Homily for a gathering of Prep parents, February 1, 2009
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“He taught them as one having authority and not like the scribes…. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” Mark 1: 21-28
All of us who are parents, or teachers or speakers here at the Prep imagine how wonderful it would be if our sons and the students who heard our words could say the same thing about us that the crowds said about Jesus Christ: “he or she speaks with authority.”
Our students indeed might use the phrase “speak with authority” about those of us who speak backed by the power of jugs and suspensions.
But those who referred to Jesus “speaking with authority” did not mean that he was some kind of policeman or judge. Rather they meant that the power of his teachings did not depend on some oft-repeated traditional rabbinic thinking. True His teaching was rooted solidly in the scriptures and was faithful to the tradition; but his teaching was also new and it addressed the situation in which people found themselves. Jesus spoke to a people burdened by the minutiae of religious practice and suffering the indignity of a foreign occupation. To them Jesus spoke the good news about God’s love for them and about the response that this love should nourish in them.
He also taught them out of the nature of his personality and the passion that he himself possessed. His first followers listened to his words, yes, but more importantly they listened to him and found themselves moved to change the way they lived their lives. Yes, they heard the verbal message but they changed out of amazement at him and the love that he brought into the world.
For us to teach with authority, our teachings must be at the same time rooted in a tradition but also addressing the new situation in which our young people find themselves. In addition if God gives us any other personal gifts, we need to put them in the service of the message. But clearly the message is about the Lord and not about us.
Here at the Prep and in our households, we want to teach with authority, we long to enkindle in the hearts of our young men some great desire that will focus the immense potential they have for true charity, for faith, for the building of a more just society. I imagine most often that my best efforts at this are not equal to the task at hand.
I do have stories about Prep boys who hear the word and then go out and practice it in a selfless way. But let me tell about a more remote teenager who turns into a leader: John Lewis, the present Georgia congressman who was one of the early champions with Doctor King in the civil rights movement. He grew up in rural segregated Alabama. He worked as a sharecropper with his parents. They made a happy home for him and, as long of they worked hard, they had no needs surviving without indoor plumbing and electricity. He realized when he was 8 years old in 1948 that there was something wrong with the fact that he could not go into the town library like the white kids because of his race. He realized when he started in high school that the segregated school system was clearly unequal, the black school physically inferior, the books hand-me downs from the white school, etc.
On Sundays it was the family custom to listen to the sermon on the radio preached by some Alabama preacher. One Sunday in 1955, Lewis reports in his autobiography, they heard for the first time Doctor Martin Luther King, a new pastor in Montgomery. This was the first time that the young Lewis had ever heard about the gospel having an important relationship to the social conditions in which people lived. Doctor King’s sermon was rooted solidly in the Bible but it also said something new to this son of a sharecropper who had experienced the indignities of his racial status. Dr. King spoke with authority. His words changed John Lewis’s life. Not many years later John as a college student became one of Dr. King’s young protégées. Now 55 years after he heard that sermon, he still serves in the Congress of the United States.
Perhaps some parent among us with some word or action will powerfully influence a son or a teacher our students with a message like that of Jesus or that of Dr. King, a message that has the power to inflame the imagination and create lasting contributions to the common good. More likely the environments that we have created at home and at school will be the deciding influence. Rare it is that a single sermon or a single experience has such power to change people’s lives.
We would like to have this power to encourage a sullen teenager, to heal a lovelorn kid, to free kids from whatever bondage holds them back from using their talents. And we know that the gospel offers a hope that we can do such things. Jesus tells us that we heal the toughest situations only with prayer and fasting.
But whatever we say or do here at the Prep to be a positive influence on our students, we need to remind ourselves of a wonderful line spoken in a Flannery O’Connor short story. The story is about a young preacher in rural Georgia who has miraculous powers and speaks with authority. People flock to the river where he preaches on Sundays. They have hopes of being healed of all their troubles. But the young preacher admonishes them with this line: “If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me.” (repeat) It will be well if we remind ourselves and in some way our students that there is little point in choosing the Prep over any other school if they ain’t coming to learn more about Jesus and to hear an invitation to follow him in the healing of this troubled world.