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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, March 26, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the 21 adults and four children who are joining First Church and especially to Pamela Kallner and Kathleen O'Neill on their baptismal day, to Don Streibig as he goes to El Salvador with SARA, and to the Rev. Lesley Allen who gave his life in service to the Lord and now rests with him eternally and always to the glory of God!
South America: Liberation and Expectation

Part V of VII in sermon series:"The Changing Face of Christianity"

Ephesians 2:1-10, and John 3:14-21

Oscar Romero was appointed as archbishop of San Salvador because he was a theological conservative. He was a quite man, a prayerful man. He was a man who had no time for the priests who were adherents of Liberation Theology, a growing movement in Latin America which called for faith practiced from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. The Pope in Rome chose a true defender of the faith when he chose Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador.

What Rome had not considered was that Oscar Romero was a parish priest, first and foremost. This simple man of faith experienced a new conversion to Christ in poorest of the poor in his parish. On a visit to one of the rural parishes, Archbishop Romero was invited for dinner to the home of one family following the Mass. He had traveled far, celebrated several masses, and was hungry. The humble woman joyfully placed a small amount of food on the table before him. He turned to the priest at his side and asked disdainfully, "Is this all they are serving me? Don't they realize I am their bishop?" His priest responded, "Father, they are very honored to have you at their table. This woman has just served you all the food her family has for the entire day." Romero looked up at the faces of this family of nine and saw their faces smiling back. He wept silently. Later he wrote: "I saw the face of my Savior in their eyes and I prayed, `Father forgive me for I know not what I am doing.' In that moment, I was converted to Christ."

Oscar Romero was shot to death while celebrating Holy Communion in a small chapel in San Salvador 26 years ago this week. In his last Sunday homily - delivered one day before his murderous martyrdom - Archbishop Romero called for the Salvadoran death squads and military, in the name of Jesus Christ , to stop killing the people of El Salvador. In Christ's name, he appealed to the soldiers to not follow the orders to murder the innocent people of his land. He told those listening across the country: "If you continue to murder innocent people, you need to know: the blood of the martyrs will sow seeds of resurrection among our people."

Through his conversion and his martyrdom, Oscar Romero lived out a theology that listened to the poor. Once he heard their cries, he never again turned a deaf ear to their needs. He lived a theology of the cross and of resurrection. This is the way which is open to each one of us. In The Way of the Cross - The Way of Justice, Franciscan priest and Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff has written this meditation on the resurrection:

Wherever an authentically human life is growing in the world,

wherever justice is triumphing over the instincts of domination,

wherever grace is winning out over the power of sin,

wherever human beings are creating more fraternal mediations in their social life together,

wherever love is getting the better of selfish interests,

And wherever hope is resisting the lure of cynicism and despair,

there, the process of resurrection is being turned into a reality.

(Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, 1980, p. 126).

Across Latin America, the themes of love and justice; grace and hope stream out of people's lives and their theology. In my two trips to Central America, I have been touched by the humility and love of Christ I have seen in the lives of the poor. What Oscar Romero saw in the faces of the poor peasants in his parish, I have seen as well. Is it any wonder that a theology of liberation has grown in such fertile soil of humble servant suffering and love?

In fact, it is God's love known through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that answers so many questions of our faith. In today's lesson, Jesus proclaims the gospel in a nutshell when he says: "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). This is Gospel medicine for a world hurting for love, light, and eternal life! Jesus goes on to say that God's love is known through the Son (vs. 18), that the pathway to eternal life is in and through the Son (17:3), that God's light shines in the darkness and overcomes the dark (vs. 20) and God's light is for those who follow him a gift and an occasion for joy (vs. 21). John's gospel gift to us should sustain is in our lives as we search of meaning and salvation.

John 3:16 shows us God's love for the entire world, not just the Christian world. Here we learn that Jesus has been given to us by God to teach us how to love. There will always be misunderstandings in our lives. We will say and hear words that hurt. Somebody will carry tales about us to others, but one thing remains true: In Jesus, God has given us the immensity of love. God has given us His Love in Action. As his disciples, we have become his love in action!

Cuban American Theologian Miguel A. De La Torre, reminds us in his book Latino/A Theologies, that while most Hispanics would not deny the importance of John 3:16, they also view Luke: 4:18-19 as playing a major role in their understanding of salvation. This passage recounts Jesus' first proclamation of his mission of love in action. After his baptism, forty days in the desert, and temptation by Satan, Jesus returns to the town where he was brought up. He enters the synagogue in Nazareth, opens the scrolls and reads from the Book of Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring the gospel news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

"Many Hispanic Christians see a Jesus who links salvation with the praxis of liberation," writes Dr. De La Torre. They remember the words of Jesus recorded by Luke in 3:9: "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." While the dominant culture of our faith tries to reduce Christ's salvific act into the proclamation of one verse of scripture (John 3:16), the reality still is this: salvation is a gift from God that cannot be earned. Through God's grace, not our own works, are we saved. De La Torre finishes:

Although Latinas/os agree that salvation begins in the love praxis from God, they insist that the works of the believers are outward expressions of the inward conversion . . . Hispanics link salvation with the treatment of those who are oppressed. To ignore the plight of the disenfranchised is to ignore Christ's message of salvation, a message synonymous with liberation (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, 2001, pp. 85-86).

Today, the church in Latin America is continuing to awaken to the plight of the poor. For those following this sermon series, it will not shock you to hear that Pentecostal Christian churches are growing by leaps and bounds. A mark of their growth is sharing resources with the poor in their countries. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church remains the dominant faith community for Latin American Christians. In places where the church responds to the cries of the poor, the church is flourishing - whether Pentecostal, Protestant or Catholic. Meanwhile, the fastest growing number of Christians in America comes from Central and South America. Their influence of worship, music, and spirituality is changing the face of Christianity in North America. As such, we can learn so many lessons from our sisters and brothers in faith coming to North American churches. Let us open our hearts and minds to do so.

Harkening back to Oscar Romero, I leave you with this appeal today. With the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, I appeal to you in the name of Jesus Christ to do everything in your power to stop the violence and killing in our generation. Our papers and nightly news are filled with stories of the killing of innocent children, women, and men in our homes, on the streets, in the schools, and across the globe in warfare. Wherever you see violence and war, I ask you to speak out. Whether in your homes, neighborhoods or in the larger sphere of our world, do what you can to end violence. I say this while fully aware that we need to learn the language of love and nonviolence. But, there are avenues and means to do so. Let us seek them out, learn, and teach them to our children and to our children's children because the Americas, I see the tears of mothers and fathers whose children have been taken by societal violence and oppression.

The world needs Gospel medicine. With the Spirit of the Lord upon us, let us live anointed lives of love. We have been given God's light, life, and love in Christ. Let us boldly share Him with a hurting world and with a world waiting to be born. Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church