says, “Javen, I heard you’ve been sick. Can I bring you some chicken noodle soup?” Have you felt those warm fuzzies before? I’ve come to believe that warm fuzzies are what we feel when something holy is happening, when we have an encounter with Jesus, or when the Holy Spirit is up to something in our lives.
On your confirmation day, this is my prayer for you: That you will encounter Jesus on the road again and again—that you will experience God’s presence in holy encounters and unexpected interactions—even and especially when you’re feeling lost, confused, hopeless, or alone. That in those holy moments God will kindle a holy fire and fan the flames of faith in your heart. That God will draw you ever more deeply into the love which came into your life on the day you were baptized, the same love that captures us at the font today.
We love you. We are so proud of you. God bless you this day and every day, in Jesus’ name. Amen.