A Romero celebration in Alsager

Sermon preached at the lovely reordered St Mary’s Alsager for the meeting of Congleton Deanery Synod. It commemorates Archbishop Oscar Romero. It could have been said better – but I share it anyway.

27 bishops wrote to the Daily Mirror a couple of weeks ago complaining about the Government’s welfare reforms. They pointed out that recent cuts have forced tens of thousands of people into a painful choice of “heat or eat” and reminded us that half a million people visited a food bank last year, and 5.5 people were admitted to hospital with malnutrition.

The letter caused a minor stir. Why? Was it because the bishops were dabbling in politics? Was it that they chose the Mirror rather than the Times? Was it because they knew what was lamentable and lament?

The letter raises the question of the place of church in society. What is this place?

Is it at the centre of things? Hopefully the answer to that is “yes”, so long as that means the “heart of the community”, as opposed to wanting to look big.

Is its place to be on the side, on the edge? Hopefully the answer to that question is “yes”, if by yes we are meaning that we are on the side of those who are overlooked – those who are overlooked because of their poverty, because they don’t fit in, because they are shied away.

On this day 34 years ago Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while celebrating Mass. He was Archbishop of San Salvador, Archbishop of a church which took the people of El Salvador to heart, a church which had been edged out by a violent government, a church which was on the side of the landless poor. He spoke out on their behalf and became known as the Voice of the Voiceless. His voice became stronger. People packed into the Cathedral to hear him. They listened to him on the Archdiocese’s radio station. And then he was silenced, by a gun fired from the doorway of the chapel in a cancer hospital as he celebrated Mass.

He was the third bishop to have been murdered in the sanctuary. Bishop Stanislaus of Krakow was killed in 1079 (for scolding the Polish king for his sins), Thomas Becket was killed in 1170 for defending the Church’s rights and freedoms. Oscar Romero was killed in 1977 as an outspoken opponent of injustice and defender of the poor.

Oscar Romero, other martyrs, other ministers, remind us what these spaces are for. They are spaces where we become occupied with God and by God. They are spaces where we occupy ourselves with what occupies God – spaces for the sinner (rather than the righteous), for Lazarus (not the rich man Dives, or the celebrity Divas), for those whose cries are heard by God (and ignored by others). It is the poor, who, according to Romero, “are the ones who tell us what the world is and what service the church must offer to the world.”

We need to safeguard these spaces of blessing and salvation, where truth is told and lives are rebuilt. They are dangerous, countercultural breathing spaces in which lives are lost for the sake of gaining the kingdom.

Romero said this in one of his sermons: “An accommodating church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ.”

This is the Jesus who comforts his followers in the face of the hatred of the world. He reminded followers then, as he reminds us in this evening’s gospel, that the world didn’t love him, but hated him. “If they persecute me, they will persecute you.” But “if you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own.” Going the way of the world is not following Jesus’ way. That’s not the way Jesus had in mind when he calls people to follow him.

There has been a lot of ink spilt about the identity of the “beloved disciple” in John’s gospel. Was it John Zebedee, Lazarus, Thomas, Nathanael, John the Elder, or even Paul? Or, was it none of these people? Whoever it was had a special place in Jesus’ life. That place is stated as “the place nearby” at the cross (John 19:25), and “reclining next to him” (13:23).

The beloved disciple is the one who “leant back against Jesus”. He is the one who had the physical contact. He is the one who was at Jesus’ side. 

Who is the beloved disciple? Is it you? Is it me?

The beloved disciple is THERE, just there (indicating heart/shoulder). The beloved disciple is at the side of Jesus, and because of that SEES and understands what the others couldn’t. That closeness means that he/she is able to hear the whisper of Jesus. (13:23).

Oscar Romero was at that place. He could see, understand and articulate the truth of what was happening. He was able to name the injustice and the suffering.

The place is the “kolpos” or “bosom” of Jesus.

There is one other use of the word “kolpos” in the gospel, and that is at 1:18, where it is Jesus who is described as being at his Father’s bosom, or “close to the Father’s heart”.

The beloved disciple is the one who is at the heart of Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart, who hears what occupies Jesus’ heart – who sees and hears as Jesus hears.

That is the space we are called to be in as beloved disciples.

It’s the space Oscar Romero occupied as he celebrated Mass in the chapel of a cancer hospital (a place at the edge and on the edge of life). His place was close to the Father’s heart, occupied with what occupies God.

In that most dangerous of places he was shot – a life given for the sake of the kingdom.

A prayer to finish with, from Oscar Romero:

“Let us be today’s Christians. Let us not take fright at the boldness of today’s church. With Christ’s light let us illuminate even the most hideous caverns of the human person: torture, jail, plunder, want, chronic illness. The oppressed must be saved, not with a revolutionary salvation, in mere human fashion, but with the holy revolution of the Son of Man.”

Here’s a sermon preached by ++Rowan Williams on the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination.

Maggi Dawn has posted a prayer closely associated with Oscar Romero.