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The 13th Sunday After Pentecost; Luke 14:25-33

Labour Day was last Sunday, schools restarted on Tuesday, the universities and colleges have moved in their 1st year students, lectures will start tomorrow. Despite the astronomical calendar, Summer is officially over. But I want to hang onto relaxation and lazy summer days; reading in the garden, walking around in shorts, deck shoes, and a t-shirt. For a little more time, I want to avoid thinking about the upcoming season, getting out warmer clothes, the stouter shoes, and even less do I want to think about parkas, and gloves, and hats. I just want to hang onto that Summer feeling, just a little longer. At least I can come to church, where things are still just a bit quieter than they will become as we get closer to Thanksgiving and then Christmas, and beyond, where nothing too disturbing is happening, yet. I thought! But, every three years, it is this Sunday which has the Gospel you just heard, a Gospel that predicts anything but a quiet tranquil life for those who routinely do Church, for those who want to follow Jesus!

I wonder how much sense these words of Jesus made to those listening! What was this about crosses, and the cost of being a disciple? What’s this about estimating that cost, carefully considering whether you can actually pay it, and not even starting if you think you can’t. All seemed to be going well, Jesus’ miracles and preaching attracted great crowds, crowds that now even travelled with him. There was no hint of danger, no threat, and crosses were far from their minds.

However St. Luke had no doubt what Jesus was saying, more than half a century later, when he wrote his Gospel. The persecutions by Nero had left bad memories in the young church, and now another emperor, Domitian, was using hatred of Christians as a political tool. Believers were facing the choice between faith and life. Families were being split! Now these words of Jesus made sense! They seemed to be spoken directly to Luke and his community, where being a witness for Jesus and the faith could be fatal. Being a witness for Jesus! Even the word witness, martus in Greek, was taking on a new meaning. Martus, meaning a witness in court proceedings, was taking on the meaning of the word we have derived from it; martyr, someone who dies for their faith.

But all that was long ago, and the age of martyrs mercifully belongs to the pages of church history. Of course we recognize how our faith is enriched by the heritage of these brave men and women, but we are fortunate to live in a time and place that is safe for Christians, even though perhaps we’re not popular. Or so we think!

One of the great chasms in Christendom is that we in the developed world see our faith mostly as personal therapy enabling us to deal with our complex world, while in the third world Christianity is the faith of people looking for political and social liberation. In such parts of the world the images and themes that speak to human existence are those of the Exodus, the story of a people moving from slavery and oppression even at the risk of death, and images of social justice from prophets such as Amos and Isaiah.

This is still true in many places in our world, from Asia to Africa. In our Southern hemisphere, the Church, present on the continent for centuries, is daily drawn into an agony of choice, between faithfulness to the Gospel, and the political realities of remaining a voice in society. It is sometimes a choice of following Jesus and accepting the consequences, or becoming a tool of systems with few Christian values.

This is the tension in which men and women in many places live their daily lives. One of those places was and still is El Salvador, and I am about to re-tell you about a few minutes in the life of one man there.1 I am using “re-tell” because the story has been told well by others, and is the subject of books, and even of a movie.

For most of his life he was a moderate, some would have called him a conservative, and he was frequently torn by the complexity of the moral choices he had to make. This is a story those of my generation probably know, younger others perhaps not, but one of the powers of stories is that they can be re-told, and in re-telling we hear and learn new things, often about ourselves and our lives and times!

He had always found it easy to be alone, travel inward, deal with questions and doubts in silence. Early as a priest this had given him a reputation of being aloof. He knew now, in a quiet evening hour, how much all that had changed. The quiet of the sacristy made him realize how little time there was for quiet. And yet he had come not only to accept it, but to rejoice in it!

His thoughts went back to the annual priests’ retreat. It had gone well, not like in his early days in this diocese. Everything had changed. All relationships were intense now, toward love or hate. Sometimes he felt terribly alone. He understood the politics; he knew the knife-edge between silence and outspokenness the Papal Nuncio walked. His days as a student in Rome had taught him the subtlety and complexity of Rome’s dealings with its far-flung and infinitely varied empire. But, direct support would be welcome.

He put on the alb, thanking the sister who had washed it for him. Its whiteness contrasted with the refusal of everything else to be black or white, to be simple. What was truth in this slaughterhouse he and all of them lived in, never knowing whether a greeting and pleasantry with someone would be the last time they would speak, never having a full night’s sleep, always picking up the phone wondering if it was another anonymous threat?

The sister came back after lighting the candles. He saw the flames as the door swung shut. He caught her eyes, and they both smiled, not speaking. Eyes, faces, voices were what made life possible. Hands too, embracing, arms clasped, around him and his around another. The Peace had become so much more important at Mass. In many ways the exchanged embrace was literally mutual protection, mutual shielding from ever-present death, torture, beating.

Wine poured into a cruet. He checked his watch; it was a few minutes to 6:30, time for evening Mass. He celebrated an early morning Mass too, to which most of the off-duty sisters and some patients came. Their world was across the street in the hospital for dying cancer patients. He ate with them, and was their pastor, intimately involved with them as they were with him. He now opened himself so much to others with whom he shared suffering.

The sister took the wine into the chapel. He never saw it without remembering its timeless meaning of blood. It was as if it did not need his words in the prayer of consecration to become the blood of Christ. Already there was mixed with it much blood, blood in the streets, in the villages, in the countryside.

It was ironic. He was here because everything in his life and character indicated him conservative, safe, dependable. Indeed, for a while he had continued to be critical of radical social action. He remembered moments when he felt himself crossing great rivers with no going back, crossing bridges that were burning behind him. There was the priests’ meeting after guns had been turned on a huge crowd in the Plaza Libertad. They had celebrated Mass in that square, and he had participated. He could not stand back. The priest who had celebrated that Mass was dead, like many others mysteriously murdered. And there was three years ago when he had gone into a little room in Aguilares to see the body of Rutilio Grande, the pastor. He’d been Belgian Jesuit who had given himself totally to bringing some hope to the landless poor.

There would be bread in the tabernacle. Again, symbol and reality blended in this land. Bread was the cry of the poor, if bread symbolized land, food, hope, and justice. It was strange that if one pursued these things one was labelled a Marxist, as if being a Christian was not enough. He wondered if those who accused him of a taste for Marx had ever read even one Gospel, or had ever heard the voice of Amos the prophet speaking to another tiny and explosive society far away and long ago.

He put on vestments; he and the sister said the vestry prayer, and stepped into the sanctuary. He moved into the words of the liturgy. Others joined in the readings, in the prayers. He found that Mass energized him. Weariness and energy were one of the many levels of death and resurrection. Sometimes he felt exaltation. Recently he had found himself speaking of his own death, perhaps violent death, and was surprised at his ability to do so. He remembered a promise to offer this Mass as a memorial for the mother of a journalist friend, another victim of the bloodbath.

He continued the familiar rhythm of the liturgy, feeding on its ageless meaning. He began the canon of the Mass. “The Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” “Lift up your hearts.” “We lift them to the Lord,” and his own heart lifted at the voices coming to him from the dark of the chapel. He continued with the prayer of consecration, the weariness gone. He lifted the bread, and spoke the Words of Christ over it. He replaced it, and leaned forward to pick up the chalice. For a brief moment he saw his own face reflected in the wine, as a priest often does.

In that moment the bullet pierced his heart, and the blood of Oscar Romero, 4th Archbishop of San Salvador, mingled with wine to soak into the Body of Christ on the altar. It was the evening of March 24th, 1980.

Oscar Romero was declared a martyr by his Church in 2015, and a saint less than a year ago. (He was in our Anglican Calendar as one of the Martyrs of the 20th Century earlier than he was recognized by his Church.)

Our Lord said:

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. … none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

This is not a call to poverty, and it is not a condemnation of possessions. It is a call to dedication, a call to giving up all that we have and all that we are, for Christ. In some parts of our world commitment to Christ can become a choice between life and death, even today. For us, it is more often a choice between one sort of life and another, a choice between a life lived for ourselves, and a life lived for others. I often wonder (and worry) if this is not a far more difficult choice than a choice between merely physical life and physical death! It is a choice between spiritual life and spiritual death!

And yet, Jesus is presenting us with this choice, and we cannot not choose. Not to decide is to decide!

1 The story of Oscar Romero’s assassination is derived from a chapter in: Herbert O’Driscoll, Crossroads, Anglican Book Centre, 1982, and the movie Romero. The movie is historically incorrect, as Romero was shot almost immediately after giving a homily, not during the Prayer of Consecration, but I have chosen to follow the movie, for dramatic reasons.

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller (except as credited above)