I Will Follow You

July 28, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14,   Luke 9:51-57

As they were going along the road to Jerusalem, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Over time, these humble followers of Jesus had come to respect and love their teacher, their Rabbi; they had been inspired by his words and actions. Our readings today are meant to carry forward that inspiration; they serve as an invitation to us.  They remind us of the faith traditions that have been passed along to us and challenge us to reflect on what this has meant for our lives and may mean to the lives of those who have come to know us.  We have each been fashioned for a unique purpose; each been given unique gifts; each been blessed with varying abilities. During times of turmoil and transition, we can choose to become stagnant, or we can choose to be transformed by God’s love. (Worship Ways)   Let us pray, Loving God, you have sent us prophets and teachers in our lives to guide us, to remind us of your hopes for our world.  You sent your son, Jesus, to bring a message of love, of mercy, and of hope.  May we continue to follow in Your ways as we strive to live lives of faith each day.  Amen.

In the fall of 2018, Ken Burns released his documentary, The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science, which tells the story of a unique medical institution that has been called a “Medical Mecca,” the “Supreme Court of Medicine,” and the “place for hope where there is no hope.”   We had the opportunity to watch this film last fall on PBS and it was deeply moving.  If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it.  The Mayo Clinic began in 1883 as an unlikely partnership between the Sisters of Saint Francis, an Order of Nuns, and a country doctor named William Worrall Mayo after a devastating tornado in rural Minnesota. Since then, it has grown into an organization that treats more than a million patients a year from all 50 states and 150 countries. Dr. Mayo had a simple philosophy he imparted to his sons Will and Charlie: “the needs of the patient come first.” They wouldn’t treat diseases…they would treat people. In a world where healthcare delivery is typically fragmented among individual specialties, the Mayo Clinic practices a multi-specialty, team-based approach that has, from its beginnings, created a culture that thrives on collaboration.

In Ken Burn’s documentary, the film opens with an African adage: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” From the beginning, the Mayos and the Franciscan sisters agreed that several important commitments would guide their efforts.  Their work would include faith, hope, excellence in science and a dedication to teamwork.

The seeds of the Mayo Clinic were sown in August of 1883, when one of the worst tornadoes in the history of Minnesota devastated the town of Rochester. There was only so much William Worrall (W.W.) Mayo and his two sons, Will and Charlie, could do as they stood alone, surrounded by death and destruction in the storm’s aftermath. The Franciscan Sisters’ also provided care and healing to the victims, and soon, they identified a greater necessity for healing in Rochester, which they would help to fulfill.  As Will Mayo would emphasize throughout his life, “a union of forces” was necessary. The Sisters of St. Francis were to become as essential to the creation of Mayo Clinic as W.W. and his sons.   Having looked at the list of the more than 200 people who had been killed or injured in the tornado, Mother Alfred, the Superior of the Franciscan Sisters, said that she had received a vision from God: she should build a hospital and have the Mayos serve as its medical staff. It was a vision only reluctantly embraced by W.W. who was not a man of faith. But Mother Alfred was resolved to do what most felt to be impossible, raise money and build a hospital in a small, remote farm town on the edges of what was still a wilderness.

In fulfillment of Mother Alfred’s vision, St. Mary’s Hospital opened in 1889. The Mayos became its physicians and the teaching nuns of St. Francis became its nurses. An unshakeable resolve would be seen not only in Mother Alfred but in the Mayos as well. At the start, teamwork became central for everyone who joined the clinic, as did the requirement that “the best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered.” The Mayos sought to integrate care for the whole patient as a high priority.

In 1986, as the Mayo Clinic, St. Mary’s Hospital and Rochester Methodist moved toward a merger, an attorney asked one of the hospital administrators, Sister Generose Gervais, for a copy of the contracts between the sisters and Mayo Clinic. He was surprised when she said there weren’t any. The sisters’ partnership with Mayo had, for a century, been forged and maintained with handshakes, a shared purpose and a deep trust that each would always do the right thing.

Even today, all Mayo employees, including its physicians, have no incentives beyond the best interest of the patient. Their teamwork takes sacrifice, for it requires trust and a degree of subordination of individuality to be sustainable. Mayo physicians recognize the necessity of such sacrifice and are selected on the basis of their willingness to embrace it. But they get something very valuable in return. As the clinic’s physician CEO John Noseworthy observes, they are “never alone.” They have more than 4,500 physician and scientist colleagues and 64,000 Mayo employees behind them.  (www.aha.org American Heart Association website)

Sister Generose Gervais provided a strong example at the center of the Mayo collaboration and that was “to treat everyone in our diverse community with dignity.” She mentored her family of Mayo Clinic staff and exhorted them to live Mayo Clinic’s primary value: the needs of the patient come first.  She often would reference St. Francis to make her point. “I tell the staff what the beggar told St. Francis — ‘Be sure that thou are as good as the people believe thee to be, for they have great faith in thee,’” she said.  Many of the sisters spoke of treating patients with great compassion and care, inspired by their faith.

Over the years, the values of both Dr. Mayo Sr. and Sister Moes, such as equitable healthcare across religious, economic and class lines, have remained core values.  These inspired leaders and those who followed them have helped to create a renowned medical institution that is unique in many respects.

Two of the sisters who spent their lives working at Mayo shares these thoughts: “We have only today in which to work, to pray, to dream, to plan, and to help build a better world.”– Sister Mary Brigh Cassidy

 “My vision is to provide care to the whole person and their family and to give the best care to every patient.”– Sister Generose Gervais

Even today, Mayo Clinic leaders make a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, each year to honor St. Francis, with the aim of applying insights from the pilgrimage to the care they provide as servant leaders. The lasting influence of St. Francis and the Franciscan Sisters keeps the values of compassion and healing alive throughout Mayo Clinic today.

W.W. Mayo’s sons, Will and Charlie took over the vision of their father after his death.  From the earliest days, they traveled across the country and to Canada and Europe to learn the newest medical techniques, the best surgical approaches so that they might bring them back to Minnesota to continue their goal of providing the very best care to their patients.  They loved medicine and they loved science and they inspired the other medical professionals who worked with them to share that commitment to new learning and to excellence.  That tradition continues to this day.

I imagine that some of you may know family or friends who have been treated at Mayo.  Several years ago, my sister traveled with her daughter, Elizabeth, to participate in a weeks-long program that would help her manage her symptoms of a chronic cardiac condition from which she suffers. They both spoke of the incredible standard of care as well as the kindness and respect they experienced during that time.  Throughout the film, patients shared stories of their time at Mayo, stories of breakthroughs to answers when no one else could figure things out for them, stories of miracles, and stories of inspiration and hope.

The story of the Mayo Clinic illustrates what great good may come when leaders emerge in a time of crisis and share a vision of hope and of healing.  We know that in the years of Jesus’ ministry, people came to trust him, to be inspired by him and he became a leader to many, many followers who embraced the message he shared.  We each have had the opportunity to be followers in our lives, to follow the ways of faith, of courage, of love.  We are also called forth to be leaders, to inspire one another through our actions and through our words.   As we see through the history of the Mayo Clinic, sometimes amazing things come forth in the wake of tornadoes or other disasters, whether in our communities or in our personal lives.  During such times of turmoil or transition, we can choose to feel overwhelmed, or we can choose to be transformed by God’s love. When we choose transformation, we choose to fully share in the vision of a community led by the Spirit—a community of love, gentleness, joy, patience, peace, faithfulness, kindness, and generosity.