[Our guest preacher was Mr. Christopher Dwyer. Christopher is a chorister, co-chair of our Outreach Group, and a seminarian.]
September 3, 2017: I speak to you in the name of
God who creates us,
God who liberates us,
And God who sustains us.
On Monday, five men set out on a boat to rescue some of their fellow Texans from the flooding in Houston. They had made two successful trips, rescuing two families – seven people in total. Their friends and family members told them not to go out for a third trip; that they’d done their part. They said there were too many people who needed rescuing. On that third trip, three of the rescuers were injured, along with two journalists. Two of the rescuers gave their lives to save the lives of others.
Jorge Perez was 31
Yahir Vizueth was 25
In our second reading today, St. Paul admonishes the Church in Rome to follow the example set for us by Mr. Perez and Mr. Vizueth. Their love was genuine. They held fast to what was good. They out did all of us in showing honor. Paul is telling us to be our best selves in community. As a continuation of the reading from last week, the context of this passage is for us to be able to renew our minds, so that we may “discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
And it’s in that context that we can give this passage its due. It is very easy for us to look at the example set by Mr. Perez and Mr. Vizueth and say “They saved people. That’s the Christian thing to do.” And they did, and it is, but more than that, in discerning what the will of God was in that moment, they were able to do what was good, what was acceptable, what was perfect.
The Gospel passage today is also about discerning God’s will in sacrifice, taught in a rather blunt lesson to our old friend Peter. You have to feel for Peter. I mean, talk about ‘life comes at you fast!’ One minute he’s the rock on which Jesus is going to build His Church, and the next he’s literally Satan.
That word packs a punch, doesn’t it? Satan. The concept of Satan has been a thread in the fabric of Western popular culture for a long time, with everyone from Dante to Milton to Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady having a go. I’ve not heard Satan talked about much in Episcopal pulpits, though, so indulge me here a bit.
There’s a group out there that calls themselves the Church of Satan.
Stay with me here, I promise there’s a non-heretical point to be made.
So this Church of Satan doesn’t worship some evil deity, or believe in any deity at all for that matter. They’re really religious trolls. They’ll pop up in the news every once in awhile when some local government decides to play fast and loose with the separation of Church and State, and demand that a scary devil-looking statue be placed on the courthouse lawn next to the manger scene the County just put there. But they are organized, and they do have a set of beliefs. On their website they say:
Our position is to be self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the “God”) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves.
Isn’t that special?
In that light, let’s go back to the Gospel reading. Jesus is calling Peter “Satan” not because he caught him spinning his heavy metal albums backwards, but for setting his mind “not on divine things, but on human things.” For putting what Peter wants ahead of what God wants, putting his own will before God’s will.
Members of 12-step fellowships have a short prayer that they often tag onto the end of longer prayers: “Thy Will, not mine, be done.” (12-steppers really like that Rite One language). It’s a way for them to purposefully remember that they’re not (or at least they ought not be) in charge of their lives, because living apart from the Will of God is part of the root cause of their problem.
Jesus, too, in one of his most poignantly human moments, says this prayer. In Gethsemane he prays “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” He knew what was happening. He knew what was going to be done to him. But he also knew it wasn’t really up to him. So I get where Peter is coming from. It’s very natural. Divine things are scary. Divine things require lots of sacrifice. Divine things require that your will be subjugated to the Will of God. And Peter is learning that submitting to the Will of God even sometimes means that you or your friends will die doing God’s work, and none of that has anything to do with what you or your friend wants.
I’m reminded of Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman murdered in Charlottesville, Virginia two weeks ago. At the end of her remarks at her daughter’s memorial service, she said “I’d rather have my child, but, by golly, if I got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.” I don’t know what Ms. Bro’s beliefs are, if any, but I’m not sure it matters. What’s clear is that those are not the words of someone putting her own will first.
And similar words are said around nearly every martyr. At some point they just understand that for them, (Remember what Paul told us last week about having gifts that differ – most of us are not called to be martyrs, thank God), living life according to God’s will requires that level of sacrifice, for them, and it’s not about choice. There’s a reason we celebrate them the way we do.
On the 24th of March each year, the Episcopal Church celebrates the life and witness of one such martyr: Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. His name is most often associated with a theology called “Liberation Theology,” which intentionally and purposefully centers the physical and spiritual welfare of the poor. If you’d have told the Archbishop that this is how he’d be remembered, he would have blanched. He began his ministry as a rather theologically and socially conservative priest, but by the late 1970s, El Salvador was no longer a place where such conservative stances held any sway, and here I mean actual conservatism, not far-right-ism.
Romero had a conversion moment shortly after being installed Archbishop. His good friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest, was shot in cold blood, along with an elderly man, Manuel, and a sixteen-year-old epileptic boy, Nelson. They were murdered by armed right-wing activists with the wink-and-a-nod tacit complicity of law enforcement. Manuel was killed trying to place his body between the gunmen and Fr. Grande. Nelson was executed with a bullet to the forehead. All of this happened because, according to Archbishop Romero: “The true reason for his death was his prophetic and pastoral efforts to raise the consciousness of the people throughout his parish.” 
El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s was a very dangerous place to be a follower of Christ. As Archbishop Romero’s sermons and other communications became more prominent across the radiowaves of El Salvador, and more targeted against the injustice and violence perpetrated by the State on the poor, he was implored to tone it down to save his life. Yet the more he asked for help from those who should have been there for him – his fellow bishops in El Salvador, his fellow archbishops in Central America, Pope John Paul II – he was given, at best, platitudes or vague promises that something will be done. At worst he was given admonitions to stop his work. He wrote to US President Jimmy Carter, appealing to his Christianity, asking that the United States stop arming the Salvadoran military, because those weapons were being used in the streets against his flock. He was ignored. The day before his own martyrdom, he was implored by a friend not to put such a large announcement out in the papers about the memorial service he would be saying for the one-year anniversary of the death of a local community matriarch.
Archbishop Romero did what Christ asks us to do in today’s Gospel reading. He picked up his cross, and followed Jesus. In some of the last words he spoke in his life, he found in Jesus’s sacrifice as instituted in the Eucharist the nourishment to walk towards his own sacrifice. The lectern was placed next to the altar in the small chapel. He stood behind it, motioned toward the holy table where the elements were waiting for his consecration, and said:
May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain — like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.
Seconds after he said those words, standing behind the altar, Archbishop Romero was murdered by an armed right-wing activist with the wink-and-a-nod tacit complicity of law enforcement.
How are we, as people of faith, supposed to respond to that? How are we, as followers of Jesus, supposed to act when armed right-wing activists, with the wink-and-a-nod tacit complicity of law enforcement, march up and down the streets of our cities in a show of intimidation? Or when armed right-wing activists, with the wink-and-a-nod tacit complicity of law enforcement, begin wandering around flooded areas of Houston, waving their guns around, saying they’re there to “patrol for looters.” What is Felicia Harris supposed to do, when those same right-wing activists, armed with whatever they could grab, beat her son half to death, and even with video showing the assailants clearly, local law enforcement needed to be shamed into investigating and arresting to date only some of the perpetrators?
Well, Paul gave us the answer to that just a bit ago, right? There it is: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” So, no vengeance. Just move on, nothing to see here, Amen. Right?
Not so much.
Nonviolence is a difficult thing to talk about, but today we need to talk about it so much more than ever, and in very clear terms. A call to nonviolence can be a very powerful tool both in the hands of those seeking justice, and in the hands of Empire.
In the hands of folks seeking justice, non-violence can be a way for an outnumbered and out-gunned oppressed group to effect meaningful change in its position. Empire doesn’t just give up control; rights gained by an oppressed minority are rights seized, but if the other side has the guns and the numbers to keep you in your place, a violent struggle will not get you as far as nonviolent non-compliance.
Empire loves the ethic of non-violence. Empire uses the ethic of non-violence as a shield for when folks get a little too insistent with the whole redress of grievances thing. Empire loves the ethic of non-violence, because as Empire controls public opinion, Empire can set the bar for what non-violence is and isn’t.
And one of Empire’s favorite tools to communicate where that bar should be set is us. The Church. For centuries we have told folks that “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, so just wait here patiently on earth, because they’re going to get theirs in the next life.” And as long as we do that, we get billions of dollars in tax breaks, access to grant funds for our projects, and other considerations. As long as we don’t get too political.
Empire loves the ethic of non-violence, but violence is its bread and butter. To paraphrase the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: “Violence is as American as Cherry Pie.” Or as Black Liberation theologian James Cone wrote:
There is a much more deadly form of violence, and is camouflaged in such slogans as “law and order,” “freedom and democracy,” and “the American way of life.”
For goodness sakes, for the last 400 years white people have been afraid of black people taking arms to rise up and overthrow them, because that’s what they’d do if they were the oppressed minority, so I have precious little time for those calling the defenders of the oppressed and marginalized “violent” until they take some time to examine the violence that’s been within them all along.
Armed, Right-wing activists with wink and a nod tacit complicity from law enforcement murdered Oscar Romero in 1980 and murdered Heather Heyer in 2017 and as Christians we can’t scold others about the violence in a broken shop window and not be complicit ourselves in those murders. Those murders would not have taken place without the support of Empire, and Empire will use us as a tool to allow itself to continue being violent without blinking. Empire loves us best when we sit in these pews, piously bemoaning the sins of the world, wondering how things ever got so bad.
I had my own conversion moment on this issue. A good friend of mine, a Disciples of Christ Pastor in our local community asked me to be part of a panel discussing the documentary “13th.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. In that film, there’s a clip of an interview with Dr. Angela Davis asking her whether she “approves of violence.” Now, Dr. Davis grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the early ‘60s. Her mother was a school teacher, and taught the victims of the 1963 bombing, known today as the Birmingham 4. She and her sister were friends of those girls. After a very graphic description of what it was like for her mother to drive up into that scene, she tells the interviewer: “When someone asks me if I approve of violence, it says to me that they have no idea of what black people have gone through in this country.”
That’s not God’s will. That’s our fear searching out an easier, softer way of responding to some very scary things going on around us. Just like Peter was.
To be very clear: I am not up here in this pulpit advocating for armed uprising. That’s also an easier, softer way. That’s also looking for our will above God’s. Archbishop Romero wasn’t calling for that, either, even though the Salvadoran government and many of his fellow clerics accused him of just that. No, as the Archbishop once wrote, he 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.
If the work of liberation were as simple as sitting and waiting, Seminary would be a whole lot shorter. But Saint Paul does not tell us to kick back and wait for liberation, and Jesus challenges us far beyond easy answers.
We have examples to follow of folks who’ve discerned those answers in the church.
Like the Maryknoll sisters
Like Jonathan Daniels
And those who’ve come around.
Like Oscar Romero
Like Jimmy Carter
Jesus needs us right now to do the work of his redeeming love in the world, work which is going to be messy, and work which won’t look too saintly at times. But most importantly, it’s work which demands that we take up our own crosses and follow him.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here (it was not 25 mins. – the recorder was left on for a bit following the sermon):
 Church of Satan “F.A.Q. Fundamental Beliefs.” www.churchofsatan.com/faq-fundamental-beliefs.php (accessed August 30, 2017)
 Matthew 26:39
 Democracy Now “Full Remarks of Heather Heyer’s Mother at Charlottesville Memorial Service.” https://www.democracynow.org/2017/8/16/video_full_remarks_of_heather_heyer (accessed August 30, 2017)
 Organization of American States Inter-American Commision on Human Rights: “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in El Salvador, Chapter II.” Accessed 9/2/17 at https://www.cidh.oas.org/countryrep/ElSalvador78eng/chap.2.htm
 The Archbishop Romero Trust. “The Final Homily of Archbishop Romero.” Accessed 9/2/17 at http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/homilies/final_homily_of_archbishop_romero.pdf
 James Cone, God of the Oppressed. Kindle edition
 Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love. (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 1998) p.12