“And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38).
In their versions of our Lord’s passion, two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, both point out to us that the moment when Jesus dies on the cross the curtain in the temple in Jerusalem is torn in two, from top to bottom. It is an odd little detail to throw in…in an event that is full of odd, little details—details like Pontius Pilate’s refusal to change the wording on the sign hanging above Jesus on the cross and the detail about the kind of branch that was used to lift a sponge of sour wine to his face. I imagine there will be details about Jesus’ crucifixion that jump out at you tonight—things you may have heard before but suddenly sound important even if you don’t know why.
The part about the temple curtain being torn is important enough to Matthew and Mark for them to make sure we know about it. It’s the first thing that happens after Jesus gives out a loud cry and breathes his last. In the silence that comes right after he dies (as if there was silence!) there is a ripping, thousands of feet away—what must have been a dramatic severing, from top to bottom, of an ancient, heavy fabric. There were surely people there who saw this as it happened, since the Temple at the time of the Passover would have been a busy place. The public executions outside would have only been a distant commotion.
The curtain in the temple of Jerusalem served the purpose of separating the area called the Holy of Holies from the area where the people would gather to pray. It functioned like a veil, rather heavy and opaque, so that light could not get through and people could not see what was on the other side. Since the beginning of Israel’s existence as a people, the holy area behind it, where it was believed God dwelled, was kept distinguished from and undefiled by everything else. It was God’s safe zone, and the temple curtain helped remind people of that. God was there, behind it, and we, with our broken world, were here, on this side.
The cross of Jesus takes that barrier down. God steps out behind that safe zone and enters our brokenness. But the curtain isn’t just pushed out of the way so that God can step into our midst, as if he is a performer coming out on stage to make some pre-show announcement. It is ripped, destroyed, from top to bottom so that it can never be hung there again. The word in Greek for what happens here is “schism”—a split or division that is not easily overcome. As it happens, the only other time this word is used is at Jesus’ baptism, as he comes out of the water and the when the heavens are ripped open and the voice of God is heard saying, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Now, as Jesus turns over his life to his Father, there is another schism, another demonstration that anything which separates God and heaven from humankind is being torn open.
The point is: In the life and death of Jesus, God’s beloved Son, God wants on this side of the curtain. God is coming to us. Nothing will hold Him back. Not a veil. Not our brokenness. Not even death.
Several weeks ago our congregation hosted a prayer vigil put on by the McShin Foundation for all of those who’ve lost their lives to addiction and substance abuse disorders. We held small candles in our hands under an especially dramatic cloudy sky right as the sun was going down. We were sad. It felt like Good Friday. The woman who led the vigil stood right at the base of our cross out front and began with her own story of recovery. She talked about her struggles with heroin and other drugs and how it had impacted her life and had driven her to the point of despair. At one point she said her life had become a hell—but then she caught herself, afraid that word may have offended me or others. Suddenly aware that she might have crossed some boundary and done something inappropriate, she looked at me and apologized for using that language, apologized for mentioning something so foul and profane in the presence of worship. It was a brief awkward moment, but then she continued, unabashedly, to let loose with her hard story, and it was beautiful to hear. We were thankful for such honesty.
We can often get the impression that church and worship are only for happy things, that to gather here we should just be sunshine, and that having faith in general means showing only a good side. We feel we can’t weep, we can’t let people know our struggles, and that is a shame. That is, I think we set up a certain curtain not just in a church setting but also in our private lives—a veil behind which we sequester our pain, our sorrow and we kind of keep God at bay.
And yet, the cross of Jesus is precisely what gives us the hope that there is no boundary anymore. God wants to be on this side of the barrier. God will not be kept at bay to save us, and if there is any place we can tell our stories of redemption, if there is any place where we can talk honestly about our often hellish lives, if there is any place we can light a candle and expect God to encounter us, to rescue us, it is at the place where his light briefly goes out. God does not like anything hanging between him and us, and if there is any time we can trust God will show us the depth of his love at the cross of Jesus the Christ.
The Creator of all has decided no more holding back. He offers his own life, takes on all our sinfulness and darkness, and breathes his last. And as he does, God steps into the darkest place we could ever go. God and the humans he loves become one again and God will lift them up to his eternal life. The heavens have been opened, the curtain has been torn…God is here.
A reflection on the life and witness of Catherine of Siena
Psalm 16:5-11 and Luke 10:38-42
It was June of 1376 and the church was in the midst of perhaps its greatest conflict ever. As a result of political conflict between the French and the Italians, the papacy had moved from Rome to the French city of Avignon and had been there for about 70 years. There was nothing saying that the papacy had to be in Rome, but it had been there for about 1300 years, and the fact that it was now several hundred miles away, falling increasingly under the influence of the French crown, was creating major political and religious tension.
A delegation from Florence arrived that June to negotiate peace with the French army, and in it there was a 29-year-old unwed woman from the town of Siena named Catherine. She was not officially connected to the Florentine army in any way, but she had gained influence among Florentine government figures and other regional leaders so they thought she would be helpful to the cause. She had been vocal about her opposition to military conflict even though many in the delegation were aiming to start something with France. She had a way with people. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in their objectives, and things briefly escalated. Catherine did manage through persistent pleas for peace and unity to pave the way for another delegation right behind her to achieve success.
While in Avignon, the determined and precocious woman received an audience with the Pope, Gregory XI, and tried to convince him, even amidst the political turmoil, to move the papacy back to Rome. Six months later, against all odds, he did.
That event was probably the crowning moment of Catherine’s endeavors. It was certainly a major score for her, but she kept busy, just as she had been indefatigably busy for the decade prior. She well-connected in Italian political circles, and she wrote letter after letter to city and national leader, as well as church leaders, cajoling them towards peace, urging them to work together. She was even more effective in person, and she travelled extensively. In 1378, she left her native Siena to go to the city of Rome itself, summoned there by Pope Urban VI, to work with him and the highest church authorities, which were still in major conflict over who had proper authority.
Things were a terrible mess in general in those years, but everyone both then and now would agree that Catherine of Siena was one of the few bright spots. She was almost universally admired and adored. People of all walks of life, including the most powerful in Europe, sought out her counsel and guidance. She had an enormous following of disciples made up of both men and women, clergy and lay. And yet she was not of means. She lived humbly and was immensely devout, receiving Holy Communion every day and submitting herself to some of the most stringent religious practices. In fact, toward the end of her life she had forsaken all food other than the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In ill health and weak, she succumbed to paralysis and a stroke and died at the age of 33.
So, who is Catherine of Siena? The twenty-third child of twenty-five, Catherine is born a twin. That sister ends up dying very early, and Catherine herself handed off to a wet-nurse, because is clearly busy with running a large household. Her father works in the fabric industry and does fairly well for himself.
Even as a child, Catherine stands out in her large family. She is known to be a particularly cheerful child and is eventually nicknamed “joy” by her parents. As a teenager she begins having mystical experiences, vivid dreams during times of wakefulness where she hears and feels God speaking to her directly. Rather than ignoring these occurrences or suppressing them, she tells people about them and acts on them, assured that she has been called by Jesus to be his special servant. She eventually experiences one mystical moment where she hears Christ calling her to be his bride. This encounter is confirmed by the stigmata on her hands, feet, and side. “I keep the Lord always before me,” the goes the psalm we read this evening,“because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” Catherine is not to be moved from her commitment to the Lord, a Lord she deeply knows was committed to her, who had suffered for her.
It is about this time—mid teenage years—when she begins to resist her family’s desires that she hurry up and wed, a conflict that would eventually chart a significant course for her life. When one of her older sisters dies in childbirth, pressure is put on Catherine to marry the widower. She resists by refusing to eat. Later she cuts her hair in order to make herself less attractive to potential husbands, a measure which annoys her mother.
Marriage was by far the lot of most women in those days. Families preferred it because it freed them from responsibility to them. Marrying daughters helped consolidate wealth and power. Many women chose marriage because there were not really any professional options open to them. It gave them purpose. The only other option for women was to enter a convent and become a sister. Catherine resists both of these paths, choosing to live a very active religious but single life outside of the walls of a convent. She pleads with her parents to leave her alone and finally they give her a few rooms in the house where she can live. There she lives for a few years, secluded, leaving only to go worship at church.
When she emerges at about the age of 19 she devotes herself to good works out in the city. She works in the hospitals, visits the sick in their homes. She is still joyful, unpretentious and apparently charismatic in personality, for she soon develops a following which joins her in these acts of mercy. She calls them her “family,” and they began calling her “mother.”
She does find a spiritual home in the Order of Dominicans, adopting their spiritual disciplines. The Dominicans are a group of priests, nuns, and friars who pursue preaching and learning and do not tend to live in seclusion like some other orders. Women who are Dominican sisters were unmarried and wear the habit that probably many of us associate with nuns through TV and the movies. During her twenties she begins to write profusely, sending letters to different authorities about matters spiritual topics as well as public matters. Catherine’s status and influence in Siena grows, and in 1374, when she is 27, the Dominicans give her formal protection, which means she travels with an entourage. By then she is already trading correspondence with elected and appointed leaders in the church and around Italy. We still have several of her works, including one called the Dialogue or a Treatise on Divine Providence.
She is literate, but has no formal schooling, and her main mentor and spiritual director for most of her life is a Dominican priest by the name of Raymond of Capua. He eventually goes on to write her memoirs. As Catherine grew, Raymond begins to seek spiritual direction from her. She still provides spiritual direction today through her writings and her example. She was the first woman declared “doctor of the Church” and, along with Francis of Assisi, is named as one of the six patron saints of Europe.
Even though we feel far removed from Catherine of Siena by time, place, and religious tradition, we must understand that her contributions to Christian faith and her society at the time were enormous. Through her strong faith in the presence and guidance of Christ in her life, she charted her own course which eventually opened up more vocational possibilities for women.
People described her as “boundless in energy” and single-minded and intensely devoted to her ideals. One of her most famous lines was, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire!” She loved being in service to Christ even if that meant enduring great suffering.
It’s hard to categorize Catherine of Siena, for the normal formal roles of influence and authority never were open to her. She didn’t preside over a parish because she couldn’t be a priest. She wasn’t given a governmental title because she wasn’t a bureaucrat and never sought office. She wasn’t a former teacher because she wasn’t on faculty anywhere. She followed Christ into the public sphere so ardently that she just managed to attract people and shepherd them. In that alone, she was mighty foolish. Her faith in God just flowed from her, and people could see God at work in her, in spite of the barriers that existed. One of her own writings includes this line, which could serve as a guide for anyone seeking to help others: “Do you think that our Lord would be pleased with us if we left works of mercy undone because our neighbor is unthankful?”
Her wide freedom to serve because she bound to Christ rather than the duties of a family, allowed her to accomplish a lot in 33 years. Catherine never used this power for any personal purpose or glory, and it was the neglect of her own health for the sake of others that likely led directly to her death.
One could describe her as a fool in Christ not only because of the way she forged her own path of faith expression in spite of her gender, but also because of her deep, unwavering desire to safeguard the unity of the church. She was truly non-partisan at a time when everyone was taking sides. The fact that she rose so high in respect and power that she, a truly unattached, single woman, could have an audience with more than one Pope is nothing short of remarkable. Her advice was cherished by many a leader, both political and ecclesial.
In many ways, she may remind us of a Billy Graham of her time. Surely there are more differences than similarities between the two, but some strong similarities are there. Even though she was sought after by the highest people in power, no one managed to fully claim her as theirs. And while she had clear opinions on certain public matters, she never managed to get herself pigeonholed into one particular cause or faction. She was articulate and intelligent, innovative, and published many devotional works.
All of this led to the main way she was a fool in Christ: her mysticism. Mysticism is difficult to explain and comprehend, but it is a belief derived from physical or personal union with the divine. Catherine truly believed in her visions and in her belief that she was married to Christ. This may have been done out of a need to defend her unmarried status, but throughout her life she was overcome by profound spiritual moments marked by very personal dialogue with God.
It is easy to think of Mary at this point—the Mary who was the sister to Martha who hosted Jesus in their home. Mary spends all her time at the foot of Jesus, listening, contemplating his words. She is ridiculed by Martha for doing nothing, for only meditating, but then Martha is surprisingly but gently ridiculed by Jesus, pointing out that Mary has actually chosen the better part.
A mystic like Catherine chooses this better part more adeptly than most people. This set Catherine apart in ways that apparently did not alienate others but drew them to her. In a way, we are all mystics of some sort, since we have been joined to Christ through the waters of our baptism. God has chosen us to reflect Christ’s love in the actions of our bodies, in the words of our lips, in the dreams of our imaginations. Some, like Catherine, stand among us as particularly vibrant examples of what this might look like. It is as if the prayer of the day that we’ve been using each week this Lent applies perfectly to Catherine. It lends itself towards faith of a certain mysticism:
“Almighty and Eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; then use us, we pray, as you will, but always to your glory and the welfare of your people.”
Make us a bit like Catherine, O Lord. Make us a bit more mystic. Make us a fool in Christ.
Two things that happened here just last Sunday made me think about this lesson from John’s gospel.
The first thing was that our 4th grade Sunday School class went on a mini-field trip out to the Epiphany Garden as a part of their instruction for receiving Holy Communion. We took them out to the Epiphany Garden so that they could plant wheat. Sallie Bartholomew, one of the leaders of the garden ministry, had a patch of soil all tilled up and ready for us, and she was waiting out there with her rakes and a watering can. All we needed was wheat seeds, and to get those I first went to Southern States, where the tall guy in overalls looked at me like I was crazy. No one does backyard gardening with wheat, apparently, and the smallest amount they could get me was a 50 pound bag. As it turns out, it’s easy to order wheat seeds on-line. I placed my order for one pound of wheat seeds and about a week later a brown bag of beautiful golden-brown little wheat seeds arrived in the mail from Oregon, of all places. None of us had ever planted wheat before. As the tall guy in overalls pointed out, it is a crop that people typically plant by the square mile. But the 4th graders, Sallie, and I went out last Sunday anyway and we’re going to see what happens.
I don’t know if any of the seeds will sprout or if we’ll do anything with them if they do. But Holy Communion involves bread and Jesus talks a lot about bread in his ministry, and so I figured there was some good in having them hold raw wheat in their hands and physically release it into the soil. Maybe, I hope, when they think of Holy Communion there will always be some kind of connection in their minds between this act of letting go in order to receive. Maybe years from now they’ll be able to say, “Yes, I have, in fact, been a wheat farmer once. I did it as I prepared to receive the Lord’s body and blood.”
But maybe not. What was interesting to me was watching them take to it. Kids don’t need to wonder about seeds growing. They went about it with a type of wild abandon, each of them plunging their hands into the brown bag to grab a fist full and standing over the plot and shaking them into the soil. I was a bit protective of the seeds, even though they had been on my desk for only about two weeks. I wanted to hold onto them a bit more, parcel them out more sparingly.
I think when you get older you tend to develop some kind of skepticism about planting things, or at least a kind of sorrow. Letting loose of them seems more risky, that there is a gamble involved that might not be worth it. In times and places where food is scarce and seeds could just as easily be eaten, you do stop and think about the cost of dropping them into the dirt.
The first time Jesus talks about his death in John’s gospel it’s in comparison to planting wheat, and we get that sense that it is risky. We get the sense that some sorrow and pain is involved because he talks about the whole enterprise in terms suffering. The grain falls into the earth. That’s an interesting word to use for planting. The grain falls, as if it is something that should be upright, or something that could or should be in motion. Soldiers fall in battle, for example. And then once it falls it dies. It gives up its life. Jesus doesn’t say germinates or sprouts, terms that have immediate hope. It dies—that is, it stops being a seed altogether. Its lifespan as a golden-brown seed ordered from Oregon comes to an end.
However, only when that happens is the grain able to produce more grain. Only when the falling and dying first happen will we get the rising and living. Jesus compares himself to that grain of wheat, that in the dying and the rising will God be glorified. Just as he has spoken about losing life to gain it, and tearing the temple down to build it back up, he now speaks about handing himself over in order to gain the life God intends.
Again, this is the kind of life Jesus gets us into. The life in Christ is not about holding back, reserving, clinging to the self. It is about letting go so we can being raised up from the waters of baptism, to the new life we are offered in Christ. As much as we may want to hold the seeds fast a little longer, to savor them in the hand, to feel secure, to savor that potential, it is actually the act of scattering them, of releasing them like 4th graders on a cold March day that we learn in Christ to treasure. We learn to treasure the letting go and even the dying because in the way of God’s glory, new life will rise.
What’s critical in at this point in Jesus’ life and ministry is that this response comes right as he has passed through the gates of Jerusalem for the last time. The people have acclaimed him king and there is a sense of anticipation in the air that things are about to change for God’s people. Right after that happens, we are told Jesus is approached by some Greeks. We don’t have any information about these people. They are probably not Greek-speaking Jews. By “Greeks” John most likely means Gentiles, or non-Jews, people who were of a different culture entirely. These Greeks might be interested in speaking with Jesus because they’ve heard something about him. Perhaps Jesus’ reputation as a teacher has spread and, being Greeks and from the tradition of Aristotle and Plato and Socrates, they’d like to see what he’s about. It is impossible to say what was behind their request, but the noteworthy thing is that Jesus immediately speaks about his death. When given the chance to talk with the Greeks, he doesn’t talk philosophy or the meaning of life. He talks about the importance of his death. He talks suffering. When given the opportunity to reach out and tell more people what he’s about, what he’s offering, Jesus talks about how he’s going to die.
That is critical to understand because so often, even today, the message of Christian faith is often presented as a philosophy or an idea, like something you could stand up next to Confucianism or yoga. None of those things is bad, but they’re not what Jesus is about. Christianity, put simply, isn’t a philosophy or an idea. It is a story. It’s not a collection about thoughts or wisdom about how to live life right. It is centered around an event, something that happened—something that God does. Jesus does not come to investigate the good life or the nature of reality with probing, insightful questions. He comes to die and rise. He comes to be lifted up and draw all people to himself.
And this is furthermore critical because there is a fundamental difference between a philosophy and a story. A philosophy or an idea is something that I apply to my life. I somehow remain the center and I adopt this particular outlook or way of thinking or living in order to better myself or clarify my own path. A story, by contrast, an event is something I apply myself to, something I see myself as part of. It’s a thing that happens and now I find I need to orient my life around this thing that happened, which is what hating my life in this world really means. It means rejecting that I am at the center and all the mentalities that may come from that. When Jesus is approached by new followers who are possibly outside his own fold of Judaism, he responds that he is only as important as his suffering. The core of his message is not some concept we ponder. It’s something we witness. And that thing is his death, being lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself.
This past week in confirmation class we finished our lesson on the second article of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the part that begins, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” And as a part of that lesson we watch the trial and crucifixion scenes from the 1977 television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. The effect on the confirmands it usually pretty profound. It’s a relatively graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death. The way they typically respond to it is revealing. This past week a couple of students said, while they had heard and read about the death of Jesus plenty of times before, there was something about seeing it that made it more real. It’s hard to turn the message of Jesus into just a philosophy about life when you watch a man bleed and die. It causes you to stop and readjust and think: if this occurrence is indeed true—that the Son of God suffered and died like this, if he was lifted up in this particular way—then the story of my own life needs to reflect that reality somehow. It needs to be lived in response to a God who is honest about human suffering and is ultimately victorious over it. And perhaps that’s why Jesus responds to the Greeks like that, if, in fact, he ever gets to see them. They’re going to find out that Jesus primarily came to suffer and die and in that reveal God’s glory.
I believe that’s also why Dave Delaney, our Synod’s leader for youth and young adult ministry, begins every single youth event with the same song, a version of the Apostles’ Creed. He wants to be clear from the beginning about why they’re gathered. It is nothing other than the gracious work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus that provides the rationale and foundation for any youth event to occur. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus that allows us to meet today, that allows us to drop the seed of our lives into his.
If this is true—if this suffering that befalls Jesus is true—then there is really nothing else left for us to do but hand ourselves over through the life of baptism. We learn that death isn’t just something that happens at the end of life, but something ongoing, each day an offering, a process of our dying because we know that one day we will be part of that great harvest of new life when all people are drawn to Jesus.
I said there were two things last Sunday that made me think of this lesson. The first was the planting of the wheat with the fourth graders. The second was after church when I gathered with the Mitchell family to place Jim’s remains into a columbarium niche. I did it again yesterday with the Hahn family. It was time to place their fallen loved ones into the eternal care of the God who made them and as we stood there I could see that emotions were rising to the surface. There’s a lot of things to think about in moments like that, a lot of reasons why tears and quivering silence may come. My hunch is, however, that they were thinking in that moment about all the ways Jim and Hank gave themselves away throughout their lives, over and over.
They were remembering not so much individual aspects about their character, but rather all the times Jim or Hank “fell into the soil” during their life—all the times they handed themselves according to the call of Jesus, as father, as grandfather, as child of God—and all the ways those instances of self-giving ultimately reflected God’s glory.
And as we closed the niche on Sunday and again for Hank yesterday, we had to let go, too. But we let go in the faith that the ground they had been placed in—the waters of their baptism—is the faithful, fertile ground of Jesus Christ, the living Son of God.
a reflection on the life and witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero
Isaiah 58:6-9 and Mark 8:34-38
Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life on this earth ended abruptly on March 24, 1980, when a perfectly-aimed assassin’s bullet ripped through the archbishop’s heart as he was standing behind the altar in his church preparing to serve Holy Communion. He died fairly quickly, his blood flowing out of his body on the floor right there in front of the congregation, which consisted that day in the chapel of Hospital the Divine Providence, San Salvador, of a handful of nuns and a few other worshippers. Most people might expect an archbishop to be presiding at a large, grand cathedral, but Oscar Romero, in his humble and foolish fashion, was most often found those days presiding at that small hospital chapel. In fact, that’s not just where he led worship. It’s where he lived, going about with the very people he was called to serve, even though he held the most powerful Roman Catholic office in the country.
As with all martyrs, Oscar Romero’s death becomes the defining point of his life. There is much to say about him. Even though he only served as Archbishop for three years, his influence on the country of El Salvador was (and is) enormous. Nevertheless, there is no other way to speak of his contributions as human being, much less as a fool in Christ, without beginning with the way in which he died.
A martyr is someone who is killed because of his or her faith. Jesus mentions that this is a possibility multiple times to his disciples, telling them that if anyone wants to be his follower they must be prepared to be hated and reviled and be ready to lose their lives. Whatever placed Oscar Romero behind that altar that day, whatever caused him to raise the cup of the Lord in thanksgiving, is also the reason he was placed in the path of that bullet. The person who fired the gun was never formally identified, but it was known relatively quickly that it was a planned attack by right-wing forces aligned with the government.
So, what got Oscar Romero to that moment? What placed him behind that altar was a life humbly dedicated to public ministry of the Church. Born into a rather large Salvadoran family, Oscar finished school through the use of a private tutor and began an apprenticeship with his carpenter father. Although he showed promise in this field, as early as thirteen years old felt called to attend seminary. The first part of his theological education was completed in El Salvador, but he finished it in Rome, where he must have been a good student because he had to wait a year after graduation in order to meet the age requirement for ordination as a priest. He eventually stayed in order to receive a doctoral degree in theology (it was World War II and difficult to travel) but then was called home to El Salvador to serve as a priest.
Once back in El Salvador, Romero began a relatively humble but productive 20-year assignment as a priest first in a rural area and then at the seminary in the capital San Salvador. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking or eyebrow-raising about his service there, but he was a go-getter, helping construct the cathedral in San Miguel and starting various community groups including an Alcoholics Anonymous group.
Whether he liked it or not, Romero was eventually swept up in that upheaval after he was consecrated a bishop in 1970. Relatively quiet and dutiful, he served in several positions before finally being enthroned as archbishop in the capital of San Salvador in 1977. This put him close to the levers of political power, although part of what made him an attractive choice to those in office and to the aristocratic class was that he did not seem to desire much of a political voice. Romero was still an intensely devout and personal man and because of his socially conservative views many figured he would remain quiet even as repression from the government increased.
However, that began to change as El Salvador inched closer to civil war right after he assumed that role. El Salvador was a very poor country, dependent on basic agricultural crops like coffee with one of the western hemisphere’s worst distribution of wealth. In the 1970s, 77% of the farmable land was owned by 0.01% of the population. For decades, the ruling elite had ruthlessly quashed peasant rebellions and intentionally disenfranchised the poor so that they could not participate in elections. The Spanish word for these landless poor is campesinos, and there were millions of them Many lived in slums and lacked access to basic things like access to running water, health care, and education. These places of abject poverty became ripe areas for left-wing Marxist groups to recruit new members.
Right as Romero became Archbishop, government-supported military groups began to escalate their tactics of inciting fear and obedience among the masses campesinos. For example, armed guards would show up in the middle of the night and kidnap people who often would never be seen again unless a group or children happened to come across their body in a garbage dump at the edge of the slums. People, including priests were arrested and tortured. Whenever local demonstrations were held, often military caravans would mysteriously show up and open fire, killing hundreds indiscriminately.
For a person of faith to live justly in such complicated and violent times must be difficult, but Romero was able to maintain his level of trust and personal code of morals in the eyes of both sides. The turning point for Oscar Romero seemed to come, however, when one of his close friends and colleagues, Father Rutilio Grande, was massacred with a poor family as he was driving them into town. At this point Romero began to speak out against the government and its abuses of human rights. He tried to influence his contacts in the halls of power, but typically was ignored.
Because he was archbishop, he had a weekly radio broadcast that he would typically use to address the country and preach sermons. He started using that platform each week to list the government’s atrocities, listing by name each week’s kidnappings and cases of torture. There were no reliable forms of national media accessible to the poor, and the government censored most of what was said. Romero’s radio addresses had an overwhelming effect on the people of his country, especially the poor, for it validated their pain and suffering. It is estimated that 73% of the rural population and 37% of the urban population tuned in.
Naturally, those on the left, including some priests who had begun to vocally support the left-wing militia groups, tried to influence Romero to their side, especially as the attacks on the peasants intensified. But Romero renounced them just as strongly. For the archbishop, the unity of Christ’s body was more important than and more sacred than a particular ideology or party.
There is one scene in the movie made about Oscar Romero (Romero, 1989) where the wife of one of the president’s cabinet members asks the archbishop to baptize her new baby. Romero says he’ll be happy to do that, but when it becomes clear that she wants a private baptism in a ceremony after worship one day in the cathedral, which had been the former practice, he tells her that’s not possible. He has instituted a policy that requires all baptisms to be performed during worship with everyone there. That clearly disgusts her because it means she will have to worship with all of the campesinos who attend who were often unbathed and smelled bad. Romero tells her that they are her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and furthermore members of her same country. The movie does not show how that particular scenario is resolved, but that was one moment where Romero clearly seemed foolish in the eyes of many.
This devotion to his faith and to the cries of the poor was part of a movement that arose among Roman Catholics in Latin America in the 20th century called “Liberation Theology.” Liberation theology focused on the importance of bringing real freedom from poverty and oppression to the masses. Church leaders who emphasized liberation theology would tell you that living the gospel of Jesus did not just come so that we could achieving personal holiness and peace in whatever situation you were in so that you could one day experience fulfillment in heaven. Rather, the gospel compelled us to “break the bonds of injustice,” as Isaiah says, to do what was needed to liberate people from the prison of horrible living conditions by addressing the sins of society. At one point Romero writes, “It is sad to read that in El Salvador the two main causes of death are: first diarrhea, and second murder.” Both of those, he could see, were caused either directly or indirectly by the oppression of the ruling powers, and liberation theology sought to resolve them.
Ultimately liberation theology was controversial because of how it ended up, in many cases, getting lived out. Romero tended to distance himself from many of those who promoted the more strident forms of liberation theology, seeing that it often led to an unhelpful division in the church. And yet he sympathized with its belief that while God loves all, God does have a preferential option for the poor and marginalized.
As a result, Archbishop Romero was seen as foolish by both the right and the left. He was seen as foolish because criticized both for what he called their “mysticism of violence,” the belief that guns and weapons had some sort of ultimate power to resolve any given situation. This particular criticism of the mysticism of violence bears special importance on a day when thousands of school children are walking out in to protest our own country’s mysticism of violence, gun culture, and lack of school safety.
He was seen as foolish by both because he held strictly to the belief that God’s kingdom is not beyond our efforts, even though it is beyond our vision. Neither left nor right was trying to build a future in line with Jesus’. Once he wrote in a meditation: “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 God’s grace and enter and do the rest…We are prophets of a future not our own.”
But mostly he came across foolish because he believed the poor had a voice, and that the Church had a responsibility to listen to it, and to realize there is blessing in being near to the poor, the hungry, the mourning. As he said, “There are many things than can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Just as his radio voice crackled and popped into the dusty, damp shantytown living rooms across his shackled country, echoing their sorrows, the church has a responsibility to put its ear to those who don’t often get heard.
Our baptism is a death, a handing over of the self-centered person we are born. And we rise from the waters, called to a life following Jesus in anticipation of our own resurrection. This places us, too, both behind an altar of holiness, claimed by a kingdom that is not of this world, but also in the crosshairs of sinful forces in this world. Any follower of Christ should feel the tension of that foolish but holy situation. Perhaps it’s at school, when we listen to the ones who are bullied or befriend them. Perhaps it’s here in our own city when we listen to debates about memorials to the Confederacy. Any congregation should feel the call to participate in God’s liberation of God’s people so that, as Isaiah says, “healing may spring up quickly.”
After the one worship service one of our members who volunteers for HHOPE told of a conversation he had with a guest where he offered to come to their home and help them with something. She respectfully told him “no” because she didn’t want him to come to a place so unsafe. This is just a few miles from our church.
The day before he was shot Archbishop Romero gave a sermon where he pleaded with the scrawny, often starving government soldiers to defy orders and not shoot their own campesino brothers and sisters. And in the sermon minutes before he was shot that following day, he had said, “Those who surrender to the poor through love of Christ, will live like a grain of wheat that dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies.”
His funeral, held a few days later, drew a crowd of 250,000 people in San Salvador’s main square. It is still considered to be one of the largest public demonstrations in all of Latin America’s history, a whole harvest of hope for a world crying out for Christ’s kingdom.
Last week, the Pope in Rome announced that Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, fool in Christ who now is liberated fully in God’s promises of new life, will be declared a saint. Millions of campesinos already knew he was one.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr
 From a meditation attributed to Archbishop Romero, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.”
It was our first Christmas here in Richmond, with two pre-school age daughters, when we decided they needed one of those little play kitchens. It was ordered from somewhere on-line and delivered in a large, heavy cardboard box. We hid it until Christmas Eve when, late after worship was over, my dear father and I proceeded to put it together.
It was not an IKEA product, and so is was not an intuitive project, and it took a while for us to lay all of the parts and pieces out on the floor and figure out what drawing they corresponded to on the instructions. Things were going along fairly well and it was really starting to look like something when we realized we had installed one board of the oven facing the wrong way. It was a simple mistake, really, but one that we soon figured out couldn’t be ignored, since it had holes and grooves that would be integral later in the assembly.
It was in the wee hours of the morning of Christmas Day by this point. We knew the girls would be up at dawn. Even though I was exhausted from multiple worship services that day, saving it for another time was not an option. There was no escaping our fate: we had to tear down what we had in order to build it back up in just a couple of hours. And I have to tell you that the moment it actually dawned on me that we were going to have to do that was not my finest moment. I may have displayed some behavior at that point that was not very Christmas-like. We did manage to get it rebuilt, but until the day it was outgrown and left our house for the second-hand store, it had a little bolt sticking out from the side that wouldn’t go all the way in to remind us of that episode.
Tearing down in order to rebuild. Dismantling something that is—a structure, a program, a mindset—in order to put it back together again even better. This is part of the life of Jesus, the life we hold fast. We hold it fast—we hold it tightly, as if our life depends on it—because we repeatedly hear Jesus talking in these terms about his own life. He himself speaks of losing life in order to truly gain it, of being killed before he can be raised, and since in baptism we are united to him and become a part of his body, it stands to reason that this particular kind of life will be what we experience, too, in our relationship with him. The experience of saving faith is one where God is systematically dismantling us and our perceptions of God so that he can build something new which will reflect his love to the world even better.
That’s precisely what Jesus is talking about and doing when he goes to the Temple in Jerusalem just before Passover one year. It’s his first trip there, and for a guy who was raised out in what was kind of like the boondocks of Galilee, the metropolis of Jerusalem was a big deal. The Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was the center of Jewish life and religion. Enormous and occupying the highest point of the city, it was always humming with activity, and here at the Passover it would have been especially busy.
For Jesus’ people, having a relationship with God meant having some sort of relationship to that Temple. Most people would have made pilgrimages there on occasion, and some came every year. In John’s gospel, Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem and the Temple that we know about. Even if you never had the chance to visit it, you sang psalms about it in worship and referred to it in your private prayers. It symbolized God’s presence on earth, and Jesus’ people believed that God actually resided inside of it. Rulers and kingdoms could come and go, but ideally that Temple would remain, a sign of God’s eternal presence. The Temple that stood at Jesus’s time had been constructed over a series of centuries. The most recent expansions had been under Herod the Great, the Herod who was on the throne at the time Jesus was born.
Therefore, when Jesus walks into the Temple and declares that he will tear it down and build it up, he sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And if that’s not bad enough, he also displays some very un-Christmas-like behavior while he’s there. It doesn’t seem like his finest moment. He walks in and the first thing he sees are the animals for sale and the tables used to exchange Roman and Greek coins into approved Jewish currency, and he basically loses his temper. It looks like a place of commerce rather than a place to connect with God.
All of those merchants would have meant well by what they were doing. There is no evidence here that they are corrupt or engaged in any kind of extortion. That is just the kind of thing that the Temple needed to support at the time so that people could approach worship and make the appropriate sacrifices. Sometimes I think churches can fall into the same system, even though we mean well. Sometimes you walk into our church and the first thing you see is a donation basket or a Christmas tree with gift tags on it, or the last thing you encounter as you leave is someone holding a bag. To one person those things may communicate that our congregation is generous and aware of the needs of its communities. To others those things may evoke guilt or resentment, like they’re being asked for money—that there is an expectation right up front that they give or participate in some drive, even before they’ve said a prayer.
So for Jesus, what he sees in the Temple is a problem. He drives out the merchants and then says they can tear it all down because he will build it back up. Of course, we know that he is talking about himself. The point is the temple in Jerusalem—that particular place—will no longer be the site where God dwells with his people. And neither will God require any longer our sacrifice of animals or offerings. All of that now is Jesus. Both things—and more—bundled into one person. Jesus’ presence is where people experience the nature of God. Jesus’ actions are how people will come to know what God is like. Jesus’ words are the way people will understand the knowledge of God. And Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is our connection to God is going to be sustained.
On the cross, Jesus himself will be torn down by human sin and pride and yet God will still be able to build it back up. On the cross, God continues to tears down our beliefs of what God is like and builds up something more righteous in its place. God dismantles our understandings of wisdom and power and replaces them with foolishness and weakness. Jesus conquers by losing and wins everything for God by handing himself over.
This kind of tearing down and rebuilding according to Jesus’ blueprint is happening all of the time with us in the life of faith. I remember that when I began seminary one of our professors informed us that our faith would likely be challenged and reformed by what we were learning.
The way he worded it was he said that our “mental furniture would be rearranged.” How is God rearranging your mental furniture these days? What can God tear down and then rebuild in your life so that you can more fully live into the covenant that God made with you at baptism to live among God’s faithful people, to hear his Word and share in his supper, and to serve all people in the manner of Jesus Christ, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
We can see this tearing down and rebuilding in a congregation’s life together. As we prepare for major renovations and expansions, we are realizing that many of our current spaces will be, in essence, unscrewed, broken down, and then put back together in new ways. This is nothing new. I know it can feel new and uncomfortable at times, but this is a natural process of doing faith together with a God who meets us on the cross. This building itself does not constitute our faith, but it does allow our ministries to house the ministry of Jesus, and throughout a congregation’s history dismantling must occur if it is to better embody Christ for our community and for each other.
In fact, I was surprised to learn just how much this physical dismantling and rebuilding has already occurred in the history of our congregation. For example, the Upper Room, the large room at the end of the 2nd floor of our Education Wing where our confirmation classes meet, used to be the fellowship hall. What is currently the faith formation director’s office used to be the parish library, and where the library is now—in the parlor—used to be the choir room. The utility closets along the hallway here used to be bathrooms. And in a repurposing that can only be described as ironic, the current nursery used to be the pastor’s offices. All this information was given to me by the archives ministry team, which is housed in a room adjacent to the narthex that used to be a coat closet. In the architect’s proposed plans, which will soon be made visible to the congregation, they are proposing that be a new family bathroom (where people can change diapers!) and the archives will go down to where Cheryl’s office is.
And tearing down and building up is not just a physical reality. At our Council retreat last weekend, we spent some time discussing ministries in the life of Epiphany that have either died or are suffering and then also areas that are feeling like a resurrection, where new ministries are being built. It was a fantastic and enlightening conversation for me to be a part of, and I heard good things I didn’t expect to hear, but what it revealed to me again is that the life of faith, even for congregations, always involves this turning over, this standing back and looking at the toy kitchen we’re building on Christmas Eve and realizing to make it even better God will tear some things down. And because Jesus is always with us, this is much easier.
Though it can be uncomfortable at times, the dawn is still coming. We need to remember the morning will soon break, the feet will pitter-pat down the stairs, and all the world will be made new. And after all the screws and grooves are lined up by his grace we’re going to look fantastic.