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Mount Olive Lutheran Church

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter

by The Rev. Beth Gaede

Oscar Romero served as archbishop of El Salvador from 1977 to 1980, and on March 24, just a few weeks ago, people throughout the world observed the thirtieth anniversary of his assassination. Father Romero was not a dangerous man. At least that’s what church leaders thought when they installed him as archbishop. He was predictable, a pious bookworm who held traditional values and was “willing to toe the line.”

Just a few weeks after his installation, though, something happened that changed his life. A friend of his, a Jesuit priest, was on his way to say mass and was shot to death because he defended farmers’ right to form cooperatives. After the murder of his friend, Romero began to recognize the injustice being carried out his country in the name of “traditional values.” Romero couldn’t ignore the fact that right-wing death squads raped, tortured, and murdered other Salvadorans without fear of punishment. In 1980 the war was claiming the lives of 3,000 people a month.

All Romero himself had to offer the people of El Salvador were weekly sermons broadcast by radio throughout the country. In the last sermon that was aired, he directly addressed the soldiers and policemen of his country, the people who were carrying out most of the atrocities. He pleaded: “In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, I beseech you, I implore you; in the name of God, I command you to stop the repression.”

The next day, he was celebrating mass in the chapel of a Catholic hospital in San Salvador. As he stood behind the altar, preparing the bread and wine for the Eucharist, a car approached the chapel. A gunman stepped out of the car, aimed through the open doors of the chapel, and opened fire on Romero, hitting him in the heart. He died a martyr.

Romero’s story teaches us an important truth: God calls surprising people in surprising ways to surprising work.

That truth was also illustrated in our second lesson today. Saul, also called Paul, was an important leader in the Jewish religious community. He was determined to get rid of Christians and was on just such a quest when God blinded him with a bright light, presented him with a vision of the risen Christ, and then sent him on to Damascus. There a disciple of Jesus came to heal Saul’s sight and baptize him. Within days, we read, Saul “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (v. 20).

Much of the New Testament is about the surprising work God called Saul to carry out. Because of his preaching, teaching, and writings, Christian communities were formed throughout the Mediterranean world, and no New Testament author has had more influence on Christian thinking.

Oscar Romero: a predictable, orthodox friend of the established church, becomes a fiery advocate for the oppressed. Saul of Tarsus: a Jewish scholar and leader, determined to destroy the disciples of Jesus, shapes two thousand years of church history. Surprising people called in surprising ways to surprising work. So, what do these stories have to do with us—with you?

The purposes for which God calls all of us are summed up in the Great Commandment that Jesus taught us: We are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Keeping those purposes in mind, these stories remind us, first, that God has a habit of calling people we would not expect. Saul and Oscar Romero were not the first unlikely people God called into service, nor were they the most unlikely. There have been many others—people who have been quick to tell God, You have the wrong person! Moses resisted: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exod. 3:11). Sarah, long past the age when she could bear children, laughed when God said she would have a son (Gen. 18:12). Jeremiah balked, saying, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jer. 1:6). Still, God persisted, and we could tell stories for hours about God’s odd choices.

You might be able to come up with all sorts of reasons why God would not, even should not, call you to serve God and neighbor. “I don’t have time.” “I’m too old.” “I’m too young.” “Other people are more qualified.” If you think it’s highly unlikely that God is calling you, take this to heart: you are just the latest in a long line of surprising people God has chosen. In other words, you’re next!

Second, these stories remind us that God’s call comes to us in surprising ways. The death of a friend got Romero’s attention. Saul was blinded and heard a voice from heaven. We probably won’t have such experiences. But we might hear God calling us in simpler, quieter ways. God often uses strategies like these:
  • We recognize we have gifts we can use to serve our neighbor, create art, care for plants and animals, or protect the environment.
  • We feel a passion to fight against some injustice or corruption we witness.
  • We notice a hope or dream or an unexpected invitation or an open door that turns out to be meaningful.
  • We realize that some activity we’re already involved in is bearing good fruit.
  • Someone who knows us well, a friend or colleague or family member, comments about how they see us serving others.
In fact, most of the time, God’s methods are so unremarkable, so ordinary, that God’s calling might be right in front of you and require only that you do “what comes naturally.” So, what does this mean? Pay attention.

Finally, God calls us, God calls you, to surprising work. Of course, I hope God is not calling me or you or anyone else I know to martyrdom. Yes, it’s possible that’s in store, but it’s not what I hope for. Still, if we surrender to God’s callings for us, we might discover we’re doing something we would never have thought possible. Maybe teaching a confirmation class, caring for an ailing relative, or spearheading a neighborhood revitalization project. Perhaps signing up to be a greeter or an acolyte here at Mount Olive, organizing a care team for a dying friend, or joining a group to fight for just immigration policies, to clean up after natural disasters, or to pray for peace in our world. The message for us is simple: Expect to be surprised.

Why? Because that’s how God works. Need more evidence? Jesus, God’s grace in the flesh, suffered, died, and rose from the grave to overcome the power of sin and death, to reconcile all creation with God, to restore all things to wholeness. Now what could be more surprising than that?

Take this with you today: God calls surprising people in surprising ways to surprising work. You’re next, so pay attention, because God has something in mind for you. And expect to be surprised, because that’s how God works.

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