2 Oct 2016
“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice …” (1 Tim. 1:7) In the name …
I don’t know if you caught it or not, but there was a pretty important contradiction that we ran into already in this morning’s Mass, and it was intentional. Contradictions play a big part in Christianity. Our faith is counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, counter-logical, counter-experiential, counter a whole bunch of stuff, and because of this, these contradictions appear when we go about our normal everyday lives, or they should. What Jesus teaches is not what we would normally expect. And that’s probably because Jesus is trying to get us to listen and pay attention to the Word of God, to what God thinks is normal, not necessarily what we do. And when that Word of God is heard with our human ears, we run into contradictions. Then, do we listen to us or do we listen to Jesus?
Camille shared a reading with us this morning in which Christians are reminded that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice …” Back in the days of Timothy, and now those days are back again, we Christians have to be frank and open about our faith. We have to make the contradiction of Christianity stand-out, because the contradictions, they aren’t so clear anymore. In Timothy’s day, if you were a Christian, your neighbours knew because you were different. It’s coming back to that in our day. If we are really Christian, people will know. They will see that we are different.
One of those differences is right here. Church. I was born in 1960, which makes me a part of the Baby Boomer generation following World War II. So when I was a kid 81% of Americans were practicing Christians. When I was a kid, my parents went out on Saturday to get milk because everything was closed on Sundays. My home parish in Westfield was right on Main Street with very little parking around it, but across the street was a store’s parking lot. We had no trouble with Sunday morning parking because we could use all the spots at the store because the store was closed. The percentage of families who went to church was by far the largest segment of the population. Hardly anyone said they went nowhere.
Things sure have changed since then. Now just over half of us are church-practicing Christians, 52%. And within this 52%, the youngest generation, the Millennials, feel that religion is “very” important to them, again within that 52%, an even larger portion of this group prays daily, but then the story changes. For every young person who attends worship weekly, there are two who attend once a year or even not at all. These are young people who count religion important and who pray often, but church doesn’t work for them. I know one of the reasons. So a little boy was listening to a long and excessively boring sermon during Mass. Suddenly, the red sanctuary lamp caught his eye. Tugging his father’s sleeve, he said, “Daddy, when the light turns green can we get out of here?” Every priest knows that it is a serious challenge to keep young people, to keep people, engaged in the worship. But I think the declining numbers say more than just this.
The largest single group in America today on the religion survey has become the unaffiliated. They register at 36%. That’s more than Protestants and more than Catholics. And what makes the change even more dramatic is that the unaffiliated group is the fastest growing group of all. This probably means that those percentage numbers of 52% practicing Christians and 36% unaffiliated are going to grow even closer together. It is not unreasonable to expect that they will match in the not distant future. This is going to make church precarious. Our church building was erected in 1929. Only five years earlier than our building, a beautiful church was built in Newtonville, MA, out east. That church was once the home of a congregation of people who came together to worship Christ and to get strength and inspiration there. In that way, it was no different than we are. Now the congregation is gone and that church has been turned into 11 $1 million condos. I don’t know if anyone cried when the church closed; I don’t know if the community of Newtonville noticed its passing. But the transformation of the church into luxury condos earned it accolades from Builder Magazine which named this property its top choice for adaptive reuse in 2007.
I have to wonder if this is a small-scale version of what’s taking place in our society today. We’re impressed by million-dollar stuff, but not by church. Here’s one of those contradictions. Church is suffering because it may not be as exciting as watching or playing sports, going out to breakfast, lingering in bed a while longer, or even because it takes away time that we don’t have too much of, but it also may be suffering, sad to say, because an increasing number of people don’t see what’s of value here. We don’t get or profess the contradiction that is Christianity. This is why we who are here need to remember that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice …” Now, exactly like in the time of Timothy, we cannot be silent. We can’t take church for granted because if we do then this house of God just like so many others could become somebody’s fancy condo. I have always loved church, and I know it’s like that with many of you here. Even before I was a priest, I did not like the feel of not-going to church, and again I know it is like that with many of you. I’m hoping this is not only because of the generation I was born into. I hope it’s because of church, because of its contradictions. And if this is the case, then we’re going to have to grow our commitment to her through our Sunday morning choices, our volunteerism and our generosity because “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice …”
And finally, if you couldn’t figure out what the intentional contradiction was in today’s Mass, then I hope to see you tomorrow evening at Bible study where we can talk more about it. That Christ may help us to help His church, for this we pray in His holiest of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo