II Timothy 4:1-8
Whether we like it or not, we are all pastors. The only choice we have in the matter is whether we will be good pastors, bringing others to God, or bad pastors, leading ourselves and others away from God. Of course, God is our ultimate leader and shepherd, as Ezekiel points out, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but if we say we are the Body of Christ, then we must recognize that some of that pastoral office falls on us. With that office comes authority and duty, both of which can either be burdensome or joyful. The vast majority of the time, our individual pastoral vocation is not expressed intentionally, but rather passively in the words and deeds that those around us hear and see.
We usually don’t know who is looking up to us for leadership, and we may never know. Most likely, the people looking to us as pastoral figures don’t know it, either – it is often unconscious. In the same manner, the people to whom we look for guidance will probably never know that we are following them. However, that doesn’t relieve any of us of our duty or authority. In fact, the knowledge that someone of whom we are unaware is learning from us should cause us to examine our lives to make sure we are setting a good example. That doesn’t mean that we should abandon our own personalities, it means that we should be always be growing into our complete, mature selves – the best unique individuals that God wants us to be. Then maybe the people around us will follow that example and be encouraged to mature in Christ, being filled with the fullness of the Godhead that Jesus brings to us.
We have heard from two good examples of pastoral leadership today: Peter and Paul. They didn’t have much in common beyond their Jewish ancestry and their relationship with Jesus. In other matters, they were often quite different. One was urbane and educated, the other uneducated. One was a citizen of the empire, the other not. They differed on their approach to spreading the gospel. They weren’t pals. However, their bond to Jesus and their desire to share him with others were far more important than their differences, and they seem to have realized that.
There are two themes in these scriptures today about Peter and Paul: perseverance and death. On the one hand, Peter is told repeatedly by Jesus to feed his sheep. On the other hand, Paul is in turn encouraging his young protege to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully…”(II Tim 4:5) “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable”(II Tim 4:2). Those two examples speak to us of perseverance – “feed my sheep in good times and bad, feed my sheep even while you are suffering, feed my sheep to the best of your ability.” We also see a chain forming as experienced pastors hand over their duties to others: from Jesus to Peter and Paul to Timothy, and eventually down to us. That is where the theme of death appears in today’s readings. Jesus mentions Peter’s eventual death and Paul talks about his own, but neither event is seen in a morbid or fearful way. Both deaths seem to be taken for granted (and why not, it’s going to happen no matter what we do), and therefore the need for perseverance is seen in a truer light – work while you can, because one day, you can’t – work while you can, and then let others take up the task. No heroic measures are necessary, simply the need to be the strongest link in the chain that you can be.
Paul mentions a crown coming to him from the Lord after all his work. Some people see this as a reward for all his efforts, but it might be better to see it simply as work itself. After all, he doesn’t call it a crown of riches or power, but a crown of righteousness. He has done the best he could, and that knowledge is the best reward he can have at his death. It is the best reward any of us can have: standing before God, knowing that although we are far from perfect, we did our best in our own time and in our own place. Maybe we faltered sometimes, but we got back up. Maybe we strayed and led others along, but we learned our mistake and found the right path again. Maybe we didn’t even find the right path, but were looking for it to the best of our ability. All of that takes perseverance and is not easy, but we must do it anyway. Of course we should never think that it is our good work that makes God love us. God loves us because God is love. We do the right thing because of that love, not the other way around.
We have a good book in our library by a very wise nun who talks about the importance of perseverance. (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Ayya Khema) She says that it is better to live and work with an attitude of constancy than with an attitude of patience, because patience implies that things might get better, while constancy asserts that it is perfectly alright if they don’t. Patience means that we are working hard and biding our time until something better comes along, while constancy means that we are working hard simply because it is the right thing to do, and when we do things simply because it is right to do them, then we can live contentedly in joy and peace, instead of merely waiting for joy and peace to come. It is a little like the difference between making our world heaven or making it purgatory.
Patience, constancy, perseverance – the words we use are not as important as the life we live. The important thing is that we take seriously our roles as pastors and priests to those around us who follow our example. We all know how hard it is to always do the right thing and to live with an attitude of joyful perseverance. That is why it is so important to realize that although we do have to put in a lot of work, the result of that work is not our responsibility. It is God working through and in us who makes the whole thing possible. We merely become channels of God’s love and grace for the world around us, doing our best to open up ever more to accept that grace and pass it on to others, and in the meantime growing in love so that we can then add our own to the mix. Then after a lifetime of growth as vessels of God’s love, we can joyfully pass that job on to others, confident in the knowledge that God can and will work through others just as he does through us.
So let us be thankful for those pastors who have gone before us, and for those who lead us now, and let us set good examples for those who will come after us. For at the same time that we are all part of God’s flock: straying at times, and always needing to be fed and protected, we are also God’s arms: gathering other sheep who have strayed, feeding those who are hungry, and leading them all to safety. May we do so with joy and thanksgiving, with constancy and confidence in the knowledge that the Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want. AMEN