Graduating senior Ryan Koehler gave the homily on Youth Sunday this year, which coincided with Pentecost.
Before I begin, I just want to say thank you to everyone here for your tremendous help and support throughout the past seventeen years. The St. Mark’s community has been an essential part of my life, and has been crucial for shaping me into the man who I am today. Thank you, to you all, for everything that you have done for me.
I’d like to begin on this Pentecost Sunday by borrowing one of my favorite elements of Father Adam’s sermons, and placing ourselves in the minds of the Apostles as they begin to spread the Good Word of Jesus Christ.
Together, the Apostles have gathered in Jerusalem. Over the past weeks, they have seen everything that they have lived for disappear with Jesus’ crucifixion, reappear again in triumphant fashion through his resurrection, only to depart from them once more with his ascension into heaven. This spiritual roller coaster has left them at a place of incredibly mixed emotions and motivations. They will be sent out into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit, but without the man around whom they have built their lives, and will be tasked with preaching his beautiful message, for which they are prepared to sacrifice their own lives, to a world unwilling to listen. It is not an enviable task, but it is one that changed the world.
In many ways, I too have decided to take on a challenging and arduous undertaking in the name of a cause that I believe in. In but a few weeks, I will be embarking on a journey that I have dreamt of my entire life. I first decided that I was going to be a Naval Academy Midshipman on a car ride from this Church to the McQuades’ grocery store on a rainy Sunday afternoon eight years ago. I was sitting in the backseat of my family’s minivan, reading Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell’s autobiography Lost Moon, when I came to the chapter about his experience receiving an education in Annapolis. As I discovered the discipline, tradition, and culture of honor that defined the naval service, I knew that I had found my meaning in life. President Ronald Reagan once said, “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, [our servicemen] don’t have that problem.” I believe that on that rainy Sunday, I found some of that sense of purpose. Ever since that day, I have dedicated every aspect of my life to becoming a Naval Academy Midshipman. Several months ago, I am happy to say that I was lucky enough to see this lifelong dream come true.
In many ways, the Apostles’ dreams have also been realized. Jesus called them to follow him so that they could become “fishers of men.” In light of his death, resurrection, and ascension, they now must assume this role in a way that they likely never imagined. Few times in history have such a small handful of people been given an opportunity to change the world in the way that the Apostles were asked to. What they would do in the decades after Jesus’ death shaped our modern world in ways that transcend the imagination. At the time of Jesus’ death, Christianity was not even a fringe Jewish sect. Today, it is the world’s largest religion. It is the Apostles, through their dedicated and faithful mission, who made this a reality. They believed that Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness was one so noble that it was worth giving their lives, both physically and spiritually, to teach to the world. Through their strength and courage, they helped bring the better world that they dreamt of closer to reality.
Often, however, such great opportunity and responsibility comes with a cost. In my own case, I am surely excited to move on into this new chapter of service in my life. But like many people my age in this phase of our lives, I am also terrified. Everything we know, everything we’ve had, everything that we rely on, is all about to disappear. We will be thrust into the most challenging environment that most of us have ever experienced. We must go out into a world that is vast, diverse, and at times hostile, and find the strength to transform it into a place we can call our own. Our faith in God and the support of our loved ones is what will carry us through this time of need.
The Apostles found themselves in a very similar situation. These men gave up everything they had, their families, their homes, and their livelihoods, to follow Jesus Christ. And now, in their moment of greatest need, when the challenges of the world have risen to a point where they seem almost insurmountable, Jesus is gone. Such fear, such trepidation, cannot be imagined until it is felt. The Disciples gave up the life they knew to build a new one around Jesus, only to have this new life come to full realization at the moment when this man who they have so adored is no longer physically with them. Much like my friends and I, they are alone, with only their faith, about to take on a challenging mission in an unwelcoming world.
The inherent fear of the Apostles situation and of my own reminds me of one of my favorite songs, “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne, and I have to say that its message has to be pretty powerful for a 17 year old in 2017 to be calling a song that contains the lyric “In ’69 I was 21” one of their favorites. But there is another line in “Running on Empty…” trust me, your safe, I won’t sing it… that goes like this, “Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels/ I don’t know how to tell you just how crazy this life feels/ Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through/ Looking into their eyes I see them running too.” I can’t help but think that my friends, Jackson Browne, the Apostles, and I… quite a group I know… have found themselves in the same place. The whole world is ahead of them. Their mission is clear. But the world is just too vast. The stakes are too high. And the peers who we rely on struggle to help, because they are facing the exact same challenge and are just struggling to keep on going themselves. The road is ahead of us. It is not an easy one. It is not a welcoming one. But it leads to somewhere, and we can get there, if we are but willing to take the first step.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The apostles prove that. They accepted their challenge. They took up the message of Christ, they spread it around the world, and they built Christianity from a small sect of Judaism to the world’s largest religion. They overcame their fear and trepidation. They faced persecution in every form. Most of them died excruciatingly painful deaths for what they believed. But, as can be evidenced by our simple presence here today, they succeeded. I know that if my friends have the courage, they can accomplish the same within their own lives. I know that if my generation has the grit, we can change the world for the better. I know, that if I have the determination, that I can make my dreams a reality. On the other side of fear and doubt lies tremendous success. All it takes to get there is faith.