Romero’s Conversion | 17 April 2016

Text: Psalm 23

Speaker: Chris Pedersen

I don’t know about any of you, but I really enjoy always being right. In fact you could ask any of my family members, girlfriend, or close friends, I am always right. There’s really only one rule to always being right, never admit your wrong. There’s a few easy ways to sidestep any attempts people might make to force you into admitting you were wrong. All you need to do is say ‘alright, you were right.’ And then quickly change the subject. There’s also nothing wrong with being on the losing side! Being on the losing side doesn’t necessarily mean you were on the wrong side. Just ask any Cleveland Browns fan! I’m sure this is there year! I will admit I hate loving the Cleveland Browns. But enough about me and the Browns being awesome, we should talk about church stuff.
So, what makes a Christian, a Christian? Is it the way they act? The way they think? The way they spend their Sunday mornings? Is it based entirely on an inward change? An outward change? Maybe a bit of both? Depending on who you ask, it could be any of these things. Or none. Or all of them! Christianity is a very difficult thing to nail down and be like ‘this is Christianity’, even to other Christians. But when someone is living in a way that exemplifies Jesus Christ to the best of their abilities, then it is very easy to recognize it. I am sure that each one of us could think of someone that ‘best exemplifies’ Christ with their life. It is usually someone that inspires us to change. It doesn’t have to be just one person too, it could be many. But what I want to do is tell you about someone who inspired me to change because of the amazing courage he displayed, even in the face of adversity. His name was Oscar Romero.
The year is 1977. Oscar Romero lives in El Salvador during a time when there is an extreme divide between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the voiceless. Born in 1917, he slowly climbed the Catholic ladder to eventually become Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 at age 59 (he’s kind of a big deal). Up until this point in Romero’s life, he was safe. He was privileged, educated, and protected by both the church and the government. He viewed the government of El Salvador as innately good and trying to act on the behalf of the people, holding this view even in the midst of widespread violence and hunger. To give a short synopsis of what is going on around El Salvador at this time, 14 Salvadoran families own 60 percent of the arable land and an estimated 65 percent of the population is landless and has no place to go.
In 1977, so around the time Romero entered the office as Archbishop, some of the pastors, priests, and other religious leaders in El Salvador began to take a stance against the government and their widespread violence. One of the outspoken Priests on this issue was Oscar Romero’s friend, named Rutilio Grande.  It was a war on the poor and the marginalized and it was one that they could not win, especially after El Salvador began to receive military assistance from the United States in exchange for installing a President afterwards that would be chosen by the U.S. In total, over 75 thousand people are murdered during this internal struggle that was waged on the poor.
Romero himself was not quite on board with Rutilio’s idea yet because he still fully believed that the leaders of the government acted with good intentions. That is, until the government started killing anyone and everyone that opposed them, including these religious leaders. Romero’s friend, Rutilio, was murdered on the way to mass one night. Rutilio had been outspoken about the injustices that had been occurring and refused to be silent on these issues. The government chose to silence him permanently. On this night, Oscar Romero experienced a life conversion that changed him forever. He never spoke about that night but from that moment onward, he became part of a fight he originally wanted no part of.
The problem with being a big deal in El Salvador at this time is that when you speak out against the government, they will find you. It was only a matter of time that Romero could stand with the poor and be so outspoken about it before enough people heard it that didn’t like what he was saying. Three years after earning the title of Archbishop of San Salvador by the Catholic Church, the government decided that he was a threat to their success. Romero knew this was going to happen. It happened to Rutilio, now it was Romero. Standing against injustice put him in the crosshairs. On March 24th, 1980, Oscar Romero was shot while performing communion at mass. As he was lifting up the elements to present to the people, a single shot was fired from outside the church, killing him.
In the week leading up to that mass, Romero knew that the end was near. The staff found explosives planted in the church earlier in the week and the paper oddly announced when mass was going to be. The only thing Romero did differently this entire week was arrange a council that would decide who the next archbishop would be when he died. At the final mass Romero was to preside over, he chose to read Psalm 23. How fitting. I had no idea when I chose to speak about Oscar Romero’s conversion that the lectionary passage for today was also Psalm 23.
When I was young, I remember memorizing Psalm 23 for a bible school program that was run through the elementary school. The meaning to me when I was young was that I should fearlessly trust in God and understand that everything will end up ok. It is interesting to realize just how differently people of other times and other places have read this Psalm. Romero truly was in the midst of his enemies, in the darkest valley, and he feared no evil. The Lord had prepared a table for him and Romero gladly sat down and prepared for what was going to be presented to him.
Rutilio’s death had converted Romero into a now fearless leader. When a religious person becomes the target of the government, they are either doing something extremely right or extremely wrong. In this case, when you are attempting to stand alongside the innocent people that are getting slaughtered by the thousands, then you are probably doing something extremely right to end up alongside them. By the end of Romero’s life, he realized that there was no other group of people that he would rather be with, or die for. Romero’s conversion experience from doing nothing to jumping in head first is an intriguing one.
The word conversion is a somewhat simple word to understand, it means ‘to change.’ Conversions are always happening both within us and around us. Conversions are inevitable. Sometimes though, conversions are unexpected. Oscar Romero’s conversion was very much so an unexpected one. What Romero’s conversion teaches us is that we must always be receptive to a change of heart. There is always a good chance that we are wrong about something. He had been part of the church for many years and his devotedness to his faith was acknowledged by everyone around him, but yet we see a huge conversion experience in the final three years of his life. How does this happen? You would think that after 59 years of living, he would have seen enough violence or oppression to change his viewpoint if it was going to happen. Yet, it took a friend being murdered for him to realize that as a religious leader, he was supposed to stand alongside the poor and marginalized. In the final three years of his life, his eyes were opened and he was able to see that if he did not speak out against the violence and chose to be silent, then he was practically supporting the wrong doings of the government.
So what can we learn from these atrocities? Well, three things.
First, keep your heart open and receptive. Jesus spends a lot of time trying to change the hearts of those around him. We read countless instances where he tries to correct or challenge a Pharisee that is sure that he is 100% right. After reading the gospel accounts many times, I have come to the conclusion that I am 100% sure that I am wrong about something, I just haven’t figured out about what yet… See, still not wrong!
Second thing, if people around you are being marginalized and you aren’t trying to stand alongside them, then you better have a good reason not to, even if it makes you uncomfortable. This concept is part of the reason why Columbus Mennonite has chosen the year-long theme of Black Lives Matter. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” End quote. Part of what got Jesus, Rutilio, Romero, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. all killed was the fact that they were speaking out against those in power and standing alongside the marginalized while doing so. When we start speaking truly powerful things, there is a good possibility that someone, somewhere, will get scared of what we are saying and doing. Powerful words can do powerful things. If as a person of faith you always feel safe and comfortable, then there is probably something missing. Our faith is not supposed to be easy and there is supposed to be a certain amount of resistance that comes with accepting a life that is no longer dedicated to ourselves. As followers of a just God, we are supposed to speak out against injustices. Stepping out of our comfort zone will lead to undoubtable growth.
The third and final thing, stay strong. Romero could have chosen to back down at any time. Yet, he truly embodied Psalm 23, even to the point of death. Not being intimidated by worldly powers is a very unnatural thing, and that alone can inspire others. What I will say though about staying strong about a particular thing is that you should make sure that you are 100% certain that you are right first, or at least that you aren’t going to admit you are wrong. Just kidding, don’t do that. It’s ok to admit you are wrong sometimes, just not in front of 150 people. In Romero’s case, it’s hard to be wrong about standing alongside the people that are being innocently murdered daily in the streets. Refusing to be intimidated is difficult, but rewarding.
If we are willing to allow our faith to be transformed by life experiences, as Oscar Romero was, conversion could happen at any time, in any place, and could affect thousands or even millions of people. Each one of us has the ability to change the lives of everyone around us. It is hard to see the impact a single decision could make on the world around us. Romero’s fearless embodiment of Psalm 23 led to a life that resembled Jesus Christ’s own life. I want to encourage all of us to be open and receptive to this idea of conversion, or change, as we move forward as an individual, as a family, as a congregation.
Before I conclude the sermon I want to come clean of something, I really am wrong a lot. But I was being sincere about being on the losing side not meaning you are on the wrong side. Oscar Romero’s conversion brought him to a point in his life where he acknowledged the wrong doings of the government and switched to the losing side. If you are wondering why the poor were obviously losing though it’s because one side had guns and the other did not. But ultimately the poor won the war. They won it through their steadfast faith and their inability to accept defeat. Many attribute the strength of the people coming from Oscar Romero’s life and how near the end, he influenced many others to stand up to injustices. The amount of influence a single act of courage could have on this world is immeasurable. So, be courageous, be strong, be fearless. Even in the darkest valley.