(3/27/19, Co-Cathedral of St. Robert Bellarmine)
36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. 37 Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
“Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 And so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,
40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said this because[g] he saw his glory and spoke about him. 42 Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.
Good afternoon. I want to thank the Monsignor for inviting me to preach today. I’m just old enough to remember a time when a Protestant pastor wouldn’t have been invited to preach in a Catholic church, nor a Catholic priest in a Protestant church. But back then, we had enough people in our churches that we didn’t fully realize the need to work cooperatively, in worship and fellowship.
I’m new to Monmouth County—I moved here from Pittsburgh last July. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I’m glad to say that the members of the Freehold Clergy Association have really welcomed me. On the other hand, maybe they’re just being nice because they’re going to ask me to do more work next year.
In our reading today, the Gospel writer is wrestling with the question of why some people don’t believe—even if they’ve seen the signs that Jesus performed during his ministry. Remember, in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ miraculous deeds are called signs. Clearly some people, even some of the religious authorities believed what Jesus said, but they weren’t willing to confess it publicly. According to John, “they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.”
That’s a harsh condemnation. John is saying that some of the religious leaders understood that Jesus was the Messiah, but that they feared that they would lose their authority, their position in the religious power structure if they spoke out about the truth that they could plainly see. If this were just a condemnation of the religious authorities or large parts of the population of Judea, some 2,000 years ago, then that condemnation wouldn’t apply to us.
But it does!
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we also love human glory.
We want to blame all sorts of human glory for all the empty spaces in our pews on Sunday mornings. We want to blame the people who chase after human glory in the form of youth sports on Sunday mornings. We want to blame the people who chase after human glory on Saturday nights and sleep in on Sunday mornings. We want to blame people who are busy shopping on Sunday mornings. We want to blame the secular culture, or some other version of the boogeyman.
We want to blame others, because then we don’t have to take a long hard look at ourselves. We don’t have to look at ourselves when we ask why our children or our grandchildren have left the church. But this is Lent; this is the season for looking within. And in this season, we have to acknowledge that we’re a part of this situation.
Before I left Pittsburgh, I decided to pay a visit to an old shopping center called Century III Mall. When it was completed in 1979, it was the third-largest mall in the country. It’s about the same size as Monmouth Mall, but a better comparison might be the old Seaview Square Mall, though Century III is still open. Barely.
It’d been at least ten years since I was there. There are only about twenty stores that are still open. There used to be over two hundred. There used to be five anchor stores. Originally those were Sears, Kaufmann’s, J.C. Penney, Gimbels, and Montgomery Ward. Last year there are only two anchor stores: J.C. Penney and Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s closed earlier this year. Whole sections of the mall are roped off. None of this surprised me. I knew the place was a ghost town. That’s why I stopped. I just wanted to see it for myself. What surprised me was how cold it was inside.
I was probably about ten years old, the first time I visited Century III. It was so full of people and full of life, and there were so many different kinds of shops. It made the malls of my hometown seem so rinky-dink. A visit to Century III reminded me of all the stuff we didn’t have in my hometown.
Then after that first trip to Century III, my dad told me the history of the location. He told me that it used to be a slag dump. Now, for those of you who aren’t from western Pennsylvania, slag is one of the by-products from making steel. It’s all of the minerals that occur in iron ore, the impurities that are driven off as the iron is smelted and then turned into steel. Those waste products were then loaded into giant ladles and placed on railroad cars. At that point, the slag was still a molten mixture of metal and rock—it was maybe 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Then it was taken way out into the suburbs and dumped. It was quite a spectacle!
My dad told me how people used to come there on a Saturday night to watch the slag being dumped. He said the whole sky lit up when one of those ladles was tipped over. He said it was one of the coolest things he ever saw. It was glorious! Of course, that was a human glory, a thing of the world, and it’s still a powerful memory in western Pennsylvania, even if they stopped dumping slag 50 years ago.
As I walked through the chilly concourses of Century III, I felt every passing second. I couldn’t have spent more than fifteen or twenty minutes in there, but it seemed like an eternity. It was depressing. I understand that people shop in different places, or they shop online. I shop online. I suppose I don’t really care that Sears is gone, or Montgomery Ward is gone. But I do care that a place where I spent some of my youth is gone. I do care that a place that used to be alive, a place that used to be a vibrant part of the community is fading away.
Like so many of our churches.
The truth is, we spend a lot of time sitting in our churches and wringing our hands. We worry about getting more people in the pews and more money in the collection plate, because our buildings are getting older and we have trouble maintaining them. They’re like aging shopping malls, and people are going somewhere else on Sunday mornings. Yet we’re obsessed with the way church used to be.
Today’s gospel lesson doesn’t spell out the answers for the church today, but it reminds us of the uncomfortable questions. The Gospel of John also offers some important clues about the way forward. It’s the gospel of relationship; it’s the gospel of the Word made flesh. It shows God in direct relationship with humanity through the person of Jesus. If people aren’t coming into our churches to hear about this relationship, to learn about this relationship, to experience this relationship, then we have to get outside of our walls and show them what this relationship is. That’s what it means to live as if we believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. We won’t do that, sitting inside our buildings, week after week. We can only do that if we get outside of our walls and enter into relationships with the people who aren’t in our churches, but that’s difficult—and scary!
If we stay inside our churches, we don’t have to do the messy work of talking to people who think and believe differently than we do. We don’t have to listen to them, so that we can learn how to speak into their realities. Heck, we don’t even have to learn what their lives are like if we just stay inside our own walls!
If we stay in churches, our authority is unquestioned. We can remain as we are, certain that we’re right. We retain all the blessings that we think we’re entitled to, while we ignore the fact that we are called to share those blessings. We can continue hide our light under a bushel basket, because it’s easier than going out into a world that doesn’t know us and doesn’t understand what we have to offer.
But if all we offer is a witness to the way our world used to be, then we won’t bring new people into the love of Christ. If all we offer is a place to go for an hour on Sunday, then our pews will remain half full—on a good Sunday! So, we have to engage with the rest of the world. We have to show people—not tell them—how our lives have been transformed by the love of Christ, then invite them in. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, friends, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. We are called to go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!