Have you ever wondered why churches are so large? Why the ceilings are so high? Why there is so much space?
Let me explain.
Some of you will recall back to the 1970s and 1980s, Death Squads wreaked havoc and terror across Central and South America. Sponsored by government, landowners, and business interests, these Death Squads acted with impunity.
In El Salvador alone, they killed tens of thousands of peasants and activists, including nuns and priests who resisted the oppression.
Indeed, this week marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. The Archbishop was saying mass in a small hospital chapel when he was gunned down in broad daylight.
It was in response to this: to all the killing, the murders, the grief, the hopelessness and helplessness … that Christians developed a dramatic means of expressing their faith and their resistance1.
During the liturgy, they took to reading aloud the names of those who, in the course of the previous week, had been murdered, or, in the euphemism of the time, those who had been “disappeared”. When each name was read, the congregation would call out, “¡Presente!” (Here!)
They were affirming the central claim of Easter: that, while others have the power to kill us, Death is no longer a door … a heavy door that shuts behind you with a thud. Death is but a doorway.
On Easter Sunday we proclaim of our loved ones, though they died, yet shall they live … they don’t stay dead. On the other side of the tomb, they are not dead, but alive, wondrously, alive in God’s transcendent love. We proclaim that they are “¡Presente!” (Here!)
With the apostle Paul, we are persuaded that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor death squads, nor terrorists, nor cancer, nor accidents, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation … is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s why we need all this space … every inch of this space, and then some. You see, our beloved dead are with us now. Not in body, but in spirit. They fill this sacred house.
Here’s where you come in, church. I need your help today. Christianity is no spectator sport … and you are not on the sidelines. You are in the game and on the field.
I need your help … because, you see, this has been a hard year for Old South Church. We lost many to death.
Today, on Easter Sunday, let’s learn from our friends in Central and South America … let us proclaim what we know. They are, Presente! Here!
When I say Presente, I need you to bellow out … like you mean it … so they can hear you in heaven bellow out … Here!
We recently lost a son of this church to an untimely death. Services were held yesterday. But our faith tells us that we can say of our friend, of the Reverend Peter Meek, he is Presente! (Here)
Of a 57-year member of this church, of one who nurtured our children, our littlest ones for decades, of Claire Flury we say today: Presente! (Here)
Of a 65-year member of this church, one of our beloved historians, of Margaret Linda, we say: Presente! (Here)
Of a member of this church for 80 years, who knew this building inside and out, from the tip of the great tower to the timber piles beneath us. … of Theodore Parkins, we say, Presente! (Here)
And of Old South Church’s own true Southern Bell, of Coley Elder, who now shines in heaven as she once shone on earth, we say, Presente! (Here)
Of one who volunteered here for 20 years, who in the last years of her life battled Parkinson’s … Today, on Easter Sunday, free of Parkinson’s and on the other side of the tomb, we say of Joan Emberly, Presente! (Here)
Of a distinguished member of the Boston University Law faculty for 37 years, … we say of our beloved Lois Knight, Presente! (Here)
Of a son of this church, a father of three, who left us too early, of the youngest son of our Senior Minister Emeritus, we say today of Benjamin Crawford … though he died, yet shall he live … he is Presente! (Here)
On January 27th a homeless man died on the steps of this church. We know him as Michael. Today, we say of this child of God, of Michael, who once was lost but now is found. Of Michael, we say: Presente! (Here)
Of a gifted and marvelous landscape architect, stolen from us by cancer, today we say of Lynn Wolff that she is Presente! (Here!)
Of an infant, lost to us but home with God, a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, of wee Sloan we say Presente! (Here!)
And, beyond this church, today we cannot but remember 31 innocent people murdered by terrorists in Brussels. In defiance of those who kill the body, but who cannot touch the soul, today we say of the victims: Presente! (Here)
Of the 131 innocent victims killed in terrorist attacks in Paris and of the 14 whose lives were taken by terrorists in San Bernardino … in defiance of those who kill the body but cannot touch the soul, we say they are Presente! (Here)
And, remembering nine victims of a different kind of terror visited upon Mother Emmanuel, upon the AME Church in Charleston SC … of those nine dead, including their pastor, who ranged in age from 26 to 87 years old … of these we proclaim: Presente! (Here)
And your loved ones, each of them, too numerous to name aloud, but which I trust you are naming in the privacy of your own hearts … of all of them … of your beloved dead we say: ¡Presente! (Here!)
Death is not a door, but a doorway. Our beloved dead are clothed in immortality. They shine in heaven as they once shone on earth. Such is our Easter claim
This house is packed, jammed. It is filled to the rafters with our kin, our dearly departed. They are alive. Wondrously alive in God’s transcendent love. They are Presente! (Here!)
1From Rowan Williams’ Easter Sermon, April 11, 2004, preached in Canterbury Cathedral