Mar 21, 2009
Charles James Cook
There is a remarkable scene in the movie Romero, based on the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred religious leader in El Salvador. Romero has arrived in a small rural village to pray and pay his respects at the burial site of one of his priests, Father Grande - a faithful priest who has been murdered by one of the military junta's hit squads, famous for terrorizing anyone who dared to speak out for equal rights for the poor. As he concludes his personal prayer, villagers gather around him, welcoming a person they consider to be close to God into their midst. They are overjoyed that the bishop would come to their village, even for such an occasion marked with loss and grief.
It is at that moment that the visitation takes an interesting turn. Several soldiers approach Romero and confront him directly with mocking laughter and outright verbal taunts. They openly ridicule him, in front of the villagers, in order that their humiliation of his presence and his office would send a clear message to others about who really had authority and power. As if the verbal mocking wasn't sufficient, one of the soldiers suddenly grabs Romero's cassock, and the pectoral cross hanging from his neck and shoulders, and tears them from his body, where they fall to the ground. Laughing, the soldiers, convinced that their mission has been satisfactorily accomplished, walk away. The Archbishop stands, trembling in fear and despair, naked from the waist up, realizing that he is very much alone.
Humiliated in front of his own people, stripped of his personal dignity and sacred office, the Archbishop puts his hands to his face and says, "I cannot continue to do this. I am unable to carry the burden any longer..." It is at that moment that an elderly peasant woman, one of the villagers, takes a shawl from her own shoulders and places it around the neck of Oscar Romero. It is her way of not just clothing him, but of symbolically placing a make-shift stole on his shoulders, one hand-made and well worn over time. As she does this, she says, "But you are our voice...you speak for us." "You are our voice...you speak for us."
Romero believed at that moment he knew, perhaps really for the first time, the true meaning of his ordination. He also knew what he had to do - he had to discover the voice that had been given to him - by God and by God's people. He would later say, not long before he would be martyred, "As a pastor, I cannot cease to accompany my people...to be with them and accept with them the risks of the moment." For Romero, finding his voice as a spiritual leader meant speaking up for his people, regardless of circumstance - come what may. As a bishop, he did that well, and while he was long ago laid to rest, his voice resonates through almost every level of life in El Salvador.
In today's selected reading from the Hebrew Scripture, we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah. He speaks of a servant who God has chosen to lead the people, and this servant will speak with clarity and truth bringing justice to the land. Christians have often found in these prophetic words of Isaiah a prefiguring of the one who would later come and put into practice the deeds of the servant, foretold by the prophet of old...Jesus the Christ...the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life on behalf of others. Isaiah follows this announcement of an impending servant with an extraordinary declaration:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
What is remarkable about this pronouncement is how hopeful it is, how promising, how full of potential, how ripe with new possibilities and creativity in each and every phrase. Israel has just been through one of the most difficult periods in its history - the people of God have been in captivity - they have tried to learn how to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, on the shores of Babylon - and now Isaiah, in the middle of the muck and the mud, is speaking words of hope. That must have sounded wonderfully strange to a people who had likely given up on any spirit of encouragement, much less the promise of a hopeful future. But there it is - as plain as day - hope in a nutshell. Isaiah says, "Behold, God is about to do a new thing."
Now, before we are tempted to embrace the idea that Isaiah, as a prophet,
only preached happiness - life as sea shells and balloons - let us remember that
Isaiah also believed that what had happened to Israel was a result of their not
being faithful as individuals and as a people. They had forgotten the covenant;
they had gone their own way, promoting injustice rather than justice - finding
security in deceitful practices rather than in the truth. As Walter Brueggemann
would say, they had moved from anamnesis to amnesia; from remembering to
forgetting. So what we have is a prophet who stands firmly in the old tradition
of divine judgment while, at the same time, offering a word of hope. That was
Isaiah's voice. He said to the people: You have become your own worst enemy but
you can also become your own best hope. That is the paradoxical nature of the
prophetic voice - it combines the truth of reality with the promise or assurance
The prophet Isaiah, speaking to his people with a mixture of identifying the painful truth, the often difficult reality of the situation, combined with a word of promise and hope offers significant insight into what we long for and need from leaders in our own time. Both within and beyond the boundaries of the church, there are more dark clouds on our cultural horizon than we seem to be able to manage - even if we address them just one at a time. Our economy is in shambles, housing markets continue to crash, the gap between rich and poor has never been greater, often stretched even more by human greed, avarice, and deception. We remain at war on at least two discernable fronts, neither of which look all that promising in regard to outcome, and over forty million of our own, many of them women and children, cannot get adequate health care in order to sustain a normal life. The popular press reports that our churches, synagogues, and temples continue to decline in numbers and influence, our own denomination bickers about inclusion and exclusion, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and we strain, at best, to even attempt on a given Sunday morning to reflect the diversity and pluralism in our liturgical spaces that we all encounter in the world around us each and every other day of the week. In such a climate, it would be easy to simply give up, throw in the towel, and adopt a theological or Christian cynicism that simply accepts the way things are and do the best we can with the cards we've been dealt. As Kenny Rogers once sang, "You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away and know when to run."
But then there is Isaiah. When the metaphorical and literal darkness enveloped the people of God, he named the truth, and then spoke the words of hope. Yes, the former things have come to pass, but God is about to do a new thing. The Biblical witness, those ancient stories of God and creation, remind us time and time again that when all seems lost, the valley of the shadow is at the door, then get ready to not only emerge from the darkness, but get busy actively assisting in the process of recreating the world in God's image once again. As the wise character in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, played by Morgan Freeman says, "You either get busy living, or get busy dying." Eventually, for all of us, the latter will occur, to be sure, but, in the meantime, the former is what we need to embrace. It is what sustains us and brings us ever closer to the one who is life itself. Ultimately, our religious, social and political leaders - our Bishops, especially - imitating Isaiah - are the ones who have a distinct voice in reminding us that regardless of context and circumstance, we are, at our very essence a hopeful people, devoted to bringing joy out of sorrow, comfort out of pain, and life out of death. For us, the heart of the matter is always what we know as Resurrection faith.
Our hope is in Jesus Christ. It is a broad and boundless hope that makes its way into every corner and crevice, every height and depth, into every living being-even touching those who resist its presence. The Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky, knew this to be true when he wrote to a friend, "If anyone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it really was so that the truth was outside Christ, then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth." Our hope in Christ is not always what the world hopes for, and for that, we remain eternally grateful - challenging, though it may be.
"You are our voice...you speak for us," the woman in the village said to Oscar Romero, when all seemed lost and the good Bishop faced perhaps his darkest hour. Leaders have their own voices, their own unique way of expression, grounded in both intuition and interpretation - mixed with not a little bit of expectation. There are those moments when one has to stand alone, and speak, whether it is a difficult word or a word of comfort. Romero had to speak a challenging word to those in power, to stop the oppression, to stop, in the name of Jesus Christ, the killing. It proved to be both costly and redeeming. The reason he was able to speak with conviction and assurance is that he remembered his authority came from God and from God's people. "You are our voice," she said, "You speak for us." His voice can still be heard, even to this day, in the lives of the people in El Salvador.
Today, we are gathered here to witness and celebrate the ordination and consecration of J. Scott Mayer, as a Bishop in this wonderful portion of Christ's One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church...all seventy-seven thousand square miles of it. While the historical moment may be a bit dark, there is plenty of hope in this sacred space. We can all feel it. Alice Walker wrote in her superb novel, The Color Purple, "people don't come to church to find God, they bring God in with them." That is true this morning, because where God is present, hope always abounds. Scott comes as one who is known, born of this culture, nurtured and nourished by its own people, salt of the earth, with a keen eye for authenticity, and an intuitive and compassionate heart. His theology is centered deeply in the Gospel, his doctrinal leanings stretch from the Caroline Divines to the late John Macquarrie, and his pastoral and cultural sensibilities are pure Hank Williams. You'll recognize all of those ingredients in Scott's voice - just be on the lookout should he attempt to intone sections of the liturgy to the familiar tune of "You're Cheatin' Heart."
In the twenty-five years that I have been teaching in one of our theological seminaries, I have had the opportunity to attempt to determine what actually makes an authentic leader - one who brings that special "something" to the table and to the community of faith. Professional talents and skills are a great help, to be sure, but they are never as important as those essential human qualities of humility, authenticity, and integrity. Without those qualities, all the skills and talents in the world won't really make much of a difference - at least where it counts.
Parker Palmer has often said, "We teach who we are." I believe that this is true of leaders as well. We lead from an inner awareness that is either authentic or not. When we are authentically who we are as persons, then the various roles we assume in leadership are authentically exercised.
This is what we have in Scott Mayer, chosen Bishop in the church. His voice and person will be grounded in those essential qualities. He will speak the truth about reality, and sometimes that truth may be difficult to hear. But, he will also offer a word of hope - a hope that is never shallow but grounded in the presence of God and God's people.
What more could we possibly ask for or celebrate on this extraordinary day? Blessed be the name of God.
The Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Isaiah 42:1-9
Buechner, Frederick. BEYOND WORDS. Harper Publishing. 2004
Westermann, Claus. Old Testament Library: Isaiah 40-66. SCM Press. 1969
Romero and Shawshank Redemption are movies in wide release. I thank those who have expressed ideas to me about these films over the years.
Return to Home Page
Return to Consecration Page
This page is a project of
The Diocese of Northwest Texas.
Send comments or questions to
Last Updated: March 25, 2009