This sermon was preached by President Michael Cooper-White at the opening eucharist of the 2012-13 second semester at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
My soul cleaves to the dust; give me life according to your word. (Ps. 119:25)
It was quite simply one of the most fascinating, engaging and uproariously funny stories I have ever heard in my life. As many of you have heard, a small band of us spent 8 days during January term in that small Central American country named El Salvador or “The Savior.” On our third night in the country, we bobbed like corks in a balmy little bay off the Pacific on the grounds of a delightful little hotel called, appropriately, El Paraiso or “Paradise.” After a leisurely dinner, I encouraged our local host to share a bit about his life journey.
Jorge grew up in a very poor family. By the time he became a teenager his parents were dead and he was on his own. Sporadic schooling in his early years left him only slightly literate. As has been the case with millions in the so-called “third world,” his only option was to go to work as a laborer. Years of oppression at the hands of unscrupulous patrones or employers, working overtime hour upon hour with no compensation whatsoever, left Jorge profoundly discouraged and deeply angry. When the escalating frustrations of millions of his fellow Salvadorans led many to join the revolutionary movement, Jorge enlisted as a guerilla in the FMLN. For a dozen years he joined the thousands who took up arms trying to unseat an oppressive US-backed government, with its brutal military, that kept the rich in power and killed tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
Jorge became a disciplined, perhaps decorated, guerilla soldier. Even more importantly, he exhibited the gift of persuasion. On one occasion, at great risk of his own life, he convinced 7 soldiers of the Salvadoran army to defect and join the opposition. Upon discovering his prowess as an undercover agent, his FMLN superiors ordered Jorge to adopt the guise of a pastor—and a Lutheran pastor specifically—in order to travel freely about the country, pass through the vast network of security checkpoints, and continue recruiting converts and conducting covert operations, including in the capital city of San Salvador itself.
In his undercover persona, one night Jorge was stopped by a high level army commander. “So you say you are a pastor?” demanded the soldier. “Then preach to me. Preach to me!” Jorge recounted his sheer terror for up until that moment he had never opened the Bible in his life, though he carried one in his backpack as part of his cover. With his heart pounding, he opened up the Scripture, read a verse and delivered an impromptu sermon that seemed to satisfy the army commander that he was in fact a real preacher.
Shortly thereafter, Jorge went to his commanding officer and demanded, “Doggone it (probably much stronger language than that!) if you’re going to pass me off as a preacher I’m going to study the Bible. He enrolled in the Lutheran University of El Salvador. And as he described it to us, “As I read the Bible I liked what I was reading.”
And thus it began. Jorge’s spiritual journey from unbeliever to a pastor now esteemed throughout the western region of El Salvador where the land of the Savior borders on its neighbor Guatemala. Pr. Jorge serves some 30 small remote villages; makes his pastoral calls on a bicycle. Like all the Lutheran pastors of El Salvador, he is a non-stipendiary pastor; no salary, no benefits. Just a bicycle and a Bible.
My soul cleaves to the dust; give me life according to your word.
Don’t take my word alone for it. Ask those who traveled with Dr. Erling and me on our J-term pilgrimage. Our brother Pr. Jorge can claim with authenticity, “My soul cleaves to the dust.” His whole life has been one of poverty, danger, fear and isolation. For years he walked dusty treacherous mountain trails, slept outside, looked over his shoulder at every turn knowing he was surely a marked man who could be wiped out by one precise bullet to the brain or breast. Even now, in a nation supposedly at peace, he makes himself vulnerable in order to serve those who live on the margins. Even now, 20 years after a peace treaty ended the violent civil war, when fireworks are set off in celebration he panics and is likely to duck for cover. When he enters a house he instinctively cases the joint to look for cover or a way out should he come under fire.
But despite all he has endured, and the lingering effects that our sophisticated society would label PTSD, our brother Pastor Jorge bears no bitterness, offers no complaints; in fact, as you spend a bit of time in his presence there is the sense that the wells of spiritual power run deeply in his soul.
“How can it be so?” we who live in relatively luxurious conditions are wont to ask. “How can one who has suffered so much, who continues to endure such hardship, whose people are so oppressed in a region where most years all their crops are destroyed when the River Paz floods its banks, how can he be so steady, hopeful, even in his quiet understated manner joyful?
The answer to those haunting questions is rather simple. Jorge, you see, made a calculated strategic move that forever changed his life when he insisted upon studying the Bible. In his encounter with the Word, out of the very dust of a war-torn land, Hermano Jorge was given life.
As articulated by its Bishop Medardo Gomez, the Lutheran Church of El Salvador espouses the theology of life. Compared to the many complex systems constructed over the centuries, it’s a simple, unwritten, some would say rather unsophisticated and unsystematic theology. God earnestly desires life, and life abundant for all of God’s people. And as disciples of the beloved Son Jesus, we must be about the mission of promoting life. Our ministry, therefore, is holistic and embraces the fullness of who we are; there is no distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual, for all of life is lived within God’s Spirit.
In our encounters with the recent history of Salvador, dominated by the 12-year war of the 1980’s and early 90’s, we heard over and over again the horrific stories of atrocities perpetrated by the infamous death squads. Usually in darkness of night, though sometimes brazenly in full daylight, these paramilitary storm trooper operators traveling in unmarked vehicles would take out anyone they suspected of being a guerilla or revolutionary sympathizer. By the hundreds names were added to the list of those detained, tortured and often murdered or simply “disappeared” by the death squads of El Salvador. Bishop Gomez and our host pastor Vilma Rodriguez were among those so sequestered, viciously interrogated and tortured. At the zenith of their nightmarish attacks, the death squads assassinated Catholic Archbishop, Oscar Romero; six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter, and so many more.
In the face of the infamous death squads of El Salvador there rose up a life squad led by the likes of Bishop Gomez, Pastor Vilma, Pastor Jorge and many others of several denominations. Over and over again they were sustained by their cries of lament and their visions of hope.
My soul cleaves to the dust; give me life according to your word.
So then, you ask, what does all this rather gloomy preacher is telling us about a far-off and largely forgotten place have to do with us? We are not called, at least most of us, to lives of such sacrifice, austerity and insecurity. Most of us do not go out in the morning wondering if we shall be brought home by night disfigured or dismembered in a casket. By comparison, even the poverty of a seminarian pales over against the poverty of our host pastor who anguished when the roof blew off her church and its repair would cost the enormous sum of $3-400.
Is there perhaps an even greater dustiness that permeates the lives of us who take for granted hot showers, toilets that flush, water you can drink, roads that are passable by cars with tires unlikely to blow at the next pothole?
Amidst a culture that spends billions, billions of dollars on trillions of nachos and chips and cans and bottles of beer as we gather around glowing screens to watch a championship football game, is there perhaps not an even more severe kind of impoverishment?
Compared to a Salvadoran church which has grown from 1 to some 70 congregations; from 2 pastors to more than 150 pastors, deacons, catechists and evangelists in just three decades, are our churches not impoverished as we sit around and bicker over minor matters and wring our hands as we contemplate the future?
The good news, no better than that, the great news for us as our souls cleave to the dust and wallow in our worries is that out of the dust, out of the parched weary dustiness of our lives grows a vine. And it is watered by the Spirit of God. And the vine rooted in the dust, kept evergreen by the Living Waters that flow from the very font of God’s unending and ever-flowing grace, promises: “You, my sorry lot of friends; you who know a poverty greater in some ways than the wretched of the earth; you, yes YOU are the branches. And you can, you will, no you MUST bear much fruit!” We will abide in God’s grace, and God’s Spirit always and forever abides in us, come what may.
It’s a new semester, a new season in the life of this old and ever-more historic seminary. And each of us, each of us has a choice. And together we have a decision how we shall embrace it. We can whine, we can wallow in the dust, we can feel sorry for ourselves and fret and frown with furrowed brows. Or we can cry out with the Psalmist: “Give us life in your Word! Let us bear much fruit! Let us love and be filled with joy, as you have loved us and so that your joy, Oh God, so that YOUR joy may be complete!”
Are we bold enough, are we big enough to offer that kind of joy to God and to one another? When the moment of truth comes, are we ready to enlist in God’s Life Squad, from which there is no discharge and in which we shall abide forever?