A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on Sunday, March 25, 2012
Sermon for Lent V (B)
March 25, 2012
Christ Church Andover
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
“Very truly, I tell you, 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.”
Yesterday I was listening to NPR while I was driving along in my car and I heard part of a story about near-death experiences. Several people talked about their experiences, but one of the people I particularly remember was an atheist. He said in his interview that he had been clinically dead for over an hour when he came back to life. He said he had not had any out-of-body experiences, or seen any white lights at the end of tunnels, or anything like that, which some people do describe. He said he was an atheist before this experience and that that had not changed. But I was very interested in how he described the effect of this experience on his life. He said that coming back from the dead had caused him to experience life in a whole new way. He realized how precious it was, and he appreciated life in all its fullness so much more. He was more determined to live his life to the very fullest, and had done things that he never would have done prior to that experience.
Through this experience of death, something really had died in him, even though his body returned to life. But his complacency, his presumptions, his sense of entitlement – his taking things for granted – these things had died, and were bearing fruit in his new life. It struck me that you don’t have to be religious or even believe in God for this principle of dying and rising to be true: “…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.”
Jesus spoke these words in relation to his own impending death, likening himself to a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, and then bears much fruit. Christians look back to these events, which we will commemorate next week on Palm Sunday and on through Good Friday itself, not merely as a commemoration of an historical event, but as the deep (I would say primal) story by which we find meaning for our lives. When something dies, it is not the end of the story. Something else can then come into being. Something new. Something wonderful. In the suffering and death of Jesus we discern the possibility of redemption, things being made new. We look back on these events year after year, replaying the drama of that death, not for the sake of revenge or any other baser human motive – but rather to discern in it the deeper meaning of our lives, and to look for the possibility of redemption and transformation.
The death and resurrection of Jesus teach us that death need not be the end of the story, but that death can become the beginning of new life.
Yesterday marked the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Any of you who have traveled to El Salvador, and a number of us here have, know how much his story pervades the life of the Salvadoran people. Romero was gunned down at the altar while saying Mass. He died because of his outspoken condemnation of militarism and injustice. He had emerged as the highest-profile defender of impoverished campesinos along with a group of idealistic members of the Catholic clergy who were demanding an end to centuries of inequality and repression in El Salvador.
And yet, Romero was an unlikely martyr for justice. He had begun his rise to power in the Salvadoran Roman Catholic Church as a lowly, rather naïve and very conservative priest who was elevated to the episcopacy partly because he was thought to be safe – an obedient servant for the wealthy Salvadoran elite.
Romero was expected to protect the elite's tradition of maintaining power and control, by any means necessary, over the exploited working classes, especially the rural peasants, most of whom were devout Catholics who had been told for centuries to accept their lot in life and to look to the after-life for their reward.
However, these campesinos had begun to show signs of unrest and revolt, finally demanding freedom from the centuries of unjust oppression. They formed quasi-revolutionary groups, many meeting in house churches and deriving inspiration from Jesus' solidarity with the poor and his rejection of greed.
Romero watched the Salvadoran security forces resort to torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances to silence and intimidate this movement. Some of those who were killed were young clergy assigned to his archdiocese. Each night, mutilated bodies were dumped along the streets of El Salvador’s cities and towns.
In the face of this kind of cruel terror, Romero's politics and theology did an about-face. One hundred eighty degrees. He began a courageous three-year ministry openly opposing the Salvadoran military, the wealthy elites and his compromised Catholic Church hierarchy, which had long sided with the rich and powerful. His path to martyrdom was set, and he knew it.
Romero, like Jesus, anticipated his death in words to his followers. He also adopted Jesus’ strategy of active nonviolent resistance. He repeatedly called on the government’s security forces to stop their repression of the poor.
He pleaded directly to the soldiers, who would change into plainclothes before heading off onto their death-squad missions. He told them, in the name of God, to refuse orders to shoot their fellow Salvadorans. In his last Sunday sermon, a broadcast he knew was being monitored by the Salvadoran military, he said these words:
“Before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God.”
Romero knew his days were numbered, but that knowledge didn’t stop him from speaking out for human rights, on behalf of the poor and helpless. In one of his last interviews, Romero said:
"If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people ... A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”
Romero maintained his Christ-like, nonviolent stance to the end, challenging not only the right-wing government and its death squads, but also the tactics of the leftist rebels who felt that they had no recourse but to engage in violent revenge against those who controlled the security forces.
On March 24, 1980, after ending his final homily, Romero turned to the congregation as he began the Eucharistic prayer, and said: "May this Body immolated and this Blood sacrificed for Mankind nourish us also, that we may give our body and our blood over to suffering and pain, like Christ – not for Self, but to give harvests of peace and justice to our People."
At that moment, the assassin’s bullet pierced his heart.
And like Jesus who cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” urging forgiveness for the obedient Roman soldiers who were just following orders, Romero’s last words were: “May God have mercy on the assassins."
“A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” And indeed, his spirit lives in the hearts of the Salvadoran people today.
Death and Resurrection. It is the principle at the heart of all of life.
Sometimes the death we experience is not of our physical bodies, but of things we hold dear – our way of life, our images of ourselves, the way things have always been, things to which we have grown accustomed.
Later this morning we’ll have an all-parish meeting at which we’ll be talking about changes in our parish staff. And there is definitely a sense of grief and loss that we are struggling with here in our parish at this moment in time. And we find ourselves with the very predictable and very real emotions of the five stages of the grieving process:
· denial (“this can’t be happening!”);
· anger (“I can’t believe they would do this! It’s unfair and just plain wrong.”);
· bargaining (“Well, if we do this, or that, can we somehow fix it?!”)
· depression (“I don’t even care anymore – not enough to do anything about it.”)
· and perhaps eventually, acceptance (“Let’s do what we have to do to move on.”)
There’s another response, which arises from our engagement with all these other very real emotions. This response does not simply resign ourselves to hard realities, but actually opens us up to the possibility of new life, new inspiration, a new sense of vocation and purpose. We hope this for the staff whose lives have been so directly impacted, for sure, but also for our parish, and for the work that God is doing in all of our lives. Maybe there’s a call to a new place somewhere in what feels like failure and loss to us now. Perhaps we’ll embrace a new way of being as a community of faith that’s not as dependent upon what others have always done for us. Perhaps out of necessity we’ll have to let go of some things to which we’ve grown accustomed so that we make room for new ways of being together and new ways of serving one another. Perhaps we’ll look inside and find new depths of generosity and sacrifice and become a community more and more formed in Christ’s image.
Oscar Romero’s life teaches us that to follow Christ sometimes means letting go of the marks of success, and in doing so to find new truth, and ultimately new life. We want that for ourselves, and we want it for our life together in this place.
Next week, we begin our annual pilgrimage to the cross – which we have already, it seems, begun. We know where it ends – and we know what happens three days later. And yet we are still called to live into its pattern of death and resurrection. May we as a people called to follow Christ allow this pattern to grow and repeat itself in our own lives, and truly to know God’s life in us.