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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on February 9, 2005

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Diocesan Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation

Sermon preached by

The Rev. Ethan Cole

June 4, 2005

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 139:1-9,
Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect." Romans 12:2

When I was in college I occasionally experimented with vibrant hair colors that were not normal. I would bleach the black out of my hair, and then dye it blue or green or purple. Blue and green and purple are good liturgical colors that I get to wear all the time now as vestments in church, but as far as hair color is concerned, they were a bit unusual. I attracted quite a few stares, both on campus and off. My shockingly colored hair was just one more way in which I didn't fit in with the crowd. I was proud of being different. My hair was my way of saying, "I'm counter-cultural. I reject the rules of good behavior that society expects of a nice young man. I don't want to fit in."

While I am no longer tempted to dye my hair crazy colors, I still don't want to "fit in" with this world. As a Christian, my counter-cultural behavior continues in other ways. You also who come here today seeking to be confirmed, and you who come seeking to renew your life in Christ by the laying on of hands by the bishop are doing a counter-cultural thing. While not so dramatically visible as neon hair, by accepting the laying on of the bishop's hands you are taking St. Paul's counsel that we heard today, "Do not be conformed to this world." When St. Paul speaks about not being "conformed to this world" or when St. John says in his epistle, "Do not love the world," they do not mean the physical creation, which God made and declared "good." They mean rather that power of our culture and society-indeed the power of any culture or society to distract people from the way that God has shown, which is the way of the cross. "The World" in these passages is not the trees and stars and good earth and all the people living here, but rather that spirit of our time that makes the Way of the Cross distasteful, that says there is an easier way to happiness and life. By "this world" the Bible means the fallen world affected by sin, especially human societies that draw people into patterns of life that are sinful and destructive to themselves and others. We all know the mighty conforming power of this world. The force of peer pressure tells us what to wear and what music to like and what TV shows to watch. This world defines for us what success is and what failure is. This world has as its highest goals the pursuit of money, and popularity and security at the expense of charity, and truth and liberty. I think in our society-especially for young people, like you confirmands and for myself-that the spirit of this age that makes the Christian way most difficult to follow is the spirit of distraction.

The poet T. S. Eliot writes of his time, that it is "distracted from distraction by distraction." This is a good diagnosis of our own day. Our minds are turned away from Christ by a TV show, and it doesn't even have to be a good one (have any of you ever found yourself surfing from channel to channel watching things that don't particularly interest you and find suddenly that hours have gone by wasted?) Our minds are turned away from Christ by the next agenda item, soccer practice, or glossy magazine. None of these things are bad in themselves; I enjoy a TV show, or glossy magazine from time to time. These things are bad if they are not prioritized correctly as subordinate to the center of our lives, which ought to be God. But we are so busy and distracted from one thing to the next that there are few of us who consistently have God at the heart of our lives.

St. Paul tells us, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect." This is good counsel for all Christians, but especially, I think for confirmands and those of you who are recommitting yourself to the Christian walk. Do not be conformed to the way of our society by flitting from one event or activity or TV channel to the next. Do not be conformed to the way of our society that draws our feet and minds away from the Way of the Cross. But rather be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into someone who is not distracted from walking the Christian walk.

There is a bitter joke about a rector who has bats in his bell tower and he asks his bishop how to get rid of them. The bishop says that he'll just come over to the church and confirm them all and they'll never be seen in the church again. After confirmation, many young folks just quietly slip away from the Church, distracted by the ongoing course of their busy lives.

You who are confirmed today, strengthened by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by the bishop, think of yourselves as having your minds and hearts renewed for the walk of faith stretching out before you. A person who is walking the Christian walk is blessed. Jesus teaches us what blessedness is in the reading from St. Matthew's gospel today. These beatitudes tell us who the undistracted Christian is, and it is a summary statement of the ethical demands of the Christian life. It is serious stuff for all Christians to consider, especially those of you being confirmed who are teenagers. But if you let yourself be transformed by the Holy Spirit rather than conformed to this world, you will be transformed into this: poor in spirit, yet rich in faith through Christ; mournful, yet rejoicing in the Lord; meek, yet confident because of what God has done for you in Jesus; hungering for righteousness, yet filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit; merciful, yet loving justice; pure in heart because you are not distracted by the world but rather have your eyes on the goal of deep life in Christ; a peacemaker, yet strong because the arm of the Lord is with you.

If you are blessed with these Christian equivalents of green hair, you may run into persecution as Jesus predicts in the beatitudes. We who try to live this way don't fit in with "the world." We may be rejected, scorned, ridiculed-all sorts of unpleasant things because of our choice not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed. As Bishop Michael lays his hands on you, be transformed and strengthened for the Christian walk that stretches out ahead of you. Let your confirmation be a renewing of your life in Christ, and in no way a conclusion.

We who have been transformed by the Spirit of God and given a new life in Christ know that while alluring, the Spirit of this World is a deceptive Spirit. The Spirit of this World would love to conform you to the popular rich beautiful young people you see on TV. In this shiny world happiness comes from wealth, popularity and listening to the right music and wearing the right clothes, as the rappers say, bling-bling. But for all its allure and appeal real life and true happiness cannot be found there. We who have been transformed know that the way of the cross is the way of life and peace. While we may or may not be reckoned beautiful or rich or popular as the world counts those things, we know that we have something better. Through our baptism and renewed in confirmation we are being transformed into a new kind of humanity: the little brothers and sisters of Jesus. Amen.

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York