John 12:24-25 (The Message)
"Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground,
dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat.
But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.
In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life.
But if you let it go, reckless in your
love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal."
It is a horrible way to die. Leprosy is a gruesome, disfiguring disease. People naturally recoil from lepers partly because it is contagious to them, and partly from simple physical revulsion. The lepers we hear about most often are the ones in Biblical times, but this disease plagued people well into the 19th century.
Leprosy was one of the diseases that reduced the native population of the Hawaiian Islands from three hundred thousand to fifty thousand, killing five sixths of its population. The authorities could not control its spread or offer any remedies. So in 1868 they sent anyone diagnosed with the disease to the remote island of Molokai. By law, anyone with the disease had to be pulled away from their family and community, and sent to this island to die. Conditions on the island were horrific. People were literally dumped near the island’s coast and left to struggle to land as best they could. There was no shelter other than huddling in caves, no food other than what they could find by scavenging like animals. They were beyond the pale of any civil or moral law.
Father Damien De Veuster
The Church authorities were understandably surprised at the request of a young Belgian man, Damien De Veuster. He was a priest who had read the gospels, had read how Jesus responded to lepers, and who felt God was calling him to go embrace the lepers. He asked to be sent to do his ministry among the lepers on the island of Molokai, to live and die as one of them.
From the beginning he knew that he must not shrink from close physical contact with the lepers, even those who were most disfigured by the disease, even from the corpses of lepers. Before he arrived, the dead were tossed into shallow graves and eaten by feral dogs or wild pigs. Father Damien began by restoring dignity to death. He designed a clean, fenced-in cemetery, founded a proper burial society, and conducted funerals. He constructed a church and worked tirelessly alongside the people building clean new houses. Within a few years of his arrival, the island was transformed: what had been a hopeless and lonely exile had become a proud and joyful community. In his sermons, Father Damien addressed his parishioners not simply as “my brothers and sisters” but as “we lepers.” Father Damien saw the beauty in his parishioners. In the midst of all the suffering, he loved the people, and they loved him.
Eventually, his solidarity with the people became a physical reality, as he recognized in himself the signs of the disease. As the illness ravaged his own body, he worked harder than ever on his building projects and his pastoral responsibilities, knowing that his time was short. Damien died of leprosy on April 15, 1889. He was 59 years old. People might say that if he had made different choices, he could have saved his life. But we have a deeper sense that by making these choices, to live his faith with courage and love, he found his life. As the saying goes, what matters is not how many years are in your life, what matters is how much life is in your years. It was a horrible way to die, and yet, it was also a glorious, blessed way to die.
When we let go of our fear of death and loss, we are freed to do all sorts of amazing things. All the things that ordinary people think we want, the nice vacations, nice clothes, nice trappings of a comfortable life, are things Damien left behind, because Jesus held up for him a life that mattered more. Did the things that ordinary people pay attention to, the things that Damien himself had paid attention to when he was living in ordinary society, seem trivial or petty to him once he had experienced this new way of living?
Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Father Oscar Romero
For Oscar Romero, the situation was different. He was not the kind of guy who would challenge the status quo. He was a fairly conservative and quiet priest, whose election as archbishop of San Salvador was seen as acceptable to the oligarchy. But only a few weeks after his consecration, he found himself officiating at the funeral of a clergy friend who had been assassinated because of his commitment to social justice for the poor. Romero’s faith underwent a transformation. The formerly conventional and timid cleric became a fearless and outspoken champion of the poor in El Salvador. His weekly sermons, broadcast on the radio, featured an inventory of the week’s human rights violations, casting the glaring light of the gospel on the realities of the day. Many powerful people insisted he should not talk politics from the pulpit.
And yet, Romero knew that since Jesus talked about the oppression of the poor, the church’s option for the poor was an essential part of the gospel. He wrote, “A church that does not unite itself to the poor in order to denounce from the place of the poor the injustice committed against them is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ.” The country’s oligarchy became increasingly hostile to him, and even more painful to him, his fellow bishops became increasingly hostile as well. At the same time, he drew strength and courage from the poor campesinos, who embraced him with affection and understanding. He said, “With this people it is not hard to be a good shepherd.”
The political situation in El Salvador became increasingly violent in the late 1970’s. In 1980, weeks before his death, Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter appealing for a halt to further U.S. military assistance to the government whose death squads gunned down all opposition. On March 23rd, 1980, the day before his death, he appealed directly to members of the military, saying, “We are your people. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the voice of the man commanding you to kill, remember instead the voice of God: Thou Shalt Not Kill….In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise up to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression!” The next day, as he was saying Mass, he was gunned down at the altar.
Romero knew that if he continued to preach the gospel as he knew it, he would be killed for it. In an interview two weeks before his assassination, he said, “I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people. Martyrdom is a great gift from God that I do not believe I have earned. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life then may my blood be the seed of liberty, and a sign of the hope that will soon become a reality….A bishop will die, but the church of God—the people—will never die.”
Jesus said, “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
I find myself inspired by people who live the teachings of Jesus in different places, different times, different ways. My Presbyterian upbringing did not have much emphasis on the lives of saints, but despite that, or maybe because of it, I have deeply appreciated the book All Saints by Robert Ellsberg1, which I highly recommend. It is a beautifully written collection of 365 the life stories, each one or two pages, describing people who live their faith in an amazing variety of compelling ways: male and female, lay and ordained, ancient and modern, inside or outside the canonization process of the Church. The accounts that I have given of Damien De Veuster and Oscar Romero are summaries and direct quotes from Ellsberg’s book. They remind me that despite all the pressures of the prevailing culture, in every generation it is possible to follow Jesus in fresh and exciting ways.
Students in Psychology 101 are often taught Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow was a psychologist who taught human beings have various levels of needs, and once each level of need is met, people progress to the next level. Maslow says people’s first concern is to meet their basic needs for air, food, water, and sleep. If those needs are met, they can move on to seek the things on the next level, the need for security: physical safety, financial security, job security, family security, and security of property. If a person has those things in place, Maslow says, the person can go on to seek social needs of friendship, family, sexual intimacy, and a sense of belonging in community. Next comes the need for self-esteem, confidence, respect, and accomplishment. If those things are achieved, Maslow says, a person may be able to move on to the highest level, the level of self-actualization, the realization of one’s maximum potential, the realm of creativity, problem-solving, morality, spontaneity, and even the transcendent.
1 Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997
There is, of course, some validity in this theory. But the wonderful thing about the saints is that their lives turn this hierarchy of needs upside down. Instead of trying to build up everything they need for themselves first, they simply shed all the things they’re told they need, and dive into the transcendent, where they find creativity, morality, problem-solving, spontaneity, God, love. And as they swim through those waters, they find they don’t need all the layers of clothes they had shed and left on the shore. The clothes and shoes everyone told them they needed will only weight them down and get in the way of their swimming.
All this talk of saints may sound far away from our experience. But I listened to two parishioners recently. One parishioner was visibly upset as she talked about a local man here in the Northern Neck. This man’s son was working in the family business. One customer realized the son was gay and said he would not shop at a business with a gay employee. So the father fired his son rather than lose money. He may have more money now. But what has he lost?
The other parishioner talked about a young woman she knew whose boss said insulting things about gay and lesbian people and said he would never hire a gay or lesbian person. This woman knew that those things were not true of the lesbians she knew, and said so. As time went on, her boss kept on repeating the insults. She was heterosexual herself and she could have kept her job. The job was important to her, and she knew she would have a hard time finding another. But standing up for what she knew was right was more important. She gave her notice. She lost her job; she kept her integrity. The months without a job were hard. But when she looks back on it at the end of her life, I don’t think she will regret it. When I e-mailed the parishioner to ask her permission to quote her in the sermon, the parishioner added, “She is my present hero.”
People in the secular world often say, “don’t be a martyr” with the idea that martyrs are people who want us to feel sorry for them. But when we see people making sacrifices because of courage, integrity, faith, or love, our response is not to feel sorry for them, it is to say, “this person is my hero.”
In the last weeks of Lent, we increasingly focus on the impending death of Jesus. His sacrifice. His martyrdom. And in this season which we began with ashes on our foreheads, remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we consider our own death. We may or may not be called to give our lives as martyrs. But each mortal gives our lives to things in the decisions we make about what things we will give each day to. Will we try to live safely, trying to keep our lives for ourselves? Or will we live our faith boldly? Taking risks, giving more of our income, more of our hearts, more of our honesty?
Crucifixion is a horrible way to die. And yet, it is also a glorious, blessed way to die. Following Jesus to the cross is a painful way to live. And yet, it is also a glorious, blessed way to live.
Note: If you are still confused about how a gay Christian can feel they are 'right' with God I encourage you to read the section of the web site entitled "Gay and Christian? YES!"