Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 14, 2019

The best party trick ever

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. [from John 2]

This wedding has the potential to turn out very, very badly.

You remember the Smith/Jones wedding? OMG they ran out of wine! Nobody wants that to be their friends’ memories of what was to be a perfect wedding reception.

Jesus makes it turn out okay. Better than okay.

The event isn’t like his other miracles. Nobody is healed, no demons are cast out, no multitudes are fed. It’s just some wine to keep the party from falling apart. Where’s the purpose in that?

Where is the purpose in that?

Jesus doesn’t even do anything. He doesn’t say special words or even touch the water. After a testy exchange with his mom, he tells the servants to go fill the jugs with water. Hardly anyone knows what is going on. But of course word would get out later. The wine steward, the servants, maybe his friends—they all had a great story to tell.

My money is on his mom: “My son the rabbi, did you hear what he did at that wedding!?” I mean, really, would your mother be able to keep quiet if you did something that cool?

John would later tell us that Jesus performed miracles so that people would be able to see who he was, that he had power from God.

But what does changing water into wine tell us about Jesus? About anything? It sounds like a magic trick. It seems so trivial.

I think that’s what I like most about this story. It’s not about something big; it is understated.

It’s the miracle of taking the ordinary and turning it into something wild, unexpected, interesting, exciting, playful, joyful. It’s a sign of things to come, both in Jesus’ work and in the world.

Let’s not miss an important part of John’s story—this wine that Jesus makes isn’t cheap Mad Dog. It’s good. Really, really good. The writer seems to want us to know that when Jesus came to create something new, he didn’t mess around.

Neither should his followers.

Healthy faith communities assess need, then take the water of knowhow, spiritual gifts, and dollars and turn them into the wine of love, engagement, and justice.

Martin Luther King had a dream, but he knew that dreams are not enough to overcome institutional racism and its effects. He and thousands of other people of faith turned the water of dreams and their own gifts into the wine of a different future. The pain of adversity combined with the water of nonviolence began a movement that opened the eyes of people around the world and became the wine of hope and change. Of course we still have a very long way to go, but we have faith and we work toward a better world.

In our personal lives, in the communities we inhabit, and on a national and international scale, we will always have needs, the water of potentiality, and the possibility of the conversion to a better reality.

  • The depth of grief may someday, through the waters of time and healing, become the wine of hope.
  • The horrors of racism, religious exclusivity, and xenophobia may one day be transformed by the waters of faith and reason into the wine of mutual understanding and appreciation.

As the story of the wedding was told and retold, people heard it in their own way—as a problem party, where delicious wine that came from nothing but water resulted in joy and astonishment. For every generation since then, the story has symbolized new life, new possibility, new ways of thinking.

We require help to transform whatever needs changing into something new, hopeful, and joyous.

Water into wine. It’s more than a party trick.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

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Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 7, 2019

How purpose reveals itself

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” [from Luke 3]

          Luke’s gospel is the one that recounts the announcement by the angel to Zechariah, the father of John. We hear from Luke about the baby’s dedication in the temple, and the two elderly saints who greeted the young family there with prophecies about his future. Luke tells us the only gospel story about Jesus’ developing years, when the 12-year-old teaches in the temple. Then we fly to the grown man, being baptized in the wilderness by that same strange and prophetic cousin John.

          I wonder what those growing-up years were like for Jesus. Not the day-to-day activities, but I wonder how he began to perceive who he was. When did he begin to grow into the knowledge and understanding of his purpose? Was it all those stories his mother must have repeatedly told him, the stories she had treasured and pondered in her heart over the years? Was it a strong sense of the presence of God? 

          Perhaps I am mistaken, but I like to think that Jesus struggled with his knowledge of self, that he had questions—if not doubts—about what he was to be and do, until he reached this day of some clarity when he stood in line with repentant sinners, knee-deep in the Jordan River, to be baptized, and the signs of dove and voice confirmed his coming mission. I like to think that, because it is the way most of us realize some sense of purpose—not in one moment of striking revelation, but in a growing, sometimes faltering, understanding of a bit of direction.

          This way seems right, we may say to ourselves.

  And we take a step down that path.

  Did the 30 or so years of Jesus’ life, up until the day at the river, count for nothing? Did the important part of his life begin with the voice and the dove? Of course not. Why did none of the gospel writers tell any stories from those years? I suspect it’s because those years weren’t all that remarkable. He was following God’s purposes as he learned to read and write, as he played with his brothers and sisters, as he made friendships, as he worked—perhaps at his father’s carpentry trade. I imagine he had a growing sense of his purpose. I surmise he dreamed, the way nearly everyone dreams, of what his future life would be.

          Purpose is something that unfolds over time. It is rarely something we can fully grasp at any one moment, because we never know what new episode is around the next corner, outside our current vision. What new opportunity, or new problem or challenge, may present itself tomorrow? In our rapidly changing world, it’s rare that many of us will stay in one job for our entire working life, or live in one place, as many of our parents or grandparents did. How do we find our purpose when we have less rootedness?

          Part of the answer, I believe, is that we have forgotten that purpose, or call, or vocation, is not a once-in-a-lifetime decision that determines everything you will do from now on. Purpose is something we strive for daily. What is God’s pull on me today? What will I do today to make a difference?

          Purpose is, in its simplest sense, is being in tune with both the world around you and God’s voice in it.

          By God’s voice, I mean that indefinable nudge we get when we know we are doing what is right for us.

          Jesus, I suspect, had many voices in his life before the voice at the river. He had parents and other relatives, friends and rabbis, people who kept pointing the way for a boy—then a young man—who was discovering his purpose.

          We, too, have voices in our lives. If we want to hear God’s purpose, then we make sure we surround ourselves with people who know us, who know our story. We listen, we observe, we hear the subtle voice of God’s purpose. That voice can be as wild as pointing us toward a new career, or as tame as moving us to take on an act of service, to show compassion to a friend, to make peace with an enemy, to make a phone call, to write a check, to speak out for justice.

  When Jesus left his river baptism, he seemed to know what it was he was about, and he headed off in that direction. That was precisely because he’d already had a sense of trajectory. This was just another confirmation of it.

  We find a purpose, too.

  We leave our place of worship, the reminder of our baptism, the ringing in our ears of the voice of God heard in the scriptures and the voices of our friends who encourage us, and we walk back into our everyday life, with a sure sense that God is pulling us forward.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 2, 2019

Keep the light burning

18b, copyright, low, blog 1-2-19          A caravan of exotic looking people, some obviously wealthy  and some dressed as servants, makes its way into poor, tiny Bethlehem.

          They are following light.    

          Nothing of great importance, these stargazers believe, would happen without a light in the sky. They’ve followed such a sign here, because the light of their own hopes and dreams compelled them.

          It’s night, and behind the servants carrying lamps the magi walk through the streets until they come to a house not unlike all the others, and knock at the door. A wary peasant picks up his own lamp, and sees this group of exotic people assembled there. Curious neighbors gather in the street. One of the visitors asks in foreign-accented Aramaic if a baby has been recently born to the family. The peasant doesn’t respond. Might they be allowed to see the child? The peasant hesitates, looks to his wife who nods tentatively, and he steps aside. The richly dressed men enter and fill this tiny home. They see the small child sitting on the mother’s lap. They present fine gifts as a result of finding, they believe, what they have sought. Those gifts comprise more wealth than these parents have ever seen. The travelers stay for a while, asking questions. When they leave, the stunned parents try to make sense of the visit.

          Probably the family will use some of these gifts to pay their way when they travel to Egypt.

          Ah, yes. The trip to Egypt.

          Like many of the gospel stories, the story of the magi isn’t just a story of light; it’s a story of light and darkness. Light really doesn’t mean anything until it’s placed in a dark space.

          We cannot avoid, with all our public discussions in this country about refugees, that Jesus and his parents were, according to Matthew, refugees in a foreign land. They traveled by night, out of fear for their child’s safety, led by moonlight and by the lamp of determination to find a peaceful place to settle. Sent out from their own home by the darkness of tragedy and danger, they made a new home among strangers who spoke an unfamiliar language and practiced religions different from their own. Perhaps this experience helped make Jesus the kind of man he grew up to be—one who welcomed the poor, those different from him, and those at the margins, because that’s what he had lived as a child.

          The magi were seekers. Looking to a light in the sky for something beyond themselves, for answers to the dilemmas of their day. Looking for light in the darkness.

          Mary and Joseph were seekers. Looking to a light in a foreign land for safety. Looking for light in the darkness.

          Jesus was a seeker. Looking for the light of God’s love and faithfulness to share with his fellow human beings. Looking for light in the darkness.

          We’re still seeking. Looking to the light of the good news for our own hearts and for the well-being of the world. Looking for light in the darkness.

          It is what all of us do during the search, on the journey, that increases or diminishes the light. We bring light whenever we make the journey easier for another, when we ease pain, relieve hunger, help to bring justice, simply share what gifts or goodness we have. That’s when we are lighting the way for someone else, and, by extension, lighting it for ourselves.

          Carry the lamp of God’s light with you as you work to make a difference in this world. It burns all year.

          There is darkness practically everywhere, but the light will never be overcome by it.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 6, 2018

The caravan as spiritual moment

Like most Americans, I’ve been following the caravan of Central Americans that is inching toward the US southern border to request asylum.

What has been dismaying is the demonizing of those poor, desperate travelers, particularly among many Evangelical Christians. Words of hatred toward the poor fly in the face of Jesus’ example and words. He exhibited a clear preference for the poor throughout the gospels.

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ [from Mark 12]

This is one of many passages where Jesus not only has sympathy for the poor, but lifts them up as examples.

How far we have strayed from that.

The caravan of poor asylum seekers has somehow become, in the mouths of fear-mongering politicians and pundits, an attack on our sovereign borders. The fact that they are brown-skinned somehow seems to make the demonizing of them more socially acceptable. How did we ever get to such a spiritual place? A complete lack of sympathy, much less any sense of their model of determination and sacrifice, weakens the message of Jesus about the poor. It weakens Christianity. It weakens our country’s moral leadership. It weakens us as individuals.

Fabricated stories are not only prevalent on social media, they have been repeated by the White House. The false stories of Jewish philanthropist and progressive George Soros, supposedly funding the caravan, inspired a man to murder eleven people at prayer last week in a synagogue and caused Mr. Soros to be a target of a would-be bomber.

In order to allow ourselves to fear poor, brown-skinned people many of us are willing to believe that they are malevolent border-stormers, that they are harboring “Middle Easterners” (read: terrorists), and that they want to overrun our country. I’ll let you read the work of journalists who have traveled with the caravan and who have debunked those myths, because today I’m more concerned about how we respond spiritually, how we’ll work to see that the poor are treated as human beings just like our own families and friends.

Because that is what Jesus does. And that is what Jesus teaches.

Jesus praises the poor widow who uses the bit of money she has for a higher purpose, not unlike a Honduran mother who spends her last lempiras to undertake a journey taking her children to a safer place.

Jesus elevates the poor as those who inherit the kingdom. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” [Luke 6] This doesn’t fit with the view by many that migrants are sub-human.

Jesus’ praising of the poor reminds those who will listen that we have much to learn.

We can learn from the poor what it means to be dependent on God and on the kindness of others.

We can learn from the poor what it means to move forward with hope and courage.

We can learn from the poor what it means to live on very little, and to make that count.

We can learn from the poor what it means to share all you have.

This is a spiritual moment for all people of faith. Will we demonize those Jesus praises?

Or will we learn from them and value who they are: the beloved of God?2 boys, Revolucion, cropped image, blog 5-17-10, copyright, low

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 30, 2018

Targeting

I’m a huge fan of college football (American football, that is), though I do increasingly worry about the safety of players. In the last few years science and health research have shown us what a career of repeated concussions can do to a person’s brain. Thankfully, some of the rules are changing to help prevent dangerous contact in such a physical sport.

One of those rules is about targeting. According to the NCAA rule: “No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder.” Targeting is when a player attacks an opponent with the intention to harm or, at the very least, a likelihood of unintentional harm.

Targeting isn’t only a football term.

This past week, my country has seen three white men target groups through terrorist acts. One mailed at least fifteen pipe bombs to people the President of the United States had vilified in speeches and tweets. One shot two black people to death at a Kroger store in my state (his original target was an African-American church, but the door to the church building was locked). Finally, one walked into a Jewish synagogue and murdered eleven people at prayer.

Targeting, in a spiritual sense, is forgetting everything that is important about the common humanity we all share, and going after someone we perceive to be different from us, just because of those differences.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ [from Mark 12]

As people of faith, we cannot separate loving people from loving God. Those two acts and mindsets are woven from the same cloth—the fabric of life in its diversity, its beauty, its mystery.

We target people not just with violence, but with hateful language and bigotry, with lies and with harmful intentions.

Everyone is pointing fingers this week. Who’s to blame for the incivility, the violence, the murder?

Fingers should be pointed in every direction, but we’re being dishonest if we believe that certain types of language aren’t more dangerous than others.

First, some of the blame rests with the country at large, and all its inhabitants. We have let the rhetoric increase to such a level that it has become psychologically and physically harmful. Social media greatly enhances the quick and toxic repetition of articles that are dangerously and intentionally false. We have voted people into office who use hateful language, and we cheer them on when they do.

Our elected and appointed political and spiritual leaders have a higher level of responsibility, simply because they have an elevated platform from which to speak. If their language incites fear and terror, they should own up to it and apologize for it. If they remain quiet in the face of terroristic targeting, they shirk their responsibilities.

I have been listening to and reading remarks since the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the most deadly attack on Jews in The United States in our history. Some have struck the right tone about the horrors of this targeted event; some have been largely silent.

Then there are those voices that refuse to even imagine that our country’s love affair with hatred and anger against “the other” contributes to violence.

Yes, Mr. President, I’m pointing at you.

No, I don’t draw a straight cause-and-effect line from you to the terrorists. But every time you only half-heartedly condemn Nazi marchers (Charlottesville), embrace nationalism (even this week), cheerfully reenact the body slam by a congressman of a journalist, call the press the “enemy of the people,” or describe a caravan of hopeful asylum seekers as an invasion (it’s not) funded by a Jewish philanthropist (completely without foundation), you contribute to the problem. Yours is the loudest voice in the country, and you obviously enjoy that. You have a responsibility to use that voice to promote peace and justice, to uphold the constitution (not try to override it with some dubious executive order), to care for the weakest among us, to welcome the refugee and immigrant because that’s who we are as a country, and to expose and shut down racist and violent rhetoric, especially among your own followers. I know you love a cheering crowd, but how exciting it would be if you could give people something to cheer about—a platform of unity, wholeness, a positive future for a wonderful country, a coming together around common goals. Love.

Love may not be a political buzz word these days, but it’s the highest Jesus principle of all. We cannot say we love God when we hate our neighbor. Hate is hate.

Love is love.

As we weep for the dead and with the survivors of attacks done in hatred and racism, let us pledge to live in love, and to work to overcome injustice in this world that belongs to God.

Let us target each other’s hearts with the acts and language of love.

© 2018 Melissa Bane SevierIMG_6969, low, blog 1-22-18

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 22, 2018

God hears those who cry out

In a poignant story that rings true in every generation, a man cries for help and people tell him to stop it.

As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. [from Mark 10]

The only one who says, “Don’t shush him; bring him here,” is Jesus. Employing words that express how urgently Jesus takes the request for healing, the writer of the gospel tells us that the man springs up and immediately regains his vision.

In rereading this narrative, I am reminded of stories throughout the centuries where people’s cries have been ignored. But the witness of the scriptures (both Jewish and Christian) is that God hears when others turn a deaf ear.

God heard the cries of the oppressed Israelites.

God heard the plea of a Canaanite sex worker named Rahab, who asked that her family be spared when the city of Jericho fell.

God heard the prayers of the lepers, the blind, the desperate parents, the hungry—who came to meet Jesus.

God heard the desperation of Jews in gas chambers, Ukrainians who were starved, Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, enslaved persons in the US and around the world, Sudanese who suffered horrors in a civil war.

God hears the voices of refugees fleeing danger in Honduras and El Salvador, in Syria or Sudan.

God hears the cries of children who are hungry, hurt, afraid, alone.

God hears the hopes of people who are marginalized—often overlooked or looked down upon—because of their race.

God hears the fears of LGBTQ+ persons who face challenges every day because of who they are.

God hears the pleas of those who suffer through natural or manmade disasters.

God hears the plight of women whose voices have long been ignored.

God hears the outbursts or silent troubles of patients who are homebound, in hospitals or nursing homes.

God hears the weary weeping of caregivers.

God hears the despair of the grieving.

God hears you.

When we hear the voices of those who are struggling, the simplest response is to close our ears, or tell them to stop calling out–they’re being disruptive.

It’s our responsibility to listen with God’s ears, to hear the cries of those in need, and not to let those cries go unanswered. table with lemons, copyright low, blog 10-22-18

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 18, 2018

Power and its abuses

Recently, Hillary Clinton gave an interview in which she was asked if President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was an abuse of power. She responded, “No.” And, “She was an adult.”

I’m not surprised that the former first lady wants to defend her husband and his legacy, but this answer is just plain wrong. The abuse of power is when a person in leadership uses the power of the position to gain something inappropriate.

By that definition, when someone in power takes advantage of the trust of a person who doesn’t hold as much power, even if the person being taken advantage of consents, then that power has been abused. The leader of the free world having a consensual affair with an intern is the very picture of power abuse. So is a religious leader (imam, rabbi, priest, pastor) having an affair with a member of the congregation, or a CEO sleeping with an office worker, or a politician who has sex with a staff member, or a college professor in a relationship with a student.

Sex is one way humans abuse power, there are many others. Power is abused when a child is ripped from a mother’s arms by a government official, then the same five-year-old child is coerced into signing away her rights on a document she can’t possibly understand. Power is abused when senators refuse to accept a credible story of assault, while the person accused of the assault—an already powerful man—is praised for his abusive language toward both the accuser and members of the Senate, then given an even more powerful position. Power is abused when a religious leader lives a lavish lifestyle with the funds provided by congregants, or tells those congregants they can’t think for themselves. Power is abused when a person prohibits a life partner from expressing a point of view, or causes that partner deep emotional trauma and pain. Power is abused when elected officials refuse to provide clean water and air, or access to reasonably priced healthcare, for their constituents. Power is abused when the current leader of the free world lies generously and without impunity, or brags about committing sexual assault.

Why am I talking about this topic in a faith blog? Jesus talked about power’s abuses more than you might think.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [From Mark 10]

Power is a thing. There will always be people who have more power than others, as it has been in every society. From military leaders to elected or appointed officials. From bosses to social workers. From religious leaders to executives of non-profits to police officers. From parents to educators. Yes, power is honestly important to the ordering of human society. But how we use power is more important than the power itself.

I haven’t stopped being amazed that many people who love to quote Jesus also support the abuse of power in many of its forms. As long as they get something they want (an end to a woman’s right to choose, personal elevation, a tax cut for the wealthy, reducing health care coverage for someone else, etc.), they will excuse anything. And I mean just about anything. Financial misconduct. Abusive language and lying. Separating children from their parents. Deep racism and exceptionalism. Nationalism. Sexual misconduct or assault. Neglect of the poor. Misogyny. Outright hatred.

When James and John approach Jesus, they ask to have the kind of power he has, the kind of power they assume he can give away. “You don’t know what you’re asking. You haven’t yet figured out where my power, my leadership, originates.” “It’s okay,” they say. “We can do whatever you need us to do. Just give it to us.” “Well, okay then,” says Jesus.

What they don’t understand—indeed, what’s difficult for any of us to understand—is that Jesus’ power comes from the cup of suffering and the baptism of death. Are they willing to give up what most people see as power (prestige, money, doing what you want, coercing underlings to do things they may not wish to do, privilege, being above the laws and norms of society) for the kind of Jesus power they’ll soon see? That power is shown in weakness, suffering, death, being with and elevating the status of the poor and sick, elevating the status of women and children.

Jesus power—real, effective power—lies in being a servant. We exhibit it when we act like Jesus, not when we act like abusive leaders.

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 12, 2018

Privilege doesn’t fit through the eye of the needle

Like us, the disciples are shocked by Jesus’ sayings about the wealthy. That’s because it’s so easy for them and us to believe that the rich have been rewarded by God because, well, they are rich. Circular reasoning? Maybe. But how else could they become so blessed? Our thinking is so backwards that it makes Jesus’ teachings sound backwards. Turning our minds around to his way is difficult.

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” [From Mark 10]

Much has been made of the idea that Jesus may be talking about a very small gate in the city wall called “the eye of the needle.” To pass through it, a camel would practically have to kneel down and all the baggage would have to be removed.

Baggage.

Where we see wealth as blessing, Jesus sees it as baggage. Where we see all the material things in life as inherently good, Jesus sees them as dangerous to our spiritual well being. The man in the story, for example, walks away deeply saddened because he doesn’t want to be released from the burdens that he holds dear and considers as blessings from God.

Jesus doesn’t give up hope on him or any of us, though. If we can reorient our beliefs, our hearts, and our practices then nothing is impossible for us. It takes work, though.

The first thing that needs to be reoriented is our belief that the possessions and money we have are ours because we’re better than other people. This is a type of privilege that gets us into very deep spiritual trouble, because we look down on those who don’t have what we have. They must not work hard enough, we say. They are lazy. They don’t care about educating themselves. They could pull themselves out of poverty if they tried.

Poverty is so very complicated, but one thing we must always remember is that Jesus has a particular preference for the poor.

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh…

‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
[From Luke 6]

We hear much today about privilege. Wealth privilege. White privilege. Male privilege. It’s true that those who fall into those groups experience benefits that those outside the groups aren’t privy to. Wealthy people don’t have to worry about being wiped out by a single illness or a hurricane, since they have insurance. White drivers don’t have to worry about being pulled over because of their race, or being insulted by someone calling the police because they’re in the “wrong” place. Men don’t have to worry about not being believed when they report a sexual assault to the police, or to the university they attend, or to their families, or to the members of a Senate committee.

It’s hard to recognize our own privilege; it’s even harder to decide to examine it. Still more difficult is to decide to do something to equalize the state of privilege in our society—to be willing to give up something that we hold dear simply because our spiritual well-being requires it. The tiniest of first steps is not putting down those who are poor, non-white, non-male, etc. But there’s also real work to be done. We educate ourselves about people who are vastly different from us. We learn to appreciate the uniqueness of every individual. Then, then, says Jesus, we seek for ways to give up some of our privilege so that others may share in society’s benefits. We let go of the baggage.

We work to alleviate poverty, even when it means sharing our wealth. We work to overcome racism, even when it means we cross those boundaries that divide people from each other. We work to end sexism, even if it means we see and treat women the same way we see and treat men.

As the baggage of our own privilege starts to be peeled away—through our own efforts, through deep interactions with people who are different from us, and through the help of spiritual intervention—we may become unburdened enough to enter into the city where God dwells and where all people are equal.

I don’t have a picture of an actual camel, but this is Camel Rock in New Mexico.

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 4, 2018

The magical nature of being human

“Magical” is not a word that many people of faith often use, because it conjures, so to speak, something they may not believe in. And yet, every human in touch with soul or faith who is able to look at the night sky is blown away. It both minimizes and maximizes everything else. It is like watching magic happen right in front of our eyes.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. [from Psalm 8]

Scientists see the physics of the sky. Artists see the beauty. All notice its perfection. The ancients saw forms and named them. One of the definitions of magic is “mysteriously enchanting,” true enough when we’re talking about the moon and stars.

The psalmist looks up at that magical sky, then looks around at fellow humans. Instead of feeling dismayed (at this moment, anyway) by how they often behave unmagically, the writer uses the same sky lenses to view people. They are almost god-like.

All human beings, not just Jews or Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. Not just faithful people. All mortals.

Humans are just as magical in the mind/heart/eyes of God as is the clear night sky.

In this country, the belittling of people has become so common that horrible statements seem ordinary, and they come from everywhere, even from the highest elected and appointed officials. Even from people who profess a strong faith. We sometimes act as though a person we disagree with is not even human, much less “a little lower than God.” Perhaps if we thought of each other the way God thinks of all of us, we might have more patience and might encourage more growth.

I’ve been particularly dismayed lately by the treatment of women who come forward to challenge men they claim have abused them. Is every one of them telling the truth? Probably not, but we have a responsibility to see them as amazing creations, to hear them, to respect their stories, to believe their recollections, to trust their hearts. For too long (like, forever) we have always and first believed the man, the minister, the celebrity, the politician, the leader, the wealthy, the powerful; we have not believed the child, the teen, the woman, the powerless, the poor, the LGBTQ person. Why? Because the former have an outsized voice, a better platform? Because we admire them more? Certainly, the accused should be treated with equal respect, but we can never overlook those who have held their experiences inside for so long out of fear.

I’m not saying these issues are simple. They are not. But we owe it to everyone to see each person—accuser and accused—as a work of heavenly art, aside from politics. I have been amazed at the courage of abuse survivors, whether they are young people or adults. They are passing on their fortitude to others, spreading the ability and willingness to challenge those who’ve harmed them.

We share hope for new ways of living together in the world when we remember to look up and are drawn into something so large, so timeless, so incredible as the night sky. And then, like the Psalmist, we see each other as valuable, equal, worthy of respect. We are all beautiful star people, constellation people, moon people. We are magical.moon, copyright, low, blog 2-20-17

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 25, 2018

Compassion (Or: It’s not summer camp)

We’re used to seeing television coverage of humanitarian crises around the world: refugees struggling in makeshift camps; people fleeing wars; hungry children in the midst of famine on another continent.

What we’re not used to is seeing a humanitarian crisis at our own border.

The President has recently signed an executive order to end his own administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when families enter this country to seek asylum.

These are families. With children. Seeking asylum.

Recent troubling developments in this terrible and terrifying saga:

  • At least two members of the administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, have misused the Bible in their attempts to justify the maltreatment of families. They’ve focused on Romans 13, a passage that was also used to defend slavery and that has been appropriated by leaders throughout the ages to stifle dissent on important societal and justice issues.
  • Corey Lewandowski, former Trump campaign manager and current news analyst, ridiculed the story of a child with Down syndrome who had been removed from her mother’s care.
  • Laura Ingraham, a Fox News talk show host, said on her program that the children are being housed in “what are essentially summer camps.” Umm, okay. Apparently the kids she knows attend camps in abandoned Wal-Mart buildings that contain cages but no bedding and no toys, and where the children don’t know the location of their parents.
  • The Associated Press reported that the government has been placing babies (babies) and other very young children, all of whom have been separated from their parents, in three “tender age” facilities.
  • President Trump tweeted that “illegal immigrants” “infest” the United States, as if undocumented migrants were vermin.

I could go on with examples. Our government has lost its sense of compassion. The lack of human value given to immigrant families is sickening. Is it because they are immigrants? Is it because they are brown-skinned?

Where is the good news in any of this? The only good news I see, and it isn’t a small thing, is the outcry against such inhumanity. For once, the horror has reached leaders in both parties and in all sorts of religious communities, including many conservative Evangelicals. Why?

Here’s why: Bible passages like this week’s gospel reading. In Mark 5, Jesus displays tremendous compassion when he heals a 12-year-old girl. He does this because of an appeal from the girl’s dad. “Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.”

There is no deeper bond than that between parent and child in a healthy family. Parents will do anything for their children. They will run into a burning building to carry their child to safety—which is exactly what parents are doing when they leave a violent country to ask for asylum in the United States. Jairus begs for his daughter’s life. Children at our border are crying for their parents. We have to make this better.

The word compassion has Latin roots, meaning “to suffer with.” If we’ve lost the ability to suffer with those who are in trouble and need help, then either we have never experienced suffering ourselves, or we forget that all human beings are connected.

Jesus goes far out of his way to give life to a young girl; we can’t be bothered. He stops along the way because his compassion compels him to tend to another hurting person; we don’t have the inclination, and we don’t want to “waste” time and money. When others tell him the situation is hopeless, he goes anyway; we turn our backs when things get complicated. When the girl’s life is saved, he reminds those around her that she needs something to eat; we do our best to ignore the most basic of needs.

Jesus leapt over every cultural boundary, befriending women and honoring children, spending time with Samaritans and pagans, hanging out with people his society called “sinners.” He serves as both example and calling. His followers have a duty to care for everyone.

Everyone. Especially the children and people on the margins.

When we allow our country to turn away from “the least of these,” as Jesus called people on the margins, we turn our backs on compassion.

The Bible should never be used as a hammer against the vulnerable, or to keep people from questioning the actions of government. Use it instead as inspiration for goodness, wholeness, invitation, and welcome. Use it to remind each other that Jesus suffered with the hurting.

Use it to inspire compassion.IMG_9316

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2018

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