I’ve been pretty reflective lately…
This June I will have been here at Montclair State for 8 years, which when I think about the different schools I’ve attended, different priestly assignments I’ve had - is the longest I’ve ever been in one place. And now - begrudgingly I might add – having crossed the line into my 40's, I tend to be more reflective as well. One crazy revelation is that this group of Seniors is basically "my" 2nd class of seniors that I’ve been with since Freshmen year. To me, in a lot of ways - you all become part of my family (it’s one of the beautiful things of priesthood - and one of the reasons you call me Father - well that’s a reciprocal thing - you all become my kids, who I think about, worry about, pray about a lot more than I might let on) - but it’s a bizarre experience that you kids, don’t know my first batch of kids - unless you join our alumni group (which I’m hoping all our seniors will do).
Anyway, with Senior Send-off being tonight, it’s always this mix of emotions. A great deal of memories come up for all of us as we honor those preparing to leave Montclair State. For you seniors, what are some things floating through your minds? Maybe you’re thinking of that first time you visited this campus... your first class... your first roommate. Maybe you're remembering that class you struggled with and didn’t think you were going to get through (yet somehow did). Maybe you're remembering late nights at the Red Hawk Diner - waiting three hours for a milkshake...(and not really caring since you’re hanging out with your friends). Maybe you're remembering a really difficult time you went through and a friend that stayed up, talking you through it.
This being a student run thing, it wasn’t exactly the most well orchestrated of events (shocking, I know) So one act would finish up and then they would try to clear their props and stuff, get pulled away, and the next group would come in. The weird thing was in between these "acts" they didn’t have any music on while these transitions were going on - so there would be this awkwardness between each "act". Somewhat surprisingly to me was that it seemed kind of quiet among the audience - almost like we were sitting in a theater or something.
As we were sitting there, in the distance was one of the Montclair State trucks that we see regularly on campus driving from college hall area towards University Hall. For some reason, the entire audience was now silently transfixed – watching the truck driving past us all. And then all you heard in this awkward silence was the voice of one obviously inebriated young male correctly demonstrating his reading abilities as he screamed out the word that was printed on the side of the truck next to a picture of a tree. In a cry- scream - he shouted GROW - which, to me, remains my most vivid memory of Homecoming at MSU.
Why, 8 years later that just sticks in my mind, I don’t quite know. Memories are weird like that. What visuals, sounds, smells even surround particular moments, events - become cemented in the heart and mind and pop up at random - we don’t seem to have control over that.
But if we can remember one thing tonight - and if my drunken friend, whoever you are, is a way to remember it - that one thing would be the word - Grow. Because at the heart of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that He wants us to GROW. Think about what we just heard about our being connected, our being in a relationship with him, this image of a vine and branches. That’s a tremendously beautiful thing. If you ever have seen or looked at a vine and its branches, you can’t quite see where the vine ends and the branch begins. There’s such a connection between the two that they are fused together. And from that, the branches continue to grow, they can become massive almost vine-like themselves as they continue to bear fruit... So think about that: what a comfort it is to hear, to know in our heart of hearts that God looks at each and everyone of us as an extension of His love, as an extension of Himself. That He has tremendous plans for each of us - each of you... Plans that will bring joy to your lives - plans that will build up his kingdom all around us: whether you are looking to work as a musician; a teacher; work in ministry; be a police officer – whatever it is that has lit that fire within you, motivated you to study what you’ve studied and begun to pursue what you are pursuing - that’s one of many gifts God is blessing you with. A gift that will bring you joy and happiness - not in a childlike way where everyday will be sunshine, rainbows, and candy - but the mature joy of doing what you were meant to do. Seeing and experiencing the effect that has on the world around you. Knowing you are wanted, you are needed by God – He desires that you will continue to Grow into the very young men and women He has called you to be to fulfill a specific purpose in this world.
But this imagery of the vine and branches – this call to Grow - it can be a terrifying thing as well. Because we have to be humble enough to recognize that connection to Jesus, our true vine, is essential. Without Him we have no life, we have no potential to grow. In a world that so often seems to be demonstrating selfish behavior, self-centered behavior - People have seemed to buy into the lie that somehow they’ve created themselves into being. There’s almost a loss of memory about who we are and whose we are.... It’s a humbling and necessary thing to recognize, especially dear Seniors, all the professors who challenged you, the classmates who helped you to see things differently, the people who make up this great institution who've helped make you (soon to be) great graduates of this University... It’s a humbling and necessary thing to recognize your Mom’s and Dad’s; your grandparents; your brothers and sisters and everyone else who has helped you throughout your lives who helped you even make it to the doors of this institution and helped you through your 4 (in some cases, 4 plus) years here - and equipped you with the opportunities to come to MSU. But even more, it’s a humbling and necessary thing to recognize our connection to Jesus Christ - that without God’s very gift of life, without His overflowing abundance of blessings of gifts, talents, abilities He’s showered us with - without His love to sustain us, none of us, none of this would exist.
Once we recognize that, then, sure, it’s humbling, it’s even a little frightening to hear Jesus tell us "I need to prune you" – not because we’re bad, not as some kind of punishment - but so that we can continue to grow, to flourish, to become our true - our truest - selves. As John says in his first epistle, ‘We are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be.’ That transformation can only happen when we allow Jesus to prune out the unloving things we do, the self-centered things we often choose that only can lead to our destruction. We grow every time we serve rather than look to be served. We grow when we emulate examples of holiness, generosity and sacrifice in our world, rather than putting ourselves first, being self-centered... We grow when we deal with people who are - let’s be honest - not always easy to love, who make demands of us and our time, who fail to live as they should, who - like all of us -need to be forgiven. We grow, when we follow Jesus' command, which he says 8 times in this short scripture - REMAIN IN ME - do not go elsewhere, do not go away, do not be apart from Me, for it is only by remaining in Me that you will ever truly be yourself.
As we say goodbye to our Seniors tonight, my advice to you is the same advice I give to all of you gathered here, the same advice I try to follow myself, that I struggle to follow everyday. Wherever you go, wherever your path leads you in life, do not give up Christ. The world may seem to offer you shortcuts - 'work-arounds,' ways to get what you want, to excel, to succeed - that by-pass Christ altogether. But remember who we are. As beautiful, as talented, as good-natured and good-hearted as we are at our best we are, in the end, His branches. Christ is our vine. From that Vine we draw our strength, we draw our charity, we draw our inner-beauty, our self-respect, our endurance, our vitality, our will to help others and better our world. Christ says He is the vine, and that without Him, we can do nothing. That does not mean we are worthless, that we are, in fact, nothing - far from it. It is simply a statement of fact - that, to become our truest selves, we must have Him, we must include Him and the love He brings into our lives. The grace He gives us, His life, His love - with that, wherever we may go, we will always have enough, always have more than enough, really.
Without Christ in our lives, we can do nothing. With Him, we can do anything.