The Power of Good Example

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Growing up, I didn’t always know what I wanted to be. My sister wanted to play “school” a lot, mostly because my mom was a high school science teacher. So I spent many hours of childhood in a pretend classroom solving math problems and diagramming sentences. I spent the rest of my time reading encyclopedias and comic books, and drawing and climbing trees and flying kites and setting my imagination free to wander, and playing tag and kickball and riding my bike with neighborhood friends. It was a largely subdued and quiet existence. I never imagined I would one day have to grow up and do important things with my life. My dad was a computer technician in a government job a short walk from home, yet for many years I never really knew what he did exactly. I do remember going to work with him several days in the summer when I was 15. Yet I never imagined spending my adult life sitting in an office doing that or anything remotely like that, so it made no impression whatsoever. When my mom took me to her work, it was not that much different from my sister’s classroom on the front porch, except maybe for the much older students who seemed more interested in what I was doing than what my mom was trying to teach them. But with continued exposure to the world of education in the years that followed, I became attracted to teaching as a profession. It was the thought of standing in front of a classroom full of people that didn’t appeal to me at first. But as you can tell, I got over it.

The inspiration to become a priest however, did not come till much later. My family went to church regularly. We prayed the rosary together every night. Our lives were immersed in religious observance. But church did not interest me. My two older brothers had gone off to high school seminary (at a time when high school seminaries didn’t sound strange), and the rest of the family would make the journey to visit them every first Sunday of the month. So when the time came to decide where to go to high school, I chose to follow in their footsteps. My parents did not dissuade me. But my grandparents threatened punitive action. They were looking forward to grandchildren down the road, and having three grandsons in the seminary did not work to that end.

My friends and I got to know a young priest at school, who taught us Latin and a love for the things of God. He was smart and well loved by many. Perhaps above all, it was his joy and dedication to ministry that appealed to me.  He was surely involved in important things as a grown-up and a priest, yet he made me and my friends feel welcome.  I can safely say that a dozen of us went on into religious life because of him, and at least three of us are priests today.  And along the way, I have encountered many wonderful and outstanding individuals, women and men whose example of quiet courage and leadership, of hard work and simplicity, of kindness and generous service, of integrity and authenticity, have inspired me to follow their lead.  I will never be as good as them, but I have time and opportunity in my favor.

Jesus seemed often critical of the religious leaders of his day primarily because they did not readily welcome him.  They were supposed to be on the same team, preparing God’s people to receive his gift of salvation. But they seemed to be often at odds. He was always inviting them to a deeper and more spiritual communion with his Father, but they were more concerned about how things looked on the outside. He was eager to show them that God wanted more from them than the exact observance of rules and regulations. They only insisted he stick to the game plan of Moses. He spoke often of God’s mercy and compassion, of God’s love for repentant sinners, and God’s delight in genuine seekers of truth from every nation, people, language and tongue. They were constantly on the look-out to trap him, to discredit him, to identify him as a breaker of the law, so they would have reason to put him to death. But his example of patience and kindness, his dedication to the proclamation of the gospel and outreach to the poor, his focus on fulfilling his Father’s will and not his own, has inspired countless women and men through the ages to follow in his footsteps and take on his life’s mission as their own.

The apostle Paul speaks of challenges he faced in his ministry, how his work was often thankless and tedious. But he saw in the joy and welcome of those who accepted his message, a glimmer of hope, that he was doing as Christ commanded, and it was enough for him that he was faithful to his mission of proclaiming the gospel. “And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” What better encouragement and evidence of God’s approval than to witness firsthand the power of God at work in the world!

So the warning of the prophet Malachi to the temple priests and Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees is a warning to priests and ministers, and all of us as well. Those entrusted with great responsibility must take their task seriously, because others are watching and a position of leadership and authority has serious potential to affect others. Each of the baptized is entrusted with the awesome responsibility of giving witness to the Christian faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ by the words we speak and the example we give. There is great power in the words we speak as parents and pastors, as catechists and mentors, as employers and companions on life’s journey, because people around us are listening. But there is even greater power in the example of our way of life. We may speak one thing, but our actions may proclaim differently. And this is the hypocrisy that Jesus often accused the religious leaders of in his time. So he instructs us to be attentive to the gospel message, to put it into practice, and yes, to challenge our leaders to authentic discipleship. They may sit in Moses’ chair, so listen to them. They have the grave responsibility of setting a good example, but we are all called to live the truth of the gospel whether we are leaders or not. Gospel leadership is not about titles of honor. It is not about perks and privileges. It is not about status or popularity or public acclaim. Worldly dignitaries seem more concerned about these things.  But the true disciple of Jesus Christ is concerned primarily about what God desires. “You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers [and sisters] … you have but one Father in heaven … you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant.”

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine as a child that I would come to Waynesboro VA and be your pastor. God has a sense of humor. And I am grateful to see God at work so powerfully in the lives of many. Sometimes I am even right there when it happens.