Friday, March 19, 2010

Paying Our Rent

St. Vincent Academy, Newark NJ
Students in Community Sending Forth Ceremony
March 19, 2010

Paying Our Rent

It is a great gift to be back here at St. Vincent’s. You and I have something in common – just like you I did a lot of my growing up here at SVA. I didn’t know what I was in for when I interviewed with Sister June in January, 1992. I had one thing on my mind – I need this job. I hadn’t worked since September and I was just about out of money to pay for rent and life’s other necessities. I was looking at having to give up my little studio apartment and move back with my parents. I love my parents very much, but rightly or wrongly it felt like failure to move back home.

So I arrived here that day with that one thought: I need this job. During the interview Sister June shared with me the mission of SVA – which has really been the mission of the Sisters of Charity for these past 150 years – and is really the mission of the whole Church: the mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus by living lives of service to our sisters and brothers. To quote from the SVA mission statement:

Saint Vincent Academy inspires students to develop lifelong commitments to Christian service and a capacity for hope, compassionate leadership and the desire to transform the world into a more just and peaceful society.

During my interview as Sister June was telling me all this I was asking myself two questions. You already know the first one: would I get this job? Second, all this stuff about living lives of service sounds very nice, but is SVA really different from other good schools?

And then she began to tell me about Students in Community. I remember being amazed as she described this carefully thought-out program that began in freshman year and then culminated in what you are about to do next week – going out into the world and give yourself in service to others. It was then that I realized that if I got this job – which have I mentioned I really needed? – I was in for a lot more than just teaching history.

In the same way, I’m sure it didn’t take you long to realize that being an SVA student means learning a lot more than math or English or science.

So, this is why I say that like you I grew up at SVA. It was here that I finally really learned that life is about discovering our gifts and giving away our lives in service to others. Our two readings today from St. Paul could not be more appropriate. Paul understood that God has given us all different gifts. Big deal - everyone knows that, right? But Paul also understood that while we have different gifts, we are all united by the job of using our gifts, of giving away our lives, for the “common good.”

It was here at SVA that I finally really learned that this is what life is all about. It’s here that I grew up. Now, don’t get me wrong, I also went to a great high school and I have wonderful parents who tried to get this message across to me. But, it was here, working with Sisters June and Margaret, Ms. Nolan, the Freshman Team and all the rest, that I really learned that the Christian life is discovering the gifts we have been given by God and then giving them all away in lives of service to others. Life is about service. It was here that I first heard the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”

I love that. I learned all of these lessons about service working with these remarkable people and I also learned about service from the amazing girls I taught here in the 1990s. I learned from my students in the classroom and I especially learned from them when I visited them in their SIC placements.

I have vivid memories of getting lost riding around the unfamiliar streets of Newark, trying to find the schools and hospitals where the girls were working. This was long before GPS or even mapquest. But my most vivid memories are finding and seeing these young women in a whole different light. It was during SIC that I found out who they really were – talented and generous young people, eager to serve others.

They may not have been too happy about doing social studies homework (I know, hard to believe, right?) but I found them working so hard in a hospital or in a classroom. I found them gently rocking a baby to sleep or sitting patiently listening to a sick and frightened patient tell his or her sad story. I found them comforting an upset little boy or girl in the classroom and I found them competently assisting a teacher.

Thinking about what those girls did in SIC back then, I’m reminded of something we do in the Episcopal Church. Whenever someone is baptized – whenever they decide to formally become a follower of Jesus, they publicly sign on for what we call the Baptismal Covenant. The idea is that baptism is really the beginning of our life of Christian service.

Listen to some of the questions we ask of the newly baptized (or, if it’s a baby being baptized, questions we ask of their parents and godparents): Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God and Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Big questions! For each of those very challenging questions we are asked to respond, “I will, with God’s help.”

Well, back when I was teaching here those SVA juniors and seniors, probably without knowing it, said “I will, with God’s help” and were sent out on SIC and proclaimed the Good News by their example, tried their best to love their neighbor as themselves and tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being.
It’s hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago – nearly a generation. But, although much time has passed, the impact of SIC and SVA continues to be felt in the lives of those young women and in my own life.

In my own case, I know that my years at SVA helped to set me on a direction that led to ordination in the Episcopal Church. And I continue to apply those lessons in my life as a priest. Just last summer, the youth at my church made a mission trip to Camden, one of the poorest cities in the country, where we spent a very SIC-like week volunteering at food pantries, homeless shelters, adult day care centers and more. At the end of each day we would reflect on our experience, looking for how we had seen God at work in the people and places we had met and learning about how and why our rich country allows some people to live in such desperate poverty.

And I know for a fact that SIC continues to affect the girls I taught back in the 1990s. For years every once in a while I’d run to one of my former SVA students. It was always great to be remembered and to catch up. But, now thanks to the miracle of facebook I’ve managed to reconnect with dozens of those girls and get a sense of the kinds of lives they are leading. Making me feel old, many are now married and many have children. And making me feel very happy, many of them are involved in serving other people. Some serve others by being in a helping profession, working as teachers, or doctors or nurses and more. Others serve by volunteering.

So many of that generation have remembered that “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”

Now it’s your turn. Now it’s time for this generation to build on the 150 year long service of the Sisters of Charity and it’s time for this generation to build on the service of your SVA sisters who have gone before you during the 35 years or so of Students in Community.

Now it’s your turn. But actually, I’m told, it’s been your turn for a while now. Sister Noreen told me that back when you were freshmen, the seniors worked at the Community Food Bank in Hillside and that two years ago both the current juniors and seniors hosted second graders at an Easter party. And I’m sure the juniors remember the cold day last year they spent cleaning the beach at Sandy Hook. And this year your younger sisters are taking their turn, hosting a luncheon for all of the Sisters of Charity during this anniversary year.

So, now it’s your turn and I’m really happy and excited for you. I’m also a little jealous of your teachers who will get to go out and see you and support you as you do such important service in our communities.

Before I finish I want to mention one other aspect of this service business. Let’s hear again that excerpt from the SVA mission statement:

Saint Vincent Academy inspires students to develop lifelong commitments to Christian service and a capacity for hope, compassionate leadership and the desire to transform the world into a more just and peaceful society.

Another thing I learned during my time at SVA is that leadership is the flip side of service. In fact all of us are called to be servant leaders. Someone once wrote, “Servant leadership defines success as giving, and measures achievement by devotion to serving.” I don’t need to tell you this is not how the world defines leadership. The world defines leadership as getting people to do what the leader wants them to do.

You might think that servant leadership is impossible. But, stop and think about the leaders you know right here at SVA – leaders who are not interested in gaining power or wealth or making people do things that aren’t good for them. Instead, here at SVA you see servant leadership in action – leaders who have given away their lives in service to you and to the generations who have gone before you.

And stop and think of the greatest of all servant leaders, Jesus of Nazareth. In church on Holy Thursday we’ll tell the story of the Last Supper when Jesus got on his knees and like a servant washed the feet of his friends. And he told them that this is how they – how we – are supposed to treat one another. We are supposed to be servant leaders.

And if you go into SIC with an open heart, then not only will you be serving. You will also be a servant leader.

So, that’s it. Now it’s your turn to pay your rent. Now it’s your turn to say “I will, with God’s help.” Now it’s your turn to be sent forth from this remarkable school to serve your sisters and brothers out in a world that desperately needs your service. But more than that, now it’s your turn to begin – or to continue - your lives of servant leadership. I’ll be praying for you. May God continue to bless this generation and to bless St. Vincent Academy.