Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Doubt, Faith, and Friends - A Confirmation Sermon

Sermon as prepared for delivery (edited to preserve confidentiality) at First Congregational United Church of Christ, Fort Worth, TX, April 11, 2010. For the confirmation service of 7 youth.
Text: John 20:19-31

As I prepared for this morning, I reflected on my own baptism, 20 years ago. On May 20, 1990, 5 days after my 13th birthday, I was baptized by my youth minister at First Colony Church of Christ in Sugar Land, Texas. Every year for about 15 years after that, my mom would give me a card for my “re-birthday.” It was the day I decided to make my faith public. In that church, we were not baptized as babies or as children. We waited until it was a decision we could make on our own.

Behind the communion table in the front of the sanctuary, there was a baptistery that was hidden by panels, only opened when someone was going to be baptized. It was a small tub, about 3 feet deep. On either side, there were changing rooms – one side for the minister, who would put on waders so his pants would stay dry. In my changing room I put on a special garment, like a plastic jumper. I waded out to meet my youth minister, who asked me if I believed in Jesus and if I wanted to live my life for God. Yes, I answered, and I was dunked in the lukewarm water.

I still remember the clothes I wore that day – I had on a black shirt, a white skirt, black socks, and white Keds. And a black and white bow in my hair. It was during my black and white phase. After church, my family went out to eat at Ninfa’s, my favorite Mexican restaurant.

As you can tell, I still remember that day pretty clearly. It was an important day in my life, a turning point in my journey of faith. The seven of you being confirmed today, I hope that this day is the same for you – that 20 years from now you will look back at today and remember it as a turning point, when you shared your beliefs with your church.

I can’t say that the 20 years since my baptism have been free of doubts, questions, or fears. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. I wonder if anyone else here knows what I’m talking about… if there are any adults here who never have any questions, anyone who has it all figured out, please stand up…
That’s what I thought!

Our gospel story today has plenty of people who are scared and unsure. We often focus on Thomas – because he was brave enough to express his doubts. Thomas sometimes is the only one who gets credit for being a “doubter” – but if we read the story carefully, it’s clear that he wasn’t the only one who had questions.

Mary Magdalene had already told the disciples that she had seen Jesus. She is the first witness, the one sent to tell the men. But there is no indication that they believed her. In fact, in Luke’s version of the story, the men think the women are just making it up. So why should we be surprised, then, that Thomas wouldn’t believe it either? If you had watched someone close to you die – even if they told you they would be back – would you believe they were alive again if your friends told you they were, if you hadn’t seen them yourself?

At this point, it seems that everyone has seen Jesus and believes he is alive again – except Thomas. But somehow, Thomas still feels safe enough to tell his friends that he is not so sure. And no one judges him for it. He had to go a whole week before he got to see Jesus. They must have had a lot of conversations, and I’m guessing that, over that week, even those disciples who had seen Jesus started questioning whether that had been real or not.

Can you imagine them sitting around together, doing a candle lighting ritual like we do in youth group? For those of you who don’t know, we often being our youth group time by lighting a candle and sharing our answers to the question: “How is your heart this week?”

As they each lit a candle, how do you think this group of friends would answer that question – how is your heart this week?

Peter might say - “Last Sunday, my heart was great – relieved and overjoyed to see Jesus. But since then, I’ve been feeling confused, wondering whether it really happened.”

And Joanna – “My heart is tired and afraid. I’m scared the same things will happen to us that happened to Jesus.”

And Thomas – “My heart is about the same today as last week. If Jesus is really alive, how can I know it’s true?”

A lot of times when we do our candle lighting, and throughout our conversations with each other, the youth share their questions – was Jesus really God? Did Jesus really, physically, come back from the dead? Did he really do everything the Bible says he did? And how was it that Jesus could appear in a room when all the doors were locked?

Notice that Jesus didn't come to Thomas in private - it was with his friends. Thomas and the other disciples got to have a special experience that was a turning point in their faith journeys. They saw and touched the risen Jesus, and he told them to share their faith. Over the years they would tell their story to others, and sometimes, when they got together for those candle lightings, maybe they helped each other remember what that night was like, when they saw Christ among them.

The other night I was downtown at the Main Street Arts Festival, and a little child – maybe 5 years old – handed me a tract. You know the kind I’m talking about – these little brochures that attempt to tell you – in 2 pages or less – what you need to do to be saved, which means to avoid going to hell when we die.

The front of this one said “God’s last name is not DAMN.” If that doesn’t catch your eye and make you think, what would? Then, if you take the time, you can read through the text and discover that all humans are sinful, and that in order to be saved, we can pray a special prayer, admitting that we need God and claiming belief in Jesus.

And that’s kind of like what you seven have done this morning – you made a statement of faith, admitting that you need God and that you want to follow the way of Jesus. But why do we have you do it in front of everyone? Why, when anyone wants to join the church, do they come to the front and publicly acknowledge their faith? Wouldn’t it be good enough to just send your statement of faith to our church secretary, where she could file it away, send you a certificate of membership, and send off a note telling God to add your name to the list of people who are saved?

There’s a reason we have this thing called church, a reason we join together every week, sometimes more. We need each other – we need a community of friends we can share our doubts with, and people who can tell us their own stories about times they have seen Christ. Just as Thomas’s friends told him they had seen Jesus, we can tell one another of the times we have experienced Christ in our lives. And like Thomas, we can share our questions with people who won’t judge us, but will only love us and patiently wait with us until we have our own encounter with Christ.

This is the gift of God this second Sunday in Easter, a community of friends who have some doubts, some faith, and a lot of love. We welcome 7 youth to be full participants in the life of this church, and at the same time, we remember that each and every one of us is welcome here. Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Even though we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, we look around and see the spirit of Christ on one another’s faces and in each other’s hearts.

Church, let this day be a turning point in your journey of faith. If you have doubts, know that you are not alone. If you have faith, share it. Most importantly, be here, fully present and open, with your friends, and let us support one another as we grow in faith and celebrate the new life we have found in Christ. Thanks be to God!