Sky full of glittering lights.
I was alone on July 4th—the pastor was away, the staff was on vacation. It was the first time I was king of the rectory and the church, reigning over the whole empty building. But that wasn’t much fun, so I decided to take a walk over to the west side of the island, to the mighty Hudson river.
The city was quiet, as it always is on holidays, hardly any traffic. I walked south along the river, winding up at the Memorial that was built on the exact spot where the original World Trade Towers stood. I found the name of one of my former students, memorialized forever beside the roaring water of the waterfall. As I traced Marc’s engraved name with my finger, I looked over at the half-finished Greek Orthodox church that is being built to replace the humble structure that was destroyed in the attack. They have stopped work on the church because of financial difficulties. At another time in history, I thought, that church would have been the first thing rebuilt on the site.
Marc was a good student, and a great kid, and he generously shared his struggles with me as he grew into himself at college. I remembered several long conversations I had with him about his parents. Like all adolescents, he didn’t always appreciate their perspective on things. He knew how much they loved him, but he felt that they weren’t giving him the freedom to think and choose for himself. He wasn’t sure about his faith, and he resented their insistence that he go to church at school as they did at home. They had also mapped out his academic life and his career in business, and they didn’t listen to his doubts and protests. He loved nature, he told me, and dreamed of working a lifetime in one of our national parks.
I lost touch with him after graduation, but coincidentally just before the attack, I discovered that he had gotten a good job on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center with Cantor Fitzgerald. I was eager to reconnect with him to find out how his life had unfolded. And then he was gone. They never found his body at the site.
Later on Wednesday evening I walked over to the East River to view Macy’s fireworks extravaganza. There were thousands of people there, and it felt good to be with them, watching the sky painted in a glittering show of red, white and blue. There we all were--black, brown, white, Asian, Latino, young and old, gay and straight, many poor, some rich, women and men—looking at the sky with smiles on our faces like little children. United in awe. There is something about the Fourth of July that brings us all together-- America’s birthday, when we celebrate our independence to believe, practice, proclaim and live in whatever way we choose.
How wonderful it is to see such brilliant, colorful light paint the night sky: the glittering light perhaps announcing, like a prophet, the upcoming merry defeat of the darkness of our world. Even more wonderful is to see the faces of the spectators, transformed by the massive explosions of light playing across their features.
I recognized a family from the parish in the crowd--a young couple and their two children. I have watched these parents raising their young ones to have a deep devotion to the church. The kids noticed me, and seemed excited that I was there with them. After one particularly impressive explosion, the daughter said—with great authority in her little voice---“that was miraculous.” I had to laugh. As I listened to their joyful squeals and watched their fascination with the show, I fast-forwarded their growth in my mind 10, 15 years from now, when they would be Marc’s age. I wondered where they would be with their faith then.
I read a report of a poll the other day that said that a majority of Americans now believe that we are no longer a Christian nation, and the percentage of young adults who believe that is even higher--almost 75%. And that seems about right. All of us sitting in this church have been born into a unique season in history in which our culture is moving from a Christian culture to a post-Christian culture before our eyes. It’s clear to many of us that the world into which we were born no longer exists. 50 years ago this church would have been a lot more crowded at this Mass: that would be true even 20 years ago. There are churches that are closing or merging all over the city because they don’t have the people, or the money, or the priests.
It’s not just church attendance, it’s bigger than that. Viewpoints that were widely embraced by all of us just decades ago are no longer embraced. What is the definition of a family? What is moral or immoral? For some this seems like progress. For others, it seems like we’re losing something. Regardless, things have changed fundamentally.
Especially under Pope Francis, the Church is trying to understand all of this, and to listen to how the Holy Spirit is speaking to us. Sometimes the Church has to acknowledge that God is not done with us, and that there is more for us to learn about love, and mercy. And there is still plenty of opportunity for us to be a light to the world about what we say we believe. But in a world that doesn’t believe in Christianity anymore—including members of our family, our children, friends, our students---it can be a bit discouraging to try to share what we believe about God or Jesus or life for that matter. Sometimes it feels as if there is no merry light in the sky, that all the light in the world has been swallowed up into a black hole.
In today's gospel Jesus has the same problem with his family and the people in his town. It was so serious that Jesus was literally unable to perform any miracles there. "And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them."
This is one of the most shocking statements in all the Gospels - that Jesus could not perform miracles. It is impossible for Jesus to perform miracles in a situation where there is no faith in who he is or what he says. Compare that to last week’s Gospel of the woman who was sick for years who reached out to Jesus as he passed. As soon as she touches him, healing power comes out of Jesus. As all-powerful as Jesus is, we have the capacity to disable him by our lack of faith. Faith is like a switch that turns God on, lack of faith turns God off.
Does it matter that so many people no longer think of America as a Christian nation? Does it matter that our kids, our husbands, our wives, our brothers and sisters, our friends no longer come to church to be with us here today, no matter how much we invite, nag, encourage or threaten them? Jesus said,"Prophets are without honor in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house". It’s disappointing, for sure. But we kind of get it, don't we? We understand why it is happening.
But it shouldn't make us stop believing, shouldn't discourage us from sharing what matters with everyone around us.
We are the instruments of God's voice, and there will be many times when no one will be listening, when you will be dismissed, or worse, despised. That is the prophet's fate, and all of us have some vocation to be a prophet as well. We need to speak the truth as we hear it.
In love—always in God's love—we need to paint the sky with the good news that we believe to be true: to tell others how beautiful they are through and through, how ugly they can be when they speak or act in hate or fear or selfishness. Maybe especially in a post-Christian world our faith can make a firework of miracles happen, and shouldn’t we try to do so?
May we declare our dependence on the God who loves us all so much, and may our faith be as awe-inspiring as a sky full of glittering lights.