The Stories of Isaiah and Pepe
By the Rev. William O. Avery
You and I learn much about living as faithful stewards from the examples of others. For example, let’s examine the calls of two men, hoping thereby that we can examine, accept, and renew our own calls. We hear the calls of two men — living in radically different ages in very different places on this earth — whose lives were so transformed that they could devote them to ministry among the people with whom they lived. By hearing their stories, you and I also can be transformed in our sense of call, because we cannot hear these stories without examining how God calls us to serve the people among whom we live.
The first man is Isaiah, that towering figure who was called to the prophetic office in the year that King Uzziah died (740-735 BCE). John Bright says of Isaiah: “Israel produced few figures of greater stature than Isaiah. … For 50 years he towered over the contemporary scene and, though perhaps few in his day realized it, more than any other individual, guided the nation Judah through her hour of tragedy and crisis [as she was being overrun by Assyria].”
The second man is “Pepe,” a professor of Spanish Literature and Biblical Interpretation at a private university in Mexico City. Pepe, now in his late forties, is one of the founders of Amextra, which stands for “The Mexican Association for Urban and Rural Transformation.” Amextra is a religious group committed, through community organization, to help the poor.
Isaiah’s call came by means of a magnificent vision as he worshipped in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the vision, Isaiah “saw” God as magnificent King, enthroned in majesty, incomparably great, with such intense burning light surrounding his Person that the heavenly hosts must shield their bodies from the glory of his presence. The very foundations of the heavens quake at the sound of praise for God. The vision reveals God as “Other”- as God of absolute righteousness, different from all creation. God’s goodness is in contrast to all human ways and human evil.
Of course, not everyone receives a call as dramatic as Isaiah’s. Most calls from God are not so spectacular. Most calls are more like Pepe’s call.
Pepe’s call came by means of Bible study. The Bible studies and the beginning of Pepe’s transformation began in the 1960s when a group of students, including Pepe, began to meet regularly at the university. From their Bible study, Pepe and his friends came to see that Christian life must focus on helping the poor. They approached the churches to support their efforts. According to Pepe, “The priests said, ‘That’s not the business of the Church. The business of the church is to preach the gospel and that’s it. We are not into social action.’ ” Pepe and his friends were accused of being Marxists trying to infiltrate the church, and were turned away.
Pepe felt he needed to be able to speak theologically about Christian life and mission, in order to receive a hearing. His quest to be grounded theologically brought him to the United States where he spent 13 years — yes, 13 years — working at various jobs and studying at various seminaries and universities until he had his doctorate. Then, he returned to Mexico, still committed to helping the poor. Meanwhile, his friends had become trained and had jobs in technical fields like economics, banking, and architecture.
When these friends got together again, they started an endeavor called the “Community Development Project” but had not talked about the meaning of that phrase. According to Pepe, “The word, ‘development’ means that the people are undeveloped and we are ‘developed’ and that they should become like us. The word ‘development’ almost forces you to work in a hierarchical manner.” The name undermined their endeavors and had to be discarded.
However, these friends also continued their Bible study and found their central text. The text is Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.” They understood that when Paul wrote “I appeal to you — I beg you,” he was not focusing on the “will” but a deeper place, the “heart” and reaching the heart depended on God’s initiative. They realized that they were not yet fully transformed.
“You and I tend to think of an easy encounter with God, but Isaiah shows that when we stand before God, we stand in contrast to God’s purity”
Likewise, Isaiah’s vision of God’s Otherness, God’s absolute righteousness, led Isaiah to see his own sinfulness. Isaiah’s response was, “Woe is me, I’m lost; I’m dead, for I’m a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” You and I tend to think of an easy encounter with God, but Isaiah shows that when we stand before God, we stand in contrast to God’s purity. We are condemned by God’s demands for justice toward our fellow humans and for unswerving trust in God.
But this is not the end of the story. Upon “knowing” his own unworthiness, Isaiah immediately experienced the mercy of God.
A hot coal from the altar cleansed his mouth and heart. God’s message is: “Now that this coal has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” In a loving God, we are cleansed. It is God’s gift to us.
Pepe also understood that it was only by the mercies of God- only through God’s mercy in Jesus Christ — that he could be called to ministry. Furthermore, he realized that his transformation required this essential insight: he was one with his campesino brothers and sisters. Campesinos are farming peasants, usually indigenous people (Indians), and are at the bottom of the economic ladder in Mexico. Pepe understood that he was not better than the campesinos; he was in no way superior to them. He was one with them.
How did he learn this- at the very core of his being? Pepe went to live for several months with a family in one of the barrios. Their poverty, and yet their strong work ethic, was a shocking, eye opening experience for him. Afterwards, he felt two emotions: anger and guilt.
“God “he asked, “why are you allowing these people to be so poor?”
“God,” he asked, “why are you allowing these people to be so poor?” Pepe realized that in their poverty, he was on the wrong side — the side of privilege. It wasn’t that the campesinos didn’t work, but that the privileged and educated benefited from their misfortune. So, to Pepe’s question: “Why are you allowing this, God?”
Pepe heard the answer: “It is not my doing, you’re doing it.” “Why don’t you do something?” Pepe asked God. “I am doing something,” said God. “Why do you think you went to the United States, earned degrees, have this prestigious job?” Pepe came to understand, “I had worked hard for my degrees but so had the campesinos worked hard. My privileged position was something given to me. It was GRACE.”
Pepe told visitors from the United States, “You do not deserve your position. It is God’s gift to you. It is not to be kept within yourselves but it’s to be given to others.” If God led Pepe to study theology and literature, it is because these gifts are to be used for others. This insight marked a very important change for Pepe. He then began to identify the “mercies of God” i.e., the grace given to him. And he knew he must respond not only with his mind but also with his entire person, as in “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.”
Said Pepe, “It’s like the Hebraic word, ‘know.’ I cannot comprehend it but I understand it — because I understand it in my whole body: And I cannot understand it only about myself but I experience what is happening with this other part of the community- the other part of my body.” God’s transformation showed him his oneness with those in need.
“He knew he must respond not only with his mind but also with his entire person, as in ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice’.”
Isaiah’s response to God’s call was an unqualified, “Yes!” When God asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”, Isaiah answered, “Here am I; send me!” There was no hedging, no “Ifs, ands, or buts.” Wherever God would send Isaiah, he would go.
Then God showed Isaiah the effects of his ministry. God said the people’s minds, ears, and eyes would be closed against him. They would not comprehend what Isaiah proclaimed. They would not respond positively to his message. Isaiah was shaken by this information.
And in a very shaken manner Isaiah asked, “How long, O Lord? How long do I have to utter a message they will not heed?” The Lord answered, “Until everything is destroyed and everyone sent away, except for a tiny remnant!” That is, Isaiah’s ministry may have stretched out for 50 years beyond this call. He had the ear of the kings- Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah- but his voice was almost always in opposition to the king, and in opposition to the people’s conduct. Usually five years or less of always being the lone voice of protest wears one out, let alone fifty. But Isaiah was faithful to the commissioning he received, because he was transformed during the call.
Recognizing that a “Community Development Project” was grounded in a superior/inferior dynamic, Pepe and his friends instead founded Amextra — the Mexican Association for Urban and Rural Transformation. They began by organizing a series of meetings to talk about transformation among the poor in Mexico. The main target audience for these meetings was college educated, biblically trained people whom they hoped would be leaders in this movement. But they also invited people of the communities they wanted to serve.
When they held their first meeting, both groups came. All the college educated people sat in the front and the campesinos sat in the back. Those in front discussed the Greek meaning of the texts and carried on a sophisticated conversation about the meaning of these texts for Mexican society, especially poor communities. The campesinos said nothing! A second meeting was scheduled and everyone left.
At the second meeting, the college educated people came and sat up front, but at first no campesinos arrived. The campesinos were late because some of them had to travel 12 hours. But when they did arrive, the original campesinos had brought many others. The college educated people had done nothing between the meetings. The campesinos had gone out and recruited their friends and neighbors to come. The scholars in front looked in amazement at what the campesinos had done.
During this meeting, some of the campesinos finally came forward and began to tell their stories, and reflect what the biblical passages meant to their lives. After this meeting the scholars realized that they were not going to transform the campesinos. Instead, they realized that they were like the campesinos — they were part of God’s transformation. Only by immersion, by becoming community with them, could they participate in transformation. The primary resources for transformation are community resources held by the poor themselves. Technical resources only complement community resources.
Today, almost 20 years later, Pepe continues to be a leader in Amextra, which now works in many communities throughout Mexico.
When God called Pepe and he experienced the lives of the poor by living with them, Pepe felt he could make three responses.
1) He could write a monthly check to help the people.
2) He could give up his job and live among the poor. Or,
3) He and his friends could use their own positions to learn how the “system” works and bring resources to the people.
Theologically, Pepe believes on-going transformations are necessary because there is no finished perfection. Changes in Mexican politics and economy change the way Amextra acts. Amextra does not see itself as a threat to the government, but understands that it is a power to be reckoned with. Thus, often Amextra works in concert with the government for grants, but will not accept restrictions that dilute community resources. In some ways, Pepe believes that the third way he has chosen is the most difficult way, because he always has to be open to further transformations from God in order to be open to new ways that Amextra can work for the good of the community.
So, we have the story of two men and their calls to their ministry- their stewardship. Having heard their stories, let’s examine our own call and response. Let’s understand our continuing need for transformation.
Let’s comprehend that we are one with all God’s children. Let’s discern what it means to have a call from God. While God’s call to you will be different from God’s call to your neighbor, all calls from God have this common denominator: they are calls to love and serve the neighbor, especially the poor and afflicted neighbor. Let’s resolve that, as God calls us today, and next week, and next year, without equivocation we will respond as Isaiah did, “Here am I. Send me.” Amen
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For nearly a century, Lutheran Laity Movement for Stewardship assisted, inspired and trained congregations in important ways. LLM ceased operations on May 31, 2003, but the Stewardship of Life Institute is proud to continue its work by making its web resources available to a new generation of stewards.
© Copyright Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This essay first appeared in Faith in Action, the publication of the Lutheran Laity Movement for Stewardship. Articles in Faith in Action may be reproduced for use in ELCA and ELCIC congregations provided each copy carries the note:
© Copyright Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission.
Photo shows Michaelangelo’s depiction of Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel.
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