Sermon / June 11, 2017 / Trinity Sunday / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / Matthew 28:16-20
Today is the perfect day for our all-parish Eucharist because we have the perfect gospel for all of us to hear together. As Jesus is about to return to God, he tells his friends to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
The word “disciple” means “follower”. That doesn’t sound so great to a lot of us either. “She’s not a leader, she’s a follower.”
But we can’t learn how to be like Jesus without imitating him, without following him. And to make a disciple, you have to be a disciple. That’s what churches are: communities where people become disciples. Everything we do starts there and flows from there. That’s the fire in the oven.
I love the Episcopal Church, but I am not sure that disciple-making is happening in a whole lot of churches anymore. There’s a reason that the Episcopal Church is struggling to gain members and to keep its churches vital. And I think it’s this: American Christianity, with some exceptions, has suffered a failure of courage. It started a long time ago. By and large, churches were not prepared for the challenge to their authority that came in the 60s and 70s. We tried to put new wine into old wineskins. The Episcopal Church did begin to respond to the gospel mandate in terms of racism and sexism, and then later to homophobia, but as we reached for more social credibility and relevancy, we stopped doing other parts of our job. We stopped teaching the story of Jesus because we assumed everyone knew it. They didn’t. We stopped nurturing our people in the faith because we assumed everyone was mature in the faith. They weren’t. We stopped paying attention to kids’ religious formation because we thought religious faith was in the drinking water. It wasn’t. We thought someone else was paying attention. No one was.
And so religion for lots of Americans became an optional extra, like gymnastics at the Y. But not really essential. Not at the heart of life. And the Episcopal Church in many places started underselling itself and presenting itself apologetically to folks, as if we thought people weren’t going to like us because we believed in something. Deep down, people know that Christianity is about much more than being nice.
Deep down, people know that hearing a lifetime of abstract sermons about how God is love just doesn’t cut the mustard. Deep down, people know that this world is our responsibility and that warm feelings and wishful thinking are not the remedy for the enmity, violence, inequality, and corruption that are crucifying the world Jesus loved. Deep down, people know that what David Foster Wallace said is true: “If you don’t learn how to make meaning out of your experience, you will be totally hosed.” People know that without following Jesus, without his story, without following his path of humility and generosity and passion and courage and self-sacrifice, nothing we do in this place – no class, no liturgy, no mission trip, no long-term plan, no social justice or outreach effort – will endure. People know that without Jesus, this whole things falls apart. We have to have a fire in the oven.
Our culture and its institutions are very good at teaching us how to become individuals. How to achieve and stand out and distinguish ourselves. The chief sacrament of this pursuit of individualism is Facebook, the virtual church where we learn how to worship ourselves by striving to stand out and brand our lives. It is a dark sacrament because so much of those shiny photos and cosmetized narratives are lies. We all know this. I have worked in parishes and schools with many teenagers and young adults who have become professional individuals – they are smart, they are accomplished, they are socially skilled, they have every product and credential they could ever want, their Facebook pages are flawless and still, they say their lives feel empty. You know why? Because being an individual is kind of a dead-end. It will always end up putting you in competition with someone else, including yourself. You’re always trying to scramble to the top. This is slavery.
Jesus taught us that we find happiness when we learn how to become not individuals, but persons. Persons made in the image of God, which means that we have something in common with God, we are like God in sharing God’s love and creativity. Persons carry the life of God inside them. Persons know that the only life worth living is a life together. A life where each of us can forget about our precious, fabricated “selves” and find freedom. That’s just the way we’re made.
People are thirsty for Jesus, because they are thirsty for life. I believe that. We want to follow someone who will show us how to live. I don’t know about you, but when I try to do that on my own, I don’t do so well. That’s why I need Grace Church. And why I need Grace Church to be a place where I learn how to be a disciple, where I learn how to be a person, with you.
I want to tell you about a young man who followed Jesus and what kind of person it made him.
In the mid-80s, I was a student chaplain at New York University Medical Center. It was the time of the AIDS epidemic. Floor after floor of the hospital was filled with young people dying of AIDS. Everyone was really scared.
One day, the head nurse on my unit paged me and said that a young man with AIDS wanted to see a chaplain. I went to this man’s room and found him sitting up in bed bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked with a high fever. He said, “Hi, my name is Michael and I think it’s time I got my life together.”
Michael had a story that was pretty typical for his time. He had been brought up in Florida in a devout Methodist family. He had gone to church all through his childhood. When he was 18, he told his parents he was gay. They loved him very much and this was not good news to them. They sent him to a Pentecostal pastor for an exorcism. Michael wanted to please his parents, so he wanted to change. He did everything they asked him to do. But he could not change and when he told his parents that, they said, “Well, then, goodbye. You cannot be part of our family anymore.”
Now I want you to remember that these people were not monsters. They were not crazy. They were not the devil. Mistaken in their belief and cruel in the action they took, for sure, but they were doing what they thought was the right thing to do.
Michael had just graduated from high school and he had never been out of the state of Florida. But he packed his bag and he took a bus to New York City. And he made a life for himself. He found a job and he made some friends.
And like every young person in the world, he did some stupid stuff and some dangerous stuff. He got infected with HIV.
Now it was very common at this time for people who had become infected not to go to a doctor. There were no effective treatments and so people would rather not find out the truth about their illness. Michael had waited until he was very, very sick to come to the hospital. He had lymphoma and several infections. The day he asked to see a chaplain, his doctor had told him there no hope for his survival.
I got to know Michael over the next 4 weeks. He was a wonderful young man. He had never lost his love of God. He hoped to live but knew he would not. There was not one ounce of self-pity in him.
He went downhill pretty quickly. About a week before he died, he said, “I think I’d better call my Mom.” And even though he had not seen anyone in his family for six years, he called his Mom. And angel that she was, she flew right up to the Big Bad Apple and she moved into his hospital room and took care of him tenderly day and night. I still have a mental image of her holding up his straw so that he could drink from his cup, because he was too weak to hold it. Her name was Nelle.
A few days later, Michael said to me, “I think I’d better call my Dad,” And so he did. Now Michael’s Dad, Pete, had never flown before and he was terrified of flying. But his doctor tanked him up with valium and he came right up to New York with his three other children.
They got to the hospital about midnight. When they came into Michael’s room, they were so frightened of catching AIDS from him that they could not come near his bed. They stood around the perimeter of the room, their backs against the wall.
The room was completely quiet.
And then Michael took my hand, and he held it out to his father, and he said, ‘Anne, I would like you to meet my Dad. He has been the best Dad any boy could have.”
And his Dad came over to the bed and he said to his son, “You are a good boy, Mikey. You have always been a good boy. We love you and we have always loved you. We just couldn’t say it for a long time.” And he wept and kissed his son.
Then Michael said, “Now I would like to talk with each of you alone. Please go out into the hall, everyone, and come in one at a time. Anne, you stay here by my bed.”
This all took two hours. Michael’s Mom and Dad and brother and two sisters each came into the room one by one. Michael was very weak – he had an oxygen mask on – but he talked with them about how much he loved them, about memories he had of growing up with them. His brother Howard said to him, “Mike, remember who we went fishing together when we were kids? Remember how much fun hat was? I have a picture of us fishing and I will keep it on my desk forever.”
After he had talked with each one, Michael said to me, “Anne, whatever happens, I hope we will always be friends.” I can still feel his hand in my hand. Then Michael said, “Please have everyone come back into the room. I would like us all to say the Lord’s Prayer together.”
And so we did. A few minutes later, Michael died. He breathed his last. He was 26 years old.
Do you see who Michael was? He was Jesus for his family. He healed his family. He was God’s grace and God’s forgiveness for his family. As he was dying, he gave life. And how was he able to do that? Because somewhere, sometime, someone taught him how to follow Jesus. How to be a disciple. And I bet it was at that church he grew up in. I bet it was in that family he grew up in. They weren’t perfect, but they sure were good enough.
Michael was a person of God. I think, deep down, that’s what we all want to be. We sell ourselves short sometimes, and think we want something else, something that we mistake for God. But sooner or later, if we’re lucky, we meet a disciple, or find ourselves in a church, somewhere, where disciples are being made. People in community who pray, who learn the Scriptures and the tradition, people who worship and are nurtured by the sacraments, who feed the poor and care for the sick, who free the oppressed, who are people of peace. People who are Jesus for the world. People who have a fire in their hearts.
Dear God, and dear, drew people of Grace, let our church be that place for everyone.