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Defiant Hope

June 23, 2015

A sermon preached by the Rev. Lynn Dunn at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost / Confirmation Sunday, June 21, 2015

 The Rev. Lynn Dunn

Deuteronomy 6:1-6         Mark 1:1-13

I enter the pulpit this Sunday humbly, because of the tragedy this week, the racist murder of nine worshippers in a church in Charleston, S.C, on Wednesday night, and also in reverence for what we will do later in this service, as we baptize one and confirm four young adults who will become the newest members of Christ’s church in this congregation. And so, I rely upon the Holy Spirit today to guide my words, and I ask you to pray for me.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

Many of us have felt tremendous pain and grief since Wednesday night, but I must leave it to more eloquent and experienced preachers in the next few weeks to fully plumb the spiritual depths of this sad moment in history. For today is a celebration: a celebration of our faith in the God of hope and the resurrection.

As shocking as it seems to celebrate in the wake of such terror and grief, this is nothing new for the church. The church has always been called to celebrate, often defiantly celebrating, resurrection and new life in the face of fear, pain, terror and death. This is the church’s defiant hope, and the substance of things not yet seen.

Today is Confirmation Sunday, and I hope to share with you some of the mystery and majesty of this moment. Confirmation at White Plains Presbyterian is a yearlong process, and Mike Doehring and Patty Nohara have been co-teachers with me this year. The theme this year was “Pilgrimage,” a transformational journey of faith.

We began in September by reading through the entire Gospel of Mark, making a list of every geographical place named in the text, and then checking the map at the back of our Bibles. When we did that, we saw that Jesus began his public ministry with a pilgrimage from his home in Galilee to visit John and be baptized in the Jordan River. Jesus’ baptism was not the end of the story; it was the beginning. Immediately, Mark tells us, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to enter into spiritual battle. Now I will admit to our confirmands, that I may have sounded this particular note in class with a heavy hand throughout the year, but I wanted to make the point that confirmation, like Jesus’ pilgrimage to the Jordan River, is not a capstone or ending of their preparation and participation in church. It is no graduation ceremony. It is the beginning of a life in the church.

The program was demanding. The confirmands attended worship every week since September, with class after worship most weeks. They worked with Covenant Partners who mentored them. They found a variety of service projects in the church. You may have seen them ushering or assisting with Communion set-up. Together we also sought glimpses of churches engaged in the world, as faith expressed in both action and in art. In September, after viewing the film “Disruption,” about climate change, we attended the ecumenical worship service at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine after the NYC People’s Climate Change March. In October, we had lunch with the Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews, General Presbyter of Hudson River, and heard about her experiences as Moderator of the General Assembly. Through the year, as we studied church history and organization, we noted the progress of two proposed amendments to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In January, we saw the film, “Selma,” and we talked about the importance of the Black Church in the Civil Rights movement, and how important the community of faith is in sustaining all people as they work for all that is right, good, true and beautiful in this world. In February, we went to Stony Point for a retreat, and delved into the Gospel of John, and the “I am” statements of Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” and we made the candles you see on the communion table. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and we baked bread and shared communion. We also explored traditions of Christian Art, and the many ways Jesus has been depicted in various cultures and times.

Finally, as the last step of this long process, the confirmands wrote their own statements of faith and shared them with the Church Council. They were asked to reflect on what they had learned and tell us what they now believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Church and what this all means for how they will live their lives. Council members were moved by the honesty and originality of their statements. Alexis wrote of her favorite Bible story, the paralytic man, and the importance of friends– not just any friends, but friends who will bring us to Jesus when we are in danger of perishing. Shian wrote of the importance of prayer and that everyone—everyone — has a spark of the Holy within. Wesley wrote of the rhythm and music of our lives, from our heartbeat and breathing, to the way we walk, as God’s music, the way God communicates with us, and wrote that each of us should read and interpret the Bible, “to make it your own song.” Elinam wrote of the reality of God’s love and forgiveness and the importance of the church as a supportive community.

Pilgrimage is sometimes called “the road that teaches.” Leading the confirmation class has also been a pilgrimage of faith for me, a time to learn, reflect and grow. When we saw the film “Selma” together this year, I revisited some of the public events of my childhood, events I had watched on a little 13” black and white Admiral TV screen, but which were nevertheless seared into my consciousness and memory. Recently reflecting on the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, I realized how deeply those events must have affected my entire generation, since we experienced them as children and young teens. For some of us, hope seemed to die that year, and that may be why my generation did not live up to expectations that we would change the world for the better with our idealism. Lacking hope, it seemed our songs changed, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” to, “Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?” and “The Day the Music Died.” But Bob Dylan’s words have come home to many of us this week: How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend he just doesn’t see? Or, how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?

The Rev. Sidney Davis leads a group in prayer during a community prayer service at the Second Presbyterian Church Thursday, June 18, 2015, near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was captured without resistance in North Carolina Thursday after an all-night manhunt, Charleston's police chief Greg Mullen said. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

The Rev. Sidney Davis leads a group in prayer during a community prayer service at the Second Presbyterian Church Thursday, June 18, 2015, near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was captured without resistance in North Carolina Thursday after an all-night manhunt, Charleston’s police chief Greg Mullen said. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

I am convinced that this generation of children and teens will be equally marked by the public, violent, history-making events of the past several years. Speaking directly to you now, I urge you never, never, to give up hope. Hold on to that same defiant hope that the church has always celebrated in the face of fear, pain, terror and death. If your generation is to be marked by the events of the past few years and especially of this past week, let it be marked for greatness.   If you listen deeply within your own souls, you will find your true calling– to work for justice, reconciliation, goodness, beauty, grace and peace. You are not alone; you have the church to support you. Jesus also said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches,” so stay connected to this vine, and hold on to hope!

In closing, I share with our confirmands the words of 14th century theologian, Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

May it be so!

Benediction: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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