Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | July 25, 2016

Profit sharing

Jesus appears annoyed when someone asks him about judging an inheritance dispute, and then he tells a parable about a man whose priorities were all turned around.

‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ [from Luke 12]

What idiot decides that because he has a bumper crop, he should pull down the old barns and build new ones? A selfish idiot? One who simply wants to show off his wealth? Why tear down the old ones unless you want to demonstrate that you have so much, you can afford to act carelessly?

One of the interesting things about this story is how much the farmer thinks of himself: “I will do this,” I will pull down,” “I will store,” “I will say,” “MY barns, MY grain, MY goods.” Jesus says the man has stored up treasure for himself, but isn’t rich toward God.

What would it take for him to be rich toward God? An attitude shift.

Jesus is speaking to people who live and work on farms, or who are very familiar with farming. What would be astounding to them is that this guy thinks he’s the only one who’s done any work! In this pre-tractor society, it would’ve taken many workers to accomplish all this. And though he doesn’t legally owe them anything more than wages, he has a moral obligation to “profit share” with those who’ve made him so successful. Why not announce: “You all have done such a great job this year that my barns can’t hold everything you’ve planted, cultivated, and harvested. Isn’t that amazing! Please come take what you can use so it doesn’t go to waste, and let’s give away the surplus to the hungry in our community.” He’d save money by not tearing down and rebuilding bigger.

Wouldn’t that be a holy celebration? Wouldn’t the farmer feel honored to be able to return something extra to those who’d made him successful?

Profit sharing.

The God who lives, the God who gives, the God who shares, is the God who requires our very soul.  Not to harm our soul, or to heap shame on it, but to liberate it from being owned by the things that don’t care about us.  To be owned instead by an open heart that allows us to share what we have, and allows others to share with us.  To be able to open our ears, our hands, our hearts, our very souls, to the hearts and voices of others, and by extension, to the heart and voice of God. IMG_5330, copyright, low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | July 18, 2016

Prayer mysteries

I miss many things about being a pastor, now that I’m a full time writer/photographer. One of those things is prayer.

Yes, I can still pray. I can still pray in worship. But leading corporate prayer was an important part of my spiritual life.

Many pastors say they cannot worship easily when they are leading worship, but for me, the opposite is true. Even now, the mystery of prayer comes closest to me when I am praying with the community of the faithful in worship.  When the pastor of the church I attend is praying aloud, I am drawn into her words, moved by the labor with which she has chosen them and how she offers them to God on our behalf.

In the congregation I last served, we had a few moments we called “Joys and Concerns,” when worshipers lifted up the names of the sick, grieving, or troubled, those who have something to celebrate, or concerns of our community and world.  As these situations are spoken by various persons, their voices sometimes crack with emotion.  Together the congregation reacts with sympathy or joy, and the mystery of communal prayer is, at least for a moment, a bit clearer.  When it was my turn to offer the Prayers of the People, I often sensed those congregants leaning forward as they bowed their heads, joining all our deep longings with the heart of God.

 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’  [from Luke 11]

There’s not a person reading this who hasn’t had a prayer go unanswered, or who hasn’t struggled with what God is up to in the world. Yet prayer is still upheld by Jesus as a way to connect with God.

Does God hear our prayers?  It’s easier to believe this could be true when all those good souls in worship trust together in the mystery of prayer, difficult as that is.  None of us can explain it, but on our good days we remember that Jesus also trusted in the mystery, and we go on praying. IMG_0629, corrected, copyright, low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | July 11, 2016

Being and doing

Please raise your hand if you have ever left a bed unmade on your way out the door to work.  Now raise your hand if you have ever had a supreme pizza delivered and called it a balanced meal because, hey, it has protein, carbs, veggies (onions and mushrooms) and even fruit if you asked for pineapple.  Who among you has neglected mowing the yard that one last time in the fall because the frost is going to kill it anyway?   Have you ever called the dog over to the table after supper so you don’t have to sweep up the crumbs?  What about those times when you screen your phone calls and let the answering machine pick up so you don’t have to speak to anyone?

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ [from Luke 10]

Whenever I read this scripture passage in public, I can just see some of the women stiffen. And I know I’ll probably hear about it later.  The story may touch more feminist nerves than any other gospel story!  It may be that some women feel they have been labeled as a Mary or a Martha, when in fact they see themselves as a bit of both.  It may be that they’ve heard this story used against women.  It may be that they hear the words of Jesus as degrading to the work they consider very valuable. After all, people have to eat, and if somebody doesn’t do the work, Jesus, you know it won’t get done by itself.  I don’t see any of your twelve male friends getting up to help out in the kitchen.  Often, women are the ones who do the work of taking care of those around them.  And they don’t appreciate being told that it isn’t enough.

It is interesting that Luke puts this story right after the one we call The Good Samaritan.  It seems to be a narrative which celebrates the active caring of the Samaritan traveler as opposed to the inattentiveness of the other two passersby.  Then comes this story of Martha and Mary, where the doing is said to be too much, and the sitting and being is rewarded.  What are we to make of it all?

I think we must make of it exactly what it is.  Life with Christ is rarely an either/or kind of life.  It is more often both/and.  Or rather, it is a flowing between the various manifestations of our faith.  To say both/and sounds as though we must do everything all the time—the doing and the being—when today’s story specifically challenges that idea.  We are human and, generally, can only do one thing at a time if we want to do it well.

That’s not the way we live much of the time, though, is it?  We watch television while eating a family meal; we talk on the phone while working on the computer; we sit in a meeting and make lists of things we need to do when the meeting is over.  I once passed a car on the interstate, and the driver was reading a paperback book open on the steering wheel.  Now that’s double tasking!  Most of us won’t do anything so physically dangerous, but sometimes our doubling or tripling up on things can be dangerous to a balanced life.

You know what it’s like.  When you’re double tasking on the phone and computer, your full attention is in neither place.  When the kids are getting home from school and want to be with you and you know you have to start cooking the evening meal and the laundry is so backed up you have to do a couple of loads or nobody will have clean underwear the next day, you will probably not have enough attention to go around.

The way Luke’s gospel arranges these stories, they appear to strike some kind of balance for us.  A man walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho must make a decision whether to continue on his way toward whatever business he had there, or to stop and help, a proposition which cost him both money and time.  Yet it does not appear as though he struggled with his decision about whether or not to help.  He simply did what had to be done.

Martha, though, struggles with what to do.  There are competing interests in her story as well.  Should she care for the needs of others, or attend to the needs of her own soul?  It appears that she is used to taking care of others and leaving herself and her needs for last.  The problem with making caregiving our only way of life is that we stop listening for the voice of God.  It is easier to do than it is to be still, even for a few moments.  And so we just keep moving.

Maybe we, like Martha, have forgotten that we have choices to make.  She seems to assume that all the work must be done before there is any sitting and listening.  You and I know that all the work is never done.  And of course, we have to mention the gender elements of the story.  It was a woman’s place to serve the men, not to sit with them and listen to the teacher talk about God.

Jesus turned both of these ideas upside down.  Of course a woman has the right to sit and listen.  How could it be otherwise in God’s kingdom?  She is given an equal place at the feet of Jesus.  And, please, just let some of the work wait.  You haven’t given yourself permission to sit and listen in a very long time.  Do you even know what that feels like anymore?

So, I’m giving you permission to order that pizza.  Okay, maybe not every night or the food police will arrest both of us, but when it’s been a long day and you want to reconnect with the people you love, go for it.  Allow yourself to make decisions about what is right for you, about what will remind you of the important things.  Allow yourself to do the things that take care of others, and allow yourself to stop doing for others and take care of yourself by being in God’s presence.IMG_5384, copyright, low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier


Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | July 5, 2016

The one who stopped

The man has been in and out of consciousness for nearly two days.

He is astounded as he begins to piece together the story of how a bunch of strangers have looked after him so well, as if he were a family member. And the cost!  Food, clothing, a room for as long as he needs it. He has no money, because the thieves took everything. When he thinks of them, the images and sounds of the robbery come back to him and he winces.

He manages these words to the innkeeper, “I am so sorry for all your time and expense. When I am well I will see that both you and the one who brought me here are repaid for your trouble. I was robbed of all my money and have nothing to give you now, but I will see that you are repaid.” Though he was not well off, he would find a way to get the money.

“We will not hear of it,” says the innkeeper. “It is payment enough to see you moving about and to get you on your feet again. You will stay here until you are well. My wife insists upon it.”  His wife, busy with household tasks, smiles and nods in agreement.

“I wish I could get my hands on those men who beat you!” says the innkeeper. “Who do they think they are, taking people’s money and sometimes their lives?” This is confirmation to the man that he had been left for dead. “You are very lucky my good Samaritan friend came along!”

“A Samaritan!” says the man. “But you are Jews, are you not?”

“Of course we are Jews.” says the innkeeper. “But I have to make a living of this place for my family. I can’t afford to turn anyone away, even though that doesn’t make the rabbi happy.”

The man thinks about the Samaritan who rescued him from certain death by the side of the road. Why?  Perhaps the Samaritan didn’t know the man was a Jew. His clothing had been stripped so that wasn’t an identifier. The man is proud to be God’s person, and has therefore never had anything to do with Samaritans, but now he finds himself not caring a bit about differences between Samaritans and Jews. A Samaritan had saved his life, for God’s sake. In a few days, the man’s whole attitude about “them” has changed.

What would the man’s wife say when he told her?  He knew what she would say—thank God for Samaritans!

Soon he feels like continuing on his journey, though he has no plans at all to travel that dangerous stretch of road again, at least not alone. But a group of travelers comes to the inn that night, and they are headed to Jerusalem. He asks if he can accompany them, which surprises them, because they are Samaritans. But they say yes.

And then the man sits and eats supper with the Samaritan travelers. The first few minutes are awkward, because Jews and Samaritans are always served from separate platters and they sit in different parts of the room. But in a few minutes they are all laughing and telling stories and he realizes how they are no different from him, really. After a couple of glasses of wine, he tells them about the stranger who saved his life, and who was one of them. And all sit quietly for a few moments.

The next morning, in one last gesture of hospitality, the innkeeper gives him enough money to make it home, and the woman hands him some parcels of food for his travels. The man looks down at the food and the new clothing he is wearing. He sees still tender knots and bruises on his arms and legs. The children practically knock him down as they crowd around the departing guest and beg him not to go. The innkeeper gives him a bear hug and wishes him Godspeed. “How can I ever repay you?” the man asks.

“By keeping an eye out for the hurting by the side of the road and caring for them,” says the innkeeper.

The man nods, and turns his face toward home.IMG_4440, copyright, low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 26, 2016

Two-way blessing

I am usually a light packer, but that means starting to pack days before the trip, lots of planning, and taking things out as I realize I can get along without them. If I’m flying, I limit myself to one bag and a tote for my laptop and camera. Even so, some of the things that usually make the final cut for a 10-day trip are one jacket (you never know when it might rain or turn chilly), one sweater, two pairs of pants, one dress, three or four shirts, toiletries in tiny bottles, soap for washing out clothes each night.

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’  [From Luke 10]

Jesus wants the seventy to take far less, as in nothing—no money, no anything—just what they happen to be wearing.  They are to be dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Hmmm. My control issues are a little strong for that. I’d probably at least stuff some underwear and shampoo into my pockets and hope he wouldn’t notice.

These followers are sent out as lambs among wolves; they will find out just who their friends are. Their friends are the ones who will welcome them, whether they are known to each other or not.

The disciples are to enter a home and declare peace to those who inhabit it. And even though in ancient Palestine hospitality is highly valued, not everyone will welcome those who bring peace.  There are some homes and some communities in which peace is spurned because it may mean giving up power over others or may be perceived as weakness.  If the residents are not willing to hear the words of peace, then the disciples will move on to some other place where peace is welcomed.

Jesus tells the seventy to receive whatever hospitality is offered. That’s odd. We expect to be told to share hospitality, not to receive it. How happy we are when someone thanks us for a nice meal or is grateful to have a place to stay. When the worshiping community extends hospitality to the stranger, the person on the margins, the immigrant, that community finds itself warmed and renewed by the act of giving.

And yet, receiving is also a gift to oneself and to the giver.       Some of the most memorable travel moments I’ve ever experienced happened in some of the poorest places, when my friends and I were offered a simple meal of homemade tortillas, bananas and papayas picked from village trees, and ice cold Coke bought from the local tienda.

Thousands of miles from home, we were served a meal that transcended language and culture with its hospitality and welcome.  It was more than we could have asked or expected, and it made us feel at home.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he sent out the seventy in twos. We don’t have to go to a foreign country to be on the journey together. We share memories and adventures. Sometimes we remember the wolves, and can laugh together at the ones who were mean but not really dangerous.  We encourage each other to watch out for the truly alarming.  But mostly, we talk about those lovely situations where we were given incredible hospitality, where we were welcomed.  Sometimes it is hard for us to accept those gifts of hospitality, for we have been trained to give rather than to receive.  But Jesus wanted the seventy to know the joy of receiving.

© 2016, Melissa Bane SevierIMG_5336 copyright, altered, low,jpg

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 21, 2016

In the day of trouble

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that God may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. [From Psalm 77]

As we have listened to stories of violence, tragedy, and suffering from Orlando, I’ve been drawn to these verses. Their words describe a raw truth. Like the psalmist, we find that comfort is hard to come by. Perhaps comfort is even impossible as our souls naturally turn away from it. We instinctively know that comfort takes time. Rushing to create internal peace can short circuit soulful healing.

We can’t be comforted because a very evil act was committed against innocent people. And if we, as a country, are troubled, we can only imagine the depth of pain for those who were involved, and for those whose lives have been forever altered.

We should not be too quick to expect people (including ourselves) to feel “better” after a tragedy. The inability to be comforted at such a time illuminates the humanity imbedded in our souls. Reaching out to each other may offer some bit of peace, even early on, because two souls together have the ability to hold more tenderness than one can hold alone.

Sometimes we move toward comfort when we work for peace and justice. That work may involve different things for different people at different times. After this particular tragedy, we’ve all been moved to see people making peace by sharing stories and hugs. We’ve heard of Christian and Muslim congregations gathering together in order to mourn the shooting while demonstrating that we can never ascribe to an entire religion a propensity to be violent and evil because of a few who commit evil acts. We’ve honored and reached out to the LGBT community and the Latino community after being targeted for no other reason than who they are. We’ve watched the news as more people—including many in congress—express the hope and determination that we can slow or stop the sale of assault-style weapons, and at least diminish gun violence.

I read a story that shows the hope of comfort, even if it hasn’t yet come. The grandmother of Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, one of those killed at Pulse in Orlando, was flown on a Jetblue flight to that city for his funeral. A flight attendant thought it would be nice to get signatures of willing passengers on a piece of paper expressing condolences, and started circulating a page at the back of the plane. Attendants whispered to passengers what was going on. Soon another piece of paper was needed. Then another. And another. When the flight was over, many pages were handed to the grandmother. Fellow passengers had written paragraphs of comfort, love, and hope. Will she gather comfort from them today? Maybe a bit. But she has these kind words to touch, digest, put away, take out again, read in bits and pieces, read in one sitting. To keep as tangible expressions of love.

Comfort? We must allow ourselves and others to feel whatever we need to feel when we need to feel it. Eventually, comfort may come when we lean on each other and gently care for one another. IMG_5013 copyright, low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 13, 2016

Living in the tombs

My husband and I were once driving along an interstate when we saw a man behaving strangely. He was not on the side of the road but in a median area which was quite large and partly wooded. He must have crossed at least two lanes of traffic to get there. There was no sign of a car he’d parked nearby; and the quick glimpse we had of him just before he vanished into the woods revealed the fact that he was unclothed. I don’t remember it being particularly cold that day, but we were both instantly concerned for the man and for other passersby. Would he run out in front of traffic? Was he suicidal? Was he mad enough to harm someone else? From the cell phone we called 911 and gave a report. I checked the newspapers for the next few days but saw nothing. I’ve sometimes wondered what happened to him.

Running around naked might be cute behavior in a two-year-old. It’s often a sign of madness in an adult.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. [From Luke 8]

          This biblical story has a bit of everything in it, except perhaps a satisfying ending. It starts with a troubled man living in desperation and isolation. He encounters someone who helps him get his life together, and it ends with, well, it ends poignantly.

The man is a real human being in real pain. Haunted by the demons of—what? His own making, his upbringing, his circumstances, his genetic predisposition? He wanders the local cemetery, naked and alone, unable to live in society or even at peace with himself. He’s given no real name in the story; everyone in town knows who he is. Kept under some sort of guard yet physically strong enough to break the bonds of chains, he remains bound by the demons themselves. The NRSV translators say not that he lives “among the tombs” but rather “in the tombs.” He is, in effect, entombed by his mental illness, dead to any sense of real living, miserable.

When Jesus performs a healing, the man comes to his right mind, puts on clothes, and sits down to listen to Jesus’ teachings, along with the others who were there. Word gets back to town, and people are scared. What frightens them? Are they scared that Jesus could upset the social order so easily? What would happen if the mentally ill start getting well and living clothed and in their right minds among all of them? They were used to calling him “Crazy Naked Guy,” not Jim or Bob or whatever his real name was. He had taken to calling himself Legion, because such a host of problems and illnesses took up residence in him. Those who kept the asylum could be out of business. Their fright may have been related to what happened after the healing. Who was going to pay for the lost pigs? No, this is too upsetting.

Please, Jesus, leave our town.

And so he does. He and the disciples pack up into the boat and prepare to leave. But the former demoniac meets them at the shore and begs—begs—to be taken along. He will be a disciple, too. He will sit at Jesus’ feet each day. He will travel from town to town learning how to spread the good news. He can even help others by talking about his own healing.

Please, Jesus, don’t make me stay here, among these people who are scared by my becoming normal.

I’d have let him come along.

But Jesus tells him he must stay. He will indeed learn to be a disciple. He will indeed spread the good news. He will indeed help others by talking about his own healing. He will do those things here, at home, among the people who know him only as the man who ran naked in the tombs.

Now, let’s be clear that Jesus is not sending him back to live in the relationships the way they were—with him in chains, looked down on by the people, perhaps verbally and physically abused and neglected. He is sending him back to live in changed relationships. He is no longer the man who runs naked in the tombs. He is now the healed man. He is now the one who shows the grace of God just by walking down the street and greeting his neighbors, by eating a meal at the local restaurant, by getting himself dressed in the morning and staying that way all day. The things we take for granted—this man will remind them that those things are a daily gift from God. And he will help to teach the people that they need not fear the future when the social order changes for the better. Jesus will not stay there to teach them this, but the man formerly called Legion will do it. Every time they see him healed, sitting at worship, walking in the marketplace, conversing with a neighbor, they may indeed be reminded of what he used to be, but they will begin to see that this man is not frightening. The future can be beautiful. It certainly is not to be feared simply because it is not the same as the past.

You have witnessed this.

Do you look around you and see people who are still moving on even though they and you thought they would never survive a divorce? Do you see people learning to live healthy and happy lives again years after a tragic loss? Do you know anyone who has overcome addiction when no one thought they could ever make anything of themselves? Do you remember a time when you also lived in the tombs—the tomb of despair, anger, economic distress, loneliness—and now live (mostly) in your right mind and in the company of (mostly) healthy others? Then you also have good news to spread, for you have learned to be Jesus’ voice in the world, demonstrating to others where they may find hope.

© 2016, Melissa Bane SevierIMG_5409, copy

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 7, 2016

More than sandwiches

Every time I hear this Bible passage (I guess that’s about once every three years when it comes up in the lectionary), I’m transported back to a classroom in my seminary days and an event that changed me.

Here’s the story.

Right after college, I went to a very conservative seminary in the Reformed tradition, to get a degree in Christian education. A good thing that I didn’t want to be a pastor at that point, because that school didn’t even allow women to enroll in the Master of Divinity program. I told you it was conservative.

There were about a dozen women in a school of 250 or so students. When a female friend and I decided to take a summer Greek intensive course, some of our male colleagues protested to the administration. “Why should women be allowed to study Greek? What are they going to do with it, since they can’t preach?” I’m not sure what discussions went on in meetings, but we were allowed to take the class. The professor was very kind and treated us the same as he did the guys.

The following semester, she and I enrolled in a Greek exegesis class, studying texts and their meaning in the original language. Same prof, many of the same students—more than 50 of us. One day this text rolled around. After Jesus had forgiven a woman who was “a sinner” and who was intruding on a men’s meal, we have a seemingly offhand comment about some other women.

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. [From Luke 8]

After some Greek study, our professor read these few verses aloud in English. Then he leaned across the lectern with his hands on the edges, his elbows sticking out to the sides, and used a tone I only heard come from him this once as he said, “And, gentlemen, they weren’t just making the sandwiches.

“What do you mean?” someone asked.

“Well, they appear to have been an integral part of the followers of Jesus.”

“What did their husbands and fathers and rabbis think?”

“I have no idea.”

“What are you saying?”

“The question is,” he said, “what shall we learn from this?” Then the class was over. As I walked out, I saw some angry students lined up around the professor to challenge what he’d said.

I never heard him bring up the text or the subject again. He’d said all he could without getting sideways with many students and faculty. Yet I still remember it.

I remember it because I was in a minority that didn’t count for much, and someone in authority spoke words of grace, just as Jesus and Luke did several hundred years earlier.

That’s what people in authority are supposed to do: look out for those who are on the edges, and bring them into the center.

It’s never just about the sandwiches. It’s about the people.

© 2016, Melissa Bane SevierIMG_5458, copy, low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 31, 2016

Changed hearts (and minds)

The Christian Century has had an occasional series over the last decades in which it asks theologians to write essays entitled “How My Mind Has Changed.” The ones I’ve read have always been interesting, some of them quite moving.

One (“The Way to Justice,” published December 1, 2009) was written by Nicholas Wolsterstorff. In it he discussed how his mind was changed regarding social justice. He’d always felt strongly about issues regarding race and poverty, but came to believe that the voices of the poor and oppressed had not been sufficiently considered with regards to justice. Charity wasn’t enough in dealing with poverty and racism; it was important to engage justice in order to recognize and begin to overcome the roots and tendrils of injustice and poverty. How was Wolsterstorff’s mind changed? By encountering and hearing Palestinians and black South Africans. By being quiet in his soul and listening to those for whom poverty and oppression were a part of daily existence.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me. [from Galatians 1]

A few weeks ago the lectionary took us to Acts 9, the dramatic story of Saul/Paul being knocked to the ground and blinded in order to recognize the Lord. We tend to read that story as a dividing line in his life: before it he was a mean hater of the Jesus people; after it he was God’s apostle. Though we don’t have tons of information about his conversion (change of mind and heart) we have enough to let us know that it’s more lengthy and complicated than a simple, single event.

Isn’t it always?

Today’s text tells us that Paul didn’t immediately turn from one way of life to another. He spent three years in preparation, study, prayer, conversation. Three years. During that time he was not only learning new ways of thinking, acting, and relating, he was unlearning old ways. He was surely meeting with people (though not the apostles) and listening to their stories. That is, the people who were brave enough to meet with him. They all knew—he knew—what he used to be and do, and they were understandably leery. He’d been an evangelist for the old faith, threatened by the new, and was instrumental in persecuting those who followed Jesus.

I’d like to think that Paul’s conversion started much earlier than that event on the road to Damascus. In Acts 7, we’re told that he stood by while Stephen, a deacon in the church, was stoned to death. He was minding the coats of witnesses. What if, on that day (and maybe on others like it), he began to see how his movement had gone wrong? What if the suffering and prayers of Stephen dug a new furrow into his soul? What if, at that moment, he began to listen to the voices of those he’d objectified for so long as “different,” “wrong”?

Then came the on-the-way-to-Damascus event, followed by three years of more observing. More learning. More praying. More encounters.

Paul didn’t emerge from these experiences as a perfect person, but he did emerge as a changed person.

What about us? When have our minds and hearts been changed—through experiences, listening to people who are very different from us? People of another race or religion, a different social class or generation or national origin, refugees and immigrants, LGBT people, those with mental illness or physical disability? When we think and talk about other people and groups, we can, even with great intentions, objectify and stereotype them. We may think (or be certain) we know what is best for them. When we meet people, build relationships, stop talking long enough to hear and absorb their stories, we are changed.

With changed hearts and minds, we, like Paul, are ready to re-enter the world with deeper understanding, wiser spirits, and renewed vision.

© 2016, Melissa Bane SevierIMG_5478, copyright, low



Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 24, 2016

The complexities of the faithful

This story of Jesus and the centurion is unusual, confounding, complex. If we attempt to simplify the characters (especially the centurion) into precise categories, it just doesn’t work.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  [from Luke 7]

If I were Jesus, I’m sure I would’ve said things like, “If a healing is so important to this centurion, let him come talk to me himself.” Or, “Are you sure you elders aren’t just sucking up because this guy is rich?” And, as always, I’m disappointed that the story teller doesn’t include more about the person with the least social and economic clout—the slave who’s the reason for all the activity.

What strikes me about this story is how, in a few sentences, we hear so many complexities and are left with so many questions, especially regarding the centurion. He is wealthy, powerful, generous, used to getting his way and ordering people around. Probably he is a God-fearer—a gentile who has close ties to Judaism without being a convert. He’s a financial supporter but not really a worshiper. He’s faithful, but completely outside the structures (both physical and social) of the faith. He’s used to being in charge, but he isn’t afraid to beg a healing from a lowly rabbi. He cares about (“values”) a slave, but is it because this particular slave is economically valuable, or is there a personal attachment? Or both?

This is the person to whom Jesus goes. The person Jesus never meets. The person whose faith Jesus praises.

Faithful people are complex. They are rich or poor, generous or stingy, regular attendees or always absent. They think too much or too little of themselves, or of others. They make requests that take others out of their way, or they are too timid to make any request at all. They do not fit any mold.

And yet Jesus still moves toward them, loves and appreciates them, and recognizes in them—in us—a faithfulness hidden among the flaws.   IMG_5383, adjusted, low

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier

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