8/25/2019 Podcast of The Rev. Javier G. Ocampo
I have just returned from the World Council of Churches or the WCC. Let me briefly introduce what the organization is and what I did there. It is an ecumenical organization, which means it is made up of several different Christian denominations—over 350 actually! This includes many of the mainline protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church of the United States as well as many Orthodox churches: the Russian, Bulgarian, and Greek Orthodox churches for example. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but has a permanent observer status and cooperates closely with the WCC on common issues. I interned in the interreligious dialogue and cooperation department. A lot of what my department does is teach lay people, like you and I, as well as religious leaders, different methods of having conversation about religious topics. I want to give you an example of a tool today: it is called the dialogue of religious experience. What we do first is choose a topic: today it will be the gospel passage about the Transfiguration of Christ. Then we would gather members of different Christian traditions together and ask them, how do you understand the transfiguration of Christ?
Unfortunately, members of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute could not join us today, as the plane ticket from Switzerland, is a little expensive, (pause) but they gave me permission to share their answers with you. Imagine there are three people sitting right here, on the chancel steps, talking with you.
The first comes from my friend from Russia who describes himself as Russian Orthodox. He looked at me, eyes full of excitement, and said, in the transfiguration, Jesus glows. He GLOWS. I said, ok, yes, a dazzling light, but this isn’t too exciting. Moses glows when comes down the mountain. Saul was blinded by a glowing light. Jesus is divine, of course Jesus can glow, why not. He told me, Katie Beth, you are missing the point. Jesus didn’t walk around glowing all the time. This was a special event—a time when God the father (or mother) made Godself visible, just like with Moses, and just like with Saul. But this time, this time was different, Peter, James, and John—they did not have to have their eyes covered. They could see because what they were seeing was Jesus, the human Jesus fully united in the life-giving love of the triune God. Remember, you have the whole trinity there. Jesus is transfigured by God the father, Jesus’ divinity is revealed, and then a cloud appears—the Holy Spirit—and the voice of God booms, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” This light, the light around the transfigured Jesus it shows us what our life as humans can look like. What it would mean if we were fully united in the life-giving love of the triune God. We would GLOW. Maybe you have been lucky enough to meet such a person. Recall a mother, after giving birth, in English we say she glows. Or perhaps you have had a mentor or someone telling you about a profoundly spiritual experience, and while they express it, they just glow.
Turning to the next person, she describes herself as a Korean American Calvinist Methodist. For her, the transfiguration is the most important holy day because it is celebrated twice: always the Sunday before Lent and its own special feast day in August. In the transfiguration, she sees the lived purpose of Christianity. Here are James, John, and Peter witnessing the transfiguration, Peter starts talking about wanting to set up booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. See, at this time, it was likely Sukkot, the Jewish festival of booths, where the Jews commemorated the time they lived in exile in the desert building these temporary booths and taking a pilgrimage to the Temple. So my friend sees this as Peter suggesting that they camp out on the mountain for a while. Even though James, John, and Peter were frightened by the transfigured Jesus accompanied by other these important leaders of their faith, there was also something very attractive about being in the presence of the divine, so much so that they not want to leave. But the Gospel of Mark, and Matthew, and Luke all mention the voice of God the Father (or Mother) saying This is my son, whom I love or I have chosen, Listen to Him. Then the Gospels talk of the disciples and Jesus going down the mountain, which suggests Jesus does not allow them to stay. What follows in the Gospels are stories of Jesus healing, teaching, or sending out more disciples basically continuing his ministry with the disciples learning, helping, or being sent as needed. So for my friend, the point of this story is that we cannot stay on the mountain top. We can go to the mountains, or the church, or any place where we experience the presence of God most fully, but we are not to stay in this place. We are to take the glow we receive back down the mountain to our ministries in our communities or the places we are called to be.
The third comes from a person who is Indian and describes herself as a secular person with Christian and Hindu parents. She is a human rights lawyer working with stateless populations. Recall to be stateless means to not be eligible to hold a nationality—citizenship in a country. It makes it very difficult to do things like own property or move freely. A current famous example would be the Rohingya—they are a population living near the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh, yet neither country will claim them as citizens. So this friend, when she hears any Bible story, she tends to see it in the context of statelessness because Jesus, a forced migrant from birth, can arguably be said to be stateless. Of course, nation states did not exist in 1st century middle east in the same way they exist now, but her point holds. The family of Jesus could not return to Nazareth after his birth because Herod, a state leader, was ordering the death of babies. Similarly, who else is present in the transfiguration, Moses? Moses is also arguably stateless. Remember the image of Moses floating down the Nile in a basket, being adopted by Pharoah’s daughter? Moses being sent away from his mother to protect him from Pharoah’s order that all the Hebrew babies be drowned. And then there’s Elijah at the transfiguration, what about Elijah? He is known as Elijah the Tishbite. The origins of Tishbite are debated, but ultimately most people think that at the very least it suggests Elijah is a resident alien, ie someone living in a place that is not his nationality. So for my Indian friend, it is extremely important that at the transfiguration, a milestone event in the life and ministry of Christ, a reconfirmation of Christ’s divinity, that it is stateless people who are used by God and elevated. For her it is a clear indication that we as Christians should respect those who are stateless and work to better their situation. Apparently the pope agrees, in case you missed it, the internet in Europe just about broke after the Pope made a statement about the Rohingya being the presence of God.
So here in our dialogue of religious experience about the Transfiguration, we have heard three perspectives: the first from a follower of Russian Orthodoxy, which put great emphasis on the light, the glow around Jesus, and how we as humans can draw so close to God that we too can experience this glow; the second from a Calvinist-Methodist, who focused on taking the mountaintop closeness with God back in one’s community or place of service, and one from a secular person, who sees in it the story of stateless people, generally considered the least in society, honored by God. None of these views is particularly more “correct” than another—they all come from a Biblical grounding. It is in understanding these views we come to see the purpose of the dialogue. If we had mentioned the transfiguration in passing and just moved forward, assuming everyone had the same understanding of what it meant, this may have resulted in intense confusion. In clarifying how each person understands something, we can learn from each other and grow our ministry.
When I was working in Mexico in my church, I went to another state, called Hidalgo State, as a part of a project that we called “Summer Mission”. We went to the elementary school every day for a couple of weeks to read to second-graders. I was a part of a pilot literacy program called, “Real Men Read.”
The premise of the program rested on the sad fact that in that little town called Nopala, a large amount of the children grew up in homes where either there were no men, or no men who could read. That is to say, many of the kids in this second grade class had never heard a story read in a male voice.
They were living in a town with the lowest education rate in the State, so somebody thought it would be a good idea to teach kids who were learning to read that men–even though these children didn’t know many–could read.
Anyway, the first time I went, I was told to introduce myself–tell the kids a little something about what I do. Many of them didn’t go to church–had never gone to church. I was faced with a problem: How do I tell kids who don’t know what a priest is, what a priest does?
I did all kinds of stuff. I buried people, married people, taught, wrote, prayed, held hands with people who were dying, planned programs, talked to people who were mad or sad or afraid. You can see the problem, right? How do you boil all that down into a job?
I was 28 years old, then… and, I didn’t know how to explain what I did to even myself, much less to group of seven year-olds, who had no idea what the inside of a church even looked like.
Anxious about what I was going to say, something struck me on the way over to the school that first Monday.
It was simple (not easy, but simple). I still use it when I talk about what I do.
I said, “Hi. My name is Javier. I’m a priest. And what does that mean? That means I get paid to tell the truth.”
I’m still convinced that that’s what ministers do. We tell the truth about where we come from and where we’re headed, about the world in which we live and how God relates to us, about what justice and mercy mean and what God expects from us.
We tell the truth … and not just with our words–with our lives.
Telling the truth is hard work, isn’t it? Especially in our culture, where we seem more comfortable with the casual lies we tell to ourselves. People often don’t want to hear the truth.
And the truth is hard to tell, because we want people to think we’re nice. We want people to like us.
Jesus, it would appear from our Gospel this morning, doesn’t care nearly as much as today’s people do, about whether or not people think he’s nice, or whether people like him. In fact, in today’s Gospel Jesus is only days away from being nailed to a tree because he’s gotten in trouble with all the wrong people because he can’t keep the truth to himself.
If you remember, Jesus has spent the last two chapters of the book of Matthew fighting with the religious authorities. Pretty much everybody’s been out to trip him up, trying to make him look foolish. And he’s taken on all comers.
Finally, in today’s text Jesus has had enough. He turns away from the crowds of religious big shots who’ve been harassing him. He begins innocent enough saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach, and follow it.”
But then he starts liking the subject. “Do what they say … for sure. They know their stuff backwards and forwards–just don’t do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
Oh, he’s just getting started: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
Do you know anybody like that? Religious leaders and politicians are famous for this one. Do as I say … not as I do (or fail to do).
Then Jesus gets downright personal: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”–after which he lists a few of their shortcomings in this regard for example: showy religious outburst, sitting at the places of honor at banquets and synagogues, seeking to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, wanting to be referred to with great tittles–rabbi, father, instructor.
Finally, Jesus caps the whole thing off with this bell-ringer: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, humility’s coming … in a few short days, even for him.
You know what? Couldn’t we get the nice Jesus–the one who loves children and little old ladies? This whole fire-breathing prophet thing is tough to witness.
I think it’s because that kind of honesty makes people uncomfortable, and our culture tells us that our responsibilities lie in lubricating the social gears rather than throwing sand in them. But sand is sometimes exactly what’s needed.
Jesus, after calling out the caretakers of God’s house for making it into a den of robbers, goes to the point by immediately receiving into that house the blind and the lame–those who’ve been denied access by those in power–the religious leaders who’ve mistakenly thought their job was gatekeepers instead of the welcoming committee. Jesus welcomes the unwanted into God’s freshly cleaned house, and heals them.
Sometimes justice has been forgotten, or misplaced, or ignored. If we claim to follow Jesus, we have a responsibility in those cases to speak the uncomfortable truth that God desires a world in which the lame and the blind get to sit at the front of the bus.
A world in which the forgotten and cast aside are remembered and brought back into the fold.
A world in which those who’ve been put down, those without healthcare, those who’ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place for them … are no longer afterthoughts in our political life, but children of God on whose behalf we need to find our voices.
A world in which the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s birth or the gender of one’s love interests, aren’t the characteristics by which people are excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as God’s gifts to us.
Jesus speaks the truth to those in power, not because he’s mean or temperamental… but because he loves us so much he can’t bear for us not to know the truth about the way things are ordered in the reign of God.
It’s a hard word Jesus delivers. Honesty can be difficult to hear. But telling the truth about God’s vision of the way things ought to be is the kindest most loving thing we have to say.
We who follow the one executed: “Jesus”, as a criminal are under no illusions about what telling the truth can cost.
On the other hand, we also know that finding humility the hard way can be the best gift we ever receive.
|I was born into a Christian family – my mother was an Anglican from Canada, and my father was a Roman Catholic, so I was baptized as an infant in a Roman Catholic Church, but raised as an Episcopalian by my mother. My mother, younger sister and I attended an Episcopal Church wherever we lived during our childhood. I say that because we moved several times throughout the mid-west and north-east. To be an Episcopalian, or to be a Christian, was part of my identity, but it was not a conscious choice. My parents made that choice for me and I followed their faith. I thought everyone was Christian, and perhaps attended a different church than mine on Sunday morning. A normal childhood school conversation might have been, “Where do you live? What church do you attend?”. Before I was a teenager, I can’t recall being aware of anyone who didn’t go to a church. It was just part of the culture in suburban towns in Illinois, Ohio, Upstate New York and Connecticut. Those were the kind of communities that I lived in as a child during the 1950’s &60’s. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s, when I attended college, that I met and made friends with kids who were not|
Christian, but we never discussed our religion. I never had to Edit Edit date and timeexplain to anyone why I was a Christian. My mother had always told me, “Never discuss race, religion or politics with strangers. It isn’t polite.” Thus, I lacked the vocabulary of faith, a personal understanding of Jesus Christ, and permission to share my faith with others.
How many of you can identify with my childhood experiences? Were you ever asked, or encouraged, or motivated to explain to anyone why you were a Christian? If you did, what was your experience like? Did sharing your faith enrich your own?
(Allow time for anyone to respond)
I raise these questions because many of the “mainline” Protestant Churches, including the Episcopal Church, are not growing in membership. There are lots of reasons why, but one of them is that most mainline Protestants do not know how to enthusiastically share their faith in Jesus Christ, or convincingly share why they are Christian. Most Episcopal Churches hope that their parish will increase in membership when visitors, newcomers and the children of its members ask to be baptized, married or confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But apparently, this method is not enough. Now we all need to learn to share our Christian faith with those who might be curious, who might be seeking a faith community, or want to get to know us better.
American culture has significantly changed since 1965, when the Immigration and Naturalization Act abolished an earlier quota system based on national origin and established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. Montgomery County in 2017 is a vastly different kind of community than it was in 1970. Montgomery County is now a Majority-Minority county, and one of the most diverse in the country. The population has doubled since 1970 to 1.1 Million people and 1/3 of our residents are foreign-born. Although the census does not ask for religious affiliation – it is estimated by City-Data.com that in 2010, Catholics are 13%, Protestants are 8%, Evangelical Protestants are 11%, Orthodox Christians are 1%, all the other faith traditions represent 10% of the residents, which includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, Sikhs and Hindus. According to City-Data.com – in 2010 there were 14,000 Episcopalians in Mo Co. City-Data surveys indicate that 57% of the residents of MoCo are non-religious, or do not identify with any particular faith tradition. That’s roughly 60,000 residents. As Jesus said to his disciples, “He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Luke 10:2
I tell you all of this to help you see the harvest available to you, one in which you live and work, and which you could evangelize. But I also want to help you to identify with St. Paul, who was then called “Saul of Tarsus”, a rabbi and pharisee who had an encounter with the risen Lord on his way to Damascus. Paul became convinced of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who called Jesus the Christ, God’s anointed one. And he faced a similar challenge in proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ to most people he met as he traveled around the Mediterranean Sea. So imagine Paul, inspired and filled with new faith in Jesus, decided to make three missionary journeys, by boat, from Palestine to Syria, to Turkey, to Greece to Italy, and back again, spreading the message of the saving grace of belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts of the Apostles, Paul was speaking to some Jewish men, but mostly non-religious men, philosophers, and members of the city council. And what he tells them seemed strange to them. But the portion that you heard omits the paragraph just before, which describes the crowd who are listening to Paul.
16 “While Paul was waiting for them (Silas and Timothy to arrive) in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there.”
18 “Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’”
Paul was standing and addressing a crowd of intellectually curious Athenians who were non-Jews and representatives of major philosophical schools, who began to debate with him. The Epicureans were those who maintained that deities played no role in human affairs. The Stoics maintained that humans should use reason to live a life of virtue and in accordance with nature. I am certain that there still are Epicureans and Stoics in our culture who think in a similar way about faith in God.
Today’s lesson from Acts, chapter 17 begins:
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus (a hill of Mars, near the Acropolis) and said, (with a bit of sarcasm) ’Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.”
Then Paul begins his inspirational description of our relationship with God. This is St. Paul’s “elevator speech” – describing his faith in Jesus Christ in a few clear and convincing words:
“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.””
Paul concludes with the reason that one should have faith in the one God – because one day, we will all be judged by someone (Jesus) whom God has appointed.
29 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’”
The good news is that some of the non-religious men later joined Paul and became believers. Evangelism is not easy, but if persistent, people will receive your faith and your passion and come to believe or be drawn to believe what you believe. Just as God is creator of all and humans are descended from a single ancestor, so God’s judgment applies to all persons and everywhere. Hope of our resurrection is assured to those who have faith in Jesus’ resurrection and choose to follow Jesus’ way of life.
In this Easter season, when we especially celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from death, and how Christianity evolved in the first century, we are charged to deepen our own faith and then find words and ways to share our faith in Jesus as the Christ with those who have not yet found God. But it takes prayer and practice to share one’s faith with others. A place to begin is within your own congregation. I invite you to sit quietly and ponder what you would say to someone you know fairly well, about your faith and hope in Jesus as the Christ. Your faith statement could become your own mission statement of the purpose of your life and your relationship with God, who may one day judge your treatment of yourself, your family and your neighbor. Your faith statement should be your “elevator speech” – it should be short and sweet (2 minutes), avoids using Christian jargon that non-Christians or non-believers would not understand, shows your passion, includes an invitation to talk further with you, or to come to church with you, and then gives the listener a chance to respond or ask questions.
My mother was a product of her time, but in our time, it is polite and very Christian, to talk about your faith tradition with your friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors. Your Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist friends or neighbors are eager to share their faith tradition because they want to be understood and respected. Christians should do the same, which will lead to deeper and more respectful relationships.
The Rev. Dr. Carol Flett