(Readings: Psalm 31: 15-24; John 12: 23-32)
You all got lucky today. Not by getting me as your speaker, that’s pure dumb luck, but because when I told my priest friend Peter (yes, Durban surfer boy, for those of you who were here last year when he preached or who ate his sourdough bread yesterday) I was talking to you today, he said, in no uncertain terms, “Just so you know: you're not allowed to produce a broomstick or a cat.” (promptly produced) I think we all know how good I am with authority.
So, what’s the story, morning glory? For the younger among you, that phrase may conjure up memories of Oasis’ smash album from 1995, but in my circle, it was in use long before. It usually meant, ‘Stop lying to me and telling me you’re fine, you’re as prickly as a porcupine and standing on my last nerve. Dish – what’s the REAL story?’
The *real* story? What does that even mean in a – dare I say it – postmodern world, where the notion of objective reality is questioned and many of us sound like Pontius Pilate in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’:
So what is truth, is truth unchanging law
We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?
We live in a world where neo-Nazi violence is equated with peaceful protest; where blatant, easily fact-checked lies are diarrhoea out of the mouths of those who lead us, feeding the rabid fear and hatred of those desperate for easy solutions of ‘us and them’, terrified of navigating the complex, nuanced world we live in. A world where polarity threatens to destroy relationships, nations, the world, as each side cries:
My times are in your hand;
Rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
And from those who persecute me.
A world in which the story we are weaving seems a nightmare without end.
Stories. The fabric of our world: we weave them and are woven into them; they are our process, our way of making sense of the world and how to interact with it; the narrative we live individually and collectively. Stories we tell ourselves and stories we interpret – from ‘what did she mean by that?’ to ‘Wait, what does that mean for us all?’ – lead us to decisions and actions that direct and unfold the story further. Our loved ones’ pain and joy is a story. Our history is a story. Our theology is a story. Your thesis – quantitative or qualitative – is a story. But stories do so much more than form the stream and sense of our day to day living - there is a deeper reason we almost obsessively read, listen to, and watch stories, why fairy tales, myths, fiction, and reality hold such sway: they hold up a mirror in which we can see what we might otherwise be unable to see, and they offer us a way of approaching truth when we might be unable to do so directly.
There’s that word again. Truth. What is it?
Truth is defined as ‘being in accord with fact or reality’ and can be as concrete and simple as ‘I am standing on a floor; the sun is shining; Bill Berger will smack his head on one of my office doorways at least once this week.’ But reality encompasses so much more than the sensory, most truths may be less clear: ‘No one is ever truly self-made,’ string theory (go to Damon!); the sudden, definite realisation: ‘I cannot do this any more.’ It’s also worth noting that truth, in more modern parlance, means authenticity – or being genuine, real.
Perhaps we can find a hint in the oldest known etymology of truth from Proto IndoEuropean, deru or dreu, meaning firm, solid, steadfast as an oak – there is a definite sense or tie to wood, and is also the root of words like ‘durable’ and ‘endure’. And in whatever form it comes – concrete or abstract – one thing we recognise about truth is that it endures. When someone tells the truth, though they may add details or offer different angles, their stories endure; over time, someone will act true to their nature in all kinds of ways…but like the oak, they are not immutable – the truth has room to grow, evolve, reveal different facets – though its nature remains the same, just as the oak’s, from acorn to full grown tree.
What is true endures in its nature, even if it changes form.
And that is the core of all ‘real’ stories: over and over again, in infinite forms, they point to the truth: about love, about suffering, about life, about the nature of creation – in your methodology, you might refer to that as ‘triangulation’.
And those real stories in their infinite forms are the heart of this week’s feasts of All Saints and All Souls – from San Juan de la Cruz’s burning, mystical love for G-d to Teresa de Avila’s salty practicality, the stories of the saints point us again and again to a single truth:
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. While that doesn’t always mean physical death, it does always mean dying to earthly attachments and surrendering to G-d: we see that in the story of the rich man who goes away sad; the Lord’s pronouncement on a camel walking through the eye of a needle; in His warning that the gate is narrow – you’ll have to put everything down to get through.
Our Lord does not ask us to detach out of punishment or to deny us joy and pleasure; He does it because he knows that as surely as the stories we live can heal, nourish, and transform us, stories can also bind and imprison us, often spun around a single grain of untruth: I am unlovable, I must be the strong one, I must be certain, I cannot change.
He does it to set us free, so ask G-d to let it fall to the ground and die, so it can rise to bear much fruit, and so that you can become free to become the person G-d dreamt you would be when He created you – someone free to serve Him and be where He is, like the newest saint we will honour tomorrow – Oscar Romero.
So many of us think we know Romero’s story: a radical, left-leaning, liberation theologian who caused trouble for decades. Yeah…no.
Romero was born in 1917 to a carpenter and his wife, one of eight children. His father was against his desire to become a priest and trained him to follow in the family business…until Romero went off to minor seminary at the age of 13, continuing to ordination in 1941 to become a conservative cleric with an inclination towards Opus Dei spirituality who defended the Magisterium, supported the government and the oligarchy. I suspect you could hear the chorus of ‘No me digas!’ from liberation theologian priests around the country when he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 because he was considered a safe pair of hands. At nearly 60, he no doubt expected to live an uneventful life to his retirement in 15 years.
But G-d had other plans.
Some of the earliest intimations of change came when he welcomed some workers into his church alongside a priest friend of his and was told that they were paid 1.5 colones for a day’s work. ‘Wait, but the going rate is 2. I know [the landowner], he wouldn’t undercut wages like that. How about X, down the road, he certainly wouldn’t.’ ‘He only pays 1 colon.’
That openness, that willingness to understand that perhaps his friends weren’t who he thought they were, in addition to his commitment to inner spiritual transformation, opened the door to change, to the Holy Spirit moving in his life.
On 12 March 1977, 17 days after his ascension to Archbishop, Romero stood over the bodies of one of his closest friends, Rutilio Grande, an advocate for the marginalised, and two others, knowing he would have to walk the same difficult path, take the same risk. Perhaps he even thought,
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’
Within weeks, at the age of 59, this bookish, conservative archbishop became a voice for the marginalised and a powerful critic of the government and ruling class he had, only a month ago, supported.
3 years and 12 days later, he was dead, shot by an assassin as he finished his homily and moved to the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 3 years. 12 days. 5% of his life.
But what a 5%, when given to G-d.
A real story. And what does his real story tell us about ours?
· Real stories are never that simple. The term ‘hagiography’ has rightly become an epithet in many circles because it sanitises saints’ stories to the point of meaningless: no saint is perfect and godly from birth: there are explosive tempers, lots of dissolution, stubbornness, attachment, plenty of privilege. Romero started on the side of the oppressors. The strict Opus Dei spirituality that I wrinkle my nose at is what most likely gave Romero the anchor he needed to become the man he became in those final years.
· Real stories aren’t linear. Stories unfold in multiple dimensions and meander – there is no clear, straight line here. On his way home from doctoral studies in Rome, Romero stopped in Cuba and was placed in an internment camp before coming home. In his parish at San Miguel, Romero started an Alcoholics Anonymous group, started construction of a cathedral, promoted devotion to Our Lady Queen of Peace…and yet, despite all he must have seen, he backed the status quo.
· To unfold, real stories require those three most important words – I don’t know. If we are certain in all things, believing them to be immutable, then the stories we live are more likely to bend around our certainties and close us in, than unfold naturally and open out. Romero knew those landowners, trusted those landowners to pay a fair wage. But he was open when he saw evidence that they didn’t, to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’ which allowed the story he was living to change.
· Real stories are unexpected; they challenge us. Remember that collective groan when he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, with the rich expecting him to keep the status quo, and the liberation theologians groaning collectively? So, how did that work out for everyone? If a story constantly follows a path that fulfils our expectations and props up our beliefs, without even challenging the GPS, it’s suspect.
· Real stories reveal to us the true nature of things and bring us closer to our own true nature. When he saw the body of Rutilio Grande, even though it had been creeping up on him for years, Romero knew, in that instant what was real and what he had to do. Oscar Romero became a voice for the voiceless, a microphone for G-d, the man G-d always intended him to be.
· Real stories are always so much bigger than we can imagine. There is no way that young priest, diagnosed as OCD and over-scrupulous, with a PhD in ascetical theology could have dreamt what G-d had in store for him. But he took the road he knew to be true and found Jesus there.
That all makes sense, doesn’t it? Because creation shows us a profligate G-d, a universe writ large with everything from violets to huge galaxies, from black holes to oak trees in countless forms, not just the one repeated over and over again: diverse, dynamic, prodigious…granted, with a few ‘G-d, go home your drunk moments’ like the platypus and the moose-leopard-camel with a 40 foot neck we call a giraffe. It’s no wonder real stories are wild, large, anything but tame and predictable.
But then – and how very postmodern of me to close this way – what if that means every story is real? If, as Rabbi Arthur Green posits and as I’m coming to believe, ‘G-d is the innermost reality of all that is, and that G-d and the universe are related not primarily as Creator and creature, but as deep structure and surface is key,’ then G-d is woven into everything, and every story has the potential to point us to truth and bring us home – even the ones that keep us safe or the ones we tell ourselves out of fear.
Then every story can be writ large, G-d in the world, such as the one of the Jewish surgeon who worked on the Tree of Life murderer spitting anti-Semitic abuse at him, responding that he was honoured to work on a human being who was wounded.
In the midst of the nightmares we create for ourselves, there is light. There will be an end – we are promised that, even if it won’t come easily:
Be strong and let your heart take courage, *
all you who wait for the Lord.
all you who wait for the Lord.
So what’s your story, morning glory? Whatever it is, keep it real.