Today’s readings: 1Peter 1:3-5; Philippians 4:4-9; John 15:9-12
My dear graduates, you are gathered here for the last time as a class. This has been your home away from home for the last nine years, you have known each other and grown together, you have formed relationships that have seen you through good times and bad. And so, as we come together for graduation this evening, I know that this is a bittersweet occasion for you, as it is for your teachers and all of us who have been privileged to be part of your life these past years. You are certainly excited to graduate and move on with the rest of your life, but you are certainly also sad to leave behind so many close friends as you go to different schools in the year ahead.
But however we all feel about you moving on, move on you must. That is what life is all about: growing and learning and becoming and going forward. We all want that for you, and hopefully that is what you want for yourselves. And so, on this occasion, I have been trying to figure out what words I would want you to hear on this day. As I have prayed about this homily over the last few weeks, the Spirit seems to be wanting me to talk to you about success. Success is that pot of gold that we all want for ourselves, and many people have written about it.
Dale Carnegie wrote, “The person who gets the farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.” Woody Allen once said, “Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote, “I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.” I could go on and on quoting all sorts of famous people who have given their opinion on how to be successful, but I thought I might stop there and instead focus on some common advice about success that you usually hear at graduations.
One thing you often hear is something like Jojo from Seussical might say: “Anything’s possible.” I think that’s more or less true, but that also doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good news. God only knows what’s ahead for each of you: some of it will be incredibly excellent – the stuff far beyond your wildest dreams. Those moments are God’s gift to you. Some of it may also be disappointing, frustrating or even sad. But whether the future brings joy or sadness, what is truly important is what you do with it. If God gives you joy, your task is to share it – because no gift is ever given just for ourselves. And if life brings you pain, the task is to get through it as best you can, knowing that God is with you all the way.
Another piece of advice you might hear at graduation is “Believe in yourself.” That’s nice advice as far as it goes. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t go very far. If all you believe in is yourself, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Who do you turn to? What happens when you mess up? I think far better advice is what you’ve been taught for the last nine years here at St. Petronille School: believe in Jesus. Jesus loves you, Jesus knows what it’s like to live our human life – he knew joy and he knew sorrow and he got through it all. If you believe in Jesus, you’ll always have a deep well of grace to draw from when you are tested, you’ll always be able to discern the right path, and you’ll be known as a person who is steadfast and courageous, not blown around by whatever fad comes along next. Jesus is your Lord and Jesus is your friend. He has known you and loved you before you were you, and he will keep on loving you no matter where life takes you.
Sometimes at graduations, you’ll hear “There’s nothing you can’t achieve.” I don’t personally think that’s true. There are lots of things we aren’t made to do, and I think we instead have to figure out what it was we were made to do. God has an important task for each of us to accomplish, and it’s up to achieve that. That means we have to pray about what that is, to look for God’s will in our lives. I can tell you from personal experience, that if you do what God wants you to do in your life, you’ll be successful, and more than that, you’ll be happy every day of your life. It took me a while to figure that out, but it was worth it.
All in all, I think the best advice there is comes from a very reliable source. That source is Jesus in this evening’s Gospel reading. Jesus says that successful disciples have to do just one thing: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And at first that seems like no big deal, right? You hear “love one another” so much that it becomes just some warm fuzzy saying that it doesn’t make much of an impression on us. But I think it should, because Jesus never said something he meant for us to forget. So we have to look at the Scripture a little more deeply. And when we do, we can see that the kind of love Jesus is calling us disciples to have for each other is pretty radical. It looks something like that (indicate the cross).
Now, I’ll be honest. When you look at the cross, it doesn’t look very successful. It even looks like love came to an end. But we know that’s not true. We know that, because Jesus loved us that much, because he gave up his life for us, the Father raised him from the dead. Because Jesus loved us unconditionally and sacrificially, we know that we have the possibility of eternal life one day in God’s heavenly kingdom. God loved us so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of living forever without us, so he sent his Son to become one of us and pay the price for our many sins, and to destroy the power that sin and death had over us.
That’s what success looks like for us believers in Christ. It looks like love beyond our wildest dreams. It looks like giving everything, trusting all the while that God will give us what we need in return. That’s how Jesus loves us, and that’s how we’re supposed to love one another too. We are probably not going to get nailed to a cross, but we are definitely called upon to give of ourselves, to lay down our lives for each other.
For nine years, you’ve been hearing that message. If you remember it, I think you will be successful in life and in the life to come. The goal of all our lives is to get to heaven one day, and for the time you’ve been in our Catholic school, we have done our best to give you what you need to get there. St. Paul sums it all up for us, then, in our second reading today: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.”