This sermon was preached on April 7, 2019 at Spring Glen Church in Hamden, Connecticut. An audio recording is available online.
Faith Beyond Words
Let me set the scene for you.
I am walking into a chapel in San Salvador. The doors are wide open. There are windchimes overhead made from seashells. I hear them jingle as a cool breeze comes through the sanctuary. The space is simple, but filled with light. There are windows all around. I see huge flowering rhododendrons outside. I walk farther into the chapel and I focus my attention on the chancel. There are almost a dozen fresh flower arrangements around the altar. Maybe this is because Oscar Romero’s feast day is only one week away?
As I approach the altar my eyes are drawn to a glass engraving on the floor. The glass depicts an outline of where Oscar Romero’s body fell after he was shot and killed while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. I am in the chapel at Hospitalito Divina Providencia in San Salvador. A few days earlier I hardly even knew of the existence of this exact place. However, as I walk around the chapel, soaking in the magnificent beauty of the nature that surrounds me, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I understand that I am walking on holy ground.
A few days before this encounter with the Spirit, I traveled over 2000 miles from New Haven, Connecticut to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador with a group of ten other Yale Divinity School students and our two faculty leaders. We had been preparing for this trip for nearly seven months. We had read over 1500 pages across ten different books to educate ourselves intellectually on liberation theology, the stories of religious martyrs in El Salvador, experiences of global migration, and other academic topics. But this trip was not just an academic learning experience. Traveling to El Salvador was an immersion. An immersion into the Salvadoran culture, an immersion into a country that suffered from a horrific 12 year civil war, an immersion into a new place with sights, sounds, and smells that at times would overwhelm our senses.
In some ways, an immersion experience is meant to be sensory overload. We participate in such trips to shake up our sense of self and return home with a new and different way of thinking. New smells, new sounds, new tastes, new sights, and new feelings. New, new, new. Not only an abundance of new, but old too. While I was in El Salvador, I experienced many old memories rushing to the front of my mind. A taste of a pupusa, the national staple food in El Salvador, brought back memories of my time living in Washington DC and eating pupusas with friends after church. Most mornings I woke to the sounds of birds chirping much like what I hear when I wake up here in New Haven. We saw familiar chain restaurants, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, Wendys, and others. The smell of fire where weeds were being burned in the countryside reminded me of the smell of campfires as a kid. When our senses our overloaded, the new is connected to the old, this is the way that our brains work. An immersion is an overwhelming experience but our brain protects us by reminding us that it is not all as new and jarring as it might first seem.
Three days of feeling overwhelmed by sensory overload is what prepared me to stop and recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chapel where Oscar Romero was killed. I had been searching for God in El Salvador. In our first two days of the immersion, we participated in two Catholic worship services entirely in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish and I struggled to connect with God during those worship services where I didn’t understand the prayers, I didn’t understand the songs, and I certainly didn’t understand the sermons! But those worship services weren’t meant for me. I was only an observer and just because I couldn’t feel God’s presence does not mean that God was not there. God was certainly present in those worship services, in the people, and throughout El Salvador.
The scripture we heard this morning calls our attention to this sense of God’s presence. Here in our lived experiences, even when we might not initially recognize it: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…” The letter writer in 1 John is reminding the reader of the tangible lived experiences they have had as followers of Jesus Christ. They have experienced the word made manifest through their senses, they heard, saw, and touched. A little bit of background about 1 John might help us understand the context of this passage. 1 John is an epistle written in such a similar style and with a similar vocabulary to the Gospel of John, that it leads biblical scholars to conclude that it was likely written by someone in the Johannine school, a follower of the writer of the Gospel of John. In ancient times, a letter was written to convey important information. Often the cost of visiting in person was very expensive. So it was more economical to send a letter. This particular letter was written because of a schism in the Christian community. In the church, letters were written to clarify and weigh in on debated topics. This background is important to recognize what is being emphasized. 1 John is reminding the reader of the importance of their fellowship as Christians and how they came to join this fellowship. They joined in fellowship because of what they experienced with their senses, “that which they heard, saw and touched.”
When I struggled to feel God’s immediate presence in El Salvador, it took a moment of reflection on what I had heard, seen, and touched. The reading that I had done to prepare for this immersion in El Salvador changed the way that I experienced everything. I was so much more aware of the history and the theology. There were many details that I might not have noticed if it wasn’t for the preparation that I had done. In particular, learning about Oscar Romero. The reading from 1 John says, “we saw it, and testify to it.” Romero, like Martin Luther King, Jr., saw that his life was under threat. But he testified anyway. He continued to preach the gospel even though he had foreseen that it would cost him his life.
The final story I will share this morning from El Salvador is a new theology that I learned. This is the theology of cohetes. Cohetes is the Spanish word for rockets or firecrackers. We participated in a novena prayer walk with a rural Catholic community. A novena is 9 days of prayer leading up to celebrating a saint’s feast day. During this novena prayer walk, we joined about thirty local community members walking along about two miles of dusty half-paved road. The group was singing songs and saying prayers along the way. All of a sudden a firecracker when off and I almost jumped out of my skin. By the end of the novena prayer walk, around 12 fireworks had been shot off and we had learned about the theology of cohetes. This is a theology of place. When you shoot off a firecracker, you do so from the ground. You light it and it shoots up towards the sky. The crack sound catches your attention and you look up towards the sky. In a religious sense, by looking upward we might draw our attention towards the heavens, towards a sense of the mystery and our awareness of God’s presence. Shooting off the firecrackers not only draws our attention, but the attention of those around us. That particular community used the firecrackers as a way to evangelize, to show others what they were doing and invite them in. I was drawn to the theology of cohetes because so often my own faith experience is orderly, inside, and quiet. The firecrackers led me to wonder about ways that I can testify in a similar way?
Not everyone can go on an immersion trip. But each of us can reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and we testify to in our lived experience as Christians. Do you need a firecracker to shake up your faith life? Or maybe you are the one who is lighting the firecracker to call attention to those around you?
Let us each continually reflect on what we have seen, what we have heard, and what we have looked upon and touched with our hands, in order that we might testify to it. Amen.