This sermon was inspired by Craig Koester, Professor and chair of New Testament at Luther Seminary, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and free soloist mountain climber Alex Honnold.
I have often been threatened with death, if they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. If the threats come to be fulfilled, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.
These are the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero shortly before his assassination on March 24, 1980. Romero had celebrated his last mass at Hospital de la Divina Providencia (Divine Providence Hospital), a church-run hospital that specialized in end-of-life care. Finished with his sermon, Romero stepped away from the lectern, and took a few steps to stand at the center of the altar to prepare for communion. A red car stopped on the street in front of the chapel. The gunman came out of the car, stepped to the door of the chapel, and fired. Romero was struck in the heart, the gunman walked out and the vehicle sped off.
A week later, 250,000 people from all around the world attended the funeral. The crew that carried out the murder became known as “Los Angeles,” the angels. Subsequent investigations revealed that Lt. Colonel Oliver North, then an aid to President George H. W. Bush, gave an order to the Salvadoran military to get rid of Los Angeles because they knew too much. In the years between his ordination in 1942 and 1977, Romero was a typical quiet, pious, conservative Catholic cleric. Indeed, that is why the Archdiocese appointed him. Even after he became Bishop, Romero closely associated with greedy landlords, important power brokers, and even violent military death squads. When he became Archbishop, the Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador were slaughtered by the military. Romero did nothing and said nothing.
But one man, Rutilio Grande, reached out to Romero in the weeks after his installation and urged him to learn from the poor and speak on their behalf. As his name implies, Grande was a social justice giant. He organized the rural poor and he paid for it with his life. When Grande was slain on March 12, 1977, Romero was deeply transformed forever. Death has a way of doing that—and death takes many forms: the end of a person’s life; the crushing of one’s spirit; the finality of a relationship; deep and painful divisions in families.
The story of David, Goliath and Johnathan has all of that and then some. The often told story of the young boy David slinging stones at the giant Goliath and slaying him, is all by itself a wealth of fertile sermonizing material. Who are today’s Davids, Denices, and Johnathans? What are their contemporary slingshots and stones made of? Who are the jealous, vengeful King Sauls? Just like back then, the Goliath’s and Philistine armies of today appear to have us outnumbered. What about infighting?
In the full version of the text, when David agitates the Israelite soldiers to take action against Goliath and the Philistines, David’s own brother, Eliab, angrily says to him: “Who do you think you are? You don’t belong here. You just want to be the center of attention. Go back to wherever you came from.” David is being attacked and he is vulnerable and exposed. Let’s go back to what we also just heard the Hebrews text:
Before God, no one is hidden, all are naked and laid bare to whom we are accountable. We have a Holy One who has passed through the heavens—Jesus, the Son of God. We have a Holy One who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, and who in every respect has been tested as we have been.
David’s faith is solid. He says to Saul: “God saved me from the bear and the lion and God will keep me safe when I fight Goliath.”
Alex Honnold’s Goliath was “El Cap.” El Capitan is a 3,000-foot sheer granite hulk in California’s Yosemite Valley. The documentary Free Solo chronicles how Honnold, as David, becomes the first person to ever climb El Cap’s slippery rock face “free solo”—with no ropes or safety equipment of any kind. Have any of you seen it? It’s playing at the Lagoon and it is a stunning story of perseverance and faith in one’s self against overwhelming odds. The free solo of El Cap is described as a three-and-a-half-hour Olympic floor exercise where the slightest mistake anywhere along the way would mean certain death.
Our Goliaths and El Caps are relative; they are based on our fears. In a few short days I will be traveling to Colorado for a few days off and to see some of my family. I haven’t visited there for a few years and I’m looking forward to doing a little fishing in the mountain air, doing some hiking, and relaxing in the hot springs pool. But, I’m not eager to be confronted by the tensions that exist in my family. There are deep divisions between some of us and I’m uncertain about how they will relate to me and to each other. Mostly, I’m beginning to regret that I was the one who suggested that we all try to get together in the first place.
So, what is your El Cap? Who or what is your Goliath? I want to ask you to take a moment to meditate and pray. In your meditation, I invite you to name something that you fear and then in your prayer I invite you to ask God to help you in whatever way you need to feel and to receive that help.
A large part of what I know I need to do during my trip is to trust that God has my back. But that trust is active, not passive. I have to put myself out there, not foolishly but not timidly either. My faith—our faith—is a courageous faith. As followers of Jesus, we boldly go, trusting that God is with us, nurturing us and protecting us. We boldly go just as David did and just as the Hebrews text tells us, approaching God’s grace with boldness, so that we may receive God’s mercy and grace. I am excited that in the coming weeks, we will be learning about three new First Church Congregational Goals. Without revealing what they are I want to ask you to repeat after me: Build, purpose, joy. Power, energy, relationships. Nurture, community, together. These profound words are featured prominently in the three goals and I can’t wait to engage with them, with all of you.
During the Presidential administrations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, the U.S. spent $6 billion to kill 75,000 poor Salvadorans by arming and training Salvadoran death squads and by the hand of the US military and the CIA. After he was enlightened, Archbishop Romero wrote a letter to President Carter asking him to cancel military aid, but Carter ignored him. During his March 23, 1980, Sunday sermon, the day before he died, Romero issued to the Salvadoran military and to the United States, one of the greatest appeals for peace and disarmament in church history:
It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church of God, of human dignity, cannot remain silent. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
Today, Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez is being canonized, or recognized as a saint, by Pope Paul in Vatican City. A later part of the story of David and Saul says “In everything he did the Lord was with him.” So it was with David.
So it is with Alex Honnold.
So it was with Archbishop Oscar Romero.
And so it is with us.