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

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 14, 2016

Joseph’s story

It’s been almost a year since Joe met Mary. Almost a year since his whole world changed, because he loves her. And because she brought Eddie into his life.

Eddie is now 8. Joe never expected to have kids. Never even wanted to have kids. Kids cost money and Joe’s very frugal. Kids take too much time and they are always in your space. He’d been single a long time. Then married. Then divorced. He’d dated some. A single guy in his 40s with a good job is much in demand on the singles market, which is why he chose NOT to be on any online dating sites.

He met Mary at a New Year’s Eve party in the home of a mutual friend. She wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, and he wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, which is probably one of the things that drew them together. They both landed in the kitchen cleaning up while the party was going on, because they’d grown tired of small talk. They just regular-talked.

They discovered they had some important things in common. Both love to cook gourmet food. Both love hiking. He invited her to join him on a hike when it warmed up in the spring, and she told him she had an eight-year-old boy she didn’t want to leave with a babysitter for a whole day. He said, “So. Bring him along.”

He couldn’t believe those words came out of his mouth, but he was even more surprised that he meant them.

The hike came on a day in March. Joe both dreaded it and deeply looked forward to it. He wanted to see Mary again. But what if he failed to connect with Eddie? What if he didn’t like Eddie? What if Eddie didn’t like him? He really didn’t know what to say to kids. Joe and Mary had been in touch by phone and email since the party, once talking nearly 2 hours. He felt his affection for her growing.

On a Saturday morning Joe picked them up and they drove down to the Red River Gorge. Typically, Joe would hike along the ridges, but he worried about taking a boy up where there were steep drop-offs. Instead he took them on Rock Bridge Trail down to the waterfall. Long enough and a little challenging for an eight-year-old, the trail’s turnaround point at the falls was a perfect place to stop for the picnic lunch Joe had packed.

The weather cooperated, cool and clear, with some of the trees just beginning to bud out. Joe had hoped to see deer along the trail, but it wasn’t to be, since Eddie talked loudly and incessantly during the entire hike. But Joe didn’t mind. Eddie was very entertaining.

Eddie had been hiking many times with his mom, and he told Joe what she’d taught him about being in the woods. “Kids can get lost in the woods,” he said. “Mom has three rules. Rule one is to stay together no matter what. You’re always safer together. Rule two is to watch the light. The direction of the light helps you figure out where you are. And if the light starts to fade, get yourself back to where you started. Rule three,” Eddie continued because he hardly stopped talking at all, “is to mark the important parts of the trail. That’s how you know where you’ve been. Remembering where you’ve been helps you find your way home.”

At a couple of spots on the trail, when they made a turn, Eddie built a cairn of rocks as other hikers had done before them, so they would remember this spot and know where to turn toward home on their way back. The trail was well marked, but constructing the cairns was fun, and Joe helped him look for just the right rocks.

That was the day Joe fell in love with both Mary and Eddie. He slept not at all that night, because his love terrified him. Eddie’s father hadn’t seen the boy, written, or called in six years. Eddie was obviously looking for a dad, and Joe was afraid he’d disappoint, that Mary wouldn’t want him. But Mary and Eddie fell in love with Joe, too.

After that day the threesome spent nearly every Saturday together, doing things from cleaning out the garage to going to a park.

When Mary and Joe decided to get married, they didn’t wait long. There didn’t seem to be any need for that; they just knew it was right. Eddie started referring to Joe as “my dad” at the wedding reception.

Things have changed so fast. So fast. Joe is different. He thinks about Eddie when making choices about almost everything, from which trails to hike at the gorge to what television shows to watch, from where and how to invest his money to where and how to spend his money.

Joe’s sleep patterns have changed. He goes to bed much earlier than he ever has because he is very, very tired. He gets up early on Saturdays because Eddie is up early. They let Mary sleep in while they eat Honey Smacks on the couch in their PJs.

Work has changed for Joe. He doesn’t work 65 hour weeks these days. He was offered a promotion that would involve a move, and declined it without a second thought . He wouldn’t even consider moving Mary and Eddie from the job, school, and friends they love. He takes time off for things that a year ago he couldn’t have imagined. A couple of times a month he meets Eddie at school for lunch. He took a whole day in October to go to the pumpkin patch with Eddie’s class. He has become the most popular dad in the third grade, because he’s the only dad who ever shows up for things during the school day.

And then there is Christmas. Joe never knew how different Christmas could be with a child. The excitement, the wonder, the laughter, the anticipation. Eddie taught him all their family traditions, told him the origin of each ornament, and every night they read Christmas stories together. The beauty of the past was surprisingly important for someone who was only in his ninth year.

Joe wanted to get just the right gifts for Eddie and Mary on their first Christmas together. He has rented an RV for a hiking trip on spring break. He gave them guide books to state parks so they can all plan the trip together.

Then there was Eddie’s gift to Joe: three washed rocks. He collected them out of a local creek and washed them three times in bleach solution and scrubbed with a brush. “Mom made me wear rubber gloves and she poured the bleach into the bucket of water,” he said. “It was hard work.” Three flat rocks of decreasing size. “I know how you love to hike, and maybe this will make you remember some of the fun hikes we’ve taken,” Eddie said. As if Joe could forget those great times of talking, hiking, becoming a family.

Joe was unable to speak. He gave Eddie a huge hug and used the stones to build a little cairn under the Christmas tree.

Joe has experienced deep transformation over the past year. What a whirlwind it’s been.

Not just one moment of new understanding and growth, but thousands of moments. He feels as though his heart is being expanded.  The memories and experiences are piling up like stones, each one with meaning and significance.

One night the family read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Matthew, and Joe thought about it a long time afterwards—about how Joseph wanted his life to go in a certain direction, but a woman and her child changed all of that. And how God was in it.

The week after Christmas, when the family was putting away decorations, Joe took his three washed rocks and placed them on one end of the fireplace mantle where he could always be reminded of Eddie’s heart and wisdom.

Sometimes you just wander aimlessly, Joe thought. Or you feel as though you’ve lost your way. Remember those three things the rocks represent: stay together, watch for the light, and make sure you mark the most important turns in the trail.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… [from Matthew 1]img_5717-adjusted-copyright-low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 4, 2016

Advent doubts

As the holidays progress, faithful people often aren’t really sure of what they’re supposed to be feeling. It’s only natural. What is real about Jesus? About a couple of unlikely parents, a manger, some shepherds and angels, followed by a life filled with a bunch of teachings? And how does that really relate to a modern, complex, often difficult life?

Many people struggle this time of year because of circumstances (illness, loss, economic difficulty) or depression, sometimes a sense of failure or an inability to live up to the expectations of others or of self. Set those troubles against a culture of seasonal perfection, and the ingredients have been assembled for a recipe of doubt and disillusion, with sides of hopelessness and a low spirit.

If it makes you feel better, John the Baptist seems to have similar doubts and questions.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ [from Matthew 11]

Our friend John was in prison for political reasons. As far as personal situations go, it’s hard to feel much lower than that. He’s the one who baptized Jesus at the beginning, but now we’ve skipped a year or two to this new pseudo-encounter. Maybe John is wondering if all that baptizing, wearing odd clothing, eating weird food, and preaching in the wilderness meant anything at all. It certainly hasn’t made John’s own life any better off.

So what’s the point? Has the whole trajectory of John’s adult life been for nothing? Has his strong faith brought him nothing? Has his work for the kingdom of God yielded nothing? Has this Jesus thing meant nothing?

He sends some of his followers to Jesus. Hey, Jesus, remember me? Maybe you don’t, but I’m your cousin who baptized you, and now I’m in prison. Maybe I thought you were somebody you’re not. Maybe I should see if there’s something, someone else out there who’ll bring God closer and make this a better world. Because so far, I’m not feeling it.

I like to think Jesus speaks softly when he talks to John’s friends. Go back and tell my cousin that things move in fits and starts, but there are always signs of hope. The signs that John’s work was not in vain are these: there are new signs of the kingdom—healings and justice for the poor. While he’s in prison, the effects of his labors continue. Even if he feels hopeless, there is hope among the people he touched.

Sometimes when we aren’t seeing the results we’d hoped for, sometimes when our lives aren’t the way we need and want them to be, we need to look a little differently at kingdom signs. If you felt a personal blow this year, look at those people and events that have brought you hope and peace. If you felt a political blow, look at the long arc of history to the people who’ve worked for justice and have seen success as well as setback. If you’re simply down because of the season, seek out stories of hope and find ways to center yourself in peace.

Hopelessness is, honestly, sometimes justified. But Jesus calls us to look differently in order to see what we’ve been missing.

So, doubt away. God doesn’t mind. Just don’t give up. Despite appearances, the kingdom is always on the move.

© 2016 Melissa Bane Sevierimg_5852-altered-copyright-low

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 1, 2016

Harvesting wheat and chaff

This is harvest season where I live in the northern hemisphere. As a matter of fact, most crops are already in, even though we had warmer weather and later frost than in recent memory. Our garden (except for the Brussels sprouts) has been put to bed; we won’t be gathering anything again until the asparagus starts around the first of April.

John the Baptist uses harvest as an agricultural metaphor for our spirituality.

John is the odd uncle you tolerate (maybe even genuinely enjoy) at your family holiday dinner, but you don’t want him around all the time. The camel hair outfit can even be cute in an eccentric sort of way, and you don’t mind serving him a jar of honey, but frying up those locusts just about makes you gag. (No wonder the honey is required.)

John’s ascetic lifestyle demonstrates that we don’t need showiness to express the message of God. Like a Hebrew prophet, John distills that message in ways that are graphic, and about as unpalatable as locust fricassee.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. … ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’  [from Matthew 3]

“Prepare the way of the Lord” is a familiar passage for John’s crowd, and they eat it up, coming by droves to be baptized. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees show up he calls them poisonous snakes—not exactly a very welcoming approach. Then he blasts them with more complicated imagery.

Wheat and chaff.

Dictionary.com defines chaff as “the husks of grains and grasses that are separated during threshing.” The chaff is inedible, indigestible. (More than locusts??) It is only removed by the threshing process after the wheat is harvested, and then it’s destroyed in the fire while the wheat is carefully stored to nourish the people until the next harvest.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do the right thing. Always.

But “always” isn’t really a possibility, is it? It’s hard to tell if the words are aimed at the Pharisees and Sadducees, or to the crowd—probably both. Sadducees and Pharisees were often dissed in the gospels for an external, showy spirituality while neglecting the heart, and also for ignoring justice and poverty concerns.

We, too, make mistakes, some of them terrible ones with grave consequences. That’s where the repentance is important. Yes, JtB, we hear you. Faith isn’t just about coming out to the wilderness to be entertained by preaching and then washed in the river. It’s a lifetime of bearing fruit. It’s a continuing movement toward God, ever imperfectly.

We bring forth “wheat” by working for justice, loving God and neighbor, exhibiting faithfulness. The “chaff” is all the other stuff that doesn’t belong—the stuff that doesn’t lead to life.

The fruit of all our actions takes the form of both wheat and chaff—things that are life-giving and things that ought to be discarded. The hard beauty of it is that God sorts it all out in the end.

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevierimg_2543-copyright-low

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 22, 2016

Watchful

If you are looking for something happy and Christmasy this first Sunday of Advent, don’t read the gospel text for this week. In each of the three years of the lectionary cycle, the first week of Advent is given to apocalyptic texts. This kind of literature was common in Jewish and Christian writings in the centuries around the life of Jesus (see Revelation, for example), but we don’t really have close comparisons to apocalyptic literature in modern writing. The genre is highly metaphorical, so be wary of interpretations that attempt to draw predictions of events or even a “rapture” from this and similar texts. Something we’d have in common with those interpretations, though, is that this passage is a warning—a warning against complacency.

 ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ [from Matthew 24]

If we aren’t watchful, if we aren’t paying attention, we will be taken by surprise when something bad happens.

This doesn’t mean we can anticipate every difficult event—accident, illness, loss, financial or political upheaval. However, being watchful means being ready, awake, prepared.

Paying attention is one of the main Advent themes.

  • Pay attention to the people closest to you. How will you give and receive love in those relationships?
  • Pay attention to the people you encounter. How might your interactions aim toward being holy moments?
  • Pay attention to the people least like you. This may be more difficult, but how will you learn from them?
  • Pay attention to God and to what God is doing in the world. How can you awaken your senses to notice goodness and peace?
  • Pay attention to yourself. Self-awareness is highly underrated. How will you be awake to your body, soul, spirit, and values during Advent? How will that self-awareness translate into how you spend your time?

We never know what’s going to happen next, but faithful watching can help us be prepared for both the good and the bad, the delightful and the challenging.

Pay attention. And be ready.

Live Advent. img_5691-altered-copyright-low

© 2016 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 17, 2016

Inheriting light

As a photographer, I’m always looking for light. Light as it glows through fall leaves or peeks through a slatted fence. Light that reflects off a pond or window. The contrast of light and shadow.

As a minister, I’m always looking for light. Light that streams into a hospice room. Light that passes between people who care for each other. Light that emanates from goodness.

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [from Colossians 1]

The inheritance of the saints in light.

This past week I have thought much about those who have gone before us, from whom we have inherited wisdom and understanding, and the strength to act. Also, I’m continuing to “inherit” those things from people I see at work right now. Past and present saints leave a heritage of light.

  • Desert Mothers and Fathers who had deep faith in the future;
  • Communities and individuals who struggled from within the institution of slavery;
  • Oppressed peoples from every time and place who refused to give up;
  • An African-American acquaintance I encountered today who told me he worries we’re entering a new era of racial oppression not unlike that of the civil rights days, but who still believes we’ll come out stronger on the other side;
  • A young teenaged friend who, with her classmates, plans to work for a brighter future;
  • A transgender young man who speaks out about their experiences in order to help others have courage or understand;
  • Every person I see who is at work for justice, kindness, mercy, and peace.

I saw a news story today about a community of people who inspire me by their actions. You can see it here. Natasha Nkhama, a black female student at Baylor University was harassed by a white male who shoved her and called her the N-word. Some of her friends shared the story, and a Twitter conversation ensued. Two days after the incident, nearly three hundred students, faculty, and staff showed up to escort her to class, expressing solidarity and an intolerance of racial bullying.

That was a story I needed to see—not the first part, but the last part. One thing people of faith instinctively understand is that where there is darkness, there is always light.

When others inspire us, we reach out and catch the light they are sending our way, and we repurpose it for our own setting, conveying it to others.

Let light be the inheritance you receive, and the legacy you leave behind.

© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevierunder-the-pier-blog-12-20-13

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