Thursday, May 13, 2010

Becoming adults

I delivered this sermon at a Confirmation service on the Eve of the Ascension at All Saints', Carmel

This service is about being an adult. Being an adult is does not depend so much on what age you are—truthfully it is something that we keep learning to do throughout our lives, just as a healthy person never completely loses some of the qualities of being a child. True adulthood is about having the maturity to make one’s own choices, and taking responsibility for the consequences. Oh, yes, and it’s about power.

When I was a child I couldn’t wait to grow up because I imagined that adults had more power. For one thing, they had more money. But they could also do things that, as a child, you aren’t able or aren’t allowed to do. The classic example of this is driving a car. In fact, driving a car may be the most important marker in our society of the transition from child to adult. As a child you dream of the day when you can drive, all by yourself, and go wherever you want to go whenever you want to go there. These fantasies of independence get more vivid and intoxicating as you get closer to that magic threshold, until that thrilling moment comes when you turn that key for the first time and hear the motor roar to life and you put the vehicle in gear and step on the gas pedal and feel the long-dreamed of power propelling you forward.

Then you become a drive and you find out certain things, things you didn’t think about before. For one thing you learn that driving a car doesn’t make you an adult. In fact, people seem to be at their most childish behind the wheel of a car. Normally polite citizens butt in front of each other. They curse at each other for going too slow, or too fast, or making minor errors of forgetfulness. Another thing you find out once you start driving is that the car doesn’t go anywhere without gas. Even if you drive a hybrid subcompact you have to stop on a regular basis to fill up with horrible toxic liquid. We may feel free and powerful, but actually we’re hooked, and can’t kick the habit. We might be concerned about global warming, or lament the fact that we have to hike twenty miles into the mountains to hear the music of God’s creation without the constant interference of traffic noise. Our hearts might break to hear of an enormous oil slick blanketing the ocean, or of wars waged on thin pretexts in countries rich with oil reserves, but also know that we have to get around, and our share of the guilt for these sins isthe price we have to pay for that power.

Our scriptures this evening are about a different kind of power. It is the power of true adulthood, true maturity. Unlike the power to drive, it is not bought at the price of sin. In fact it can’t be bought at all, because it’s not for sale. This kind of power always comes as a gift. The power of true adulthood is not something we use, like a tool, to get something we want. Rather it clothes us like a garment, or enters into us like a breath. It is the freedom to be who we truly are, not what the world tells us we should be. It is the power that comes to us from above.

Tonight we celebrate and give thanks to God that all we have been given that gift. It was given each of us at our baptism, when we were reborn as members of God’s family and brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. And tonight some of us are standing up to say publicly that we wish to receive that gift in its fullness and claim it as our own. Tom, Raul, Colin, Will, Michael, and Grace, as well as Lorrie and Vicki, are declaring their intention tonight to answer the call of God in Christ to grow into true adulthood.

There is a focal point in this service, an outward and visible sign of the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, empowering them to desire, to will, and to persevere in pursuing it. And that sign is the laying on of hands by Bishop Hughes.

Now it would be a mistake to think that in this action the Bishop is giving them something that belongs to him. He is just passing on a gift, a gift that he was given for the express purpose, and no other, of passing it along. In fact it was given to him by exactly the same sign, by the laying on of hands by bishops, who themselves had hands laid on them by bishops who had hands laid on them by bishops and so on all the way back to the disciples of Jesus, who received this gift of power from Christ himself so they could communicate it to the whole world. So that is what is still happening, and now it’s our turn.

We may not all become bishops, nor should we. We may not pass on the gift by laying hands on other people in church. But we may give them a hug, or a kind or forgiving word. The power of true adulthood is not a tool to get things for ourselves, but a power within us to be a gift for others, by what we say, by what we do, and simply by who we are. It is the power that comes from above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

A really good driver, a mature driver, is one who has learned to see the whole picture. She doesn’t focus attention only on the road or only on the car in front of her. She sees down the road, and off to the sides, so she can anticipate when something unexpected is going to happen, and can slow down or take evasive action to keep herself and others safe. This driver is a little like the first astronauts to orbit the Earth, who saw the Earth for the first time as a whole, and described it as a religious experience. From above we are all one. Up there you can see no borders, no nations, no races or religions, only a single, beautiful world, bathed in the glory of God’s sun.

From above we are all equal. There are no lower-class people down there and no higher class people up there, just people, going around together on the surface of the Earth. What the astronauts saw was a little taste of what Christ sees, and we need that kind of perspective, that kind of wisdom from above if we are going to achieve maturity as individuals and as a species. There is no way we can do it by ourselves. We need each other. We need the community of the body of Christ, with all its members and all their different gifts. God’s promise in Christ is to be present with us, in the Holy Spirit, to empower us to give our gifts, and in that giving, to finally, and fully, grow up.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.