1817) Losing Faith (part one of three)

Easter sermon, April 1, 2018.

     In his best-selling book Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt tells the story of his miserable childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland.  It is the story of a desperately poor family whose life is made even more desperate by the father’s alcoholism.  Any money he gets his hands on goes for pints of Guinness beer, and the family is constantly cold and hungry.  Three of seven children die in childhood.  The book is the story of how the others survive by charity and by their wits, and then overcome all kinds of obstacles to get to America.  And then, in time, they all do very well here.  Frank McCourt also wrote a second book about his life as a young immigrant in America.

     Along with this story of survival, there is the story of the family’s faith; or I should say, gradual loss of faith.  Between the two books, one can follow the faith of four generations, and you can see through the generations the slow, but sure, eroding away of faith until there is nothing left.  In the first generation we see the old grandmother, the mother of Frank’s mother, Angela. She is a stem and crabby old lady, but one who always goes to church, and, encourages her daughter and her grandchildren to remember their religious duties:  going to mass, getting their first communion, getting confirmed, going to confession, and so on.  Frank’s parents, you can tell, were brought up in the church.  They know all about it, they know all the religious duties, and they know what their children should do.  But then they leave it at that; as something for the children.  They insist that their children go to church, but they themselves hardly ever go.  And so the four boys learn from their parents’ behavior that church is for kids, not adults.

     When the brothers grow up and go to America, none of them ever become a part of any church.  And their mother, unlike her own mother, does not encourage it.  What can she say?  She herself has not been to worship for years.  Frank knows about Jesus and about sin and guilt and confession and forgiveness and salvation and all of that.  He knows it all from his childhood, and he thinks about it often.  But he doesn’t very much believe in any of it anymore, and he doesn’t consider it worth teaching to his daughter.  So, by the fourth generation, the loss of faith is complete.  Frank’s daughter, Maggie, has never gone to church.  Relatives and friends don’t even get married in or buried from the church.  There is absolutely no religious connection or opportunity for faith.  

     Not going to worship consistently will usually, over time, slide into not going very much, and then not at all, and then finally, there is no opportunity for even a glimmer of faith to take root and grow.

     In 1981 Frank’s mother died.  There is no funeral, just a gathering of family and friends.  And that is not in a church, but at the funeral home.  And there is no priest and no one to read and proclaim God’s Word; just the family telling stories and singing the old songs of Ireland.  And they were all having a pretty good time of it.  The Irish do know how to have fun.  The four brothers even had a pretty jolly time of it when they had met with the doctor a few weeks earlier to learn about their mother’s critical, life-threatening illness.  The doctor was stammering around, struggling to tell them there was nothing more he could do for her.  Finally, Frank said cheerfully, “Ah, don’t worry about it Doc, we all gotta go sometime.  We know our mother is going to die and she knows it too.  And besides, we McCourts come from a long line of dead people.”  Such clowning around continued right on into the memorial service.

     Frank’s ten year old daughter Maggie was also at that memorial service, but she was in a more serious mood.  She had some questions about what they were there for and what it all meant.  Paraphrasing a bit, this is Frank McCourt’s description of their conversation:

     Maggie kneels with me by the casket, looking at her grandmother, the first dead body she has seen in her ten years.  She has no vocabulary for this, no religion, and no prayer.  And that’s another sadness.  She can only look at her grandmother and say, ‘Where is she now, Dad?’  And all I can say is, ‘If there is a heaven, Maggie, she’s there, and she’s the queen of it.’  And Maggie asks, ‘Is there a heaven, Dad?‘ 



Job 14:14  —  If a man die, shall he live again? 

Hebrews 2:1  —  We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Hebrews 10:24-25  —  Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.


O Almighty God, grant that we may ever be found watching and ready for the coming of Thy Son.  Save us from undue love of the world, that we may wait with patient hope for the day of the Lord, and so abide in him, that when he shall appear we may not be ashamed; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Methodist hymnal


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Malachy, Alphie, Mike, and Frank McCourt