This sermon was preached by Daniel at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany CA on Sunday March 22, 2015.
Famous icon artist (and Franciscan friar) Robert Lentz wrote an icon of the Archbishop and martyr of El Salvador Oscar Romero in which Romero holds a poor and vulnerable child lovingly in his arms. In place of angels in the background are two military helicopters thundering over houses caught on fire and covered in smoke on the hills of San Salvador. The choice to replace angels with military choppers is a fascinating one, especially when juxtaposed with the angelic archbishop who holds the poor Salvadoran child the same way Mary holds baby Jesus. During Romero’s lifetime, some considered him a Marxist revolutionary, who threatened the peace and order of society, while others honored him as their beloved shepherd, as a voice for the voiceless, as a saint. Somehow the same person looked like a serious danger to some and like an angel to others.
The way we see and hear people and events around us often says more about us than about the people and events themselves. Oscar Romero knew this. He said, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” From the perspective of the poor, the oppressed and the victims of society, Romero was an angel. From the perspective of the wealthy, the privileged and those who benefitted at the expense of others, Romero was a subversive rebel who should have known his place. To them, Romero should have used the Gospel to prop up the political elite and urge the people to submit to the government’s abuses. In fact, that is why he was elected archbishop in the first place. They knew he was politically conservative and basically a coward. They knew he could be easily controlled and that he would give the church’s blessing to the government’s violent subjugation of the poor. They would have been right about Romero if his vision had not been transformed profoundly by the tragic loss of his close friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was assassinated by the government, with an old man and a young boy who were on their way to be baptized. The tears that Romero shed for these victims of government violence gave him new eyes to see. Although both the abusive elite and the abused poor both claimed to be Christian, Romero’s tear-tinted eyes helped him to clearly see Christ’s presence among the poor and the oppressed. He began to see this so clearly that he said, “A church that does not unite itself to the poor in order to denounce from the place of the poor the injustice committed against them is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ.” He also said, “I rejoice, brothers and sisters, that our church is persecuted precisely for its preferential option for the poor and for seeking to become incarnate in the interests of the poor…How sad it would be in a country where such horrible murders are being committed if there were no priests among the victims.” For the poor, these words evoked heavenly hope. For the people in power, these words sounded like thunder.
In our Gospel this morning, a voice from heaven affirms Jesus who will soon become the victim of religious and political violence. Some people heard the voice from heaven and said it was thunder while others thought they heard an angel. The voice that stands up for the victims of society is the voice of God. It is a dangerous voice to those in power, especially when that power is built on the backs of victims. It is a voice of judgment. As Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler(s) of this world will be driven out.” To the poor, the voice is one of hope and assurance: “This voice has come for your sake,” Jesus says.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s glorification is his death on the cross where he makes it abundantly clear that God is on the side of society’s victims. Jesus offers his life in order to reveal this truth to the world, to give everyone tear-tinted eyes, to draw everyone’s attention to the plight of the poor and the oppressed, the world’s victims: “I will draw all people to myself.” The Book of Hebrews refers to Jesus as the high priest as well as the sacrifice. As high priest, Jesus offered himself as the sacrificial victim so that we can see more clearly the victims of prejudice and violence all around us, especially in those forms of violence that we attempt to justify and sanctify as “Christian.”
Jesus came to reveal God as a God of thunder and judgment to those who use religion and power to oppress others. And Jesus came to reveal God as a loving shepherd and caring mother to those who are oppressed. “The crowd heard the voice from heaven and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel…’”
The judgment, however, does not come in the form of a violent rebel bearing weapons. The judgment comes with what Romero calls the “violence of love.” He said, “We never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross… The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.” The judgment comes in the form of a vulnerable victim who lays down his life in order to show us whose side we are on and to expose our violence to ourselves and to the wider world.
Almost 35 years ago today, on March 23rd 1980, Oscar Romero preached directly against the violence of the sword when he addressed the police and military of El Salvador, saying, “Brothers, We are your people. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the voice of man commanding you to kill, remember instead the voice of God. Thou shalt not kill…In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the oppression!” The next day, Archbishop Romero celebrated Eucharist and, as he stood in the vulnerable orans position as the people’s priest, he also offered himself as victim. A member of a government death squad walked into the church with a rifle and shot Romero in the heart, killing him instantly.
Previously Romero had said, “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.” As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Romero’s death brought international attention to the plight of the Salvadoran poor. His death forced the rest of the world to ask whether we were on the side of the armed oppressor or the unarmed priest who was shot and killed. Tragically, the US helped provide the weapons to the Salvadoran government, weapons that killed Romero and the tens of thousands of other Salvadorans.
The cross of Christ and the martyrdom of Oscar Romero invite us to confront the ways that we support oppression in our personal and political lives. This country continues to convulse under the weight of past atrocities. Centuries of racial slavery and the genocide of Native Americans have collective consequences and spiritual residue that remain with us today. Some of us benefit from these atrocities and some of us continue to suffer because of them. And the world that benefits some and demonizes others, especially due to skin color, is one that is facing judgment. For those of us in power this judgment can be terrifying because it calls us to let go of our privilege and ally ourselves with those of us who continue to suffer the toxic residue of racial slavery and genocide. If the voice that stands up for society’s victims sounds like thunder to us, then we are called to repentance. And if the voice from heaven that stands up for the victims sounds like an angel, then we are called to respond to the violence of the sword with the violence of love. We are called to be priests who are also willing to be victims in order to expose the world’s violence and drive out the ruler of this world. This is what it means to be a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek, to offer ourselves in self-giving love to one another, even at the risk of our own lives. The life and martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which we celebrate this Tuesday March 24th, invite us to live fully into this self-giving priesthood, to which we are called in our baptism, knowing that even in death, there can be new life, liberation and much fruit. Amen.