Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 20, 2017

Contrast

I work in Photoshop almost daily. Even though I do my best when I’m taking pictures to get the composition, lighting, and exposure just right, sometimes a photo needs a little tweaking. Sometimes it needs a total overhaul.

One of my favorite Photoshop tools is the brightness/contrast adjustment slider. If there isn’t enough brightness in the shot, or if there’s too much, I can use the slider to make changes. Once I have the brightness where I want it, I modify the contrast between light and dark. It’s amazing what a difference this makes. Previously muddled areas on the photo are sometimes brought to life as eye-captivating details of a bird’s feathers, wood grain, or a facial expression.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’  [from Matthew 17]

This week’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus is all about the light—brightness and contrast. Jesus’ face and clothing shine (a clear reference to how Moses looked in the Exodus stories after being in God’s presence). There is a bright cloud. The presence of Moses and Elijah and the voice from the cloud knock the disciples down with fear, until Jesus’ touch tells them it all is right. Their pupils recovering from the light, they squint into the restored familiar face of the teacher.

What an amazing vision of light, presence, sound.

Then, they have to go back down the mountain and head into some very dark times. Though the brightness they have experienced on the mountain will be with them only in memory and spirit, they may begin to develop a better sense of contrast.

Good and evil may look more different from each other now that they’ve experienced closeness with eternal goodness. Fairness may be more distinguishable from injustice once they’ve been in the presence of eternal light. Truth may more easily be separated from falsehood since they have been in contact with eternal word. As they walk the difficult path to Jerusalem, the ability to see the contrast will keep their spirits alive, discerning, and safe.

For us, the gift of spiritual contrast now provides the ability to unmuddle the pictures that confront us as we walk our path. Those pictures of what is going on in the world can be complicated, crowded with competing images—including images that appear to be something they’re not. We rely on eternal goodness, light, and word to help us figure it out. To help us remember those moments of brightness and  clarity.

To see the contrast.moon-copyright-blog-2-20-17

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 13, 2017

Praying for enemies

As far as I know, I don’t have any real enemies. By that, I mean there is no one I wish were dead; there is no one I hope doesn’t succeed in life and health; there is no one (I hope!) who wishes me dead.

So when Jesus, in that countercultural sermon on the mount, says that we should love enemies, that doesn’t sound too difficult. I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right? Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? [from Matthew 5]

Hmm. Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus. I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not. And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be. That’s more difficult than I thought.

Our current political climate has highlighted differences between people and groups, between family members, between friends. It has created animosity where it didn’t exist before. And while I still don’t wish anyone ill, I so strongly disagree with some public statements of politicians and advocacy groups that I haven’t watched the news in weeks.

I feel as though I’m struggling between not-hate, and advocating for what I believe to be biblical imperatives. And there are people who disagree with me who could also write that previous sentence with just as much honesty as I did.

What to do? Well, this blip of a sermonette from Jesus has convicted me to pray. Not just for the things I want to see happen in the areas of justice and peace, but for the people with whom I so deeply disagree.

Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them. Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.

I don’t believe for a second that prayer will “change their hearts,” as Christians often say in their prayers about others they are trying to not-hate. But I do believe it will likely change my heart.

When I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.

Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat. Praying, I think, will make me work harder for justice. It will also likely make my heart a little softer.

For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed about justice issues—and pray for that person.

I expect I will be changed. Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.img_6065-lr-adjusted-copyright-low-my-blog-2-13-17

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 6, 2017

Anger and murder

We are living in angry times. There have been many seasons of anger in our lifetimes. In every age, to be frank.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” [from Matthew 5]

Anger isn’t always a bad thing. Anger at injustice provides an impetus and a trajectory toward justice. Moses got angry when the people made an idol. Prophets got angry when widows and orphans were neglected, and when the stranger wasn’t provided with hospitality. Jesus got angry and overturned the tables of those who were profiting from poor worshipers.

The problem comes, even with righteous anger, when we are so angry that we do harm.

The problem comes when we stay angry instead of letting that anger subside and morph into looking for creative and constructive solutions to unjust actions and systems.

The problem comes when anger is a way of life, or a lens through which we view other people.

The problem comes when anger interferes with relationships.

Insults and angry words almost never help things; they make things worse.

In angry times, it’s important that we rebuild broken relationships. It’s important that we offer criticism in such a way that it constructs bridges instead of barriers. It’s important that we let love for our fellow human beings turn anger into listening, and then into action.

Otherwise, our anger will kill us.

“You’ve heard it said, don’t murder. But I’m telling you not to be angry.”  Get yourself right with your neighbor, because anger has the potential of killing you and the neighbor too. At least it has the potential of killing the good things that are inside both of you.

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevierimg_4603-copyright-low-also-used-personal-blog-2-6-17

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 30, 2017

Be the light

As we continue to move into a different political reality in the United States, the church finds itself in shifting theological territory. Change is not something that the church, a giant multifaceted institution, handles very well. One good thing about change of any kind, though: it helps us reassess our values.

In the few chapters we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches about the church’s values. Here’s a clip:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. [from Matthew 5]

Individuals and faith communities are searching out where to go from here. Jesus’ wisdom? Be the light.

How are we the light? Depends on whom you ask, doesn’t it? But when we are the light, says Jesus, others will notice. No matter how we vote or what our political affiliation, we are still the light.

So:

  • We do what we know is right. We follow Jesus.
  • We remember that truth is our currency. We speak, share, and write the truth. Once we shrink from telling the truth, what do we have?
  • We honor those who are most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the very young and very old, those with disabilities.
  • We welcome the immigrant, the refugee, and the stranger as if we were welcoming Jesus himself.
  • We work for fairness and justice. We lift up people of all races, nationalities, religions, people of different genders.
  • We live in hope.
  • We are always listening, always aware that we may be wrong, always looking for the best in those with whom we disagree.
  • We say—not just to those like us, but especially to those different from us—“we have your back.”

This is what Jesus did. This is what Jesus taught.

The world is watching us.

Be the church. Be the light.img_4947-altered-crop-copyright-low-blog-1-30-17

 

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 23, 2017

Who is blessed?

Countercultural. That was a term I heard often in my youth. Those were changing times, and either you thought the era of countercultural radicalism was a good thing, or you thought it was a frightening thing. Even in Sunday School we were told that Jesus challenged the culture of his day. For instance, it was widely taught that the sermon on the mount was countercultural, including the beatitudes:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
 [from Matthew 5]

Countercultural words? Well…I don’t know. These sound a little wimpy to me.  Blessed are the meek? the merciful? the peacemaker? the poor in spirit?

Radicalism should sound, I don’t know, more radical?

Humility, mercy, peace, poverty of spirit aren’t exactly popular today—in politics, business, self-help literature, even many faith circles.

So I’ve written my own version of beatitudes, hoping they might be more acceptable to modern ears:

“Blessed are those who have everything they could possibly want, because they will have it easy;

“Blessed are those who are not sorry for anything they’ve ever done, because they never have to feel bad about themselves;

“Blessed are the noisy, for everyone hears them and their words take on importance;

“Blessed are those who have plenty to eat and drink, because they never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from;

“Blessed are the vindictive, because they can get even;

“Blessed are the violent, because violence takes care of their problems:

“Blessed are those who always have it easy, because they have no worries.

I know they aren’t right, but they sound right.

Really, who wants to worship a God who blesses the poor, the mourning, the persecuted, the peacemaker?

Actually, I think we all do.  Because when God blesses the weak and the troubled, God blesses every one of us.  God blesses your loved one in the hospital, your friend who is out of work, your neighbor whose father died, your child who is struggling in school.

Having it all straightened out actually gets in the way of being blessed. Being at the top makes us think we made it there on our own. Never having to mourn leads us to believe that we never will. If we have it easy, we think that those who have it hard must be lazy, or responsible for their own life situation.

Jesus’ words were countercultural then, and they still are.

We are called to live counter to our culture. Let us bless each other the way Jesus did.img_5716-lr-adjusted-2017-copyright-low

© 2017, Melissa Bane Sevier

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 16, 2017

Left behind

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. [from Matthew 4]

Zebedee looks around at the nets still to be mended, no sons to help with the work, employees staring at him wondering what to do next.

Then he realizes he has to go home and tell his wife. Oh dear.

“Honey, they wandered off with Jesus.” 

“Jesus? That carpenter’s son they hang out with sometimes?  You mean they just left their work? Well, they’ll have a lot of catching up to do when they get back tomorrow.” 

“I don’t think they’re coming back tomorrow. I think they may be  gone a while.” 

“A while? Like a week?” 

“Longer, maybe.” 

“Longer than a week? ” She is mad. She blames him, he can tell.

He blames himself.  Things have always been hard with those boys. They have never been excited about the fishing biz. Zebedee inherited a boat and the love of fishing from his own father, and he has built it into something. He’s found outlets for his fish in nearby towns a bit farther from the coast. He’s made enough money to buy another boat and hire some men to help out. He’s trained those men and two of them have gone on to start their own businesses. He loves the idea of providing a service that everyone needs: good local food at a reasonable price. He sends workers to sell at the restaurants and he sells fish from a wooden table he sets up every afternoon at the docks. Women come by at the end of the day to buy whole fish or have him filet it. Every day there is product left over—some fish, an eel or two, and he packs it up for his walk home. He knows the houses and shacks, the people who have not even a shack but who have a little fire pit, and he stops to drop off something for them. From these people, generally widows with no source of income, he takes no payment but a smile and a thank you. Sometimes they have a loaf of bread they’ve made for him and he accepts their gift in trade.

Early on, Zebedee’s sons went with him on these stops and seemed to enjoy it, but as they became teens it annoyed them that their father stopped at the homes of the poor, and they began to make excuses to go on home ahead of him. Eventually, there were no excuses offered—they just left the boat at the end of the workday and headed out without their father.

Now this leaving with Jesus feels different, much more long term. They’ve been better, nicer now that they spend more time with Jesus. They knew him from school days. Jesus seems to have matured faster than James and John. Zebedee likes Jesus. A young man with morals and strength of character. Jesus often stops and talks with Zebedee at the end of the day and sometimes tries to help a little with the net mending. Jesus is terrible at mending. Even so, Zebedee continues to try to teach him, just to hear Jesus talk while they work together. He loves the things Jesus says about God. He loves what he says about justice for the poor. Zebedee’s sons listen, too. Zebedee has noticed that they have been working harder, have been more pleasant to be with, and they have begun once again to accompany Zebedee at the end of the day when he makes his walk among the homes of the poor. Sometimes he even sees James put aside particular types of fish before the sales, because certain widows love particular varieties.

Finally, Zebedee has the relationship he’s always wanted with his sons. The sons who enjoy being with him. The sons he enjoys being with. The sons who, he believes, could be real business partners with him. The sons who are turning into moral and just men.

Then, one day, this day, Jesus comes and says, “It’s time. Let’s go.”  And they just follow him. They leave Zebedee with kisses but no tears. They seem so happy and excited.

And then they are gone.

Why are they so eager to go? Has he not appreciated them enough? And what about his own spiritual life? Wouldn’t he love to go have this spiritual adventure? He couldn’t get up and leave even if he wanted to. He has responsibilities—the boat, his home, his wife, his sons and daughters. The poor widows. Who would feed them all if he left?

The next day after the evening meal, Zebedee goes to see his rabbi, who is actually a friend of Jesus. The two rabbis—Jesus and rabbi Josephus—have spent long hours talking theology, dissecting ideas from the Torah, thinking about what God is like. Rabbi Josephus is a lot like Jesus, in that they are both interested in justice, and fairness, and following God.

Josephus says he wishes he could have followed Jesus, but he has a wife and children, responsibilities for a congregation, a school where he teaches the boys to read.

Zebedee agrees and names all the reasons Josephus can’t go, and all the reasons he’s needed here. If there is no local rabbi, who will perform weddings and funerals, lead the high holy days, give counsel? He talks about how God doesn’t call everyone to just up and leave work and family and go someplace for a week, a month, a lifetime.

Josephus is silent and smiles.

The words Zebedee has just spoken come back to him and to his own life.

If the nets aren’t mended, how will the workers fish?  And if the fishing is abandoned, how will people eat?

It wasn’t that Jesus’ call didn’t extend to Zebedee. It’s that Zebedee was called to stay put, to mend nets, to fish.

The next day Zebedee fishes, then he sits at the dock with the workers, mending nets and talking. He misses his sons so much his chest aches. He is also more than a little envious of their adventurous calling.

Yet his own call continues. He is mending, fishing, feeding. He goes home this night to his wife and his other children. He stops along the way to share food with the widows.

Left behind? 

Yes. Of course.

Sometimes we are left behind. For a purpose.

To pray, to work, to love, to do. img-0088-lr-altered-copyright-low-blog-1-16-17

 

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 9, 2017

Where are you staying?

Whenever I invite people over, I check the house—at least the public parts. Is everything relatively neat and clean? Laundry hanging anywhere? Kitchen counters cleared? Magazines and books straightened? If people show up unexpectedly, they get what they get, and it might not be pretty. I could even be embarrassed that things aren’t as perfect as I’d like them to appear.

In one of this particular gospel writer’s teaching techniques, John has his characters answer a question with a question. As a couple of disciples begin to tail Jesus after his baptism, this happens:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” [from John 1]

Then Jesus invites them to “come and see.”

We have only our imaginations to guess what they find when they visit Jesus at home.

It is likely the Sabbath, because it appears they stay overnight. Do they see him interacting with family? Hosting the Sabbath meal? Praying over the food? Singing a psalm? Laughing at a joke? Telling stories? Do they see him sharing leftovers with the poor? Talking to unclean people on the way home? Talking about what to do about a widowed neighbor or a depressed friend? Do they hear some of his teaching, or is just seeing how he lives on a random day life-changing enough?

Whatever they experience, it is interesting or moving enough for them to tell some others about it, and to give them the same invitation to come and see.

So I wonder.

What would people see if they came on short notice to my home? Or to yours?

© 2017, Melissa Bane Sevier img_8897-crop-altered-copyright-low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 2, 2017

Patterns

Simon Beck walks in the snow. He walks and walks and walks. The purpose of his walking is to create art. Using mathematical formulas and wearing special shoes, Simon spends countless hours, walking for miles, making huge patterns. If you were beside him, you’d be unable to see much except a series of impressions; the full pattern is only visible from the air. (Check out his astounding work here.)

simon-beck-snow-art-for-1-2-17

One of Simon Beck’s snow art pieces

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  [from Matthew 3]

As we consider the baptism of Jesus this week, we see a calling at the ground level. An interaction with his cousin John the Baptist, a brief walk into and out of the river. But the spirit, from a bigger God-perspective, signals something larger. From a distance of a few decades, the gospel writer can see great patterns that were always there but difficult to see. The patterns include Jesus’ life experiences, his words and acts, the people he encounters who shape him and are shaped by him, the successes and hardships. From a distance of a few centuries we look to find patterns in the gospel story of the one who was baptized in the river.

We also consider the patterns of our own lives. We go through our days, sometimes with design and purpose, sometimes just getting through. Forwards, backwards, sideways. But we are also making patterns that are visible only to the creator. These patterns include our life experiences, our words and acts, the people we encounter who shape us and are shaped by us, our successes and our hardships.

As you move into and through 2017, may you be intentional about the patterns you create. If you become discouraged because the pattern isn’t easily discernible, remember that the spirit has the larger view, that God sees the intentions, the influences, the forms, the interim results that aren’t quite complete.

God sees it all, and blesses it.

© 2017, Melissa Bane Sevier

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 26, 2016

Jesus the refugee

The countries and citizens of the world continue to make decisions about whether and how to accept refugees from Syria. Syrians certainly wish they could stay there in their own homes, surrounded by friends and family, in the culture they know and love. But so many have to make the horrible choice that it’s safer to risk a perilous sea crossing, to live in a refugee camp, to be uprooted from what they know and love, than to stay where their children may not survive another day.

Over 80% of white evangelical American Christians voted to elect a president who wants to keep these refugees out of the U.S.

That makes this exactly the right time for us to consider the passage in Matthew where Jesus becomes, with his parents, a refugee. In a story that is as ancient as human culture and as modern as tomorrow’s news,  they flee a tyrant who doesn’t care if children live or die.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ [from Matthew 2]

This first Sunday after Christmas, we’re not allowed to dwell on any nostalgic, lovely picture of a baby in a manger. This first Sunday after Christmas, we already have a weeping and suffering God.

This is not the kind of reading and sermon we want to have while most of us still have our Christmas trees lit. Please!  Let us think about the smiling faces of children playing with their new toys, of communities in harmony, of peace on earth and good will to all.

But how many of us, in our secret moments, even at Christmas, have stood over the bed of a sleeping baby—a child, grandchild, niece or nephew, special friend—and thought of both the promise and fears of the future. We’ve wished we could take away all the pain that child might know. All the danger. All the evil. We have dreaded the day when some evil would enter her world that we could not keep away.

In every newborn baby there is the promise of a future, yet the hovering of danger, illness, evil.

If this had not also been true for Jesus, then he would not have been one of us. It is scandalous that the God of the universe would allow the tyranny of some little worm of a king like Herod, and that the child of promise would have to be carried away 200 miles to a foreign land to be hidden.

It is scandalous that children in our own town are hungry, neglected, abused, afraid.

It is scandalous that the world stands by as children in other countries, often brown-skinned and of a different religion from ours, suffer deeply from hunger or from the triumph of evil.

In Jesus, our ancient Christian doctrine says that God has taken on humanity in all its forms. Delight and wonder as the child discovers his toes, says his first words, runs to his parents’ arms when he is afraid, plays with wood shavings in his father’s shop. Then his life is threatened by a dangerously insane ruler, and his poor family is on the run, desperate, terrified, hiding, determined to survive.

Some of his earliest memories may have been sensing the fear in his parents’ voices as they tell him not to play outside, as they hide him until they are beyond danger. Poverty and homelessness are not strangers to him.

As the little family survives, they surely experience grief over the children who are not saved, perhaps some of them friends.

Are Joseph, Mary, and Jesus warmly received in Egypt? That’s highly unlikely. As they and other refugees arrive, their Egyptian neighbors and officials surely complain about “those people” who dress differently, observe a different religion, shop for special hard-to-find foods, have strange holidays, don’t understand or respect local customs. That carpenter is going to take someone else’s job. They need to learn our language!

I find it probable that these early life experiences, and the stories recounted by his parents, help to shape Jesus’ later ministry to the people on the margins – those who are set aside or who by illness or race are ostracized. We see him warmly accepting people from other places, religions, and races. He eats with them, laughs with them, and welcomes the outsider. This is true incarnation.

The incarnation holds many levels of meaning for the person of faith.

When we find ourselves at the pinnacle of Christmas joy, we experience Jesus as a boy delighting in every new discovery.

When we know difficulty, illness, or loss, we experience Jesus as one who knew deep suffering.

When we wonder who cares about all the forgotten people, we experience Jesus as a young boy whose family was forced to flee an evil regime to survive.

This is the radical truth and beauty of Christmas.

As the season fades, its complex story lives on in you. How will you reflect its light? Be a companion to the lonely? Someone who fills backpacks with food for children? A person who cares for family, friend, neighbor? A courageous soul who supports all refugees who flee from tyrant, despair, and fear into a land of safety and hope?

We have to choose whether to be ruled by faith or by fear of the other. Our choice is aided by remembering the entire Jesus story. Without the difficult parts it’s only a sweet fairy tale. Recognizing and owning the harshness of life—including the life of Jesus the refugee—gives our faith reality, meaning, and purpose.

Anecdotal evidence from refugee settlement organizations indicates that since the election, and especially when anti-refugee rhetoric and acts occur, these charities receive sudden upticks in both donations and volunteers.

When we allow our faith and courage to surface, we open ourselves to receive all the benefits of welcoming new people into our communities and our lives.img_7166-crop-copyright-low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 18, 2016

The midnight clear

Christmas Day occasionally falls on a Sunday. This year I reflect on a famous and popular Christmas carol. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we often sing these carols, year after year, but don’t consider their origins or even what they mean for our contemporary setting?

“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” is an American carol, the text of which was first published in Massachusetts in 1849, written by Edmund Hamilton Sears. The tune (published a year later) to which it’s usually sung in the U.S. was also composed by an American, Richard Storrs Willis.

Like most hymns, this carol reflects the time in which it was written. The ancient story of angels singing to shepherds (Luke 2) becomes, under Sears’ pen, a voice to his contemporary setting—right at the end of the Mexican-American war and as the U.S. was deeply divided over racism and slavery.

It came upon the midnight clear,

That glorious song of old,

From angels bending near the earth,

To touch their harps of gold:

“Peace on the earth, good will to all,

From heaven’s all gracious King”:

The world in solemn stillness lay,

To hear the angels sing.

Does anyone even believe in angels anymore? We do if we understand the history of that word, “angel.”  It means messenger, both in Hebrew and in Greek. This is the song of God’s messengers sent not to kings and queens, not to presidents and congresses, not to Presbyterians and Baptists, but to a bunch of guys keeping night watch over someone’s sheep. Sears, a Unitarian minister, was moved to hear and to share that message; it was a message of peace.

Still through the cloven skies they come,

With peaceful wings unfurled,

And still their heavenly music floats

O’er all the weary world:

Above its sad and lowly plains

They bend on hovering wing,

And ever o’er its Babel sounds

The blessed angels sing.

Centuries before Sears wrote this carol, the nature-loving Scottish Celts taught that a “thin place” is a space where heaven and earth come very close. The beauty of a hilltop at sunrise. The ruggedness of a boulder-strewn beach. But also where connections are made between the spiritual and the physical, even if those connections seem wild and out of sync. Christmas can be a thin place for many people, where angels are bending near—touching the earth to bring God’s message.

Sears felt his world was in need of such a thin place where the angelic message of peace could have some effect. Just ten years away from the deadliest war this country would ever fight, the cacophony of Babel was at a peak: loud voices all saying different things, with political rhetoric, extreme racism, and division threatening to sever the nation. Sears penned this next verse, which is not in most modern hymnals, to say that the ancient words of God’s messengers—the message of peace—should not be lost in the verbal escalation.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife,

the world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing!

God’s messengers still have a word to bring. It’s not really different from the message of that ancient Christmas call to peace; it’s also as modern as can be. It was the right message on the night a poor baby was laid in some straw because the world was weary from the domination of a cruel empire. It was the right message in 1849 America because we were a few years away from a war against ourselves, a war about justice and race, about fairness and freedom. It is the right message now as we and every other country in the world still need to find a path to economic and social justice. God’s message of peace can be heard over it all, if we listen.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,

Whose forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way

With painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours

Come swiftly on the wing:

O rest beside the weary road,

And hear the angels sing.

The message of peace isn’t just for countries and the big historical picture. It is also for families and individuals. When the load is heavy, when steps are painful and slow, when the heart struggles underneath the crushing load, we stop and listen for the angel song. We stop and listen for words of peace.

For lo, the days are hastening on,

By prophet bards foretold,

When with the ever-circling years

Comes round the age of gold;

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling,

And the whole world give back the song

Which now the angels sing.

The age of gold. It was hoped for 2000 years ago. It was hoped for in 1849, and many still hope for it today. But it won’t come to pass—ever—until and unless we echo back the song of the messengers. Until and unless we are willing to be people who do more than hope for peace. Until and unless we are willing to be people who make peace.

Making peace, building peace, fostering peace. It’s all hard work. But it is the work we are called to do. As we walk out of worship and into a world that is anything but peaceful, let us determine to echo back the song of peace and justice by making it happen.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all?

Peace on earth.

Goodwill to you.

May it begin with us as we listen, as we join in the song, and as we write new verses with our own acts of peace, justice, and mercy.

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevierimg_4831-copyright-low

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