Friday, March 25, 2005

Maundy Thursday Sermon

“It helps now and then to step back and take a long
view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another 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 include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

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

So wrote Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador who, 25 years ago tonight, having just said Jesus’ words of institution at Holy Communion, “This is my body which is given up for you…This is my blood which is shed for you,” was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

At his funeral Mass, government death squads firebombed and machine-gunned mourners. Just another massacre in that beleaguered country.

Oscar Arnulfo Romero is now an important figure--a symbol of commitment, self-sacrifice and hope--not just in El Salvador, but throughout Latin America and the world.
What many admire most is Romero’s personal transformation from his beginnings as a strict, conservative priest and friend of the wealthy elite.

Early on when he was Auxiliary Bishop, Romero accused supporters of new theological currents prioritizing pastoral work with the poor of being Marxists and poisoning the minds of youth.

In 1975, after the National Guard murdered six campesinos in Trés Calles, Romero—now a Bishop—refused calls that he publicly denounce the massacre, choosing instead to send a private letter to then-President Molina. Romero also did not want to believe reports that rich landowners of coffee and cotton plantations in his diocese were paying workers less than the legal minimum wage, itself a pitiful sum.

Yet Romero agreed to go out and visit the plantations to see for himself if what his priests were telling him was true. The reality of exploitation and suffering he came to know from that visit--and subsequent ones--were to change him forever.

Oscar Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, the candidate of choice of the rich, who opposed the more progressive Bishop Rivera y Damas, widely favoured by the people in the pew. But less than one month after he was installed, Romero was deeply moved and angered by the murder of his friend Father Rutilio Grande, who had supported efforts by the poor farmers or campesinos in his parish to form organizations to defend their rights.

Romero advised the Salvadoran President he would no longer attend any government functions until those responsible for the killing were identified and brought to justice. It was an ultimatum to which he would hold for the next three years until he was assassinated. Romero had changed. He had begun to raise his voice for the gospel
That voice got stronger as the toll of priests, catechists, labour activists and campesino organizers butchered by the death squads rose. Romero publicly denounced the repression but he went much further than that, denouncing as well the hugely unequal distribution of wealth and power in El Salvador that lay at the heart of the violence. "The cause of all our unrest is the oligarchy, that small nucleus of families who don’t care about the hunger of the people, but only think of their own need for abundant cheap labour to harvest and export their crops," Archbishop Romero told a journalist in a February 1980 interview.

"Salvadoran and foreign-owned industries base their ability to compete in international markets on starvation wages," the Archbishop stated categorically. "This explains their complete opposition to any type of reforms or to trade union organizations that strive to improve the living conditions of grass roots sectors."
Of course, the usual accusations were made: “Romero’s a communist. He’s a Soviet spy. He’s an enemy of free enterprise. Stick to religion, Father. Don’t meddle in things you no nothing about.”

Easily dismissed. Turn him into a partisan political hack. Accuse him of disturbing the peace. If he gets too uppity, get rid of him.

Sound familiar?

I tell you Romero’s story, not just because today is the 25th anniversary of his death, or because he was murdered while celebrating Holy Communion, but because his life so vibrantly resonated with the life of Jesus. His life shouted good news. His ministry nourished the people he was called to serve and still provides hope for millions of people around the world.

Romero walked the hard road of salvation.

Despite his admirer’s best efforts, Romero shunned sainthood. He would not be dismissed so easily. Romero trembled at the thought of being murdered. He longed for the days when tragedies and atrocities failed to touch him within the cloister of his book-lined study. He hungered and hurt for a country mired in despair.

In other words, he was deeply human. But touched by God to bear witness to the kingdom of God that was present among them but just outside of their grasp. His life pointed to a different world; a world where peace and forgiveness was as natural as breathing, a world where love and compassion overwhelmed greed and violence. A world where Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God could be powerfully alive. “Put down those guns. Stop the repression. Believe the good news.”

“As a Christian,” he once wrote, “I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadorian people. I am not boasting, I say this with great humility…My hope is that my blood will be like a seed of liberty.”

When Jesus gathered with his friends that night, they remembered liberation. They remembered how a disgraced, murdering prince-turned-shepherd named Moses, led God’s people to freedom with nothing in his hands but a crook and the power of God. Jesus and his friends said prayers. They told the ancient stories. They wondered how that event so many years ago could make a difference in their lives.

That’s when Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and passed it around saying, “This is my body given for you, for your freedom.” Jesus then took the cup, blessed it and gave it to his friends saying, “This is my blood, poured out for your liberation, when you drink it, drink it in remembrance of me.”

Do this in remembrance of me…remember me by living my message. Remember me by being good news. Remember me showing the world the kingdom of God is alive among.

As one wise writer puts it, “If the wafers are going stale for you, be the bread yourself. Break yourself open and nourish the world.

“If the communion table seems cheap and tacky, become a table yourself. Be a resting place for the weary.

“If you feel there are no more angels, pick up the phone and spread your own [glad] tidings.

“Gather your bread. Set your table. Shout your good news.

“Do these things in remembrance of HIM.”

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