I suppose it won’t come as a surprise to you that I spend a lot of my time worrying about Seabury, its faculty, students, and staff, its future. Whatever else you can say about the present time here in Evanston, it’s stressful and it’s scary. To be sure, there may be a hopeful future at the end of all this, but right now most of it is painful and wrenching and hard. All of us who work here have precarious professional lives. Those of you who study here must find a way to make room for the stress of the seminary community in the midst of all the other ordination process traumas you experience. I must say that, as much time as I do spend worrying about everyone and their future, I am constantly amazed at how gracious and charitable everyone—especially those most vulnerable—have been during this period. I think we all know something about what it means for a grain of wheat to fall into the earth and die.
Whenever I think about this passage in the 12th chapter of John’s Gospel, I think about what Oscar Romero said about it:
Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies. . . The harvest comes because of the grain that dies. . . . We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.–[Oscar Romero, March 24, 1980]
Once you’ve heard that from Oscar Romero, what is there left to say? Oscar Romero was, of course, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was shot by Salvadoran death squads on March 24, 1980, minutes after he had said the words I just quoted. Romero had been a surprise to everyone as the leading prelate of El Salvador. In his earlier career as parish priest and seminary rector, Romero had opposed Marxism and given no hint that he would question the authority of the Salvadoran regime. But when Pope Paul appointed him Archbishop in 1977, Romero’s new role brought him into increasing conflict with both ecclesiastical and governmental authority. Grieved by the government’s violence against the people, he stopped attending all official state functions and asked repeatedly for international intervention on behalf of human rights. In the same final sermon in which he talked about the grain of wheat that dies to be reborn, Romero called upon Salvadoran soldiers as Christians to refuse to carry out the government’s abuses against its own people.
Now I do not raise the spectre of Salvadoran death squads in order to juxtapose it with Seabury’s current struggles. (“You think you’ve got problems? Just look at Oscar Romero!”) Rather, I bring Seabury’s problems into the light of Oscar Romero’s witness because, frankly, I believe that our cultural comfort can make us forget what the church is really here for.
Whether we like it or not, the Episcopal Church and its institutions participate in the many ideologies of market capitalism, and we, perhaps unconsciously, perpetuate those ideologies’ implied assumptions. We are incorporated by our secretaries of state. We have boards of trustees who represent the larger community’s oversight of our activities. We invest our money in the nation’s established financial institutions. Looked at from the outside, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary looks pretty much like any “non-profit” corporation. The same could be said for a parish church, a diocese, or any kind of church institution.
In a consumerist, culture like ours, even non-profit institutions exist to aggrandize and perpetuate themselves. To be sure, we all have “mission statements”, and to a greater or lesser extent we all see ourselves as accountable to those articulations of what we’re here for, but for all real purposes the standards by which we judge ourselves are not much different than the standards by which any secular business or charity measures its performance. Are we taking in more money than we spend? Are we doing at least as well financially as our competitors? Do our numbers (average Sunday attendance, enrolled students, employees on the payroll) show us to be winning the competition or losing it? Whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, at some level of our consciousness we all evaluate ourselves against American cultural norms of success and failure.
I would never want to be heard to suggest that we should not take standard accounting and business practices seriously. We are, after all, stewards of the resources which God has given us. But when you put American culture and its values up against the witness of someone like Oscar Romero, what do you get? What you get is not so much a critique of what and how we are doing. What you get is a basic and more fundamental question. And that is: are we confused, in this consumerist culture, about what the church is in fact here to do?
Very truly, I tell you, 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.—John 12.24
Oscar Romero found himself appointed Archbishop of San Salvador because he looked, both to the government and to the church, like a leader who would not confuse or upset the status quo. But what they got with Oscar Romero was someone who reminded them what the church was for. “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies.” This wasn’t just a prophetic challenge to the church and the regime; it was a total reordering and recollection of what the church, in fact, exists to do. As much as the culture wants to turn us into that, we are not chaplains for the established order. As much as the logic of our own systems propels us toward doing so, we are not here to expand and aggrandize ourselves. We are here, simply, to “surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ.” And by “the poor” Romero means, as Jesus did, “the poor”—those without money, status, resources, or power. When we attempt to spiritualize poverty into something else—to co-opt the language of poverty to describe any number of difficult but ultimately secondary conditions—then we are playing games both with Jesus and Oscar Romero.
Archbishop Romero found Salvadoran violence reprehensible for all kinds of reasons, but particularly because it victimized the poor. The same should be true for us. The poor people of the world right now are experiencing an explosive inflation of food prices which is making basic nutrition unaffordable for most people on the planet. If the church exists to “surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ,” then the real question before us today has more to do with what we are doing about global starvation than any other worthwhile cause we could possibly come up with. And in the light of that truth, the real question about our own experience of institutional dying should be this: as Seabury dies in its old incarnation, will we be reborn as a community which surrenders itself to the service of the poor through the love of Christ? Despite all the measures of institutional success and failure which we and others may attempt to apply to ourselves today and tomorrow, there is only one question which finally matters. A grain of wheat dies that it may be reborn. As the old Seabury begins to die, may Oscar Romero’s example inform our faithfulness to what real Christian witness is about—a sign of that new and risen life for the poor and for those who serve them which approaches even now on our horizon. Amen.