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1 John 4:7-21
I think it’s been awhile since we’ve had a confirmation class at Fellowship, maybe long enough that we don’t all quite remember what they are about. Come to think of it, what ARE they all about? I think that may have been a question our teenagers had as their parents volun-told them that they’d been going to almost 5 months worth of sitting in a room talking with old people about God. What confirmation is really about is imparting a tradition, or connecting to an institution, which, I grant you, may be even less popular these days than the “talking with old people about God” scenario. Yet this tradition, Christianity, ponders with us across almost the entire history of humanity the meaning of life and how it is that we fit into the creation we see all around us. And it’s answer
comes back again and again to this word – love.
I watch my own children, and the children of many others, grow up wrestling with this word. And listen, middle and high school are among the most difficult places to get a good sense of what love ought to mean. Typical teenage angst mixed with walkouts and mass shootings, and adults that do a poor job of teaching by example might make us wonder – why talk of love at a time like this? Yet we long for love. We search high and low for it, thinking it is romance, engaging in all kinds of unhealthy behaviors just for a taste of what we think love is, hoping that some other person will fix us, or that we can fix them. We base our self-worth on the number of likes we get and we live our days snapping pics of our minute-to-minute movement in the hopes that will count as connection in a world that, despite our technology, seems more disconnected than ever.
Words from our tradition remind us of something this morning, my friends. This author we call John says it clearly. Love isn’t enough. After all, you can love your shoes. Is that what we’re talking about? You can love lots of things – biscuits and gravy, a summer day, napping in the warm sun, the Thunder, licorice, that cute person in third hour, money, power, guns…the list goes on and on. Is that the kind of love that John is talking about here? Is that the kind of love that we talk about when we say that “God is love?” And where, one might ask, do we learn of the kind of love John speaks of here, using Greek the word agape? Do we learn what love is from watching sappy movies, or royal weddings? Do we see it in a marriage that has lasted a long time or a mother nursing her baby? Or is it that favorite food, that special team, or a fat bank account?
Is that the kind of love that IS God?
Confirmation provides a space for our teens to ask themselves some of these questions, not so they can make the “right” choice or conformto a set of rules or obligations, but so they might find where they fit into the experiences that lie before us, present in the long history – warts and all – of the church of Jesus Christ…to conFIRM their place in that tradition. Learning that history, seeing the doctrine that has developed over the centuries, hearing of the lives of people who have struggled to understand their faith and live it out helps us all to discern the difference between doctrine and God, between tradition and divinity, between our words aboutGod and the God in which we trust but never fully know.
In the United Church of Christ, we are not founded on dogma, doctrine or creed. So, when you ask us what we believe, the answer gets tricky. WE probably believe very little together – a Creator modeled to us in the person of Jesus, the importance of church, a God who is about love, love with justice, love with liberation. Beyond that we begin to break down into different camps. And what we’ve discovered is that’s OK. It’s messy sometimes, but it’s OK. Precisely because of what John says in this passage – because “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.”
And love, I think we’d all agree, must be more than words…love comes with what we do, not what we say. It comes with our experience, not our knowledge.
I have to tell a story about Alec now…and it’s a story that he has given me permission to tell. Just a couple of weeks ago, he was recounting being back in Sunday school with JD and being asked to recite a Bible passage. When he said he didn’t remember any, JD was like – “C’mon, you’ve been in Sunday school your whole life, surely you remember one!” Alec responded, at least this is what he told me, “Yeah, but they never taught me all the stuff that Jesus said, they taught me what Jesus did.”
That is really what confirmation class is all about. Here’s the history. Here are the stories. Here is what the tradition tells us about how Christians say, in a myriad of different ways, some far more legit than others, that “God is love.” And that love is not the same as how you feel about something, it is what you do…how you treat yourself and others. It is love that is willing to give something up for it’s sake…a love that costs something. That is the love that we call God. And not only we, but the tradition, too. We’ll teach you some of what Jesus said, and show you what he did. Now, what are you going to do about it?
Theirconfirmation, church, is really a ride along for the rest of us. We get to vicariously ask ourselves the same questions, for these are the operative questions of our lives of faith. What does it mean to be Christian if we do not learn how to love better? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus if our capacity to love our neighbor, instead of hating, fearing or ignoring them, does not increase? What does it mean to say that we belong to the church of Jesus Christ if such belonging works on us the way that John warns us about?
“If anyonesays, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar,
because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen
can’t love God, who can’t be seen?
We live in a mean world. And we are raising children in a mean world. It is a world that teaches fear and hatred, violence and aggression and if we offer nothing else to counter that message, then we will be left to the consequences of such lack. We know what our children face on a daily basis, what they are exposed to and what lessons they could learn from such dehumanizing action that happens all around them. When we take them through confirmation class we are, in part, reminding them – an ourselves at the same time – that we belong to a tradition not unscarred by such evil and ugliness, not immune to the same fear and hatred, but a tradition that still holds up the dream of God’s kin-dom, a place where all people know that they are children of God, beloved by God and accepted by that which that is bigger than all of us, that which lies at the heart of a dying star and the pulse of a baby’s birth, that which resides in each of us, lifting us up and making us whole. We call that God. Our tradition calls that God. And our faith calls on us from across the centuries to work out our salvation, as Paul wrote, with awe and trembling, by being love in the world.
So we learn what Jesus did. And we listen to what Jesus taught. We decide to follow Jesus, to let our light shine, to stand against a world of bitterness and isolation and build a house where all are welcome. We try and grow our love, to reach for something bigger, to love like a neighbor if we must, and like God if we can, to make love an intuitive reaction, instead of the bigotry and labeling that has been placed in all of our hearts. We can endeavor together to belove in the world…to do what we can, where we are, with what we have…teaching a Gospel that fears less and welcomes more, judges less and trusts more, despairs less and hopes more…hates less and loves more, showing God’s great love for us all – every single other – to the world.
This is the Gospel truth. If we know this…if we can confirmit…it will set us free.