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Sermon: Best Seats in the House. October 17, 2021

October 19, 2021

This is the sermon I preached for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 17, 2021, which was also Confirmation Sunday at Grace. You can view the 8:30 service here and view the bulletin here. The image is Greta and me. She served as a worship leader for the first time this week. Did a mighty fine job carrying the cross, too.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Today is Confirmation Sunday at Grace, and I’m thankful for a great many things. I’m thankful for these eleven young women and men of faith, ready to claim the baptismal promises made for them as their own and receive anew the gift of the Holy Spirit. I’m thankful for parents and sponsors and mentors and the great cloud of witnesses that helped them get to today. I’m thankful for Zoom, which kept us connected during these challenging times. I’m thankful for Julie Modrich, without whom none of this is possible. But you know what I’m most thankful for? I’m most thankful that James and John aren’t in this Confirmation class. Honestly. What is it with these guys? Week after week we’ve heard Jesus predict his suffering and death. We’ve heard Jesus proclaim that the Kingdom belongs to children, not to the rich and powerful. We’ve heard Jesus preach a grace that is made possible only by God’s power; a grace that invites us to put ourselves last that others may be first. Jesus’ Confirmation curriculum was perfect; as far as pedagogical methods go, it was immaculately conceived and well executed. And yet here are James and John, simply not getting it. It’s as if they brush Jesus’ words aside: “Yeah, yeah, Jesus. Crucifixion and all that. But let’s get down to brass tacks; when you’re in your glory, can we sit in the places of pride and power, at your right hand and your left?” I’m a few generations removed from knowing how the kids talk these days, but I’m pretty sure Jesus’ first response to James and John was to text them a facepalm emoji.
  2. Jesus’ next response is to point, again, to the cross. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Are you ready to be confirmed into that? Jesus isn’t so much dismissive of the question asked by James and John as he simply wants to reorient them. “No,” he you can hear him saying. “Not that. You keep misunderstanding. Listen to me. My baptism is the cross. Come, follow me, and stop worrying about where you’re going to be seated at the feast. Stop worrying about how you rank. Stop worrying. Trust in me; rest in me; I am enough for you.” Then Jesus, hearing that the other disciples are angry with the sons of Zebedee, breaks it down for all of them: It is the Gentiles who care about lording it over others, but it is not so among you, and will not be so in the Kingdom. Jesus didn’t come to give his life so that some would be granted positions of privilege. He came to give his life as a ransom for many. Not a few rising to the top, but the many raised to a new way of life.
  3. Of course, before we come down too hard on James and John, it’s important to remember that we are not that different. We, too, are trapped in the sinful project of the self. We, too, worry about our place and position in life. We, too, neglect those in need and seek to divide ourselves from those we see as other or less than. We, too, trade the deep, abiding joy of a life of discipleship for the fleeting things of this world. We, too, are threatened by fear and despair. We, too, need to hear again and again the good news of Jesus Christ who died for us. As confirmand Anne writes in her witness statement, “simple things in our lives can become ‘gods’ to us. We idolize sports, technology, diets, workout routines, and influencers. So much so that it is easy to forget who made all these things possible.”
  4. Last night in this space, Anne and her fellow confirmands stood before us and told us what we, like James and John, needed to hear. They faithfully witnessed to the power of the gospel at work in their life, calling them to seek not their own good but to instead follow Christ into faith, service, unity, and joy. Their witness statements are powerful. Rather than worrying about who sits where, Anne B. reminds us that we “are all one thorough Christ and we are all connected. It means we are not alone.” As Cole puts it, “We are diverse but shouldn’t be divided.”
  5. As high schoolers who live in a high demand world, these young people have discovered the promise that God goes with them in all things. Andrew states it clearly: “God will always be there for you no matter what.” Anna P. writes, “Even when things aren’t going well at school or with my friends, I know there is a future and that my belief in God gives me comfort.” David, reflecting on what can often seem like a journey through the darkness, says, “Even though I am scared, I will let God lead me on the right path set out for me.” And while we, like James and John, often worry about where we’ll end up, Jacqueline reminds us that it’s all grace, all gift, already given and received through the waters of baptism. She writes, “One thing I don’t have to earn is God’s love.” And Gavin gives thanks for the fact that this happens not alone, but in community: “Grace,” he writes, “made me closer to God, and welcomed me as a loved child of God.”
  6. It seems like James and John are asking for a lot, and it certainly is a self-interested request. But I think Pastor Louise Johnson is on the right track when she asks, “What if they weren’t asking for too much, but for too little?” In a world that arranges itself according to power, in which we sinfully seek to lord over others, their request makes sense. What they cannot yet imagine, what they will not see until they find their own end in the cross of Christ and open their eyes blinking in the resurrection beauty of Easter morning, is that Christ has set us free from this world’s powers and principalities; that he has, in fact, brought such powers to an end. A new Kingdom dawns, and he alone is King. But he does not lord his power over his subjects. He kneels at their feet. Washes them with lifegiving waters. Nourishes them with his own body and blood. He does this for his subjects, even, by the grace of God, for you and for me. If you want to be close to me, Jesus tells us, doesn’t worry about the seating chart. You’ll find me among those who are most in need. Come, join me in a life of service to them.
  7. Audrey encourages us, “May everything that you do, be done through Christ.” Yes! Through Christ, receive the full gifts of the Kingdom of God, and through Christ live a life of discipleship for the sake of others. Be not only confirmed but conformed. Not conformed to this world but to the cross, whose power transforms your lives. After all, it doesn’t really matter where you end up sitting. The Kingdom is a celebration, and all that matters is that you’re in. And you’re in! Baptized into Christ’s death, you are raised to new life. Discover the joy in the invitation, for joy, as Olivia points out, “is different from happiness and more permanent like my faith.” What a gift we have received, that we may live lives of service and praise, anticipating the Kingdom that will come. Reflecting on music and praise, Benjamin says, “I will continue to praise God through singing until I no longer can.” May we join our voices in that song, even when our voices fail us, knowing that the song echoes into eternity, joined by saints and angels. It matters not where you sit, friends. God will take care of everything; indeed, God has already done all that is needful through Christ. Stop worrying about such small things. Rejoice in the gift of the Kingdom and go forth in lives of service to all.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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