Ahmaud Arbery

Breonna Taylor

George Floyd

Say their names.

Black Lives Matter.

As we Christians arrive at Trinity Sunday, many think about ancient arguments over obscure theological points. Instead, we ought to focus on the relational nature of God. If we reflect that nature, it applies to how we interact with each other.

Our country is currently enmeshed in discussions, demonstrations, and soul-deep reflections about race—dealing with a 400 year legacy of systemic racism. It’s about time. So many good resources are available in books, film, and online that can help us navigate important territory.

What I’d like to address here is how White people, especially White Christians, often take over the conversation and try to make it all about us. I hope that is an unintended consequence of our words and actions, but it is a consequence nevertheless.

A recent video from an Evangelical church near me has created controversy in the community. There’s no doubt in my mind that the makers of the video intended it to be a caring response to the events of the day. The video consists of two White male pastors condemning racism, then talking about all the things their (mostly White) church does to help in local Black communities, including food programs, tutoring, etc. While much of what they do is good from nearly any perspective, the video definitely had the tone of White savior mentality—WE can fix this. Just follow our lead and we’ll all get along.

Today I went to look at their website to watch the video again and make sure I didn’t misquote them, and it was gone. Here’s a statement I found instead:

Earlier this week we released a video that missed the mark on a variety of fronts, and we are deeply sorry for the poor judgment on our part. We also failed to appropriately address the injustices that have happened recently in our country. As a church we are committed to pursuing racial reconciliation and bringing about justice in our communities. In an attempt to respond better in the future, we are seeking the wisdom of black pastors, staff members, and church members…

I’m certain I still have many theological differences with this congregation, but at least some of its leadership is listening to the voices of those who are hurting, to a community that has been wronged for four centuries, and to voices that are different from the ones they usually pay attention to. They’ve apparently realized that White Christians don’t have all the answers, and that we can only move toward wholeness when we listen and follow, instead of always thinking we must lead and do.

On the other hand, it’s also wrong for White people of faith to abandon Black communities and persons as though racism isn’t a problem, as though racism isn’t our problem. It is our problem, and we have to show up and make changes in our minds, our hearts, our faith, our communities, the systems that have become sick with the illness of racism. Our participation is required.

What does that participation look like?

Trinitarian theology is understanding that even in God there is relationship, and even in God the relationships are egalitarian. When we live into reflecting the image of God in ourselves and in our relationships, we remember that our way should often take a back seat. In the discussions that are now taking place, we must listen to those who have lived with the severe realities of racism, and we must assume they know more about their experiences and their communities than we do.

Racism and racist systems won’t end if we don’t act. But White Christians participate in a different type of racism if they think they have the answers.

Reflecting the character of the Trinity, may the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer teach us what we need to be for each other.

Ahmaud Arbery

Breonna Taylor

George Floyd

Say their names.

Black Lives Matter.

© 2020, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 26, 2020

The most Pentecosty of Pentecosts

Several weeks past Easter, I am still talking to folks who lament the fact that they were unable to gather in person for that greatest of Christian holy days. They missed being in the worship space they love, with their familiar leadership and music, joining friends and all the guests who show up on that holy day. Instead, they watched on the internet as someone preached to a near-empty room, as familiar music played without congregational singing, as prayers were offered in what appeared to be a vacuum.

This Sunday we welcome Pentecost, a celebration of the church becoming the church. Some congregations will be gathering together physically, but most I know will not. As so many have noted, that doesn’t mean they aren’t being the church. As a matter of fact, I think that being the dispersed church is the most visible theological statement we are making right now.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. [from Acts 2]

The church on its first Pentecost is really only the church when it exits its place of prayer. At the beginning of the story in Acts 2, the Jesus people are gathered. When they encounter the spirit, they apparently are immediately on the move. Out on the street they meet those who are also looking for an encounter with the holy. In faith and courage from all those , they share a language of love, welcome, and peace.

What is the church doing (or what can it do) during this pandemic that makes it the church?

  • The church is the church when it speaks the language of the weakest in our society—the poor, those with inadequate health care, the at-risk, the sick, the dying, the grieving, the unemployed. We need to listen to their voices and to join in with our own. Now is the time, perhaps more than any other, to emphasize partnership with our communities, especially the communities of need, and to increase our presence even when that presence isn’t physical.
  • The church is the church when its members recognize their responsibility to every human being by being cautious and respectful, by not endangering other people, by not putting pressure on the health system, by wearing masks in public, and by maintaining social distance. To disregard the health of our fellow humans is to deny the teachings of Jesus.
  • The church is the church when it celebrates the good and calls out the bad, when it pays attention to the science and eschews fake or misleading news and commentary, when it honors those whose jobs are essential to keeping us going, when it advocates for those in need, when it promotes governmental support for those who’ve been most deeply affected by the current crisis.

I confess that while I have missed certain qualities of the gathered faith community, I’ve loved watching faithful people display new ways of being the church scattered. We’ve been reminded of the many who are often excluded from in-person worship because of age or illness or because of job requirements or life circumstance. Our own inability to congregate makes us more mindful of those for whom that is their typical situation. Some faith communities have learned to speak the languages of Zoom and Facebook and YouTube.

It seems that we are recovering some of the principles of the early church—the fundamentals of caring for each other and for everyone, the reclaiming of the concept of “neighbor,” the understanding that everything is transitory, the reminder of what’s important. We are relating differently to each other and to the world. We are speaking the language of life.

The church isn’t the buildings. It isn’t even just a gathered faith community. The church is the people who live and participate in the world and who do their best to improve the lives of all.

When we have relearned these truths, then—despite our inability to assemble as usual—we have experienced new life in new ways.

If Easter is about life and resurrection, and if Pentecost is about newness and the expansiveness of God’s welcome, then this year—in relearning these truths in unfamiliar circumstances—we may be experiencing the most Eastery of Easters, and the most Pentecosty of Pentecosts.

© 2020, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | April 18, 2020

Snake handling and COVID-19

I grew up in East Tennessee, not far from where snake handling was popularized in the US. Snake handlers believe that they should be able to pick up poisonous snakes and pass them around as a sort of worship rite. Those who trust in God, they say, will not be bitten. Even if bitten, the faithful believe they will not die and so they refuse treatments and antidotes. Every few years at least, one of these communities makes the news when someone is bitten in a service and later dies.

Lately, I’ve thought of snake handlers as I hear news reports of faith communities that choose to gather even as the coronavirus pandemic is making its way through their communities. In some places, people have died as a result, and many have been sickened. Even so, they and others rush to defend their right to come together in one place for worship as a First Amendment issue, saying the government of their state has no right to tell them not to meet. Public health be damned, they can only be faithful if they defy science, common sense, and their call to care for each other and the larger community. A few are filing lawsuits. Some have even proclaimed some version of “God commands us to gather.”

Just so you know, God commands no such thing.

Though I’m using a lot of words here, I admit to almost being at a loss for words when describing such religious idiocy. In many ways, these gatherings are worse than those whose religious practices include the handling of poisonous snakes; faith communities that gather during the pandemic of a highly infectious virus would be more akin to people releasing rattlesnakes and copperheads in stores and neighborhoods. It isn’t just themselves they put at risk—it’s the larger community. And Jesus had a lot to say about caring for all our neighbors.

This week the lectionary text (John 20:19-31) is the story of the small, faithful community of Jesus’ friends gathered after the crucifixion. He appears to them, then later to Thomas. I think there are a few things in this story that apply to the theme of my blog:

  • They are gathering to guard their safety, not to risk it;
  • Jesus brings them peace, not fear;
  • Jesus honors their doubts and calls them to faith.

Faith, here or anywhere, is never tied to specific acts of worship. Jesus was especially gentle about the faith of Thomas, the one who was absent.

Absence from in-person worship gathering does not mean one isn’t faithful. As a matter of fact, faithfulness expresses itself most in concern for the whole community, for our neighbors and strangers alike.

Taking up snakes is an act of haughtiness, of believing that the acts we choose to perform are more important than what God has in mind for us—healthy minds, spirits, and bodies, as well as healthy communities.

Worshiping in person during a stay-at-home order is the same thing—saying that what these leaders choose to subject their members to is somehow holy, when at the least it defies God’s goodness and peace. At the most, such congregations claim a power that doesn’t belong to them, or to anyone: the power to overcome the science of God’s creation.

God charges us to do what is healthy and right, because God cares. We should care, too.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2020

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 16, 2019

Joe’s story

[Reprising a story I wrote in 2016. Feel free to use…]

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]

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 25, 2019

If only we had known

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]

Advent is about many things, and one of them is about paying attention to what’s happening all around us, and being ready to take action.

If we’d only known when the thief was coming, we’d have stayed awake.

If we’d only known there was a serious problem, we’d have gone to the doctor sooner.

If we’d only known that children were being abused, we’d have done something about it.

If we’d only known that white nationalists were going to kill someone at Charlottesville, we’d have spoken up.

If we’d only known that there were hungry kids in our neighborhood, we’d have made sure there was a program to feed them.

If we’d only known that the climate crisis was real, we’d have been more active in connecting with our representatives.

If we’d only known that some elderly people were being mistreated, we’d have reported it.

If we’d only known that sometimes the hope that people need would depend on our action, we’d have acted.

This season of Advent is about many things. One of them is a reminder that bad things happen in this world, and we are obligated as people of faith to act.

Watch, pay attention, speak up, act.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 3, 2019

God of the living

One day a bunch of ancient skeptics posed a weird question to Jesus.

Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ [from Luke 20]

Resurrection is an odd concept, certainly. How can modern, educated, scientific people buy into something that is so incredibly non-scientific, not rooted in anything that can be proven? Isn’t it the same as seeing Elvis at the Laundromat?

Those who asked the question were Sadducees, members of a religious party that was, like most moderns, skeptical about the idea of resurrection. They only believed in the Torah, the first few books of the Hebrew scriptures. If you look in Torah for references to resurrection, you won’t find any.

Their question to Jesus, though, was not a real question.

The marriage contracts the question describes were likely not practiced at the time of Jesus. But, in former times, if a man died, not leaving any children, the law said his brother would marry his widow to preserve the family name. The purpose was to have children. More accurately, the purpose was to have boys.

In the supposed question, a woman is married consecutively to seven brothers. “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” The Sadducees stand back and wait for Jesus to stumble over his answer, or to agree that the concept of resurrection makes no sense.

His answer isn’t really very satisfying, even to us. He doesn’t humor their hypothetical situation and their trip-you-up kind of question.

The resurrection, he says, will not be like anything we can currently grasp. It will be an entirely new way of ordering life.

And then he goes on to quote the Torah itself, the portion of the Bible the Sadducees did trust. 

God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Jesus seems to expose many flaws in the Sadducees’ question. In their view, apparently a woman’s only purpose in a marriage is to bear boys for her husband’s name. Does anyone care what this hypothetical woman thinks about having to marry all those husbands? Her only choices are to marry a brother-in-law or to live in poverty. She is considered as property—to whom will she belong in the resurrection?

It’s not like that, Jesus scoffs. It is nothing you can imagine. But, imagine this:  God is the God of the living.

God is the God of those who still breathe and laugh and cry. All of us live in relationships among family or friends.

Real life happens to real people. And so does real loss. In their carefully constructed little situation, the Sadducees don’t consider the gravity of their question—the grief, the loneliness, the reshaping of a life after the loss of a spouse.

Grief—great loss of any kind—indeed swallows us up like a dark tomb. What does it mean when we have a God of the living?  Are there ways in which the resurrection life is demonstrated to us—or that we can demonstrate it to the world? When we believe that God is the God of the living, we see people differently.

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis said:  There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…  But it is immortals whom we joke w/, work w/, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendor…  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

When we see each other as immortals, as holy, then our relationships change.

  • We may learn to live together as a nation divided by opinions and politics.
  • We decide to live together as a church divided.
  • We believe in a living wage and health care for everyone.
  • We treat the immigrant as a full human being.
  • We support teachers who show children how to read and how to think.
  • We support parents who love their children no matter what.
  • We become real grownups who work at their relationships.

What if we were to live as resurrection people, followers of the God of the living? We might be able to reach far into that future when there will be no more hunger, grief, injustice, or war, and we draw strength to keep going in our work to feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, bring peace and justice in our homes and our world.

We can be people who are constantly pulled forward by resurrection light into some new hope, some new action that leads us ever closer to the heart of the one who is the God of the living.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 12, 2019

Delay, delay, delay

I’ve heard sermons that poke fun at the woman in this parable of Jesus, because the preacher thinks she’s annoying. That joking a symptom of privilege.

He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ [from Luke 18]

We know little about her except that she is a woman and a widow, and therefore almost certainly poor. Desperately poor. What is the justice she seeks? We’re not told, but we can assume it’s a legitimate issue. It’s reasonable to guess that she and her family may depend financially on a just outcome of this case. And while God sees her and is ready to make things right, the justice system on which she relies fails her time after time after time.

How many people do we know, read about, or see in the news who have experienced nothing but delay in justice?

How many refugees from warring and desperate places are seeking asylum? How many people are finally able to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, assault, or rape only to be turned away by the courts and ridiculed by the public? How many non-white citizens are still seeking equality in education, economic opportunity, and a place in society? How many poor and low income Americans are looking for a just path to a living wage and decent health care? How many LGBTQ persons long only to be granted the same rights their fellow citizens enjoy – in housing, employment, and public accommodations?

What can be done? While God is ready to grant justice, the systems we are stuck with are infinitely fallible.

So we gather in solidarity with each other. We line courtrooms and city council chambers. We march and protest. We listen to the stories of our fellow human beings who cry out for justice like the poor widow of Jesus’s parable.

And we work.

We work for the equality of all humanity. We work for the safety and security of every person. We work for justice – for ourselves and for others, especially for the poor and disenfranchised.

The wait is long. Waiting is never easy. But even as justice is delayed, we will refuse to believe that justice will be forever denied.

Because that is not God’s version of justice.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | September 30, 2019

The mustard seed of sacrament

Well, what a slow news week we’ve had. Yaaawwwnn.

Impeachment investigation in the US. Brexit looming in the UK. More stories of racism and harassment and evil and harm than we can count.

It can be difficult to have faith when things seem to be falling apart. The emotional and political climate in which we live is not conducive to faith of any kind.

That’s always been the case. Whenever we think we have it worse than previous generations, we just need to look at history to see that the people of every age have lived through hard times.

Jesus is speaking to folks whose political hopes are weak because of the strength of an empire, and whose personal futures are always in peril relating to poverty and social strictures and structures.

So they ask him for help:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. [from Luke 17]

They are looking for something to increase their faith, and Jesus reminds them that they already have enough faith. [See my blog about that Greek syntax here.]

Where does that faith come from? Lots of places. From within and from outside us, from solitude and community, from worship.

This week many Christians mark World Communion Sunday. It’s a time when we attempt to pull away from our differences and draw together in our unity. We honor the poor, the refugee, the oppressed. We worship with our friends and pray for our enemies. We long for a future when the world will reflect the values of Jesus more purely. We hope. We weep. We love.

We return.

We return to a world and a life that are deeply imperfect and where our faith is tested. Yet, we have enough. There is a tiny seed of faith that has been nourished and that may grow.

It may even grow enough to uproot the towering trees of injustice and plant them in salt water so that their influence shrinks and, though they are still visible, their power will be negligible.

Faith is just a seed. But, oh my, what strength it draws from its environment, and what potential it contains in that tiny form.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | September 22, 2019

Abraham and Lazarus

A parable of Jesus:

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ [from Luke 16]

When the rich man (it’s significant that he is the one not given a name in this story, but the poor beggar is given the honor of being named: Lazarus) dies, he sees Abraham. It’s a distant vision because the rich man is separated from redemption by inaccessibility.

This man’s first thought in the parable is not, “How come Lazarus is over there with Abraham, and I’m here suffering?” It is, “Have Lazarus bring me some water. It’s dang hot over here.” The only way he can possibly envision Lazarus in a place of honor is that the beggar must be in the role of a servant. His servant.

Abraham, representing to Luke’s readers the entire religious tradition and the holy, attempts several times to get the rich guy to understand how wrong his assumptions are – the assumptions of nearly all privileged persons.

The rich man’s assumptions:

  • I deserved every good thing I got in life. Abraham’s implied response is that this is huge misperception. And, should it be true, then the rich man deserves to be stripped of all those good things in death. It’s finally time to spread the wealth.
  • I did nothing wrong in life; Lazarus can have the joy and privilege of serving me now in death. Abraham: “Um. No.”
  • If this is really the way things are, if I cannot be saved, then Lazarus needs to go warn the male members of my family. Abraham: “Again, no. Your male relatives can figure this out on their own, just as you should have. The entire teaching of the faith revolves around our treatment of the poor. Oh, and maybe it’s time you stop ordering Lazarus around. Because if you haven’t noticed, he is close to God and you are very far away.”

Luke’s gospel, even more than the other three, goes to great lengths to show that Jesus held the poor in great esteem, and the wealthy not so much.

The parable reinforces Jesus’s conclusion that the poor suffer as a result of both political and religious institutions that have failed them, and through the willful ignorance and disdain of those who have plenty.

Like the rich man in Jesus’s parable, we don’t need another sermon, another Bible verse, another person to tell us that our society’s treatment of the poor is spiritually detrimental to the society as a whole and to us as individuals.

We know all we need to know.

Now what will we do about it?

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | September 16, 2019

Servant and lord

I am thrilled about the new Downton Abbey film. A beautiful English period piece, the series and movie depict a time in the first half of the last century when a certain way of life is disappearing. Characters react differently to the inescapable fact that the extravagant influence of lords and ladies is slumping, or ending, in the face of changing economic and social realities. Servants aren’t exactly rising up in rebellion, but their lives are changing, too.

We Americans have a hard time understanding that particular striated society, though we have our own striations—both historically and currently. And it’s unlikely there’s ever been a society where everyone is equal, even if the law says it’s so.

In the gospels, we see evidence of those societal levels, and especially the economic effects of them.

In yet another difficult story from Jesus, we hear about a steward who is praised by the master for sleazy business practices. Jesus is making a point, but not that point. After the story Jesus condemns that same kind of action.

No servant can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. [from Luke 16]

Two masters. Two lords. Which one will win our hearts, souls, minds, and pocketbooks?

Despite the boss’s praise of the steward’s underhanded dealings, Luke never leaves any doubt as to which lord – wealth or God – deserves service.

When the accumulation of wealth and possessions is our lord, every situation is an opportunity to exploit, to take, to increase the abundance we already enjoy. Accumulation invites us to divide humanity into groups of debtors, investors, or those who can do nothing to further our personal gain.

On the other hand, Jesus encourages us to view every situation as a different kind of opportunity – an opportunity to serve, to help, to share out of our abundance, to lift up. As for people, we may learn to see them as partners in life, joint members of the greater community, co-equals, even family.

We are all servants of something or someone. (Though I hope we’ve moved away from the philosophy of Downton Abbey’s dowager Countess who, when discussing whether or not servants were human, said, “Yes, but preferably only on their days off.” Yikes! And BTW, she’s my favorite character.)

Seriously, we all have ruling forces, voices, principles in our lives and work.

Which one(s) will we serve?

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© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

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