July 21st, 2012 by isaac · 3 Comments
Vampire Economics and the Zombie Apocalypse
Amos 7:7-15, Mk 6:14-29, Ps 85
Isaac S. Villegas
July 15, 2012
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss” (Ps 85:10). This beautiful line describes the world of the Psalmist — a world where “God’s glory will dwell in our land” (v. 9), where “the Lord will give what is good” (v. 12), where “our land will yield its increase” (v. 12), where “faithfulness will spring up from the ground” (v. 11), where “justice will look down from the sky” (v. 11). All of this, the Psalmist says, is what salvation looks like: “Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who fear him” (v. 9). Salvation is reaching out to us, as God fills dismantles the world of sinful systems that have eaten away at God’s order. For the Psalmist, we live in a world where salvation is at our fingertips, surrounding us. Everything is in its right place, according to the Psalmist: justice and peace and goodness are as natural as the rain that falls from the sky and the plants that grow from the ground.
I want to live in that world, but the way things are right now feels more like the story we heard from the Gospel of Mark where John the Baptist gets his head cut off because of a seductive dance and too much wine. Herod, in the story, is part of the 1%, a member of the class of people who feast while others struggle to make it to the next paycheck. He throws a party for “his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee” (Mk 6:21). The rich and powerful eat more than they need and drink from bottomless glasses. That evening, after everyone had more than enough to drink, Herod and his friends enjoy the entertainment of Herodias’ daughter. The text says that she pleased the men (v. 22); and when it says that they were “pleased,” it wouldn’t be inappropriate for us to hear sexual overtones, because that’s how the word sounds in Greek.
In the midst of all this indulgence, Herod has John the Baptist executed, his head brought into the party for all to see, on a serving dish, ready to be eaten. His life was sacrificed for the party, collateral damage for a way of life driven by insatiable appetites, rash decisions. [Read more →]
July 3rd, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
Mk 5:21-43, 2 Cor 8:7-15
July 1, 2012
What is salvation all about? I got to thinking about salvation this week as I was reading the assigned bible passages, especially the one from Mark’s Gospel, about Jesus healing Jarius’ daughter and the woman with the issue of blood. Healing has everything to do with what salvation is all about; these stories of healing are windows into the salvation God is working out for us, now and always.
I can’t say that I have anything radically new to offer. As I read about Jesus healing people and think about salvation, I have in the back of my mind the words of an old pastor and theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus, from the 4th century. For him, Jesus is God’s salvation made flesh. Gregory had a pithy way of saying this; he said, “What would not have been assumed would not have been healed.”
The point is that Jesus is how we know that God is for us, that God is on our side, one of us. In Jesus, we see how God’s wellbeing is wrapped up together with our wellbeing. In Jesus, we see how God is making us whole, drawing us into a life that is true life, not half-hearted life, not a life caught up in all the forms of anti-life around us, the forces that seek to steal, kill, and destroy what God has created for good.
That’s what these Jesus stories are all about — the salvation of God as the healing of creation, as our healing.
We catch a glimpse of this when we see the sick woman sneak her way through the crowd to Jesus. She is so low on the social ladder that we don’t even get to know her name. She is known only for her sickness, that she bleeds, uncontrollably. Such a condition would make her an outcast, someone who needs to be kept away from the rest of the people. According to the law, she is supposed to be in quarantine, banned from the public, isolated from friends and family and the rest of life. Her sickness is a condition that affects everything, from how she feels about her body to her ability to interact with others, to be a full member of a community. [Read more →]
May 21st, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
Faith and love
Acts 1:1-11, Eph 1:15-23, Lk 24:44-53
Isaac S. Villegas
May 20, 2012
“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,” the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians, “and your love toward all the saints” (Eph 1:15). Your faith and your love
— those are the two things I want to highlight today. Faith and love — what are they and how do they draw us into a way of life called the church, which is the body of Christ, as Paul says at the end of what we heard from Ephesians. Faith and love as drawing into the life of Jesus, revealed in the church. First, let’s talk about faith.
The ascension of Jesus has everything to do with our faith, because, for us, it’s not easy to believe, it’s not easy to believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The resurrection is not obvious to us, since Jesus is not here to tell us about it, to show us his scars from the crucifixion and to walk through locked doors. He is not here because he has ascended. The ascension means that the resurrected body of Jesus isn’t here like he used to be for the first disciples, as Jesus spent time with them during those weeks after the resurrection. The disciples didn’t need to have faith, since they had Jesus. But, for us, on this side of the ascension, we need faith: faith to believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead. We don’t get to have Jesus come over to our house for dinner, so we can eat and talk and maybe go on a walk. Instead, at the ascension, Jesus withdraws from us: “While he was blessing them,” we heard from Luke’s Gospel, “Jesus withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:51). And in Acts, which describes the same event, it says: “As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
While Jesus, in a very real sense, withdraws from his followers, he is present in another sense. The ascension is the way Jesus becomes more present than before, present through our lives, present through us and in us. Ascension makes it possible for Jesus to give us his body through the church. The end of the passage from Ephesians makes this clear: It says, “God has made Jesus the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). The church is his body, the body of Jesus. [Read more →]
May 15th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
I spoke on behalf of the NC Council of Churches at a state legislature meeting in Raleigh. An edited version of what I said is available via Sojourners magazine.
No matter what the government legislates, we will continue to practice our Christian faith as our church communities extend hospitality, as we treat foreigners the same way we treat the native-born, as we welcome into our lives immigrants like Jesús. When the laws of the land infringe upon our practices of hospitality, we may find ourselves at odds with government authorities. Yet this is nothing new for us, for Christians have a long history of staying true to our convictions as the political powers twist and turn. To echo the words of Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29).
Tags: current events · immigration · political power
May 9th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
Acts 8:26-40, 1 Jn 4:7-21, Jn 15:1-8
Isaac S. Villegas
May 6, 2012
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says to the disciples, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (Jn 15:5). There are some grapevines that grow in a little plot of land on the side of the road across from the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. I noticed it again when I was there a few weeks ago. The vine stretches out through a trellis, growing up and down and around, twisting and turning, without any logic of direction that I can discern, just a mess of branches.
This is the image that Jesus uses for the Christian life; this mess of vine branches is what the church looks like: a grape vine, not a tree. Trees make sense. The olive or fig trees that Jesus talks about elsewhere reach up, growing toward the sun. Vine branches, on the other hand, move here and there, sometimes up, sometimes down. There’s a freedom of movement with vines; the branches can grow in all direction, depending on the trellis. An olive tree, on the other hand, only goes up, higher and higher. Trees are more stable; they have deep roots and a strong truck. Trees can grow without support. But not vines. Vines need the support of a trellis in order to thrive. They are unstable, precarious, easily cut down to the ground.
The church as a vine, rooted in Jesus, is a lively image. It can speak to us in all sorts of ways, as it twists and turns in our minds, sparking our imagination, as we find ways to connect our lives to the vine. Here are some ways that come to my mind, just to get us started. You may come up with others.
The church is like the vine in that none of us tries to be the highest, the greatest, the closest to the Sun. Instead, our lives are entangled, supporting each other, nudging some branches up into places of authority for a time, and wrapping ourselves around others when they need to be sustained.
Or the church is like a vine in that we are a mess, a mess of branches, a mess of lives trying to keep ourselves together, as one, trying to figure out how we are united even when we branch out in different directions. The church as a vine makes sense of all the diversity, the push and pull of the various branches, all somehow drawing life from Christ, even as we turn on one another, as we turn against one another for a while and sometimes come back around in the end.
Or the church is like a vine in that it always defies our structures. Once an organizational structure is adopted, the branches start growing in the wrong directions, wrong according to the vision and mission that everyone already decided on. The church as a vine is always changing, depending on the environment, depending on the trellis, the weather, the path of the sun.
Those are just a few ways the image can help us imagine the Christian life. But what interests me is Jesus’ call to abide in the wildness of the vine. What does it mean to abide in a mess of tangled branches, to find a home in vines that are always on the move? [Read more →]
April 24th, 2012 by isaac · 1 Comment
Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:36b-48
Isaac S. Villegas
April 22, 2012
When I was a teenager, I’d say that my grudges, my resentments, were based solely on soccer rivalries. I would look, at disgust, at the players from Cyrus, a team from Phoenix, with their choreographed warm up routine, and every player wearing the same soccer shoes. They were our only true competitors in all of Arizona, and they beat us every year in the state tournament. Even though it was so long ago, fifteen years, I still have feelings of resentment when I think about that team.
Now that I’ve grown up, I’d say that my grudges have matured. As the years go by, it seems like I can’t help but add names to a list, a list of people who have wronged me or the people I care about, friends and family. It feels like I can’t help but remember them, to carry around in my head a list of grudges, of resentments, memories of betrayals.
Why would Jesus be any different? If anyone would be justified in keeping a list of grudges, it would be Jesus. He was betrayed by a friend, by Judas. His followers deserted him in his hour of need. Jesus watched as the crowds turned on him and called for his death. Even his friends denied knowing him. Jesus had every reason to be resentful and to seek revenge. So, after his death, when Jesus shows up in our passage from Luke 24, the disciples are terrified. It says, in verse 37, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”
Now, to see a ghost, for first-century Jews to see a ghost, isn’t a good thing. Ghosts are remnants of the dead, sneaking their way into the living. Ghosts were signs of death, of death’s claim on people’s lives. For the disciples, the appearance of a ghost could mean that death wanted to claim another life, in the name of revenge, Jesus’ unfinished business. Was the ghost of Jesus there to settle the score with the disciples, the so-called friends of Jesus, the ones who deserted him? On that first Easter, in the evening, in the city where Jesus was killed, the disciples find themselves with the presence of Jesus, and they are terrified. [Read more →]
April 10th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
“In search of a body”
Isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-18
Isaac S. Villegas
Let’s be honest with ourselves. We are a good at making meals. There’s nothing like a Chapel Hill Mennonite potluck, and our Easter potluck is just the culmination of all that is good from our various meals throughout the year. And its not like we keep our food to ourselves. We don’t horde it. When it is our turn to provide lunch for our homeless neighbors, I have no trouble finding people from our church to make food. And it’s always good food; the people who live in the woods behind Walmart and Home Depot, they associate us, our church, with good food, with a delicious meal.
When the prophet Isaiah longs for the day of salvation, he talks about eating and drinking, he talks about fine wine and hearty food. Isaiah says, “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isa 25:6). “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (v. 9). Salvation is described as a meal, as people from all the nations, from all peoples, neighbors and strangers, eating together, sharing food and wine, talking, forming relationships, deepening friendships. That’s what salvation looks like, Isaiah prophesies. When God’s kingdom comes, there will be a feast, a banquet.
Last week at the prison in Butner, I wanted the students to work on descriptive writing, I said that I wanted them to write about something and make it feel like I was right there with them. So I asked them to write about the last meal they had. As they read aloud what they wrote, I realized that this exercise was especially hard for them. The problem wasn’t that their prison food was disgusting; it would have been easy to describe, in detail, how gross a meal was. Those kinds of descriptions almost write themselves. The problem, the reason why the assignment was so hard, was that the food they eat is so bland, so flavorless, so blah. No matter what the menu, the food tasted the same, monotonous — the same texture, the same color, the same smell, the same taste. They didn’t have very much to say. Then I asked them to use their imagination, and remember a favorite meal. Of course, they had a lot more to say; they kept asking for more time to write. As each person read about his meal, I could hear groans and sighs from the others as they listened, longing for a time when they could eat delicious food again. One thing surprised me, as I heard their talk about their meals: Yes, the food itself was important, but they also talked about the people who would be at the meal, the friends and family who would be there. Food and fellowship were tied together in their imagination, as they waited and longed for a time when all things would be restored, when their lives would be put back together, when their wrongs would be made right, when life, true life, joyful life would be possible again:
“The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines… It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (25:6, 9). [Read more →]
April 4th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
I wrote a reflection on an Holy Thursday footwashing service. Here’s a paragraph:
I didn’t want him to wash my feet. It just didn’t seem right to me for an older black man to be bowed so low, at my feet, washing them, like a servant, like a slave. As he bent to the ground, I felt like I should say something, perhaps confess to him that this holy moment reminded me of the way people in North Carolina enslaved black bodies—the way his people were used, bought and sold, subjugated, oppressed, humiliated and abused; the way his black skin conjured for me the spirits of his ancestors. Listen, I wanted to say, your great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s blood is crying out from the ground beneath us (Genesis 4:10). With such a history, he should not take the form of a slave, not at my feet; I should wash his feet, all of us should wash his feet, as penance, as a modest gesture of atonement.
For the rest of it, look at The Mennonite magazine online: “A Holy Hybridity
April 3rd, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
by Isaac S. Villegas
April 1, 2012
After 40 days of Lent, days of contemplation, of wandering into our interior life, we find ourselves here, on Palm Sunday, standing at the edge of Lent, leaning toward Easter. Lent has been a time of wandering, a circling deeper and deeper into our selves, time set aside for us to pay attention to our motivations, our desires. Lent is a season of being stuck, stuck with who we are, always returning to the same old person.
But on Palm Sunday, we get swept into the movement of Holy Week, of joining Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, the city of his death. Jesus rides into town, and the crowds line the streets. The air is electric with excitement, especially when they see Jesus on a donkey, because the people know their Scriptures; they know what this means. The prophet Zechariah told of a time when Israel would be set free from foreign dominion. They would be set free by a king, a king in the line of David, who would ride in, not on a warhorse, but on a donkey, with humility, as a servant. After years and years of Roman rule, you can bet that the people of Israel had memorized the passage from Zechariah, where it says, “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! [For] your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” This would be the day of their redemption, of their liberation, of their freedom. As Jesus passes by, the people shout, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (Mk 11:10).
Their hope builds as Jesus rides through the middle of the city, gathering more and more people. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they proclaim (v. 9). With the masses behind him, Jesus heads for the Temple, the center of Israel’s claim to sovereignty, because that’s the place where God’s dominion flows into the world. From the Temple all the nations will be judged by God. At the Temple the God of Israel will choose another man to administer the kingdom of God throughout the land. The people know exactly what is supposed to happen, so they continue to shout: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (v. 10). As they get closer to the Temple, marching behind Jesus, with every step they can feel the coming kingdom getting closer and closer.
Finally, Jesus arrives; and we hear the narrator report one of the more anticlimactic moments of the Bible: “Then he entered Jerusalem,” it says in verse 11, “and went to the Temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (v. 11). End of story. [Read more →]
March 27th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments
“Ever before me”
Jer 31:31-34, Ps 51:1-12
by Isaac S. Villegas
March 25, 2012
“To the leader: a psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” That’s the introduction to Psalm 51. There’s a story here, behind the prayer, a familiar story.
David, the king of Israel, is not an evil man. He isn’t like king Saul, his predecessor. That was the bad king. David is the good king. He’s different. Or, at least that’s what everyone thought, probably even David himself.
But that’s not how his life turned out. He became what he was not. He started to live a lie. He commits adultery, which starts him down a path of deceit, of covering up what he had done. One thing leads to another, and he ends up having Bathsheba’s husband killed. He uses his position to cover up his sin, to keep it a secret. With his power he commits murder: an attempt to silence the truth, to deny what he has become. “He has the power to kill without having to admit it even to himself.” David tries to hide from who he is, from who he is becoming. But, as soon as he starts down his path of deceit, he becomes his own prisoner, bound up in a lie, restricted, enslaved, always worried about covering up his trail.
But, as the introduction the Psalm says, “the prophet Nathan came to him”; and with prophet’s word, David is able to pull his life back into focus. He comes to see himself again, without illusions, without deception, without all the lies. “Thou art the man,” Nathan says to him, and David can no longer run from who he has become, he can no longer deny what he has done. He is, in a sense, set free, liberated. Now, after Nathan draws David into the light of truth, David can say, “My sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3).
I’ve been teaching a class on spiritual autobiography, on memoir, in prison. We read books like Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among others; and for their major assignment they write an essay about an important moment in their lives, or about something that they can’t forget, or an episode that they want to remember. This past week I read their first drafts, from the class that I’m teaching at the federal prison in Butner. I noticed this time, probably because I was thinking about the story of David — I noticed that many of the prisoners write about when they starting to deceive their loved ones, when they started to lie about what they were doing, and how the lie became a way of life, a way of living two different lives. They would lie to themselves about what they could get away with, about being able to separate this part of their lives from that other part of their lives. The lie would work, at first, but soon enough they became a prisoner to keeping the lie alive, because they depended on it, they had to maintain the lie, which came to dominate their lives. One thing leads to another, and what that they thought they had under control soon takes control of everything and their lives begin to crumble under their feet.
I’m not telling you all of this to convince you that the little lies we have, the secrets we keep in the dark, will lead you to prison. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m not trying to use prisoners, to use their lives behind bars to show us where we might end up if we don’t change our ways. Instead, what has struck me about reading autobiography after autobiography is that many of the students talk about how they have been set free, how imprisonment has meant a kind of freedom. [Read more →]