blip : Blogging Linear Interstellar Points : Sat, 21 Jul 2012 12:16:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Zombie apocalypse and vampire economics Sat, 21 Jul 2012 12:16:15 +0000

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.

This is an image of our world — a world where the rich and powerful enjoy the pleasures of life, even as they life off of systems that feed on the lives of others, the lives of people who live from paycheck to paycheck, trying to pay the bills and buy groceries and keep the creditors happy and pay the rent. Our economics has created a system that enslaves people through debt — we kill ourselves working because we owe so much money, and that debt keeps on growing because of interest rates that compound. We shouldn’t forget that the economics of this country was founded upon slave labor, and there is something of that old way of treating people that has stuck around in the DNA of our economy. For example, last week Wells Fargo got it trouble with the feds when it was discovered that they have been signing up black and brown people for loans at higher interest rates, even though they qualified for lower rates. In other words, without supervision, the mortgage system thinks that there is nothing wrong with enslaving the working lives of racial minorities with more debt than white people, debt which funds a financial system that makes possible off-shore investment accounts for the wealthy. Since 2008 — the beginning of our current recession — the millionaires of the world have increased their net worth. They have made money off of the financial devastation of others; they make money off of people who are enslaved by debt.

It’s no wonder that, as a culture, we are fixated on vampires and zombies, creatures that live as parasites. That’s what we have become, through our economic institutions. We’ve created institutions that sustain themselves by sucking the life out of others. In the 18th century, as he watched the powerful take over shape of economics, Voltaire talked about vampires. In the entry on vampires in The Philosophical Dictionary, he retold stories of corpses “who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living.” These vampires “grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite.” While walking in the financial capitals of Europe, Voltaire used the image of the vampire to describe the corruption of the bankers and the emerging finance industry:

“We have never heard a word of vampires in London, or even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were sock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.”

We live in this parasitic system, where the wealth of the many is redistributed to the minority of powerful elite, economic vampires who dwell in modern palaces by sucking money from the working lives of others. In his recent book, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism, David McNally investigates the fixation of our modern imagination on undead monsters, specifically vampires and zombies. The two come together, as “linked poles of the split society.” At one pole, we have vampires, “dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants.” At the other pole, are people who fear becoming zombies, “lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers.”

We fear the vampires, those who suck the life out of us, who possess and live though us, rendering us servants to their systems. And, as McNally notes, we fear that we are becoming zombies, going to our jobs as if we were the living dead: subject to alien economic powers, forces beyond our control, the flows of finance that insinuate their way into our work, the economic institutions that enslave us through the work of our hands, as we deposit paychecks, use our credit cards, and repay our growing debts.

If McNally is right to link our fascination with monsters to our economic condition, then it makes sense that a fear of zombies quickly spread through the United States last month. Rumors of a “Zombie Apocalypse” captured our popular imagination. After news about several cases of cannibalism turned into a panic about zombies infiltrating our cities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), issued a statement to calm the growing alarm: “The CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms.)”

As the rich gain more and more wealth from the working poor during the current economic recession, the masses worry that we are on the verge of becoming a society of zombies. Perhaps, as McNally suggests, the fear of zombies is related to the subconscious realization that our working lives are under the control of foreign powers, of financial markets, and that we have become zombie-like creatures, in a state of living death, never quite able to escape the slavery of our debts — the same debts that allow the wealthy to live like vampires, to party like Herod, and offer prisoners as necessary sacrifices to sustain the system.

This is the kind of world that the prophet Amos condemns. “They sell the righteous for silver,” Amos prophecies, “and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,” (Amos 2:6-7). “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan… who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (4:1). You “abhor the one who speaks the truth… you trample the poor and take from them levies of grain… [Therefore,] you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (5:10-11).

Amos offers a harsh word from God to a people who maintain a society where the rich get richer and the poor are crushed at the bottom, crushed with inhumane labor, and crushed under the weight of poverty.

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp… who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils… they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away” (6:4-7).

The people who lounge in luxury, Amos notes, end up using religion as a form of self-absolution. They can continue to benefit from unequal systems of labor and property because they have convinced themselves that God is happy about the way things are. But God will not participate in their worship:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” (5:21-23)

Yet, after such a harsh word, God doesn’t leave the people in condemnation. Instead of using faith to make themselves feel good about an economically unjust world, God offers a vision of restoration: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (v. 24).

Justice flowing like the rivers — this returns us to the world of Psalm 85, where “justice and peace will kiss,” where “faithfulness will spring up from the ground,” and where “justice will look down from the sky.”

According to the God of Amos, such a world is possible, in which resources would be redistributed for the sake of the poor instead of for the wealthy. This was also the vision at the heart of one of Woodie Guthrie’s songs. If he was still alive, he would have been 100 years old last week. He wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a patriotic protest against the shallow sentimentalism of another song his fellow citizens were singing, “God Bless America.” In response, Guthrie sang,

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ Sign was painted, it said private property / But on the back side it didn’t say nothing/ This land was made for you and me… / In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple / By the relief office, I’d seen my people. / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”

Although he’s been dead for some time now, Woody Guthrie’s question still haunts us, “Is this land made for you and me?” In this world populated by the living dead, people crushed under poverty and the weight of debt, the prophetic words of Amos and Guthrie call our global economy into question. With the financial health of world markets in a state of collapse, we should be hoping for Christ’s return, for the day of the Lord, when all things will be restored. But, Amos’ prophecy exposes what my hope tries to hide: that God’s salvation will undo the systems of this world that sustain my life. “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord,” Amos writes. “Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light… Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18, 20).

To hope for the day of the Lord, to hope for salvation, is to open ourselves up to judgment, to open ourselves to wonder if we are on God’s side.

]]> 3
Salvation: a sermon on Mark 5:21-43 Wed, 04 Jul 2012 01:37:34 +0000

Mk 5:21-43, 2 Cor 8:7-15
Isaac Villegas
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.

She tried everything, every attempt at a cure, spending all her money. She heard news about this man Jesus. Without anyone noticing her, she breaks the law and makes her way into the crowd that follows Jesus. She has to get to him; nothing else matters. “If I but touch his clothes,” she says to herself, “I will be made well” (Mk 5:28). And when she does, Jesus feels power flow out of him, healing power, saving power, the power of restoration. When he finds her in the crowd, he says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (v. 34).

But it’s important to know that Jesus also says, “Daughter, your faith has saved you.” It’s the same word — to be made well and to be saved is the same in Greek. Health is the language of salvation. Salvation is a form of healing, the restoration of our lives, God putting back together all that has been destroyed, all that has been taken from us. Salvation is the healing of all that we have wounded.

It’s not that we are totally depraved, corrupt to the core, sinful through and through; and God finally comes into the picture and replaces the ruined old self with a new self. It’s not like our sinful self is so bad that we need to trade it in for a new model to replace it. That works for cars, but not for our lives. Salvation isn’t about trading in the old self for a new one.

Instead, salvation is about healing what God created as good, repairing what has been wounded, making well what has been corrupted by evil. Salvation is God’s healing presence — it’s the way God becomes one of us, assuming our flesh, living in solidarity with us, getting involved in our lives even when we are ashamed of what we have become, embarrassed by what has happened to us. In Jesus, we see that God doesn’t run away, instead salvation is God’s movement of drawing closer and closer to us, as a presence of healing, a force of restoration, a power of renewal. When the unnamed woman touches Jesus, she feels the power of God’s affirmation, washing over her, flowing through her, restoring her health, her well being.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (v. 34). This is an image of salvation, of being healed from the disease of sin, from the infection called evil, and to be invited into God’s peace.

But what counts as health, as being healthy? What does it mean to be restored to health? There are so many factors to consider, so many definitions of what a healthy body, a healthy life, looks like.

It’s easy to see what restored health looks like for the woman in the story. Her hemorrhage is healed. She no longer is in pain, nor is she required to live in isolation. Her body is no longer at odds with her life. She is restored to her people, she is able to be part of her community again.

Human well being is bound up in sharing life together, in belonging to a community, where people depend on you and you depend on others, a life where joy grows in us as we do life together, and where pain is bearable because we can carry each other’s burdens.

All of this sounds very un-American. Well being as belonging to one another, health as learning how to depend on each other—this way of talking about what is most important to us is definitely not what the 4th of July is all about. It’s called Independence Day, after all, a time to celebrate our freedom from the British, a freedom accomplished through war, independence through death, freedom from others by killing our connections with other people.

This is, obviously, a problem for us. As pacifists, we don’t believe that killing our enemies is any kind of solution, nor is the freedom achieved through death anything to brag about. Instead, we are committed to the struggle of God’s kingdom, where we look for ways to welcome God’s healing, God’s restoration, God’s salvation, as we live with our enemies, as we learn how our health is bound up with theirs, how dependencies can invite us into new possibilities for relationship, even with enemies.

I think that’s what salvation is all about. It has everything to do with the way God restores us through linking our lives together, weaving us into the kingdom of God. And even though, at times, our lives become undone, unraveled, frayed, to have faith in salvation is to trust that God will restore all things, that God will heal us, all of us, even heal us from the pain of death. That’s the hope we glimpse in the other story we heard in Mark’s Gospel — the story of Jarius and his daughter, the little girl that Jesus restores to life, resurrected. That’s the hope of salvation: resurrected life, where we are made whole again, made whole through one another, through our dependencies, made whole with all the ones who have been cut off from us by death.

This vision of salvation has everything to do with what the apostle Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians. He is telling the church in Corinth to share their money with the believers in Jerusalem, so that those who have much do not have too much, and those who have little do not have too little (2 Cor 8:15). This is what salvation looks like, it looks like one church giving to another; Christians using their money, their resources, to develop connections, to share life together even across great distances, even though they may not even know what each other looks like. Salvation is the health of the body, the whole body, as we bind ourselves together, letting God shape us through our dependencies, now and always.

]]> 0
Faith and Love: a sermon for Ascension Sunday Mon, 21 May 2012 14:57:42 +0000

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.

It’s strange, at least for me, to think about the fullness of Jesus filling the group of people who get together for lunch every Wednesday along 15/501. A bunch of us helped provide the lunch this past week. There we were, eating and talking, very different people, some who drove up in cars, and others who walked out from the woods or from the intersections where they were begging. Before our time of fellowship was over, we gathered in a circle, held hands, and prayed.

Was I supposed to believe that the hand in my hand was the body of Jesus, the fullness of him who fills all in all, even our little group? I guess it takes faith to believe such mysteries.

This same group of people used to meet for worship on Monday mornings, in a clearing in the woods at the end of the service road, with the Interstate 40 onramp in the background. One time I got there just as the service was about to get started and Carolyn, one of the organizers, asked if I would serve Communion. When the time came, I read the words of institution from 1 Corinthians, picked up the bread, broke it in half, and walked around the circle, handing out pieces. As I came to one man, I noticed tears beginning to stream down his face. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” I said as I handed him some bread. He smelled of sweat and stale alcohol. He took the bread from my hands, dipped it in the cup, and ate — and as he ate, he wept. I saw faith in his eyes, in the tears of gratitude streaming down his cheeks. “The church is the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Ascension means that Jesus withdraws so he can give us his body through each other, with our hands, with our love, our tears, perhaps. Christ comes among us as a presence of power helping us to stand up for God’s justice; and Christ comes among us as the wounded one, vulnerable, at our mercy, bearing the marks of crucifixion, bearing witness to the pain among us; for “Christ fills all in all.”

Ascension doesn’t mean that Jesus escapes from the world; instead, ascension means that Jesus becomes all the more present to us through the Holy Spirit, alive in the here and now, in solidarity with us. I think this is what the apostle Paul, in Colossians, is getting at when he ties together his experience with the sufferings of Jesus: he says, “I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). Paul’s suffering adds something to the wounds of Jesus. Likewise, we fill out the body of Jesus, and our pain is his pain, our joy his joy, our life his life. After all, from before his birth, Jesus was called Immanuel, God with us.

“I have heard of your faith,” Paul says in Ephesians. So, what is faith? Faith is whatever it is that moves you to assemble as church, whatever it is that keeps you coming back to join in the body of Christ, to link your lives together, to commune with Jesus, to welcome him with your hands, with your prayers, with our love. Faith is whatever I saw in that man’s eyes, through the tears, as he took the bread and ate it, and worshiped. To come to worship is an act of faith, as we hope and pray that God will meet us here, even if God feels absent to us, as if God has withdrawn from whatever it is that we’re dealing with these days, even if we’re confused about why we’re here anyway, being church together instead of reading a good book or taking a nap.

To be church together is an act of faith that invites us to experience the world as filled with Jesus, with Christ who fills all and is in all — God, in whom we live, move, and have our being. Worship is an invitation into faith as a way of life; church is an invitation to let our faith open up a new world in this world; not as an escape, but as a way to experience the life of God at the heart of all things, the sustaining presence of God’s love. And as we come to live in this world by faith, this world where God is present in joys and tears, we will find God, in the love that draws us together, that holds us, that comforts us — and by faith we will recognize in the love of our neighbor, the love of God. Faith is the way we can experience human love, in all of its ordinariness, as the love of God, in all of its mysterious depths. Faith is an invitation into a way of life that moves with God’s love for the world, the love that saved us, that brought us into the body of Christ, and that draws us into communion with neighbors and strangers — a communion, sometimes, in bread and tears.

Ascension is not an escape; it is not an invitation to follow Jesus into the clouds. Instead, ascension makes it possible for Jesus to give us his body again and again, here on earth, in this world, not in another, among the people God has assembled all around you.

At the end of the ascension story in Acts two men appear in white robes, and they ask the disciples a question, a question that is the invitation of faith, an invitation for us: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11). As a way to respond to such a question, let us stand and greet one another with the peace of Christ.

]]> 0
Immigration and the law Tue, 15 May 2012 22:10:10 +0000 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.

An excerpt:

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).


]]> 0
Wilderness roads Wed, 09 May 2012 14:00:51 +0000

Wilderness roads
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?

For me, life feels more like a vine than a tree — full of twists and turns, without any apparent reason. Some of you may feel the same way. Where you are now wasn’t part of the plan. This job, this home, this town, that relationship — so much of it just happened, and now you are left trying to make sense of where you are and where you are supposed to go. The direction is not always clear. For trees it’s clear, but not for vines.

Ten years ago I wouldn’t have predicted that I would end up becoming a Mennonite, let alone a pastor of a Mennonite church. It just happened. I came to North Carolina for school and someone invited me to church, this church, where I was asked if I wanted to read one of the bible passages during worship; I said yes and the next thing I knew some people had the crazy idea to turn me into a pastor. And I’m still trying to figure out what all of it means.

In the story we heard from Acts, chapter 8, Philip is also left trying to figure out what it all means, after a series of strange twists and turns. An angel shows up and tells him to get up and go south, down a wilderness road. “So he got up and went,” it says in verse 27. Philip really doesn’t know where he is going, or why. He doesn’t know where he will end up, or what will happen to him along the way.

As Philip walks, he sees an Ethiopian, riding in a chariot, reading from the book of Isaiah. Now, this man doesn’t belong with God’s people. He’s a foreigner and he’s a eunuch. Ethiopian eunuchs aren’t supposed to be invited into the family; the eunuch part is especially problematic, if you care about the authority of the bible. Listen to Deuteronomy 23:1, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

We don’t know how Philip came to his decision to baptism this man. We don’t know how he was reasoning with the Scriptures, with God’s command in Deuteronomy, when the Ethiopian eunuch asked him, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:37). Well, I can think of at least two reasons, based of the bible. Why didn’t the bible keep Philip from baptizing the eunuch? We aren’t given the answer. All we know is that for whatever reason, Philip decides to welcome a foreigner, a Gentile, into God’s people — and not just any Gentile, but someone who God expressly forbids from entering into the assembly of the Lord, according to the book of Deuteronomy, a eunuch.

This episode does not follow the plan, Israel’s plan for faithful growth and stability. This baptism happens beyond the bounds of the rules — Philip is like a vine, straying from the other branches, trusting that another arm of the trellis will catch him and this gentile eunuch, and keep them as part of the true vine; Philip is boldly trusting that he and the eunuch will be enfolded by the other branches, as they follow the leading of the Spirit, the path of the Sun, on the wilderness road, where anything can happen.

There is a wildness to what it means to be God’s people. The church is a bit unruly, with branches heading out in all sorts of directions. And Jesus doesn’t say that God will cut off the wild branches, if they stray too far from the others. No, the only reason why God prunes the vine is for the sake of fruit: Jesus says, “The Father removes every branch that bears no fruit” (Jn 15:2). There’s nothing wrong with wild branches, with experiments in faithfulness, with baptizing a eunuch into God’s family and never hearing from him again. What matters, Jesus says, is that we bear fruit — that, as we grow, we bear fruit wherever we are, even in places that we never planned on staying, even if we feel like life has become a tangled mess of branches and we’re stuck, at a loss of direction.

Mennonites have been people who end up living in places that they never planned on, and in situations that they would not have thought ideal. We inherit this tradition, of being forced to branch out into foreign places, being called to travel down wilderness roads, like Philip in the story from Acts. Yet, our Mennonite ancestors, wherever they might have found themselves, took comfort in a verse from the Psalms: Psalm 24, verse 1, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”

The good news is that God is already where you are and where you may be going. The whole earth is the Lord’s, not just this corner of it, or the part of the world that you call home. New life is possible, even when it looks like we are in the wilderness. Wherever God calls us, we are still branches of the vine, bearing fruit. To bear fruit is to give life, to provide for what people need to live: fellowship, meals, friendship, gestures of love, of care, of solidarity, of prayer. To find out what it means to love someone is to begin a conversation, to ask, to listen, to let someone tell you what counts as love. Because love is not something we have possession over; love can’t be imposed on others. Instead, we learn love through asking and listening, as we form relationships, as we give and receive counsel, as we share our stories, our experiences of love and our experiences of rejection, of abuse. This is the messiness of love, of a love that looks like Jesus, the true vine, with branches holding up other branches. These are the places where love happens in our lives, this entanglement of vines that we call the church, where we are able to grow into God’s love, into the God who is love, to abide in the vine. Because, as it says in First John,

if we love one another, God lives in us… By this we know that we abide in him and he in us… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.

]]> 0
a sermon on resentment Tue, 24 Apr 2012 11:26:23 +0000

Without resentment
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.[1]

“Jesus stood among them,” it says, “and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (v. 36). Jesus made sure, from the moment he appeared, to let them know that he came in peace — with peace, not with a grudge. But the disciples needed more convincing: “Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus says, “see that it is I myself. For a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (v. 39). The disciples could see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, the scars from his crucifixion. But they were still a little worried, so Jesus ate a fish, and somehow that settled it.

Jesus does all that he can to convince his friends that he is not a ghost, and that he is not holding a grudge, that he isn’t a presence of resentment, of vengeance. Instead, he has come in the name of peace; he has come to offer forgiveness, which is the opposite of revenge — “repentance and forgiveness,” he says, for all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem, the place where he was killed, the city where the crowds turned on him and his friends left him alone (v. 48). This is the where Jesus came to announce forgiveness and peace.

Two people come to my mind, when I think about the grudges I hold onto. I have plenty of other petty grudges, not worth anything, but the memories of these two people fill me with resentment. When their faces flash across my mind, I don’t really think about how to seek revenge; that’s not my personality, I guess. Instead, I’m glad that I don’t have to see them regularly, and I hope that I don’t ever have to run into them again.

This is where the Easter story bothers me, because, for Jesus, resurrection doesn’t mean he gets to escape from the people who have wronged him, the people who have let him down. Instead, the Easter gospel is about the power to come back to the place where he was wronged, and to invite people into forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t come back as a sign of death, as a ghostly presence that reinforces the divisions between us. Instead, the resurrection, the Easter presence of Jesus, is a force of transgression between the divisions that we thought were permanent, that we thought were just part of life, the divisions we thought were natural: Jesus crosses them, he transgresses the chasm of mortality, the division between the living and the dead, that’s the great divide that rules over our lives. And, when Jesus crosses that separation, he also breaks through a multitude of other divisions, the signs of death that surround us and pass through us, all the little deaths that take hold of us as relationships are severed — social deaths, where relationships are broken and that brokenness leads to building walls of separation, keeping us away from them, keeping you away from him, her away from you.

We organize our world, our lives, by figuring out who are our friends and who are our enemies, and former friends who have become enemies. But the gospel messes with these categories because Jesus comes back from the dead in order to be with the people who have wronged him. Jesus won’t let the forces of alienation, of death, govern his life. And he commissions his disciples to bear witness to this gospel, to seek out enemies and invite them into communion, to invite them into a common life, a shared life.

That’s what we see happening again and again in the story of Acts: followers of Jesus refusing to live without the enemies of Jesus. “You killed Jesus, the author of life,” they announce, “and we’re here to tell you that this same Jesus forgives you and want you to be part of his life.” It’s a radical announcement, something unheard of, a strange message, so strange that it’s hard sometimes to see how this can be good news, because we hold onto our resentment so tightly that it would be hard to imagine life without it, without our grudges. How could it be good for us to share a common life with her, with him, with them?

Easter is an invitation into a new world, happening here and now, where forgiveness is made possible, where the power of Christ’s forgiveness can flow through us. Jesus came back to offer the possibility of communion, of restoration, not alienation, not separation. We are forgiven, yes, but forgiveness is not merely a status we can hold onto, that we can claim as our own. Instead, forgiveness is the presence of God’s grace, God’s life, flowing through us, inviting us to reconsider our resentments.

Yes, forgiveness washes over us, making us clean, but as it washes over us it also soaks through all of our lists, our lists of grudges, of friends who have become enemies, our lists of betrayals; and as this forgiveness washes over us, it may feel like our very selves, our identities, are being washed away, because the powers of resentment have become internal to us, inside of us, telling us who we are, telling us how we think, and to be set free from them would be to live an unimaginable life. Who would we be without our record of wrongs? How would we protect ourselves from being wounded again?

The Easter gospel, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, is about the undoing of resentment, the hope that is born in us as we learn how to forgive, to open ourselves to the possibility of communion with the people we never want to see again, in this life or the next.

[1] See Herbert McCabe, “Ghosts, Burial and Resurrection,” pp. 99-101 in God, Christ, and Us (London, UK: Continuum, 2003).

]]> 1
An Easter sermon Tue, 10 Apr 2012 11:51:28 +0000

“In search of a body”
Isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-18

Isaac S. Villegas
Easter 2012

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).

On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb because she longs for the life she had, life with Jesus and the rest of his followers, a life that meant something, that meant everything. She wants all of that back again, but she can’t have it back because he’s dead, Jesus is dead. So she goes to the tomb to remember and to mourn. When Mary finds out that the tomb is empty, she assumes that the body was stolen. “They have taken away my Lord,” she says, “and I do not know where they have laid him” (Jn 20:13). When Jesus appears to her, as a gardener, she asks again about the body of Jesus: “Sir,” she says, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him” (v. 15). But the gardener reveals himself as Jesus, her friend, her rabbi, her Lord, and tells her to find the other disciples and to join them, to tell them the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Mary doesn’t get Jesus back, and neither do the disciples — at least, they don’t get Jesus back in the same way he was with them before. “Do not hold onto me,” Jesus says to Mary. Jesus won’t be present to Mary, present in the world, just like he used to be. Instead, Jesus tells Mary to join the other disciples, to return to the group of followers, to fellowship, to eat, to wait.

This was the moment that the church was born — we are all followers of Mary Magdalene, the one who was told by Jesus to return to the community of followers and share the good news; to find the rest of Jesus’ followers and tell them the good news that death did not have the last word, that God raised Jesus from the grave. Our faith was born in the wake of the empty tomb, at the disappearance of Jesus, at the loss of his body.[1] And we remain “until the end of time, a people in search of a body: in search of the body of the risen Christ.”[2] That search is what draws us together as the church.

When Jesus tells Mary to let him go and to return to the others, Mary shows us that Jesus will not be present in the same way he was before his death. Instead, now, after his resurrection, Jesus is present as a way of life, as a way of being together, as a people who gather around at the table to eat, where strangers and friends are invited to share life; now, Jesus is present as learn how to be at peace with one another, as we break bread together.[3]

Still, I can’t help but wonder, with Mary, who stands before the empty tomb and says: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” In all of our rejoicing, as we celebrate Easter with a feast, “a feast of rich food,” as the prophet Isaiah said — we are still marked by loss, by disappearance, by an absence: for Mary Magdalene and those first disciples, they had to learn how to go on without Jesus’ human body, without the undeniable presence of Jesus; and for us, our Communion doesn’t feel complete because we also know loss, we are also marked by real absence, missing bodies — either friends and family who have passed away, or people who our society separates from us, like prisoners.

So, our feasting, our Communion points us in a direction; this meal isn’t complete in and of itself, because our fellowship awakens a hope, the hope of Easter: that death will not have the last word; that God raised Jesus from the grave, and with him God will gather all the sisters and brothers of Jesus; that the family of God will be restored, the body of Christ reunited; that, one day, all of God’s children will be together, breaking bread; as Isaiah says, “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”

For now, as we eat, we are like my students in prison, dreaming of a future, waiting for salvation, waiting for God’s new life, the resurrected life of Jesus, to heal every wound, to mend every broken heart, to disarm the violent and reconcile enemies.

For now, we are in search of the body of the risen Christ, who comes to us, again and again, as we gather, as we Commune, as we share our lives: the One who has come to give us hope, not only for ourselves, but to invite us into hope as a new way of life, hope in the form of a new society, the body of Christ, where death and fear and violence no longer exercise dominion, where all will be remembered, where all shall be forgiven.[4]



[1] “Christianity was founded upon the loss of a body—the loss of the body of Jesus Christ, compounded with the loss of the ‘body’ of Israel, of a ‘nation’ and its genealogy.” Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable; quoted in Nicholas Lash, Seeing in the Dark: University Sermons (London, UK: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2005), 159.

[2] Nicholas Lash, Seeing in the Dark, 160.

[3] “Jesus says: don’t go looking in the tomb for my body, don’t go looking up to heaven for my risen body, don’t go looking anywhere, look amongst yourselves, look at the food you eat together, look at the life you share together. This is the kind of thing that my bodily presence is: when you break bread together.” Herbert McCabe, God, Christ, and Us (London, UK: Continuum, 2003), 84.

[4] “To search for the body of the risen Christ is to search for a society which would be the reconciliation, in justice and in peace, of all humankind.” Lash, Seeing in the Dark, 160.

]]> 0
race, footwashing, and church: a reflection on Holy Thursday Wed, 04 Apr 2012 16:49:26 +0000 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


]]> 0
Crucified hope: a Palm Sunday sermon Tue, 03 Apr 2012 13:11:35 +0000

Crucified hope
Mark 11:1-11
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. That’s it. It’s a strange scene. Jesus has the masses on his side, all around him. The people are shouting slogans of revolution. The people in the crowd can feel the presence of King David, overflowing from this man Jesus; this is the beginning of the resurrection of David’s kingdom, Israel restored. Jesus enters the Temple courts, and he just looks around. That’s it. The people are shouting, ready for the kingdom, and Jesus, what does he do? He looks at his watch, notices that it’s getting late and he’s tired; so he yawns and heads out of town with his disciples and tries to find a nice camping spot. The people who had marched with Jesus were probably confused and disappointed, some, perhaps, were a little angry. All that excitement, all that marching for nothing. They got their hopes up for no reason.

But Jesus knew what he was doing; he knew it from the moment he decided to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus knew the same prophecies about the coming kingdom of David; he knew the popular imagination of his fellow Jews. So he plays the role, the role of a new king, in the line of David, the one who was to resurrect the sovereign kingdom of Israel; but Jesus does all this in order to run it into the ground, to show his people that a different way is possible, that they don’t need a king like David, that they don’t need a kingdom like the days of old, that they don’t need a sense of sovereignty that would free them from their Roman sovereigns. Jesus comes with a different vision of hope: a hope that doesn’t satisfy all the dreams and expectations of the people, but hope nonetheless.

What Jesus offers on Palm Sunday is an invitation, to all of us: an invitation to walk with him, and as we walk to let Jesus purge us of all the promises that tempt us with power and control, to let Jesus purge us of all the offers from the world that lead to positions of power. Jesus takes hold of those hopes and yawns, because he wants to show the crowds, he wants to show us, that we still do not know what to hope for, that we still don’t know how to hope, how to live a life of hope. To walk with Jesus is to be educated in hope; to follow him is to let go of what we thought the perfect life was supposed to be like; to walk by his side is to be able to go on after your hope has been disappointed.

On Palm Sunday, the crowds didn’t get what they wanted. Instead, they saw the hope of Israel, the new king, the messiah, they saw Jesus on a donkey, riding past the thrones of worldly power and success, they saw him on a cross, naked and weak, humiliated. This was not the king they had hoped for. This was not the God they expected. This was not what hope was supposed to look like. With Jesus, hope is crucified.

As Jesus empties out one form of hope, he invites us into another. In the story, as Jesus gets closer and closer to his death, the failure of the disciples show us what hope is supposed to look like. Hope is revealed to us as judgment, the way of life that no one chose. If you know how the story goes, you will remember that the disciples don’t stay with Jesus in his darkness hour. They fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane, even after Jesus begs them three times to stay with him, to stay awake with him: “I am deeply grieved, even to death,” he tells his friends, “please keep awake” (14:34). But they don’t, they leave Jesus alone, without friendship in his time of desperation. In the morning, after Jesus had been captured, the disciples scatter in fear. They try to make themselves anonymous, to disappear into the crowds; they watch Jesus’ trial and crucifixion from a safe distance.

The disciples chose the opposite of hope; they chose separation, distance, freedom from the dangers that come with friendship, autonomy, liberation from the risks that come with companionship, with solidarity. Hope is found in the invitation Jesus offers to his friends, when he says: Will you stay with me, will you share in my rejection, in my shame, in my humiliation?

That’s the question that leads to hope, the struggle that is the possibility of hope in our world. Will we be drawn into relationships of solidarity, with people who are in their darkest hour, with people who are alone, desolate?

A few years ago I was talking with a woman from Nicaragua; we were at a Mennonite Central Committee meeting. She was telling me about why she joined the Mennonite church in her country. She told me about growing up with violence all around her. Her people were in the middle of a revolution, a civil war. She said that Mennonite Central Committee had sent people to Nicaragua in the early 1970s, to help out after a earthquake, and they stayed, even in the midst of violence. They were there, with her and her family and her village. She became a Mennonite, she said, because she saw that for Mennonites, the gospel is about acompañamiento, accompaniment. They didn’t come with answers, she said; they came to be with us, to struggle by our side.

Accompaniment, solidarity: that’s what hope looks like, that’s what the gospel is all about, that’s what Jesus invites us into at the end of Lent, during Holy Week, as we walk with Jesus, by his side.

Jesus offers us the question that leads to hope, an invitation that is the possibility of hope in our world: Will you stay with me, will you share in my rejection, in my shame, in my humiliation?

]]> 0
Ever before me Tue, 27 Mar 2012 12:37:49 +0000

“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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.

To be honest, I usually don’t like this. I don’t like it because I want freedom to be about bodily life, about life in the flesh, about where we live, about where we are able to go. I get worried when freedom and liberation become spiritualized or psychologized — as if what matters most is our attitude about the conditions we live in instead of the conditions themselves: Forget about the systems of abuse all around you and make the most of it, nurture your spiritual life and you will have all the freedom you need. This kind of talk, this language of psychological or spiritual freedom — it can end up justifying or excusing physical bondage: conditions of abuse are put on the sidelines, outside of the conversion, because those conditions are the real problem, the real issue is your attitude, about how you deal with your situation.

That’s why I worry when I hear people in prison, usually Christians, talk about imprisonment as a kind of freedom. I want freedom to have something to do with our material lives, with our bodies as well. When Jesus talks about setting the prisoners free, I want that freedom to be literal, physical, tangible, not a metaphor.

But, what I’m beginning to see, what I’m learning from these men who take my class, is that being arrested has made their lies public, and that has given them a very real taste of freedom. Their lies have been exposed: being put in prison has forced them to wrestle with what they have become, without any illusions. They are like David, confronted with their secrets, and learning how to live in the freedom that comes when they no longer have to deceive their friends and family: Freedom from having to lie, liberation from being enslaved to a life of deception.

“My sin is ever before me.” That’s what David prays after his sins are made public. It’s a moment of truth, and the freedom that comes from truth, from letting light shine in the darkness. Notice that David does nothing to achieve his freedom from sin, from his lies. He doesn’t offer a confession because he wants to make everything right, because he wants to be honest with his people and God. No, David does nothing to set himself free. Instead, the prophet Nathan confronts him with the truth, surprises him with the truth, and David can no longer hide.

Psalm 51 is not the result of a moment of clarity about his life and the direction he’s heading. It isn’t a prayer that comes after a decision to be good, after a resolution to seek change in his life; this isn’t one of those “never-again” moments, displaying his willpower. Instead, the psalm is a prayer of someone who is learning how to receive the truth, someone who isn’t consumed with secrets anymore, someone who is being brought into the light, who is beginning to know what it feels like to live without deception, someone who has put away the masks, because he realizes that he doesn’t need them…

Because David has come to know the “steadfast love” of God, as it says in the Psalm. That is the key revelation of the story of David. The revelation of God’s steadfast love fuels David’s psalm; David sings in response to this love that refuses to let him go.

After David’s abuse of power comes to light, God doesn’t banish him, God doesn’t get rid of him. God doesn’t disown David, making a public spectacle of him, making an example out of him to show the rest of Israel what happens when someone breaks the commandments of God. That would be the way our modern criminal justice system would do things. But that’s not what God does to David; because God’s love washes away iniquity and cleanses the heart, because God renews spirits with the Holy Spirit, and because God is a God of restoration.

David has come to know the mercy of God, that God cleanses us of sin for no other reason than because God’s love is steadfast, faithful, enduring, patient. The good news is that God has seen through our lies, and still remains with us, working in us the truth about ourselves. And the truth is that God has written on our hearts, as we heard in Jeremiah; the truth is that we have been drawn into an unbreakable covenant with God. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” God says to the prophet Jeremiah; “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33, 34).


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2: 466.

[2] Barth, CD IV/2: 466: “Already, however, he is his own prisoner.”

]]> 0