“The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”
And for me,
that’s a famous poet
proving it’s okay to use contractions
in a poem. Yay!
I speak in contractions all the time
but always hesitate
to use them
Mary Oliver just freed me
to be me — for keeps.
That is just a bit of silliness to start with,
but now I want to tell a story
that is not silly in any way.
It is a story about relentless trust.
We’ve been talking relentless trust
for several weeks now, in one way or another.
”Emunah” – to hold onto
and the willingness to wrestle with God –
were two of those sermons.
All of us exhibit relentless trust
without even thinking about it.
We make assumptions
about someone who loves us
and we almost never stop to question
In fact, we may not even know
we are making an assumption
but our basic core assumptions
we hold onto relentlessly.
I mean the bedrock belief
we operate from
as if it were an unquestionable truth.
For example, I assume my life has meaning
and what I choose to do or not do
has purpose within that meaning.
I can’t prove it
and I can’t get underneath it
to a next layer of assumption.
It is bedrock
and I hold onto it relentlessly.
That is what I mean by relentless trust.
“Re>lent>less” = hard, unyielding, stubborn.
“Trust” = to assume, without misgiving or reservation: to bank on it!
“Relentless Trust” = an unyielding assumption that stubbornly carries us forward.
So this story I want to tell you
is about an ordinary man
who gave us an extraordinary example
of relentless trust.
It’s a kind of historic profile really.
You likely have heard his name
even if you don’t know much about him.
He is on the Episcopal Calendar
with a Feast Day dedicated to him: March 24th.
Oscar Romero was born in 1917.
He was born in Cindad Barrios,
a mountain town in El Salvador
near the border with Honduras.
I have visited those mountains
and they are rugged and remote.
He left school at age 12
to apprentice as a carpenter,
doing what was typical for most boys his age
in that part of the country.
Then, as a young man,
in spite of serious reservations on his parents’ part,
Romero went to the capital city of San Salvador
to study for the priesthood.
That then took him to Rome where,
in the midst of World War II
and the Fascist Mussolini regime,
Romero was ordained a priest in 1942.
He then returned to El Salvador two years later
and worked as a country priest for twenty years
and began to make a name for himself.
In 1974 Romero was made bishop.
Only three years later
he became Archbishop of San Salvador.
Now parallel to Oscar Romero’s ascendancy
up the corporate ladder
of the Roman Catholic Church,
his country had begun a descent into Civil War.
Like the tax collector and Pharisee in Luke’s story,
we can either confess or deny
our part in that horrendous war,
but the fact is, we aided,
armed, and sustained its inception and progress
with our tax dollars
and who we voted for
in those U.S. Administrations.
Something like 14 families
owned more than 90%
of the agricultural land in El Salvador.
Imagine if 14 U.S. families owned all of Indiana,
Ohio, Illinois, Missouri,
Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin,
Minnesota, both Dakotas,
and all of Nappa Valley?
What kind of power would those 14 families have,
and how much dependency to them
would the rest of us we live under?
The level of poverty in El Salvador was severe.
The vast majority of Salvadorans
lived with tremendous deprivation
while the 14 families
controlled both the government
and the Armed Forces.
Something interesting began to take place
throughout Central America in those days.
It was something that was taking place
in South America and South Africa as well.
Christians began to form study groups
beyond congregational boundaries.
These study groups
would read the Bible and discuss
how to live out the gospels in their own societies.
Since many were illiterate
they developed a study method
that did not depend upon clergy
telling them what the Bible verses meant.
In fact, each group recruited their own priest
to lead worship
but also elected a lay person
from among the group
to be its leader and spokesperson.
They called these groups: Base communities.
Now these 14 families began to get nervous
when they saw uneducated peasants
choosing their own leaders
and advocating for social change
based upon Christianity.
Fascists really don’t like democracy,
even within faith communities.
Many of our own government’s leaders
observed these faith communities
and called them Communist.
While there were groups in El Salvador
that called themselves Communists
the Base Communities were not.
They were groups of people
that started hearing the Gospel
and advocating for the Kingdom of God
to come on earth as it is in heaven.
The Kingdom of God
often gets called Communist.
So anyway, just a the Nazi Party did
in prewar Germany,
or the Klu Klux Klan
in 19th and 20th Century America,
those 14 families
sponsored anonymous death squads
that would cause peasants in the countryside
to disappear without a trace.
Armed resistance to the Death Squads
and to the government
that sponsored them,
spread and spawned a rebellion.
The government was emboldened to attack
even non-violent legal protesters
wherever they gathered.
was the Archbishop
and leader of the Church
that served both sides
in this terrible and escalating conflict.
who was born of slaves
but raised by Pharaoh’s daughter,
Oscar Romero was born a peasant
but for more than 30 years
had lived as an insider and power-monger,
as well as chaplain, to the 14 families.
He knew where the power was in his country.
He began, quite gingerly at first,
raising concerns about injustice and violence.
He began by trying to hold the center
and bring the sides together.
He wanted both sides see and hear each other.
All the while, the tension between both sides
pulled him apart.
In March 1977
three of his priests,
colleagues he knew well,
Romero was summoned by the government
to personally view the bodies –
a not-so-subtle message
about what happens to meddlesome clergy – even bishops.
The Church began to employ its resources
to document civil rights abuses,
and to seek the truth
about those who had disappeared
(70,000 by the end of the civil war).
The Church also was using its resources
to find out who it was
that conducted the campaign of terror and violence.
In 1979, Oscar Romero
traveled to Rome and presented the Pope
with seven dossiers
filled with reports documenting
the injustices in El Salvador AND the people –
members of the Church – who were behind them.
On March 10th, 1980
an attaché case was found behind the Pulpit
of the Cathedral in San Salvador,
where Romero preached.
It contained a bomb that had not gone off.
In spite of the threats,
Romero, in an address on national radio,
called for the soldiers of the nation’s military
to lay down their arms.
Two weeks later, on March 24th, 1980 —
Romero was celebrating Mass at the altar
in the Chapel of the Hospital
on the grounds where he lived.
A professional assassin fired a single bullet
that killed him at the altar.
Just minutes before he was assassinated,
Romero finished his sermon with this proclamation:
“Those who surrender to the service of the poor
through the love of Christ,
will live like the grain 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,
is an effort that God blesses,
that God wants,
that God demands of us.”
Relentless trust = an unyielding assumption
that stubbornly carries us forward.
That he was a grain of sand
ready at any time to be planted,
was Romero’s relentless trust.
What is ours?
I tell his story
because it is such a powerful example
of relentless trust,
and one unfamiliar enough to us
that we cannot look past it.
And here’s the thing.
We play a little game with ourselves.
We hear stuff like this about Jesus or Romero
and we dismiss it.
We keep it at arms length
by hero-izing them.
That kind of relentless trust
is only something that great people have —
that extraordinary people can draw upon
at extraordinary moments.
We imagine it to be something like
miraculous adrenaline strength.
But that is false.
It is a self-deception
to let ourselves off the hook.
If we choose not to proceed
on the basis of relentless trust
about God and the kingdom of God,
then we will proceed
from another assumption:
we have lots of choices.
But there is no choice
but to proceed from an assumption
and there is only one assumption
that empowers greatness in the way that we,
as spiritual people evaluate greatness:
We fudge it all the time, of course.
We think, well I can’t make a difference anyway.
We ask, why make myself vulnerable
for other people who won’t?
We give up,
and give less of ourselves than is needed
because we are surrounded by people
who have already given up.
The future looks bleak
and we cannot see any way
the course of events will be corrected
and so we get passive
Once we assume that it is not going to work out,
and that we have more to fear
than to hope for, and
that evil, pain, and random madness
has the last word,
we decide we better damn well protect ourselves.
That is the point at which
we assume scarcity
instead of abundance.
Now realize please,
we do not have a choice about one thing:
We have to proceed from some assumption
because none of us gets to know
how all this really works
and who is in charge — if anyone is.
So which assumption we make
makes all the difference
in who we become.
Oscar Romero assumed that his death
was not the period at the end of the sentence.
He assumed that indeed,
evil would not have the last word.
A grain of wheat must die
or it remains a single seed.
Most of us here assume scarcity
because that is what we have been taught.
“If they get theirs
I’m going to lose mine.”
When we assume that we have to grab our share
and hold onto it,
hoard it, and not let go,
we will live our lives
with a diminished heart.
We cannot assume a clenched fist
and at the same time, live with an open heart.
We cannot assume scarcity
and live more abundantly.
It just won’t happen.
When we assume there is NOT enough,
and that we have to guard against other people
taking what belongs to us,
we no longer live with vision.
In fact, we will no longer be able
to discern truth in the moment.
Worse yet, we stop dreaming.
When we live by the assumption of scarcity
because we stop seeing opportunities.
The fact is,
you and I do not know
whether or not we have enough
or will always have enough.
But to live our lives on top of the assumptions
that we won’t
and that terrible things will happen to us
if we don’t,
will cause us to wither inside ourselves.
On the other hand,
can empower us to live our lives
like the grain of wheat that dies
in order for more life to live.
That kind of an assumption
will cause us to thrive inside
regardless of how much or how little we have.
At least that is my assumption,
and I’m sticking with it.