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Interview in The Christian Century

March 15th, 2012 by isaac · 3 Comments

For some strange reason The Christian Century decided to interview me in their series on ministry in the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

What does being a leader mean to you?
An anticlerical stream runs through the center of the Anabaptist tradition. Pastors aren’t singled out as default leaders. Leadership roles for us are always temporary and specific, depending on whom the congregation appoints for a particular task. These kinds of decisions are made by consensus within our congregational life meetings, which occur every other month.

This leadership model has its frustrations. We have lots of meetings and lots of committee work. I find myself picking up the phone often to confer with different committee chairs or having to wait for the next congregational life meeting before I can get involved in some important matter.

My role as pastor means that I am a servant, doing the work that the congregation outlines for me. Power is always flowing through the gathered people, always being given and received. Perhaps this is an important reason why our church meetings are so well attended; even visitors at our worship services often stick around for congregational life meetings.

I also like to think of myself as a sort of grassroots organizer: our little church assembles as a polis, and I work behind the scenes to make sure everything is ready for the meeting. Each Sunday different people plan and lead the service, preach and provide child care. I spend a lot of time assembling these rotations of people and facilitating their leadership. I also show up early and transform our rented space into our sanctuary; I rearrange the pews, pull crates of hymnals from a storage closet and move the pulpit into position.

The organizing doesn’t end with Sunday worship. This week, our congregation is in charge of the meal for Open Table Ministries, a coalition of churches that sets up tables and chairs alongside the highway so we can eat lunch with people who live in the woods behind Wal-Mart and elsewhere. For me, pastoral ministry means getting enough people from church to­gether to make sloppy joes and casseroles for the dozens of people who are hungry for food and fellowship.

Ministry is organizing space for people to enjoy communion with God and one another. So I rearrange pews, and I find people to help me make sloppy joes.

(For the rest of it, follow this link to the magazine’s website: “Organizing for communion.”)


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Baptized with a flood

March 4th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments

Tile: Baptized with a flood
Text: Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15, 1 Peter 3:18-22
Date: Feb 26, 2012, First Sunday of Lent
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

“[A] Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism,
once begun and ever continued.”

~ Martin Luther, 16th century[1]

My garden is coming back to life — crocuses, daffodils, Georgia blue speedwell, all flowering. The blue birds are back, darting in and out of their little house in my front yard, preparing a nest.

It makes sense to celebrate Lent during the spring, as we watch the earth come back to life. Lent is a season of for welcoming new life, a time set aside to make room for the new creation — and that’s what spring is all about, the beginning of new life, a new creation coming out of the old.

This is the story of Noah in Genesis 9 — new creation, new life out of the old. Usually, when we hear this story, we put ourselves in the ark, with Noah and his family, and the animals. That’s the take on the story we hear in 1 Peter 3, where Noah and the ark prefigures our baptism. The point in 1 Peter is that God saves us through the water and from the water. God saves us through baptism, where we pass from death to life, to resurrected life in Jesus, just like God saves the people and animals with Noah in the ark.

But what happens when we read ourselves into the story by identifying ourselves with the earth, the land that is destroyed by the flood — the adamah, to use the Hebrew word: adamah, the ground, the mud out of which God creates the human being, the adam. From the start, at the beginning of the story of Genesis, humans are tied to the humus; earthlings are formed from the earth. So, why not identify ourselves with the earth, with the soil that is our flesh? Why not read ourselves in solidarity with the rest of creation that is washed away in the flood?

After all, baptism is about being submerged into the waters, washed away by a flood of waters, dying with Jesus, and being resurrected through the Spirit. Baptism is a dying to an old self, and being raised into a new creation. That’s what happens to the land, the earth, in the story of the flood. The waters cover the land, “everything,” it says in Genesis 7, “everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died” (Gen 7:22). [Read more →]

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Healing and holiness

February 27th, 2012 by isaac · No Comments

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-45, Ps 30
Date: Feb 12, 2012
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

I was in New York City last week, which turned out to be the right place for the Superbowl, although I didn’t have the endurance to stay up late and watch the Giants win.

While in New York, I spent a lot of my time at the Bowery. It’s a homeless shelter and mission, started in 1879, in the middle of the city. I was there to spend time with the chaplain of the Bowery, who is a Mennonite minister; his name is Jason. After one of the midday worship services in the chapel, I was standing outside the front doors with Jason. I saw a man stumbling his way towards us, bundled up in layers of sweaters and coats. He had a nasty cough. Jason saw him and greeted him by name; apparently the man was a regular at the Bowery. The man extended his hand to Jason, to shake his hand. I looked down at his hand, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Jason do the same. The man’s hand was disgusting, filthy; it looked a little gummy from what I assumed to be mucus from his running nose. Jason paused, and I wondered if he was going to do it, to shake the man’s hand, to offer him a human connection, a recognition of mutuality, the solidarity that starts with human touch.

Jason shook his hand, and turned the man towards me so that he could introduce us to one another. “This is pastor Isaac; he’s visiting from North Carolina.” I tried to keep my cool, hoping that the man wouldn’t want to shake my hand. I subtly shifted my body, not quite moving away, but making it a little more awkward for him to try to shake my hand. I made sure I didn’t appear rude, or disgusted by him.

“Nice to meet you, pastor,” he said to me, without extending his hand. Jason told him that he should go inside the Bowery and wash his face because his nose was running and he was covered with snot. Since I am a considerate person, full of compassion, I took a step backward and opened the door to the building for the man. I never had to shake his hand.

I read Scott’s sermon from last week and thought this line was appropriate: “Jesus refuse[s] to heal from a distance — instead, he form[s] us in solidarity, making us a healthier, more faithful people.”[1]

That’s the movement of Jesus that I refused, standing outside the Bowery in New York City: the solidarity that comes through touch, the humanity of Jesus that comes to us again and again in the hands of our sisters and brothers. Look forward to the moment, says Sebastian Moore, an old monk, Look forward to the moment when the whole mystery of God will be known in the clasp of your sister’s or brother’s hand.[2] [Read more →]

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the church of the exorcism

February 22nd, 2012 by isaac · No Comments

Tile: The Church of the Exorcism.
Text: Mark 1:21-28, 1 Cor 8:1-13
Date: Jan 29, 2012
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

It is the Sabbath and Jesus is worshiping in the local synagogue. He preaches the good news and the people are impressed. All of a sudden an unclean spirit reveals itself, having taken possession of a fellow worshiper. The spirit speaks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (Mk 1:24) Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave the man alone. So the spirit departs, but as it leaves, the spirit convulses the man, shaking him.

This is what happens with Jesus shows up. There’s confrontation. The presence of Jesus is a provocation. His message lures the enemy out from its hiding place. When Jesus comes among us, the demonic is exposed — the powers that hold us captive are unmasked, the spirits that consume us are put on display.

When Jesus shows up, the spirits of this world, the spirits of this world that is passing away — they can’t help but cry out with shouts of protest as everything shudders.

This man in the synagogue — his story is our story, what happens to his body is what is happening to our extended body, as we come together as the church, being drawn further and further into the reality of Jesus’ way of life, of liberation from all the forces of this world that work against life, that destroy life, that corrupt what God has made good. As Jesus says elsewhere, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Jesus is a force of life; the unclean spirit in the story knows this and lashes out. Jesus is a presence of life that threatens the dominion of the forces of dehumanization, of subjugation.

This is the gospel that Paul knows — this gospel of freedom in Christ, of freedom from sin. The church is like that body in the synagogue, set free from the dominion of foreign powers. As Paul put it in our passage from last week, from 1 Corinthians 7: the present form of the world is passing away; the claims the world makes upon us are being undone, the spirits of this age are being exorcized, the shackles are falling away. No need to live according to the spirits of classism, or race, or of economic accumulation, or sexism and gender rules. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul says in Galatians (3:28). Those structures, those social codes, those institutions — all of them are slipping out of existence. This present world is passing away, Paul says. [Read more →]

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this world is passing away

February 13th, 2012 by isaac · 2 Comments

a sermon…

Tile: This world is passing away
Date: Jan 22, 2012
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

Let’s start with talking about what Paul doesn’t mean, what 1 Corinthians doesn’t mean when we hear a line like, “from now on, let those who have wives be as though they had none” (7:29). It’s not as if Paul is trying to justify the actions of, let’s say, one of the current U.S. presidential hopefuls, who may or may not have asked his second wife for an open marriage. “Let those who have wives be as though they had none,” doesn’t mean you get to be married and pretend that you’re not by cheating on your spouse. That’s not at all what this passage from 1 Corinthians is about.

The time, the critical time (v. 29), is short, Paul says, the present form of the world, the schaema of the cosmos as it says in the original Greek, the structures of existence, the organizing principles of human life, the social categories, the social and political and economic institutions; the present world order is passing away, it’s disappearing, crumbling, the structures of society are in collapse, they are slipping out of existence (v. 31).

Is Paul making a prediction about the end of the world, setting a precedent for people like Harold Camping, the radio preacher from Southern California who predicted that the rapture would happen on May 21st, 2011? The Christians would be taken up into heaven, he said, and the rest of creation would go up in flames — destruction, plagues, millions of people left for dead, the annihilation of the earth. All of this would culminate in the end of the world, which was supposed to happen last year, on October 21st.  That’s not at all what this passage from 1 Corinthians is about.

The followers of Harold Camping quit their jobs, dropped out of high school, and maxed out their credit cards as they tried to spread the news about the end of the world. His followers spent their life savings in order to get as many conversions as possible before the present form of the world would pass away in 2011. There was no reason to go on with their ordinary lives because the world was supposed to end.

The apostle Paul goes to church with these kinds of people. Paul writes to congregations in which some people believe that they don’t have to go on with their ordinary lives because Jesus is coming back any day, perhaps even tomorrow. So they don’t need to go back to work or pay their bills or keep their promises to spouses and families. As a warning to this group of people, Paul says, “Let each of you remain in the conditions in which you were called” (v. 20). In other words: Stay put, your earthly life matters to God, don’t ignore where God has placed you in life, in your work, in your relationships. This same teaching from Paul shows up again in 2 Thessalonians, chapter 3, where Paul tells the people to stop waiting around for God to show up and get back to work: “We hear,” he writes, “that some of you are living in idleness, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn a living” (vv. 11-12). The gospel, Paul reminds his fellow believers, is not about an escape route from the conditions of this world. [Read more →]

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Mary, Advent, and Occupy Wall Street

December 7th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

Almost two months ago I wrote a short reflection on Advent and the Occupy movement. It went to print this week. Perhaps, at this point, the piece is no longer relevant. Here’s an excerpt:


In this season of Advent, as we dwell with Mary, the one who is filled with Jesus, we let her words draw us into resonances of the gospel we may not have heard before. Mary’s words are living and active. They resound from places we may not have thought of as hospitable for God—like the womb of a poor teenage girl, or like the tent cities of the Occupy Wall Street movement, among protestors with these slogans: “End corporate greed,” “People over profits,” “Money for jobs and education, not wars and occupation.”

Mary’s words and these words resonate with each other, inviting us to consider what it would mean to let God’s Word echo through us today: to say, with Mary, full of grace, full of Jesus, God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.


For the rest of it, go to The Mennonite magazine website: “Rejoice with the lowly“.


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an apocalyptic advent

November 29th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

The first Sunday of Advent always shocks me out of the Christmas season. My sermon this past Sunday turned toward the apocalyptic.


In Oakland, Calif., I bet the moon and stars were darkened with clouds of tear gas as nonviolent protestors faced the terror of paramilitary police in the streets. For people in cities across the U.S., the sun turns to blood as they recover from the violence of pepper spray burning their eyes.

The people in the streets are an apocalyptic announcement that this country, that this world, can’t go on in the same way — that, to use the language of Jesus, the powers will be shaken (Mark 13:25). Or, if it does go on, if nothing changes, if the current power and economic arrangement does go on and is able to crush the poor, then the protestors will be back, perhaps after a long silence. But they will return with an apocalyptic announcement that unveils the violence and greed of this system, an announcement that calls for the end of the current state of affairs.

The first Sunday of Advent shocks us into awareness; it wakes us up and invites us to consider all the ways Jesus is wrapped up in the cries for a new world, for all things to be reborn, created anew, restored.


You can find a short version of it on the Mennonite Weekly Review blog: An Apocalyptic Advent

And you can read the complete sermon here: An Apocalyptic Advent

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led into ministry

November 22nd, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

I wrote a reflection on how my church called me into ministry and formed me as a pastor. Here’s an excerpt:

Long before that moment, long before I discerned God’s call, the Spirit was working through the hands of the community, molding me into a pastor. With their hands, the people led me into ministry. I still remember Fred’s prayer on behalf of the community as they laid their hands upon me and impressed God’s calling upon my life: “Make us partners with Isaac in ministry, constant in support, gentle in criticism, prayerful in all things.”

The people of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship created space for me to discern my call as pastor. They continue to sustain me in ministry. Together, we discern God’s voice in one another. Together, we feel our way into the mission of God as the Holy Spirit reaches out to us through each other. Together, we are the movements of Christ’s body drawing us into communion with God.

For the rest of it, follow this link to the Faith and Leadership magazine: Led into Leadership.


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Mennonites: a booklet of reflections

November 7th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

I’m been a member of a Mennonite church eight years now, and I’m still trying to get a handle on what it means to be a Mennonite. Last year I was able to visit congregations across the United States as an attempt to experience the diversity within the Mennonite denomination. I ended up writing a set of reflections on my visits. If you are interested in reading up on contemporary Mennonites, here’s a pdf of my booklet:

Life in the Body: Reflections on Mennonite Church USA (2011)

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From Emergent to Mennonite

October 30th, 2011 by isaac · 3 Comments

I wrote a reflection on worship experiences with an emergent church and with a Mennonite church. Here’s how the article starts:

Emergence of the Word

I knew it was the right place because the sound of the bass made the sidewalk tremble. The electronica house music beckoned me through the doors. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see a large room with what looked to be a dance floor and a single bar stool at the center. The music faded out and a band, hidden in the shadows, started to play. On the large screen above them pictures and video clips danced with the ambient music. I joined the others assembled for worship as we found our seats around the dance floor. Soon a barefoot man walked into the middle of the crowd and picked up a microphone that was lying on the table. The band continued to play, but now in a hushed whisper. “As the band plays,” the man said, “you are invited to wander around the room to the three stations for spiritual practices.”

The music picked back up and the man withdrew from the floor. Some people stayed in their chairs, eyes closed, bobbing their heads to the music. Others walked around the room, visiting the stations. In one corner white candles surrounded a few images of Jesus and saints. In another corner people were writing thoughts on the walls or in notebooks on the ground, and some were painting on large canvases. The last corner had a few tables with loaves of bread and bottles of wine. People tore chunks from the loaves and poured wine into paper cups. Free wine seemed like a good idea, so I poured myself a generous cup and went back to my seat.


If you are interested in reading the rest of it, visit The Other Journal: Forms and Flows of the Word.


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