This is the homily I preached for Maundy Thursday.
Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated on this day in 1980 while he was celebrating mass in a small hospital chapel in San Salvador. He was shot through an open door from outside of the chapel. The bullet pierced his chest. Some say that a drop of his blood fell into the cup. His assassin was not found.
Romero was ordained in 1942. He served small parishes in El Salvador. He saw himself as a spiritualistic person rather than a promoter for social causes. Over time he rose through the church hierarchy which resulted in his designation as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. His appointment was not received with great enthusiasm, especially by the left-leaning clergy.
Two movements were happening simultaneously during his rise through the church hierarchy. First, the Catholic Church started implementing Vatican II, which shifted the Vatican’s emphasis from maintaining the status quo to siding with the people. Second, the political climate in El Salvador was shifting towards an authoritarian right-wing regime. In a sense, Romero’s appointment was probably due to the perception that as a conservative priest he would not challenge the regime.
However, Romero’s concern for the poor was kindled when he served as bishop in the small town of Santiago de Maria, his appointment just prior to San Salvador. There he witnessed firsthand the suffering of the landless poor. He also witnessed the government’s attacks on socially committed priests and laypersons. The final turn in his ministry came when his friend and colleague, Rutilio Grande, was murdered by government forces in 1977 because of his work for social change.
Romero began to issue pastoral letters condemning the killings, torture, and repression by right-wing, government forces. His visibility increased. Despite siding with the poor and the oppressed, he was alone. Many on the revolutionary left didn’t trust him because he eschewed political violence. The other bishops, who were generally conservative, didn’t trust him. They believed the unrest was due to communist influence, which they attributed to Romero’s support for the poor.
Does this story have a familiar ring?
We gather here to remember through tonight’s communion Jesus’ life and ministry. He spoke truth to power. His ministry on behalf of the poor and in pursuit of justice threatened the political and economic powers of his day. The threat of death followed him, especially after his transfiguration. Even his friends abandoned him at his very end. And he died at the hands of the powerful – the ones who feared Jesus’ gospel. They trembled in the face of love’s power. They put their confidence in a weapon of terror, the cross, falsely believing it would put an end to the teachings of an itinerant rabbi from Galilee.
But at the same time doesn’t Romero’s life seem a bit like ours as well?
We talk justice, but we find the spiritual side of our faith a more comfortable fit. Some would say, “social justice is not where I’m called” or “It’s all politics. Religion shouldn’t be political.” There is nothing wrong with a ministerial emphasis on spiritual matters. Visiting the sick is a vital ministry for any church. There are few things as holy as helping someone die. Comforting the bereaved at a funeral has poetic poignancy. Romero was more than comfortable with this.
But the church has to do both if it is to be true to Jesus. Romero realized this when he lived among the landless peasants. Providing them spiritual comfort went only so far. It was fine, but it didn’t change their lot, especially in the face of overt oppression and blatant injustice. The peasants would not have peace. Furthermore, Grande’s death because he was doing his faithful ministry galvanized Romero.
When we come face-to-face with injustice, do we really have a choice between spiritual faith and social justice? The true peace of which Jesus preached and Romero pursued cannot come without a physical commitment to those who struggle for daily bread. Romero wrote, “Many would like the poor to keep on saying that it is God’s will for them to live that way. But it is not God’s will for some to have everything and others to have nothing. That cannot be of God. God’s will is that all his children be happy.” Furthermore, when our ethics as Christians ask us to care for the poor, especially in the richest nation in the history of the world, that is inherently political.
When we gather to share the Eucharistic feast, we implicitly proclaim a world of God’s peace and justice rooted in radical, inclusive, steadfast love and by that implicit proclamation and our baptisms, we are God’s instruments of grace to make that real. As we say each week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Yet, today’s America is far from heaven on earth. Things have gone awry. The middle class is shrinking as we see income inequality grow and grow. We see political leadership pushing obvious income transfers from the poor up to the rich and having no shame in doing it. We see little evidence that the government feels an obligation to foster the common good. Social programs are cut to reduce taxes for the very wealthy. Meanwhile, we hear muffled drumbeats pushing us into more war without funding the physical and psychic wounds of the veterans who return. We hear candidates who take racists and xenophobic positions without apology and a large segment of the public who accept those positions as necessary to re-assert our greatness as a nation. We have candidates who scoff at climate change, even though 2015 was the hottest year on record and Miami Beach’s existence is threatened by rising sea water. Over the years we have closed our mental hospitals and reopened them in jails and prisons.
Just as Jesus spoke truth to power. Just as Oscar Romero spoke truth to power. We must speak truth to power. We cannot remain silent. We cannot be satisfied with just spiritual things and consider that our work is done. We cannot think that we can pray away the spiritual malaise that is awash in this country. We cannot hope that the church, the synagogue, or the mosque down the street will take up the cause of justice so we don’t have to. Like Romero who came to understand that spiritualization has its limits, we have to accept that we can’t rid ourselves of our spiritual malaise without speaking truth to power.
Lest we think otherwise, this is not easy. We might have to pay a price; perhaps not the same price that Jesus or Romero paid, but as another 20th century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described as costly grace. “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
If we are to rid ourselves of the spiritual malaise and the clearly visible anger present across this land, we have to be the Church. Where else can people turn today for hope? Where else will people find the antidote to their fears if not the Church? The Church is the body of Christ, which calls us to be Christ in our community whether here in Dalton or across the globe.
Just before he died, Romero spoke these words:
“Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grains of wheat that dies. It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies…We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, it is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.”
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship. Touchstone Book: New York. 1995 Page 45
 Op. Cit.