When I was fifteen years old I attended my sister’s college graduation in Beloit, Wisconsin. I suppose there were several ceremonies and lots of speeches. I remember only one thing. I remember a speaker who told us that she had once met and shaken the hand of the last living veteran of the American Civil War.
After her talk I made a beeline to meet that woman. I wanted to be able to say that I had shaken the hand that had shaken the hand of the last living soldier in the Civil War. It seemed like a cool connection.Two degrees of separation between me and what might be considered the most cataclysmic event in the history of our nation. Having shaken that hand, I still could not recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. On the strength of that handshake, I was not immediately an authority on the Civil War. But somehow I felt the more connected.
The service of Confirmation, for which we gather today, is understood to have two primary actions. One is that those to be confirmed will receive a prayer for God’s strength, accompanied by the ancient gesture of the Laying on of Hands by the bishop. In our tradition, the bishop is understood to be in an unbroken line with the apostles. We call it Apostolic Succession. Christ sent out his apostles, commissioning them and laying hands upon them. The apostles did the same for others as the church grew and spread. And through the ages those called to the ministry of oversight in the church – that is, its bishops – have always commissioned their successors in this same way. They laid hands on those who laid hands on those … all the way down to the bishops of today. A rough estimate assumes a succession of five bishops per century. That means today’s confirmands will be linked by only one hundred degrees of separation from the original apostles and Jesus. Pretty cool, huh?
Like the handshake I received forty years ago which connected me to the Civil War, the blessing which you receive will connect you – at considerable length, but directly – to Jesus and his early followers! Is this magic? No. Will it place a protective force field around you? It will not. Will it make you automatically more pious and holy? Sad to say, no! But it is a symbol, a powerful symbol of continuity and heritage. It proclaims that, alongside all the winds of change by which the Holy Spirit has led the church to embrace new insights and new understandings, there is yet a heritage – a depth of tradition and rootedness – which links me and links you to our forebears, and to our identity as followers and heirs of Christ.
That is one of the two primary things happening today: a prayer for blessing and spiritual strength, in the tradition of the apostles. That’s my role here today. The other primary feature of a confirmation service is a mature, public affirmation of faith – people claiming a religious identity and making promises. That’s your role here today. Often, though not always, these are promises that were originally made provisionally on your behalf when you were much younger. For many of today’s confirmands, once upon a time your parents stood and said, “Yes, I will.” Now it is your opportunity to stand and make your own declaration. “Yes, I do … I believe … I will, with God’s help.”
To declare a religious affiliation is, honestly, becoming a counter-cultural thing to do these days. Growing numbers of Americans describe themselves as non-religious, or very often as “spiritual but not religious.” I am convinced that this reflects a misunderstanding of the true meaning of being religious.
Religion is often understood as a set of doctrines, or perhaps a system of worship. These are part of the picture. But at its root, religion is less about dogma and more about connection. At the heart of ‘religion’ is the root of the word, that middle syllable, -lig- . The root is from ligare, “to bind”. It is the same root which may be found in words like ligament or ligature. A ligature connects things. In orthodontia a ligature is the little rubber band that connects the wire to its bracket. In music, a ligature is the metal band that connects a reed to its clarinet or saxophone.
And a ligament is the connective tissue which binds bones or joints together. We heard this very word in today’s first scripture lesson. Comparing members of the church to parts of a body, St. Paul wrote that we are “joined and knit together by every ligament with which [the body] is equipped.” (Ephesians 4:16) So the word ‘religion’ means, literally, ‘re-connection.’ At the heart of true religion is connection and re-connection: connection to your deepest self; connection to one another; connection to God.
Religion is sometimes accused of being divisive. It is indisputable that in the name of religion people have been and are now being divided, even martyred – that travesties and tragedies are perpetrated in the name of religion. But such events are not truly worthy to be described as religious, for anything alienating, or cruel, or divisive, is by definition the opposite of religion, the very meaning of which is “re-connection.”
Religion, in its best and truest manifestations, will have the capacity not to cause wars but to bring them to cease; not to trigger riots in our streets but to calm them; not to divide peoples, but to help us bridge those divides. What you are affirming today is a religious faith intended to provide you with a path for connection – connection with God and with your fellow human beings. It’s a path to connect you through ideas and ideals, through beauty and inspiration, through service and sacrifice.
As Episcopalians, American Anglicans, you are being confirmed into a church which takes seriously the questions as well as the answers; the head as well as the heart; individual conscience as well as communal authority; innovation as well as tradition. Let the principles of your faith guide you, challenge you, illuminate you, confuse you, infuriate you, even disappoint you. But through all of that, keep connecting with the principles of your faith, and they will connect you – to things larger than yourself – to God and to humanity.
As a final check to see if you are ready, let’s take a quick look at today’s Gospel reading. It is from Jesus’ most famous teaching, often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is describing characteristics of the faithful, and he says they are already glimpsing how it is to share life with God – which he calls the ‘kingdom of heaven.’ He starts listing examples of such a life, life with God. Let’s see how you’re doing!
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Poor in spirit essentially means ‘humble’ – we might say ‘modest.’ I want to know if any of you who are being confirmed today would be inclined to describe yourself as ‘humble.’ Stand up if you are humble! You are blessed!
Jesus continues: “Blessed are those who mourn.” Perhaps you have lost a friend or loved one in the past year or two, or had some other life change which has caused you grief. Stand up if you have had reason to mourn.
[I am skipping over meek for the moment.]
Jesus continues: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” To be righteous is to be decent, honest, virtuous, just. Stand up if you desire these to be these things.
Jesus continues: “Blessed are the merciful.” Do you strive to be a forgiving person? Stand up if you aim to be merciful.
Jesus continues: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” We might say this refers to someone who has good motives for the things they do. Stand up if you aim to be pure in heart!
Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Are you one who strives to make peace in your home, your neighborhood, your world? Stand up!
So, is there anyone being confirmed who is not yet standing? Well then, there is one more beatitude. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek” – that, apparently, is you! Please stand up!
There you are. You are all standing. You are all underway, already, in your journey of faith. You are already living into your promises. And today, by God’s grace, you will be given an extra measure of the Spirit to live into those promises even more fully.
You are blessed. By the grace of God, you are ready.
--The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, 2015