Sunday Extra: A Youth Sermon for Easter V: Engage!

My son, Jeffrey Cox, is a senior in high school and a member of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA. Every year a few weeks before graduation, two seniors are asked to address the congregation at the sermon time at each service to talk about what about their formation at All Saints' they will take with them as they leave home for their next adventure. This is what Jeffrey said to the congregation at the 9:00 service this morning:

On the two urban mission trips I went on through the All Saints' youth program to Nashville and Chicago, personal interaction played an integral part in our daily activities.  

Most people think of a mission trip as doing tangible good - building houses and serving food in soup kitchens. However, I quickly learned that those types of activities were secondary. We spent most of our time in homes for people with mental illnesses, YMCA day camps, and with homeless people. At first, I wondered why we were doing it... playing basketball with poor inner-city children from Chicago might have been fun for them, but beyond the time we were spending with them, there was seemingly no lasting result. After the week, I went on with my life, and they went on with theirs. 

Despite this, these trips had a profound effect on me - more so than the trip I went on in which we helped clean Mississippi up from the damage of Katrina. I didn't quite know why, since I still viewed them as less practical and much more uncomfortable. 

What I realize now is that those trips that I went on through All Saints' weren't really about the people we were helping - they were about us. The work we were doing was helpful, for sure, but the work was not the point. Engaging other human beings was the point. 

Some days, we would have ten bucks, and our task would be simply to buy dinner for a homeless person, but we also had to sit down and eat it with them. Before this, I'd interacted with homeless people... it's hard not to in Atlanta. But there's a certain disconnect that we not only feel, but actively cultivate, even if we aren't aware of it. 

That's because it's easier. We can see a homeless person on the street, give them money, even buy them a meal, but without the engagement in conversation, we can still put them into this category that's almost subhuman by not allowing ourselves the opportunity of inevitably connecting with them as people. 

This all relates to today's gospel from John, which essentially sums up the bible. Love one another as you would love yourself. When this is taught to young children, it's usually in the context of being nice to your friends, but what John is teaching is much broader and much more difficult: loving people that you don't know at all. This doesn't just apply to homeless people, or people with mental illnesses, or the elderly. Nor does it mean that you have to purchase them a meal or give them money or play basketball with them. In order to love someone, you have to know them. The first step to knowing them is to engage them in conversation. 

This seemingly simple rule is ignored by many people today, Christian or otherwise. The rampant racism and hatred towards Muslims on the internet surrounding the Boston marathon bombings was an eerie reminder of this, and it shows that Christians are oftentimes the first offenders of this golden rule. 

The challenge for all of us is to engage everyone we can, starting here at church. I have been fortunate to feel at home in the All Saints' community, so much that I want to come to church even when my dad isn't in town. I'm definitely not the only youth in the church who feels this way, and the program here has been great in getting us involved in the church, through choir, acolyting, J2A, and the YAC program. Through it, I've established a relationship with many of you in the church, and it's played a huge role in my development as a person. 

Still, if the youth program here is to continue to grow and thrive, it will because of you in the congregation. This is where my challenge from earlier comes in. When you see a middle or high school aged person in church, engage them. And that doesn't mean simply asking them where they are going to college. You might be surprised by how much that can make a high schooler feel at home. 

All Saints' has become a part of my identity. And the most important thing that I will take away from All Saints' is the power of engaging others. So the next time you see a homeless man on the street, a sad man sitting at the bar, or a teenager walking around the church, just... talk to them. It will make all the difference in their life, and your own.


stpatti said…
Very thoughtful & well-said. Jeffrey, you'll go forth into the world, carrying sound values, & making a positive difference!
Perpetua said…
My goodness, you must be so proud of your articulate, thoughtful and compassionate son, Penny. This is very challenging to read and I do hope it has an effect on those who heard it.
Thanks, Patti and Perpetua! I certainly am proud of Jeffrey and love how he wove the gospel into his talk about how he has been formed in his church - and how he sees that we all need that formation!