The Gate of Heaven is Very Low
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
3 Lent, March 24, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15 Psalm 63:1-8 1 Corinthians 10 :1-13 Luke 13:1-9
In the Name of the One, Holy, and Everliving God. + AMEN.
This week I was struck by a quote by Elizabeth Seton: “The gate of heaven is very low. The humble only can enter it.”
On this day, Sunday, March 24, in 1980, a man calmly stepped from a car outside the Church of Divine Providence in San Salvador, El Salvador. In broad daylight he lifted his rifle onto the hood of the car, took aim down the aisle of the nave of the church and fired one shot that felled Archbishop Oscar Romero, just as he was finishing his homily. The archbishop, who had been the voice of the poor and the oppressed in El Salvador, who had vocally denounced political assassinations, torture, and false imprisonment by the authoritarian government and also the violent responses from the left, was killed that day by an assassin’s bullet. And why? What was the message that meant he needed to be silenced? He denounced what he saw as the three idols of El Salvador at that time: wealth and land; power and national security; and rigid partisan organization. As he said, these were false gods that demanded human victims. Romero said no to all of this.
Blessed Archbishop Romero knew very well that denouncing these idols was inherently faithful and undeniably political. But he could not do otherwise. He knew that standing for the poor against a cruel government and partisan factions was dangerous. He said no to violence, torture, and death in the name of the country, or in the name of taking back the country. He said yes to organizing the poor and the abused. He said yes to dialogue, to social justice for the poor and to upholding the human rights of all. He said yes to compassion. He said no to wrath, yes to faith. He blessed life, and not death. And that is a political act, beloved, just as Moses leading the Hebrews out of bondage was a political act and an act of faith for which he had been marked by God. Above all, St. Oscar Romero said Yes to God.
Let me be clear: Archbishop Romero was not a Democrat or a Republican. He was conservative and apolitical by habit. His party was the party of Christ, his platform was the Gospel. It’s just that, the platform of the Gospel has a nasty habit of unsettling our other allegiances. Christ is always close to the cries of the oppressed and he pulls us along with him. Sometimes in spite of ourselves. Now, I know “social justice” is a term that has been co-opted by various media interests and turned into an epithet either of revulsion or of pride. As Christians it is just our way of being in the world, following where God takes us. Just as in the Exodus story the cry of God’s people had risen, and so God sent Moses to set them free, so the cry of God’s people in El Salvador rose to God’s ears and Oscar Romero was simply faithful to say, “Here I am, send me.” The question we need to ask is, What have we left undone? How can we also open our ears and our hearts to the voice of Christ in the poor and the beaten-down?
Moses and Archbishop Romero both show us an answer: humility. Humility has always been a mark of those who follow Jesus well. “If you should ask me,” St. Augustine once said, “what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is still humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.” If we wish to walk in the way of Jesus, our first step must be one of humility. “The gate of heaven is very low; the humble only can enter it.”
When Moses was given his task: to announce God’s mercy and to stand up against the injustice of Egypt and to speak against Pharaoh—when Moses was given this message to deliver to Pharaoh, of social and racial justice—of divine justice—he balked: “Who am I? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Who was Moses to denounce the Egyptian-supremacist oppression of the Hebrews and to proclaim a new horizon, God’s dream for a just nation—he was just a shepherd? Who was he to stand against family and friends (and he did!—you can read all about it in Exodus), who thought they should just go along with the current system, because it’s better than the alternative? Who was he? Was he proud and full of confidence in his own views and his own abilities? No. In himself, he was nothing, because Moses, too, had no power of himself to help himself, as our Collect for the day says. He was a humble man. But God had chosen him, and listen to what God says, “I will be with you,” and “I am who I am.” I am your fixed point, I am the one who is able and does bear you up. And I always, forever, will be.
As the Psalm says, “O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you.” That is the secret to humility. It is not thinking that we of ourselves are garbage—that’s not humility; that’s shame—but recognizing that God is the source of all being, all blessing. Humility is recognizing that God our greatest joy is in God, but that to arrive at that greater joy God is in the habit of surprising us, disrupting what it is that we would prefer, our ways of thinking, and the ways we may have been taught to see the world. Humility is, above all, a willingness to be available to God. Let me say that again: Humility is, above all, a willingness to be available to God and to hearing the cries of God’s people.
Tomorrow is the Feast of the Annunication, which commemorates Mary making herself available to God. Moses made himself available to God. And Archbishop Romero made himself available to God. As he said, “I am no more than the humble echo of God in his people.” Humility does not mean saying “No” to ourselves so much as it means saying “Yes” to God. Yes to showing God’s compassion to people not like us. Yes to fighting for basic human dignity for all God’s children. Yes even to sacrificing our own sense of what we are owed to the needs of God’s favored ones, and maybe even our own lives for God’s Gospel of peace and mercy. But one word of caution: Like Moses and Archbishop Romero, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, our “Yes” to God may destroy our own expectations of what our lives will be like.
“We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” When the death threats rolled in, Archbishop Romero declined armed protection or going into hiding: “Why should the shepherd have protection while his sheep are still prey to wolves?” He understood well that he had no power of himself to help himself. And, as I said last week, we have the choice to respond to this fact in fear or in faith. Those who know only wrath respond in fear. Those who choose the way of Jesus, respond in faith and humility. We give our Yes to God, even if it means the course of our life will be forever changed. We give our Yes to God as our ultimate end, our highest good, our deepest longing, and therefore our greatest joy. We give our Yes to God.
Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, as we remember the joyful humility of Mary, who risked much to become the bearer of God in the world. Let us, then, have Mary and Moses and Saint Oscar Romero as our role models, who found their strength, not in their own confidence in themselves, but in their Yes to the grace and favor of God, who kept them and called them, in spite of the costs, to bless life, to bless and not to curse. In doing so, we may find the Gate of Heaven has grown just a little taller.
 See the article here: http://www.catholicsocialteaching.org.uk/themes/community-participation/stories/oscar-romero-option-poor/