Thomas Vander Woude was a 66 year-old retired commercial airline pilot and father of seven children, the youngest of which, Joseph, has Downs syndrome. While working in the yard one day after morning mass, Thomas heard his son calling out for him. He had fallen through the metal covering of their septic tank and was struggling to get out. Without hesitation, the father called out to the house for help and jumped into the sewerage to try to push his son out. While his wife held onto Joseph's hands, the father submerged himself to keep his son's head up above the muck. When rescue workers arrived, they were able to finally pull the young man out of the tank and stabilize him. Unfortunately, the father, whom they estimated had been in the tank about 15 to 20 minutes, was unconscious and later pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital.
While Thomas Vander Woude's death was heroic, it was no surprise to those who knew him. His family, friends and fellow parishioners recounted how what he did to save his son was in keeping with the generous spirit of service he displayed throughout his life. Besides being a father of seven sons and a grandfather of twenty-four children, he went to daily Mass, was a veteran of the Vietnam war, volunteered as a basketball coach and trained altar servers. His was a life of service and giving that culminated in offering his life to save another person. His pastor, Father Francis Peffley, said it best: "His whole life was spent serving people and sacrificing himself. . . . He gave the ultimate sacrifice. . . . Giving his life to save his son."
By his heroic act, Thomas Vander Woude was living out the meaning of the Mass he had attended that tragic morning. At every liturgy, we recall how Jesus humbled himself to enter into the muck of our world of sin so as to lift us up above it. And, along with the bread and wine, we offer ourselves together with Jesus as a living sacrifice to the Father. We pledge that we too will give of ourselves in service to the needy, the lonely and the desperate so that the blessings of eternal life may be extended throughout the world. When we come to Mass, we are not unconcerned bystanders. Rather our lives are at stake. We are proclaiming that Christ has died to save us and that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves in service to others.
Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples in today's gospel reading. Though he was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, Christ did not become human to amass wealth for himself or dominate others. He came to seek out the sick, the suffering and the sinners. Not only did he desire to instruct and heal them, he gave his life suffering the cruelest death imaginable to open up heaven to those who would believe. Jesus was not in it for the glory. And anyone who follows him must be willing to live as he lived. To be like our master, we must make ourselves the slaves of others.
As a parish family, we can relate to the bickering that went on among the disciples. We all love our church and many of us give long hours of our free time to support it. Many of us are generous when it comes time to give to special collections or help out with fundraisers. However, it happens more often than we would like to admit that generous people get overlooked and feel slighted. We can feel bitter that others get the recognition we believe we deserve. We can resent that we are giving so much and others are giving so little. Or we can get so frustrated and offended by the pettiness and gossiping of others that we want to give up altogether.
While it is natural to want to be recognized for our work, it is not what the follower of Jesus is called to seek. All the great saints prayed that they would be overlooked and taken for granted even as they spent long hours in service of others. What they wanted more than anything was to be recognized by God for their work. So they continued on even when they were made fun of because they wanted to be like Jesus who gave without counting the cost and who did everything not for the glory it would bring him but out of pure love for others. Each of us who calls Jesus "Lord" must do the same.
We are gathered here to recall the sacrifice that Jesus made to save us. Are we willing to give of ourselves for others? Are we willing to go without so that we can give more generously to the needy? Are we willing to risk injury or even death to protect the helpless? Are we willing to take on the thankless jobs no one else wants out of pure love for Jesus? Are we willing to go without being recognized because we set our hearts on the reward that only God can give? Above all, can we do all this with a spirit of joy and thankfulness because we are blessed to be able to know, love and serve our Lord?