Psalm 31:1-5,15-16
Luke 24:50-53

After all of this, Sharon Ringe writes, the disciples go out to Bethany, to the place that has provided refuge many nights from the threats and the crowds that have surrounded them during Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem.[1] At the very end – these are the final three verses of Luke – Jesus brings those who were still with him, as the liturgy of Luke’s gospel draws to a close. Consistent with other biblical departures (like Genesis 49-50 when Joseph dies, and Deuteronomy 33-34 at the end of Moses’ life), he ends with a blessing. Like Enoch (Gen 5:24), and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), Jesus is carried up to heaven.[2] The gospel ends where it began, in the temple, and everything is brought full circle. The joy that was announced at the birth of John and Jesus way back in chapters 1 and 2 (1:14, 2:10), that we remember so long ago back in Advent, is now fulfilled. And those who have been blessed can scarcely do anything other than return the blessing.[3] They are worshipping, returning with great joy, in the temple, continually blessing God.

Blessings in the scriptural tradition stand in a long line of holy encounters, places heaven and earth meet, both from God and from God’s people to God and others. From Abram’s, “I will bless you to be a blessing,” to Aaron’s, “The Lord bless you and keep you,” blessings are a place where God’s action, God’s power, God’s wisdom and love are spread through all the earth. When we say the blessing over a meal – the word is used a lot of different ways – we aren’t asking God to be present in the food in ways that God will not be if we don’t say, God is great, God is good. We are ritually enacting, in the highest priestly tradition, daring that WE might be vessels of this outpouring of love from God. So we might be who God would have us be. We bless God for God’s own goodness and mercy. We offer blessings upon each other. We offer blessings on our friends and those we love, and even on those we do not. This is not a “bless their heart,” which you know is NOT a compliment. Ultimately, blessings are prayers. They are filled with our deepest hopes, conferred by God, or offered by us, that we might be, hope, and live in ways that are in concert with who God is. That our love might be God’s love, our justice God’s, our kindness God’s own kindness for the world.

This morning we welcome 23 of the 27 members of our confirmation class who are choosing to make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and will join the church. And so, in that spirit, I want to offer a blessing to them, a prayer, for them and for the church they will join. My prayer for them, and for us all, for you, confirmands, is that you will love the church. Not deal with the church. Not tolerate the church. Love the church, as God’s gift to the world.

We know that the religious landscape in this country and throughout the world is undergoing profound change. A study by the Pew Research Center last year noted a huge jump in those throughout this country who claim no religious affiliation, now about 23%, up from 16% in 2007. And a full 78% of those were raised in the church and have decided not to return.[4] Those are not just confirmands, though we know that the odds are good that a handful of you we won’t see too often after today. And that is something we grieve. Those same studies, and our experience, tell us people don’t come back to church – not only don’t love the church but don’t deal with it at all, for many reasons. I’ll post some of them with this sermon, many who cite people who are too busy, who feel the church doesn’t mesh with their scientific understanding of the world, because churches talk too much about social issues, because churches talk too little about social issues. Because they are suspicious of the institution, because they are boring, because of an apparent lack of openness to other traditions.

And to most of that, I say, guilty as charged. The church has been woefully slow, from Galileo’s scientific discoveries to what some churches suggest on climate change and creation. The church has been painfully slow on issues of civil rights and race, on the honoring of the gifts of women, of welcoming our LGBT members, neighbors, and friends. That pace has done real harm to people who wanted to love the church so badly but were so disappointed in what they saw as a profound lack of love for all God’s people. We have been petty when we should have been loving our neighbor. We have been boring and dull. Us preachers, and I am only speaking for this preacher, to be clear. This preacher has been boring and dull. We have been uninspiring. We have paid attention to the wrong things.

But it gets worse before it gets better. More of it, I fear, is about the quality of the faith we – the rest of us – have shown those confirmands, year after year, and that we have shown the world. I looked back at a book by Kenda Creasy Dean, who teaches at Princeton seminary. She does a powerful analysis of a bunch of data and a bunch of interviews on the faith development of youth and young adults.[5] “Let me save you the trouble,” she writes on the first page. “Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: We’re responsible.” And it gets worse. She writes: “If teenagers lack an articulate faith, it may be because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation.”

Which is an indictment of the church. But, it is also a tremendous opportunity. The faith of our youth and college students, or our children, isn’t just about them. It is about their families – there is a tremendous correlation between the faith of parents and that of their children. The influence of every mediocre pastor and every mediocre church can be overcome by the commitment of a parent to live their faith, and to bring their kids to church. It’s not only that, of course. There are tons of deeply faithful people whose kids don’t go to church anymore. And those parents know better than anyone that no amount of modeling or persuasion, or even the occasional hint of guilt, will get them there. The best we can do is be as faithful as we can be, and pray, pray like heck, it rubs off. And they – those children, these youth – are surely watching.

If you listen on youth Sundays, a handful of members’ names keep popping up. And many of them aren’t pastors, and a good number of them aren’t even youth advisors, as amazing as those people are. It is those of you who take the time. Who learn their names and greet them by those names. Who demonstrate every day that the faith commitment these confirmands are making today really matters. That your faith has changed your life, and makes you do ridiculous things like give of yourself, over and over again, to people who are hurting and hungry. To listen to someone who is homeless. To take a week off work and go to Haiti or on a youth trip. To show up at a school, your kid’s school or someone else’s, to tutor someone else’s kids. To take a meal to someone who is sick. To hold their hands and pray. To show up, again and again, in the name of Jesus. Week after week. Folks who put in the time.

I am here not because my family is more faithful that others or the church I grew up in was more faithful, it was because it was a collection of beautiful and odd and deeply faithful people. Who showed up. Because Carolyn Gross held me in the nursery. Because Clarence Williams brought candy every week and the kids knew they could see him for a mint after worship. Because Smith and Gene Wilson, Wave and Theo Oglesby, Ed and Tommy Hay showed up to hang out with me in Sunday School. When we first moved to Black Mountain sometimes I was the only kid there, but they prepared, and showed up. It was Bob and Jane Collins who walked us through confirmation. It was John McCall, who took me and a buddy on hikes in high school when he saw some distance grow between us. It was Lynn and Dan and others who asked me to be a youth advisor right after college with them. It was names there, just like the countless names here, that are doing their best to follow Jesus. And doing a darn good job of it.

If you drift away for a little while – or for a longer while – we won’t think you’re a bad person. I don’t think God will punish you forever. I do know that those of us still here will miss you, because there are a bunch of folks who care for you, and who want, who need, the gifts you have to bring, about God and faith and the world and whatever else. I hope you’ll stay. Because church can, I truly believe can, make all the difference.

That is my prayer, the blessing I offer to you. My deepest hope is that not only will you endure the church, but that you will love it. In all its quirky strangeness. In all its imperfections. And that you will love not just the church – it’s not the idol. But the Jesus Christ who calls us into community, who calls us to church, to work out our faithfulness, together. Luke’s story ends where it begins, in the temple, continually, he says, praising God. The joy that was announced at the birth of John and Jesus (1:14, 2:10), and anticipated in the ministry of Jesus (8:13; 10:17, 15:7,10) is now fulfilled. Those who have been blessed can scarcely do anything other than return the blessing.[6] We will do, with God’s help, what those disciples did. Worship. Follow. May it be so for us all. All praise be to God. Amen.

[1] Sharon Ringe, WBC: Luke, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), p 289-290.

[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 498.

[3] Also NIB, 498-499.

[4] Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behindMillennials leaving church in droves, study findsUPDATED: Are Young People Really Leaving Christianity?

[5] Kenda Creasy Dean, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the Church,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.)

[6] NIB, 489.