We are ministers, not messiahs

We are ministers, not messiahs

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at the 2018 Chrism Mass on March 20 at St. Luke in the Meadow, Fort Worth.

Fort Worth Chrism Mass 2018                                March 20

Today in the life of the Church we commemorate St Cuthbert, an impressive figure who lived and served in the 7th century – a period of history occasioned by plague, war, and schism. Included in today’s bulletin is a small article about Cuthbert, written by the retired Canon to the Ordinary in Northwest Texas, David Veal.  Canon Veal tells us that in the midst of war, “Bishop Cuthbert went fearlessly among his people, ministering to the wounded and inspiring hope in the survivors.”

Today we celebrate his life and express gratitude for his significant service. But, this morning I want to direct our attention to another bishop who served in the midst of war – the civil war in El Salvador – and who stood fearlessly with his people. Just recently, Pope Francis, has opened the way for Oscar Romero to be named a saint.  Of course, the people of El Salvador have known that Romero was a saint since before his martyrdom in 1980.

By way of reminder, Oscar Romero was appointed as the 4th Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. His appointment was welcomed by the government, while many priests – most of whom were progressive – feared that his conservative reputation would negatively affect liberation theology’s commitment to the poor.

It is true that he studied in Rome, and initially, he was seen as bookish and removed from any type of activism. That changed with the murder of one of his priests and dear friends. He traveled to the country-side church where his priest was murdered, encountered the peasant farmers of the community, and his life was changed.

He stood with the people, and spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. He gained an international reputation when he wrote to President Carter to stop the US military aid to El Salvador. On the day before he died he begged army soldiers to refuse orders to kill civilians, saying, “In the Name of God, … I beg you, I beseech you, I order you to stop the repression.”

The next evening (March 24), while celebrating Mass in a small chapel at the Hospital of Divine Providence, he was standing at the altar after finishing his homily, and a red automobile came to stop on the street. A gunman emerged, stepped to the door of the chapel, fired a shot (maybe two), and Romero was struck in the heart.

The Funeral Mass was attended by 250,000 mourners, and was marred by violence as several dozen were killed at the funeral. A delegate of the Pope preached, and eulogized Romero as a “beloved, peacemaking man of God,” and stated that “his blood will give fruit to brotherhood, love, and peace” – which calls to mind today’s passage from John’s Gospel: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Interestingly, Romero was not a huge proponent of Liberation Theology, at least as it was practiced in his context. He claimed that “the most profound social revolution is the serious, supernatural, interior reform of a Christian.”

I remember in seminary being introduced to Liberation Theology. I came to understand Liberation Theology to be a valid method for doing theology, but that took a while. I more appreciated Desmond Tutu’s observation that the whole Bible is a story of liberation; in a sense, all of it is Liberation Theology.

Liberation is a major theme throughout the Scriptures, and we are witnesses that God liberates us from the bondage of sin – in whatever way sin may be manifest. For it’s true that not only things we tend to think of as evil hold us in bondage, good things can hold us in bondage as well. “Love and desire gone wrong” is a fundamental Anglican understanding of sin. Good things – at essence, good things – can hold us captive.

I had a mild epiphany of such bondage to something good at a meeting of the House of Bishops last year. When we gather for meetings, we are assigned to sit at the same table with the same 5 or 6 bishops for a 3 year period. And one of our table-mates had the occasion to tell about a recent trip to El Salvador (he has traveled to El Salvador on mission trips for years.)

Bishop Skip Adams, now of South Carolina, told us of the privilege of hearing the stories of Salvadorans over the years – stories of great loss. He would ask persons in great distress how they could go on, and they would tell him of their trust in God, Who sustains them.

In a sermon to the clergy of South Carolina, Bishop Adams said the following:

“My revelation was this. Much of Western spirituality, particularly among the ‘haves,’ is about finding meaning in life. Indeed, much of Western psychology is about the same. I discovered, however, that the people with whom I was engaged were not looking for meaning. They know why they exist. They know they are a person of Christ. What are they looking for? Liberation!! They want to be set free from their captivity: fear and threat; violence; economic slavery; you name it.”

He says: “I wonder if that is a place to which we need to return. What is it from which you need to be set free? From what do our people need to be set free? It’s not that this conversation is divorced from that of meaning, but I wonder if meaning can even come until we are able to identify our prisons.”

And now I wonder, personally, if it’s possible to be held captive by a search for meaning. Of course, and certainly, we are all inspired by Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He says such things as: “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see meaning in his life.” We know that’s true.  He says, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice.”  We know that’s true, too.

And Paul Tillich, in his most popular book, “The Courage to Be,” identifies 3 recurrent human anxieties, one being anxiety around emptiness and lack of meaning or purpose.  I suspect that’s the dominant anxiety in our culture today.

And yet, I wonder if one can be held captive to seeking “meaning in life,” and I wonder if “meaning in life” is something to obtain by seeking it.

During the summer of my sabbatical, I took my time through a book about a conversation between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. It’s entitled, “The Book of Joy,” and it gives the reader a perspective on joy from two people who have endured much suffering in this life.  I ordered this book during a particularly joyless time in our society. Sabbatical doesn’t make us immune from political campaigns and conventions, and white-on-black police violence, and attacks on police in Dallas. I had too much time to avoid watching the various train wrecks.

The author of this book – the recorder and witness and participant in this conversation between Tutu and the Dalai Lama writes: “Some might wonder what our own joy has to do with countering injustice and inequality … and the suffering of the world.  In short, the more we heal our own pain, the more we can turn to the pain of others.”

“But in a surprising way, what the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama were saying is that the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others. It is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, ‘to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.’”

The paradox is this: “We are most joyful when we focus on others, not on ourselves. In short, bringing joy to others is the fastest way to experience joy oneself.”  We don’t obtain joy by seeking joy. Maybe that’s true for “meaning.” Even Viktor Frankl tells us not to seek meaning in the abstract.

It’s not so much that I’ve been sitting around wondering if what I do is meaningful – not as some front-lobe conversation with myself.  I’m not unlike most clergy who were drawn to this calling, and at least some part of that mixed-motive draw was a sense of purpose; that what I did in my time on this planet made a difference. And while there are cloudy days when I wonder about that, I know that it has, and it does – so nobody needs to come up and reassure me. I know that we, as clergy, are privileged to have meaningful work.

But we are not called into this primarily so we can have meaningful lives. That’s true of any vocation. For example, my primary purpose of raising children was not so that I could have meaning in life. My primary purpose for trying to be a good parent was for their benefit.

It’s not in seeking meaning that we gain meaning. It’s in giving ourselves away. It’s in looking outward, beyond.  And for whatever reason, on that day with my small group at the House of Bishops, what was true all along was made known to me again, and I experienced a renewed sense of vocation to participate in God’s purpose to set people free. Perhaps that’s why we renew these vows.

So, I’ve wandered around quite a bit this morning from Cuthbert to Romero to Skip Adams to Frankl to Tillich to Tutu to the Dalai Lama – and you’ve been along for the ride. Hopefully, I’ve had only one point: the power of God’s love to liberate us from our various captivities.

Ours is not an easy vocation. As we watch what is happening in our nation and around the world, it feels like we are taking a step backwards – if not two steps. Sometimes it feels like that in the Church, too. And maybe we might wonder if our efforts mean anything, or if we make a difference.

Well, we do. I don’t have to believe it; I’ve seen it. We are serving God’s purpose to liberate people – to set people free – from whatever holds us in bondage. And for those times when we can’t see, and need to believe, I offer a prayer written in memory of (and mysteriously attributed to) Oscar Romero.

“It helps now and then to step back and take the long view.  The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.”

“No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.  No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.  We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.  We are prophets of a future not our own.”  [Bishop Ken Untener]