God Is Bigger…

God’s people in Crafton Heights spent the Summer of 2013 talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  I called this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  The last installment (at least for now) focused on Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Our Scripture readings were Psalm 27 and Ephesians 6:10-20.

When our daughter was a child, she was afraid of a lot of things.  The dark.  Noises outside the house.   That the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates would somehow become unhinged and have to endure 20 losing seasons.  You know, irrational fears.  And yet we wondered, how were we, as parents, going to be able to help calm those fears?

VeggieTalesFortunately for Sharon and me, in December of 1993 the folks at Big Idea released the first ever Veggie Tales episode, entitled “Where is God When I’m S-Scared?”  That episode featured a catchy little ditty that assured young viewers that “God is bigger than the Boogeyman – He’s bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on TV…and he’s watching out for you and me!”  What a gift that song was!

I thought about that as a friend and I discussed how easy it is for grown-ups to dismiss childish fears.  Kids are afraid of the vacuum cleaner, and monsters, and the dark.  Ha!  Isn’t that cute?

Until you grow up and discover that you, yourself, seem to be in a vacuum.  You’re alone, and facing a crumbling marriage or a mountain of debt.  Monsters like illness or death or violence surround you, and the darkness of depression or unemployment or hopelessness envelops you unexpectedly.  When you are in circumstances like that, singing “Silly Songs With Larry” the cucumber just isn’t going to cut it.

Where is God when you are scared?

This morning, we’ll conclude, at least for now, the series of sermons on “Faces at the Reunion”.  When I came up with the idea for these messages, one person that I was sure I wanted to introduce was Archbishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador.  And as I thought about him, here is the sermon that I wanted to preach:

I wanted to tell you that in 1977 Romero became Archbishop of the most densely populated nation in all of Central America.  At that time, a wealthy elite comprising perhaps 2% of the population owned 60% of the land.  I wanted to stand up here and thunder about social justice, and to remind you that God cares for the poor; I had hopes of preaching a powerful sermon that would invite you to a deeper participation in what God is doing with the people who are on the fringes.

And had I preached that sermon, you wouldn’t have been surprised.  You’ve heard that sermon, or one like it, before.

Yet this week as I contemplated the witness of Romero, that sermon wouldn’t come.  Instead, I sensed God’s leading to talk a little bit about fear.  I resisted that for a couple of days, until it occurred to me that Oscar Romero is a great person to encourage us in times of fear.

Romero headshotRomero was called to be the Archbishop, but he didn’t want the job.  The Latin American church was torn between the Liberation theologians, who identified with the political left, and the conservative leaders, who embraced the status quo.  Romero was a compromise candidate, described as a predictable, pious bookworm who could be counted on to criticize anyone who got too political.[1]  He didn’t want controversy – he wanted to be left alone.

Yet three weeks after his installation, one of his best friends, Father Rutilio Grande, was attacked in a machine gun ambush that also claimed the lives of a peasant farmer and a young boy.  Later that year, 200 Christians were massacred after watching Romero enter a church building.  In the 1970’s and 80’s, it’s estimated that 75,000 Salvadorans were killed by the government, paramilitary groups, and guerrillas.[2]   300,000 people were “disappeared”, a million fled the country, and another million were left homeless – in a nation with a population of only 5.5 million.[3]  Dead bodies clogged the streams, and torture victims were left at the dump every week.

Faced with this horror, the predictable and shy bookworm found his voice.  After viewing the bodies, he said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I will have to walk the same path.’”[4]

The Sunday following the death of his priest, Romero cancelled all the masses in the local churches, and asked everyone to come to the Cathedral in San Salvador, where he preached to 100,000 people that it was time for the violence to stop.  He refused to attend any government function until the government investigated the killings.  They never did.  The man who never wanted to be Archbishop found himself at the forefront of a movement that was placing his life in greater danger all the time.  When asked about the possibility of his own death, he said, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

Unlike any of the other subjects in this sermon series, Romero was alive during many of our own lifetimes.  Here is a 90 second clip from a BBC production that will give you a picture of this man and tell you what happened to him:

Do you think that every night when he lay down, Romero was scared?  Of course – he had to be!  The power of darkness is fierce!  He was in the eye of a storm beyond his own making, one he was powerless to stop.

TheLordIsMyLightWhat did Romero have?  He had the truth.  His years of study had revealed to him the simple truth that God’s intentions are not for poverty, enslavement, or repression.  Romero lived the truth of Psalm 27 – as long as he looked to God as his light, he didn’t have to fear the darkness that surrounded him.

That truth led him to develop courage to speak up for the voiceless and empower the powerless.  And the courage-inducing truth gave him the ability to voice, over against his fear, the knowledge that God’s purposes would prevail.  In his weekly radio address to the nation, Romero did not promise the people that they would survive as individuals; he assured them, however, of the eventual triumph of God’s Kingdom and the certainty of the resurrection of the Body of Christ.  He preached, “Let’s not be afraid to be left alone if it’s for the sake of the truth. Let’s be afraid to be demagogues, coveting the people’s sham flattery. If we don’t tell them the truth, we commit the worst sin: betraying the truth and betraying the people.”[5]

Yes, he was scared.  But yes, he was faithful.

Where is God when you are scared?

I will tell you the truth: when you are scared, God is where he has always been: on the side of justice; reaching, holding, calling, confronting, and doing a new thing.

Beloved, when you are scared – look for the truth.

My friend was struck with the ravages of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.  As her body betrayed her more every day, she was incapacitated with fear.  Until she came to claim the truth of the resurrection of the body and the realization that the grace of Jesus Christ is stronger than even the most hellish of deaths.  The darkness of fear left her in the light of that truth.

Another friend called after her husband had left the family.  He’d assured her that the affair was over and that they’d work things out, but then he just moved out.  She was sure that the children would be ruined and that her life was over…and then she came to believe that maybe God loved her daughters even more than she did.  She raised them to be strong and capable; to claim their gifts and to rely on the Source of their strength.  That truth held that family, and those children, for two decades, and they now shape the world for other kids.

My phone rang late at night.  The voice at the other end said, “Well, I just thought you’d like to know.  The police picked him up tonight.  Said he was selling heroin to kids.  They wanted to know if I wanted to try to bail him out, but I said, ‘No, let him stay.  I need the sleep.’”  And this parent faced the truth that his addict son needed more help than he could give, and embraced that truth, becoming an advocate for his son’s health.  Today, that addict is a father, a grandfather, and a man of faith and hope.

armour-editedPaul wrote to his friends in Ephesus from a Roman jail cell, where he was awaiting his own execution.  As he was giving them advice as to how to deal with the things that frightened and overwhelmed them, he seemed to say that sometimes, the best thing one can do is to simply “stand”.  Four times in this passage, he says, “Yes, take this armor, but then stand there.  Hang in there, holding on to truth.  The struggle is fierce, but you are not defenseless.”  And then notice that he did not ask those friends to pray for his release, or for a stay of execution.  Instead, he asked them to pray that he be bold and courageous.

Beloved, as you think about that question, “What scares you?”, know that I cannot stand here and tell you that no evil will befall you.  It will.

You have more funerals in your future.  Marriages about which you care greatly will end.  Jobs will change.  Disease will come.

Yet in the midst of this, you need not be afraid.  God is bigger than the boogeyman.  Or, to say it a bit more theologically, the One who calls you and equips you is more powerful than the thing that frightens you.  That’s what John said in his first epistle: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (I Jn. 4:4)

So friends, I know that I need not remind you that we live in a scary world.  But I do want to remind you that this is not all that there is.  I’d like to close with a meditation that is often attributed to Archbishop Romero, but was in fact penned by another Bishop, reflecting on the witness of our brother Oscar:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.[6]

Beloved, we need not fear the present nor the future, because God is already there.  God is doing a great work, and we are privileged to be part of it – even when we can’t see the whole thing.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Each week, I try to provide the folk at Crafton Heights with a little background material on the person before us.  Here are the notes that were available on Romero.  I would particularly commend the feature-length film, free on Youtube.

Faces at the Reunion: Óscar Romero (1917-1980)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the economy of El Salvador was increasingly manipulated so that the wealthy elite would benefit from the labors of the poor.  For many years, the church (and the rest of the world) either turned a blind eye to this, or accepted it as the cost of maintaining a “friendly” government during the Cold War.  In 1977, Oscar Romero assumed the position of Archbishop of El Salvador and was increasingly drawn to give voice to the plight of the poor.  In so doing, he exposed himself to increasing risk from the violent elements in that society.  On March 24, 1980, he was assassinated while raising the chalice during a celebration of the Eucharist.  This was one day after he called upon the members of the El Salvadoran armed forces to disobey orders to murder civilians.

Archbishop Oscar Romero promised history that life, not death, would have the last word. “I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he said. “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”  Each year, on the anniversary of his death, people march through the streets carrying that promise printed on thousands of banners. Mothers will make pupusas (thick tortillas with beans) at 5 a.m., pack them, and prepare the children for a two-to-four hour ride or walk to the city to remember the gentle man they called Monseñor.

A 1989 film called simply Romero, starring Raoul Julia is available in its entirety on Youtube.  It’s about 100 minutes long, and features some violence that is not appropriate for young children.  I would encourage adults and teens to view it and be encouraged by the courage of our brother Oscar.  You can watch it on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hAdhmosepI).

Quotes from Oscar Romero:

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”

On the importance of Christians standing with the poor:  “I offer you this by way of example. A building is on fire and you’re watching it burn, standing and wondering if everyone is safe. Then someone tells you that your mother and your sister are inside that building. Your attitude changes completely. You’re frantic; your mother and sister are burning and you’d do anything to rescue them even at the cost of getting charred. That’s what it means to be truly committed. If we look at poverty from the outside, as if we’re looking at a fire, that’s not to opt for the poor, no matter how concerned we may be. We should get inside as if our own mother and sister were burning. Indeed it’s Christ who is there, hungry and suffering.”

After an attempt to blow up the radio station from which he broadcast his sermons: “If some day they take the radio station away from us, if they close down our newspaper, if they don’t let us speak, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left, a people without priests, each one of you must be God’s microphone, each one of you must be a messenger, a prophet… God’s best microphone is Christ, and Christ’s best microphone is the church, and the church is all of you.  Let each one of you, in your own job, in your own vocation – nun, married person, bishop, priest, high school or university student, day laborer, wage earner, market woman – each one in your own place live the faith intensely and feel that in your surroundings you are a true microphone of God our Lord.”

From his book, “The Violence of Love”: “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. 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.”

From a letter sent in 1980 to US President Jimmy Carter “Because you are a Christian and because you have shown that you want to defend human rights, I venture to set forth for you my pastoral point of view in regard to this news and to make a specific request of you… I am very concerned by the news that the government of the United States is planning to further El Salvador’s arms race by sending military equipment and advisors to ‘train three Salvadoran battallions in logistics, communications, and intelligence.’ If this information from the papers is correct, instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights. . . .

From a radio broadcast March 23, 1980 – the day prior to his assassination: “I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And 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. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

[1] “Oscar Romero: Bishop of the Poor”, http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2009/02/oscar-romero-bishop-poor

[2] The Center for Justice and Accountability, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=199

[5] Christ the King Sunday sermon, 1979.

[6] This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.