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Based on the Scripture reading:
Isaiah 65:17–25
Luke 21:5–19

2018 September 9
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

TReBPAG

There is an old joke about bats in church belfries — so old that I almost chose not to tell it again. Almost. If you know it you can go along with me in unison. Instead of laughing.

Three clergypeople at a conference discovered that all of them had problems with bats in their so-called belfries. The first said they’d covered all the windows and vents and cracks with screens, but somehow the bats kept coming back. The second said they’d tried those annoying noisemakers that sound like hawks and owls, but the bats kept coming back. The third said that she’d gone more historical and liturgical. And she’d solved the problem. She said we brought the bats into the sanctuary, baptized them and confirmed them, and we never saw them again.

This is what passes for humor in some circles. And for experience in others. And it’s germane because Confirmation starts this afternoon and runs until late May 2020, and we don’t want it to be a joke, because it isn’t. As long as we do something about it and by “we” I mean all of us: parents, members, visitors and peers — all of us. Because Confirmation is about community and connection, and let me explain.

I was never confirmed because I was a Quaker back then, and they don’t do that. I did take a year-long theology class in 8th grade that I remember still, but that’s not Confirmation. It’s not a rite of passage or an adult choice or a community claim.

Earlier this week I was with a Rabbi friend who spoke about her bar and bat mitzvahs over the years—the Jewish rite of passage. If you’ve been to one you know how the final product is astounding and impressive and significant. Plus there’s a party. But my friend told about how tough it is along the way, week after week, learning Hebrew and refining a faith statement and trying to get teens to come on time while you’re the target of their anger and anguish and angst. Then she told about how one of the toughest, angriest students, after many personal conversations, revealed being the target of major bullying at school and how all the hard work and conversation led finally to a safe place to talk about what’s really going on, from which flows all the rest of the work of faith and hope and promise, just like in Isaiah and Luke. Isaiah and Luke create a model to describe what’s going on while inviting us to ponder what’s really going on.

Two weeks ago the Health and Human Services Department in Newton sent the clergy a report about what are called trends and risks for our middle school and high school neighbors. 18% of our juniors and seniors are vaping, 31% of those sexually active are practicing unsafe sex, 17% of them are using marijuana regularly, and here’s the kicker: 53% of middle school students and 88% of seniors report that their lives are somewhat stressful or very stressful.

Back to topI wrote back to ask about statistics on bullying because from where I stand it’s right in there with those other significant revelations and more than a corollary.

I’m in the middle of a book called The Stressed Years of Their Lives by a psychiatrist and a psychologist. It goes from high school to college and says that of those noted already, 34% of them expect life to get worse in the year ahead. So 45% of them feel hopeless. So 50% of them have suicidal thoughts, and 10% seriously consider suicide, and half of all of those never seek counseling or treatment. But, here is some hopeful news: 67% of them talk to a friend before they tell anyone else. Friends change our lives, says Jesus. You are my friends says Jesus. Anyway, finally for this dreadful passage, there is a connection between all this with periods of economic stress and rapid social change. Like when the Pilgrims came to the new world, or during the 1980s when every milk carton showed an abducted child, or like the past four decades when we transferred wealth from the middle class to the wealthy, or like this year when each day has another angry tweet that we would not permit in our schools or another risky suggestion such as bombing countries to the stone age, and I can tell you with certainty that this affects 13- and 14-year-olds because I talk to them, and they’re watching and they care.

Allow me to go to hell for a moment. This is worth a whole sermon, but it’s also worth a reminder. Children and youth were not valued in modern ways during Biblical times. In fact, often they were sacrificed, literally, not just like Abraham and Isaac but for ritual acts about ten blocks from the Temple in Jerusalem. The word translated "hell" in the New Testament is Gehenna, and it is a place along the way to the Mount of Olives, and in Gehenna children were sacrificed in a fire dedicated to the god Moloch, and Jesus said don’t do that, and if we all gasp at the crude, violent act back then it becomes important to ponder how all of us, whether parents or not, are willing to sacrifice children in our own sphere. Don’t do that, says Jesus: don’t go to hell. That injury is abhorrent to God.

If you love the passage in Isaiah 65 about the new heaven and the new earth, where tears and fears are a thing of the past, it’s worth a reminder that chapters 63 and 64 are just horrible. There is blood and fighting and lost life, and that’s why God’s new thing is so welcome.

If you read the text in Luke 21 with a careful eye you notice something missing. When Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple and the persecution of his followers and climate change and prisons and the bad behavior of governors and rulers, they are not at all shocked nor does a single person ask "why" or "how could this be?" Because the destruction of the Temple, the persecution, and the corrupt rulers are all familiar to them. So here as in two other Gospels, instead of being shocked or asking "why," they voice two basic questions: when, and what’s the signal? And Jesus’ advice is about endurance and honesty and community. Jesus says you’ve got to talk to each other and care for each other andBack to top stick with each other. Because our neighborhood is close to hell, and the world is not all in God’s control, but you can choose to endure.

Each time that I lead Confirmation, I have a few basics that I long to share so they’ll endure. I want our children to know that Jesus was Jewish, I want them to know that the creation story says that both women and men are created in the image of God, I want them to know that the Bible is alive and I teach them an awkward acronym that I invented—TReBPAG—that our whole faith is about the relationship between people and God. I try to teach them that they are each precious to God and that they all need each other. I tell them never to get into a car with a driver who has been drinking and never to have unsafe sex. Obviously there is much, much more, but as much as I want to teach good news, we don’t start in Isaiah 65 or Luke 2. Everything we do is in a complicated world, a dangerous world, and so I try to balance what we know about school shootings from our cell phones with what we do to help schoolchildren in Brighton or Waltham or Newton. Because hell is nearby especially if you are being bullied or overlooked or excluded from the image of God.

So if we Confirm our children never to see them again, we are doing it wrong, and what we confirm isn’t really Christianity anyway. We’re not fair to them, to God, nor to ourselves.

You and I cannot quickly change the transfer of wealth from those in need to those beyond need, nor can we control social media or bad actors. Yet here is your assignment whether you have children or not: The core of a bat mitzvah or Confirmation is to acknowledge that these are young adults in our midst. So try to remember when you were 13 or 14 and try to think of what you wanted from the adults around you. Other than not being noticed. There is more that they want and need. What was it for you? Now how do you do that? How do we? In two weeks, when some of our youth help with the Heifer table at the Advent Market, talk to them. Ask them what they’re doing. In a few more weeks, when these youth will ask to interview church members, offer or respond to their request. Volunteer. Think about what you believe to be essential to teach and tell me. Support our education program financially. Vote so that our governors and rulers are mindful of Christian values. And when I ask if you can help chaperone a Confirmation trip, think of what it means if someone is being bullied or stressed or hopeless to have adults who know that Confirmation is not a joke, and it takes connection to get past Isaiah 63 and 64 to the new heaven and new earth. It takes God and time and each other. It all begins in less than five hours, but it lasts, too.

Now, there’s plenty more to share. But I thought that was a lot for today. God be with us. Amen.

(This sermon is to strengthen the faith of the members and friends, near and far, of Newton Highlands Congregational Church, UCC. It is not for publication or other use.)

 Copyright © 2019 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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