What Does it Mean to Choose Life?

September 23, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; John 3:1-10

Confirmation Sunday. You confirmands have said you don’t remember your baptisms. We do. Some of us are old enough and have been around here long enough that if you were baptized here, we remember!

Confirmation Sunday. This day always brings back anxious memories for me of when I was a 14 year-old in a large congregation with a huge confirmation class. My older two siblings had sailed through ahead of me. Pressure was on when it was my turn. And it didn’t help that my dad was the senior minister of the church.

That was half a century ago, but I still remember how hard it was for me to come to a decision. Take a look at the confirmation students’ faith statements posted outside Westminster Hall to see how they grapple with their questions. For me it was Jesus and the Incarnation – how could he be both fully human and fully divine? It really perplexed me and I’m not still sure I fully understand it. I went ahead and joined the Church – and look where that got me. It was not a direct line from confirmation class to the pulpit. There were a few detours along the way!

If we glide through confirmation class – or, for that matter, through worship on Sunday morning or evening – and never have any qualms or second thoughts or doubts, either we’re not paying attention of we’ve missed the point altogether. Christian faith, when taken seriously, should be difficult. It should be demanding. It should be challenging. This is deep stuff; it matters.

“I doubt that anyone has a grasp on what (faith) truly is,” one student says in their faith statement, “And that comforts me to know I am not the only person who has questions.”

If only all of us could face our faith with such candor.

Another student says – and this one you’ll like –

“The Holy Trinity has always been a spiritual minefield for me. I believe in the Father, which is God, Jesus Christ, the Son, but the Holy Spirit has always somewhat eluded me…Since we were made in God’s image” – this is really perceptive – “then our conscience must be our human version of the Holy Spirit.”

These students know they’re not expected to arrive at some perfect place with regard to their spiritual lives. Faith is never fixed or rigid or settled.

“At a young age,” another student says,

“I did not question anything said during church. I did the coloring, completed the art projects, sang the songs, and did the same as everyone around me. I had no questions. But now that I am older, I have…found how my beliefs have changed over the years.

The confirmation class learned that a spiritual journey has twists and turns.

“Faith is when calmness takes over,” one student says, using a canoeing analogy,

“And you let your life carry on like a river…Sometimes rocks make rapids but…we…have God to love us while we move past the boulders.”

You confirmands have become part of a river of pilgrims “moving past the boulders,” stretching from the time of the newer testament down through the ages and across the continents, right up to this morning, in this congregation.

Now, what’s a confirmation sermon at Westminster without a reference to the Camino in Spain? When we walked it a few years ago we met people from all over the world of all ages and circumstances of life. Although the Camino originated a thousand years ago for Roman Catholic pilgrims, today it’s a rolling human caravan of mostly non-religious seekers. All those strangers streaming along together had one thing in common: they were working on something in their lives.

For me it was grief, as my father had died several months earlier. But for others it was the end of a relationship, the start of a new chapter, the pursuit of vocation, or some other challenge. We all walked with our personal struggles, but soon we were bearing one another’s burdens. We would meet someone and walk with them a few hours, or maybe eat with them, and – often even before exchanging names – find ourselves sharing the pain or hope carried each day on the Way.

That’s what it’s like in the Church. We’re all working on something – understanding Jesus or the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, or struggling with personal challenges or systemic injustice. None of us has it all figured out, but we’ve decided to cast our lot with this band of pilgrims called the Christian Church to find our way forward together.

“I see church as a community where I can feel accepted and am free to be myself,” one student says, “Knowing that I will have the support of the church behind me.”

Nicodemus, the Pharisee in the story from John’s gospel this morning, is like a first century confirmation student, honestly facing his questions about faith. But unlike our confirmation students, Nicodemus isn’t willing to air his questions publicly. Instead, he sneaks out to visit Jesus late at night. He doesn’t want to be seen by those who think they have religion all figured out and buttoned down, and for whom Jesus is not relevant.

It’s surprising that a Temple leader would come to Jesus. One student felt like that.

“Who would ever think that the kid who believed in aliens more than God would go through a confirmation class and write a faith statement. But that is the situation that I am in.”

The particular point Nicodemus wants to talk about with Jesus is the teaching that we all must be “born anew,” or “born from above.”

“Just how is that supposed to happen?” the pragmatically-minded Pharisee asks, sounding like an inquiring confirmand. “We’ve all been born once; shall we all somehow go back into the womb?”

One student is right there with Nicodemus:

“The whole idea of God confused me because of the lack of facts that we have. I had so many questions about why science and God overlapped. I also didn’t understand why God called us to love our neighbors, but yet terrible things would be happening in the world.”

Nicodemus brings his questions and asks Jesus to explain faith in a way that makes sense to him, that meets him at his points of doubt. But Jesus looks beyond the immediate questions and tells Nicodemus that faith is not explicable, not empirical, not observable, not something that can be – in our terms – scientifically proven. It’s like trying to control the wind, Jesus says, which blows when and where it will.

Faith is a matter of the Spirit at work in our lives, bringing new life, a second chance, a starting-over, the experience of being born anew, if we embrace it.

“I believe that faith is something everyone has,” one student says, “But people choose to harness it” – capturing the holy wind that is faith – “and advance their relationship with God, or they choose to ignore it.”

That student is right. Faith is a gift given by God that we’re free to receive, or not. It’s the same decision the writer of Deuteronomy describes centuries before this gospel text.

“Today,” God says in Deuteronomy, “I have set before you, life and death, blessings and curses.” This is the deciding point.

Choose life.”

What does it mean to choose life?

For the writer of Deuteronomy it means deciding, deciding to follow God, to live with others as God would desire, to pursue God’s commandments. Centuries later, that same text is burning in the mind of a lawyer who asks Jesus which of those commandments is the greatest. Jesus responds by saying there really are only two, from which all the others hang: love God and love neighbor.

Choosing life means choosing to love, deciding to put God and the well-being of others at the very center, practicing generosity and kindness to all, and trusting in a higher purpose, a greater good, an unnameable source of light beyond us.

The other day I visited a Westminster member who lives with debilitating health issues and is mostly confined to home. He can speak only in short phrases or single words, often difficult for me to understand. As I was getting ready to leave after our visit, I said I’d like to close our time in prayer, as we usually do. I asked if he had anything in particular he wanted to pray for, and he said, “Well-being.”

“Whose?” I asked, “Yours?”

“Others,” he said.

He as choosing life, even in his circumstances, seeking the well-being of others, looking to the light of God to bring more goodness into the world.

The confirmation students know that God doesn’t intend for religion to be a private matter. “I believe that part of God’s goal for this earth is a healthy and happy community,” one says.

Another agrees. “I think God intends for worship to be a gathering time rather than an individual time.”

Still another says, “Religion is more than a belief; it is a gathering of people in a community who support each other through difficult times.”

Choosing life is not only an individual decision. It’s the choice of the community of faith to love God, together, and to love neighbor, together.

“I am so thankful to have grown up in such an accepting and loving church,” a student says. “This will always be my home.”

Nicodemus the Pharisee went to Jesus under cover of darkness, trying to find his way home to a God who would love him so fiercely, so completely, so unconditionally, that his life could begin again. Born anew. Turned around and starting over.

He trusted that Jesus could lead him on that path. What, or who, do we trust like that?

“I trust in God, and (God’s) love,” a student says. “Whether you are male, female, black, or white. God loves you.”

“I trust in the Holy Spirit,” the student goes on to say.

“In a messed up and fearful world” – a pretty apt description of our world – “(the Spirit) gives us strength and courage to carry on when life throws us obstacles.”

That student is choosing life, trusting in the Spirit, counting on the love of God.

In the 19th century in Denmark Søren Kierkegaard argued with those who insisted on a strictly rational approach to life that rejected the notion of any source beyond observable reality. He used the phrase – now commonly known – leap of faith to name what we take when we choose to trust God. We span the perceived gap between human reason and faith in a God we can never fully know.

The confirmation class – I don’t know if they read Kierkegaard – reached similar conclusions. “I don’t believe God is a he or she,” one student writes,

“I don’t believe God is tangible. God is accepting, welcoming, caring, and open hearted…almost like a guardian angel…always there, supporting you.”

Those of you in Westminster’s 2018 confirmation class have arrived here after a year of study and debate, and maybe even some fun, and a lifetime of preparation. Maybe you’re just a wee bit anxious, as I was. But you’ve learned something valuable about Christian faith along the way, something each of us would do well to remember: faith is a gift ­the wind blowing – our response is what matters. What do we decide? What do we choose?

Today your baptism is confirmed. The promises your families and the church made when you came to the font are now promises kept.

Together we have chosen life.

“The end of confirmation is not the end of my journey,” one student says. “My journey with God, the church, and my spirituality is continuing, and may never end.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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