Year C, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, 8 September 2019
Parish Picnic Sunday at Lighthouse Point Park
Trinity Church on the Green
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
I want to tell you about my friend Andrew.
I want to tell you about my friend Andrew, because we will pray for him later on in the service. He is on the parish prayer list, under the departed.
I want to tell you about my friend Andrew, because I will have to unfortunately leave the Parish Picnic a little early in order to drive down to Long Island to attend his Memorial Service this afternoon.
I want to tell you about my friend Andrew, because he taught me about the Gospel, and about what it means to have and be chosen family on the journey to follow Jesus.
I met Andrew the summer after seventh grade. When I first met him, he was wearing those super wide legged pants that were really in for a brief moment in the 90s. Those super wide legged pants were also made of silver lame. Yes, one could rightly call Andrew flamboyant. I thought he was stylish, and beautiful. When I first met him, he had just gotten out of hospital. He had been really sick from depression. He was feeling a lot better, though. As my young, naive pre-teen self, I remember thinking to myself: “Hmm, I’m not supposed to be friends with someone like this.” The stigma and biases that had been worked into me by my upbringing, my community, even my church, lay thick. And thank God, I somehow made a different choice.
Andrew and I became best friends. We did a lot of theatre together. We were both in a really bad community theatre production of Bye Bye Birdie the summer after ninth grade. Andrew was really talented, he played Conrad Birdie, the lead and title role. (I was just in the chorus) At that time, all the girls loved him – looking back, all the boys did, too. The final performance of that production was a Sunday matinee. While my mom was driving me there, we were in a car accident, so I didn’t get to be in that final show. She and I went to the hospital by ambulance, but we were both thankfully just bruised and shaken up. When I got home that night, there was only one message on the ol’ answering machine. Andrew had called – he was worried about me, it wasn’t like me to not be there for the final show and cast party. He was the only one who checked on me, not a single so-called responsible adult. But Andrew noticed – Andrew cared.
We continued to do theatre in high school. We would also go hang out in diners and coffee shops, laugh, smoke too many cigarettes and listen to music. We liked to think we were way more cosmopolitan and avant garde than we actually were. I introduced him to all of my friends, and all of my friends loved him, too.
I was Catholic, and Andrew was United Church of Christ. We used to talk about Jesus and how to be a good Christian. One summer, Andrew went on a mission trip with his church youth group to rural Appalachia. They provided day care for a bunch of kids in a poverty stricken area. Andrew adored those kids, and they all adored him. One of his regular tasks was to read books to the kids, which he did with passion and using different voices. He was always theatrical. He also realized what privilege he had, and as a result he always asked tough questions, and tried to use his privilege to serve others.
Andrew was also my first gay friend. He was the first friend to come out to me. He initially came out as bisexual – I think he didn’t want to disappoint all the girls who were in love with him. And then he came out as gay. I was relieved that he felt he could trust me, even though I already knew.
He always looked out for me, and I tried to look out for him, because a lot of the guys in our high school were cruel to him. I would try to deflect, protect, and drag him away when I could. I offered my shoulder for him to cry on. He always did the same for me.
He decided to go off to a private boarding school for the last 2 years of high school, to get away from his abusers and bullies. We kept up as penpals, and would talk for hours on the phone.
After graduating from high school, he went off to college in California, but would visit me in NYC. By then, he was growing seemingly wilder and riskier in some of his behaviours, and I was, for better or worse, still very much a goody two-shoes.
We started to grow apart. It was shortly after September 11th, 2001 that we had a fight on the phone. I couldn’t tell you now what it was about, but we never spoke again. For so many years, I’d look for him – in crowds, around town, and online. I hoped he’d join Facebook. He never did.
I knew he suffered from depression. I feared he also suffered from addiction. So, I was not completely surprised to hear the news last month of his unexpected and untimely death. Yet I was still completely devastated.
I posted a tribute to him on Facebook. I then got more messages than I could count. Friends, acquaintances, and old classmates from high school wrote to remember Andrew well. They remembered him as kind and giving. One friend with a physical disability told me how he used to protect her in their high school history class from a kid who bullied them both. That’s just who he was.
Andrew was the first friend to ever teach me about the notion of Chosen Family – a common notion for those of us who are LGBTQ and also others who have faced rejection from biological family. In a sense, Andrew already had chosen family: he had been adopted as a baby, and his parents fiercely loved him for who he was. He became my chosen family – we became family to each other, at least until we could no longer be. He could be difficult to love at times, but he was always there for me through some of the toughest times of my adolescent life. One of my clearest memories is of us both in pain, and just sitting together for hours, not saying a word. I learned from that what I use most often in my life and ministry ever since: show up, shut up, stay. So often as a priest, I can’t solve the problems at hand. I often can’t even say anything helpful. But I can be there.
Andrew taught me how to be Chosen Family, and that is what I believe Jesus is talking about in the Gospel today. His words are startling, even shocking. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” What does Jesus really mean?
In Luke’s Gospel, the notion of family is shaken up, and reconfigured. It is reconfigured by our journey of faith. Earlier in Luke, Jesus redefines family as not those with whom we share bloodlines, but as those who “hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:21) Being a disciple of Jesus therefore forces us to move beyond comfortable ties to forge new relationships among those commonly committed to Christ, who become NEW family. And for those who NEVER HAD comfortable family ties to begin with, this new family becomes all the more important. Jesus forces us to associate with and love those who are different from us: those who look different, think and feel differently, love differently, speak differently, etc. And we are changed by doing so, for the better.
Yet ultimately, love hurts. Loving and following Jesus comes with a price. Discipleship comes with a cost. I’m not about to say that we here at Trinity are one big happy family. We have our system issues, and relational issues like any other group or community. We are not perfect by any stretch. And yet we are continually called to keep showing up. We are called to keep trying to love and care and include and learn from each other. We are called to repent and forgive each other, again and again. We are called to give up those things that possess us, in order to be there for each other, in good times and bad, at baptisms and at funerals. We gather together today for our Parish Picnic, as we prepare to launch into yet another program year. All of us have our own worries, fears, health concerns, both good and difficult things to anticipate this year. And together, we hold all of it. We pray together, and put it all in God’s hands. We show up for each other, because that is what chosen family does. To be in this so called chosen family, one doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to behave the way your mother insisted, or achieve the notoriety or success that your father enforced. We each get to be our imperfect yet still lovable selves. We just have to show up, and to keep choosing Jesus. We need to keep choosing to be church together. And if we do, we will all be transformed in unexpected ways.
Blessed Andrew and all the saints, pray for us who are still on our earthly journey.