Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | August 19, 2019

Breaking the rules

Last week I had the joy of visiting the home of Emily Dickinson, my favorite American poet. Dickinson (1830-1886) refused to adhere to the conventions and rules of writing. Her poems were so inventive that early editors changed them. They felt no one would want to read poems with strange punctuation and non-standard capitalization. It’s not as though Ms. Dickinson did not know the rules; she was an incredible scholar. She simply chose to break them. And break them she did. Beautifully. Her work has moved millions upon millions, at least partly because of her innovation.

Of course, every society has rules and social mores that help guide its members—not just regarding literature but also about many areas of living, especially living together. Are there times when rules ought to be reexamined? Are there some that should be outright replaced?

The answer to those last two questions is an unequivocal yes. Every society changes its rules and mores over time. Most groups no longer prohibit women and girls from wearing pants; laws governing marriage and divorce have changed as society has evolved; some types of discrimination that were once legal are now forbidden by both ordinance and custom.

What values are we teaching when we make hard-and-fast cultural rules? We may be making important statements about essential values. For example, the idea of sabbath rest is essential in both Jewish and Christian faith. It reflects devotion to God and releases us from the temptation for labor to be our master or idol.

Yet in the gospel, Jesus responds to critics who say that he shouldn’t heal on the sabbath because it’s work. Their criticism is understandable, isn’t it? Healing is his work.

But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. [from Luke 13]

Rules are made to be broken, when it’s for the right reason.

What are the rules in your congregation, community, state, or nation that need to be re-examined, re-evaluated, tweaked, or discarded?

Dickinson’s poetry opened up new and thrilling outlets for writers, readers, and thinkers. Jesus’ teachings opened up the realization that life and health trump religious observance. Similarly, our conversations about evolving society should not make us afraid, but hopeful.

Let’s have those conversations. They are faithful heirs to our spiritual (and even our literary) heritage.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

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Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | August 12, 2019

The cloud

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith… [from Hebrews 12]

In 1967 Katherine Switzer became the first woman to run officially in the Boston Marathon. Nothing in the rules prohibited a woman from running, but women’s applications were routinely rejected. An English major, Switzer admired JD Salinger, so she filled out the forms using her initials, KV Switzer. She just wanted to run a marathon. They thought she was a guy.

The day of the marathon, word spread around the course that a woman was running, and during the race she was chased down by race director Jock Semple who attempted to pull off her race bib (the paper pinned to a racer’s shirt with her entry number on it). Switzer’s boyfriend and teammate pushed Semple to the ground. Switzer was so confused and unnerved by the incident she thought about dropping out—it’s not worth it, we’re going to get arrested for hurting that man.

But then Switzer thought of the larger community of women who were not allowed to compete in sports, and decided she would run for them. If she didn’t finish this race, she reasoned, it would set women’s sports back, not forward. The community of women searching for equality was stronger than was her own desire to quit.

The photo of Jock Semple trying to physically rip off her race number went viral. Or at least as viral as things went in 1967. It was in newspapers and on the evening news all over the world. It started conversations and arguments about women competing in sports. They are special. They are fragile. They bear babies. Their bodies shouldn’t be used for such strenuous activities. Try making that case to Serena Williams, who won the Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant.

A few weeks after the 1967 Boston Marathon Switzer was disqualified from the race and removed from the Amateur Athletic Union.

But the greater part of this narrative is the story of community. Community is a huge theme in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as well as in every faith of which I’m aware. Community enables us to function as healthy individuals and groups. Nearly everyone can make a list of those who have inspired, encouraged, helped, supported, loved.

The writer of Hebrews calls this a cloud of witnesses. A cloud is something we can’t touch or hold onto, but it surrounds us, envelops us.

The communities we inhabit, if they are healthy ones, give us strength to get through the difficult times. They give us hope to reach into the future. They give us life when we think we can’t go on.

Switzer’s cloud of witnesses included her teammates—all men because there were no women’s running teams. It included other runners—strangers, mostly—who encouraged her. It included people all over the world who saw those photographs and were horrified. It included those who were brave enough to speak out afterward, to change race rules, and even laws (Title IX was passed just 5 years later in 1972).

With this cloud of witnesses cheering, Switzer went on to run 39 marathons, winning the New York City marathon in 1975 and coming in second in Boston in 1976. Her cloud of witnesses even grew to include Jock Semple, the man who tried to rip off her number in the 1967 race, but who later supported her and other women athletes.

During that ‘67 race, Switzer had time to think. And her anger and determination made her decide that day, during that race, that she would work for the empowerment of women in sports and business. She went on to build a new community of support.

The number 261 (from Switzer’s 1967 race bib) became a rallying cry for the growing community, that cloud of witnesses that supported and still supports each other.

Switzer created a nonprofit for that very purpose. From the website:

“261 Fearless, Inc. is a global community of women, be they walkers, joggers, or runners, who have found strength, power and fearlessness from putting one foot in front of the other…This is a welcoming place for women who want to become runners and walkers to find their fearless selves through the connection with others. We are here because sometimes you just need to know you are not alone. ”

We are not alone. God walks with us. All the people who care about us, know us, love us anyway—they are with us. All those who inspired us but are now gone are still with us.

We reach out to encourage others. We’re encouraged by those who reach out to us. Whether we’re in a tough place or a good place, community is one of God’s designs for our spiritual, mental, and emotional health.

In 2017, on the 50th anniversary of Switzer’s first marathon run, she ran again in the Boston Marathon, along with 125 runners from 261 Fearless.

When we are inspired by our cloud of witnesses, the cloud continues to grow as we, in turn, support and inspire others.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | August 5, 2019

Investments

This is not the blog I originally wrote for this week. That one has been shelved for some future posting. The events of this past week required a change for me.

In the space of less than 24 hours, two deadly mass shootings took place in the United States, at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, and on a street in Dayton, Ohio. These come closely on the recent mass shooting at a festival in Gilroy, California. At the time of this writing, at least two of the shooters have been identified as young white men who posted racist content on social media before the shootings.

Does it really need to be said that this is unacceptable? That murder is unconscionable? That racism and white nationalism often lead to violent action against people of color?

Do we have to be reminded that Jesus, who eschewed violence, also said things like:

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

[from Luke 12]

He’s talking about values, of course. We all have values we treasure – whether as individuals, families, like-minded associations, communities, even nations.

Where is our “treasure” as a country? What do we value more?

Do we value more our ability to buy weapons that are intended solely for killing human beings – or do we value more the life and well-being of a child who is shopping for back-to-school supplies and becomes the victim of gun violence?

Do we value more the President’s tweets and rhetoric against black- and brown-skinned people (some comment that he doesn’t really mean what he says, or that people take his comments out of context and twist them to their own purposes) – or do we value the lives of real human beings lying injured or dead in a store or at a festival or on the street because of the color of their skin?

Where is our treasure? What are our values? Where are we investing our money, other resources, time, energy?

Jesus always makes it clear that humanity is where we should be investing. As a matter of fact, loving God and loving all humanity are the only two things that really matter.

We must realize as a nation that violence and racism are not partisan issues, but are issues we have to confront head-on in order to stem the fear, bloodshed, and hatred. Turning a blind eye, making excuses, or lack of caring – all these actions (or inaction) coolly demonstrate where our hearts are, where our treasure is, what our values are.

We can change this. We. Must. Change. This.

Investing in humanity – all humanity – is the only value, the only treasure we have as a nation. Let’s not squander that investment.

© Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | July 29, 2019

Lord, feed the hungry

What does it mean when we pray some version of “Lord, feed the hungry”?

Are we expecting that those who need it will be magically fed by manna from the heavens? Lord, YOU feed the hungry.

Do we have some assumption that the people we want to be fed should be somehow “deserving,” whatever that means? Lord, feed SOME of the hungry—those who’ve earned it.

Is this a plea for spiritual food or actual food? Lord, may spiritual needs be met.

Who will do that work of making sure people are fed? Lord, may someone else feed the hungry.

Questions of food, economics, and money often occupy our modern discussions about what kind of society we want to be. Questions of food, economics, and money often surface in the gospel of Luke, and particularly in the parables of Jesus.

And Jesus said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘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]

In a clear condemnation of greed and its accompanying actions, Jesus creates a story about a man whose excess has no boundaries. This man is  already wealthy, and he has a bumper crop. All he wants to do is keep the crop for himself, to the extent that he would rather go to the expense of not just building new barns, but tearing down the current ones to make room for better ones. He’d rather do that than share, or even sell, the surplus.

Hoarding, as you know from TV shows about it, can be an illness. Hoarding resources among a certain group while keeping them from another group is a societal illness. The selfishness that surrounds keeping money, capital, and even the basics for one sector of the population while maintaining willful blindness toward the needs of another sector is a travesty.

In our country there is a proposal under consideration that would remove more than three million people from receiving food stamp assistance. Why? To save money. Additionally, some school systems are refusing to feed children whose school lunch accounts that haven’t been paid in full, including one school board in Pennsylvania that recently threatened that children could be placed in foster care if parents don’t pay up.

What does it do to the soul of a nation when that country doesn’t care for those who experience food insecurity?

In Jesus’ parable, the man with the big crop and the barns ends his life with nothing gained, and much lost, by his hoarding of goods. What of his neighbors who could have benefited from that food? What of the widow who walks by and sees the new barns, full of grain, while she has no way of making a living? What of the child whose parents choose between food for the children and food for the grownups? What of the rabbi who wishes he had food enough to give away to those who need it?

Abundance versus scarcity. Too much abundance for a few creates scarcity for so many more.

Well, God’s people will say, we’ll pray for the hungry.

Here’s an update on the Pennsylvania school system I noted above. Originally, the school board declined a benefactor’s offer to pay off all student lunch debt. After backlash over that decision, the board relented and accepted the gift. Since then they have qualified for and offer free breakfast and lunch for all students.

What we must remember is that if God is to feed the hungry, it will only be accomplished when people do the feeding. Not magically. Not other people. All people.

It’s that simple.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 11, 2019

Blessed are the… wait, what?

          Luke’s beatitudes (chapter 6) are strikingly different from the ones in Matthew (chapter 5), though Matthew’s are more often quoted. For good reason, because Matthew’s are nicer. Whereas Matthew’s are part of the sermon on the mount, Luke’s come as a sermon on the plain. The elevated Jesus words are distinct from the level-with-humanity Jesus words.

          We like to remember Matthew’s version, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because that includes every human being. Anyone who is at all self-aware feels that poverty of the soul and longs for more. And we all like being called blessed.

          Then there’s Luke. “Blessed are the poor.” I have heard preachers say that what he means to say here is “poor in spirit.” Because he means to include us all. Of course. That makes sense.

          Um, no.

          It’s hard for people who aren’t poor to see that Jesus has a particular preference for those who are. That just seems backwards. Isn’t it obvious that God rewards hard work, investment, savings, capitalism? Again, no. The gospel is often completely upside-down compared to how we see the world, so it’s tempting to mold its meaning to our already formed opinions.

          And in today’s Western culture, practically no one thinks the poor are, or should be, blessed.

          Isn’t the ultimate blessing by God expressed in wealth and material possessions? Isn’t the release from poverty the result of prayer and hard work? Shouldn’t we look to the smartest capitalists among us to run our country and make our laws? And shouldn’t those who are poor be required to earn any blessings like health care, employment, housing, even food?

In a (gospel) word: no.

          The economic values of our capitalist society are limited and often skewed. Jesus values are often different from those of capitalism, socialism, communism, or any other ism. We’re invited to examine our own social and economic structures with gospel eyes, and to reach new conclusions.

          One other difference between Matthew and Luke: Luke’s blessings are immediately followed by a list of woes. The first one? “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

          In the Jesus economy and social structure, the rich are the ones who should be disparaged and the poor are the ones who should be seen as models.

          That really is the opposite of what we’re doing and seeing, isn’t it?

          The poor aren’t to be pitied, to receive charity, to help us check something off our religious to-do list when we give away clothing or serve a meal in the shelter.

          Blessed are you who are poor, because yours is the kingdom of God.

          The poor are our examples of kingdom living. They are honored, celebrated.

          The poor are our teachers.

          The poor are blessed.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 4, 2019

The gamble of fishing with Jesus

          There were two conversations consuming most of the people gathered for coffee before worship on a recent Sunday at Grace Church in Podunk.

          One conversation was about Roger Hughes, present and laughing along with the rest. A bunch of church guys, including Roger, had attended a fishing expo the day before in a nearby city. What happened at the end of that expo is the reason Roger is the brunt of their jokes.

  Roger is a single guy in his 40s. He lives alone in a small house, parts of which he built or repaired. Other than work, his main love is fishing. He has a nice little john boat and a collection of rods and lures. He tells people he specializes in bass fishing, but what he really likes to do is just go out and sit in the boat, throwing in a different kind of lure every few minutes, with different weights of sinkers and even different kinds of floats. Sometimes he uses live bait, sometimes even kitchen leftovers. He likes to change it up because, as he always says, “You just never know what you’ll get.” That’s the way he likes it.

  At the end of the fishing expo, door prizes were announced. Roger had won a prize. All the guys went with him to booth #104, assuming he’d won something boaty like a motor. It turned out that this particular booth displayed items for stocking your fishing cabin.

  Roger had won a stove.

  Everyone at church gave Roger a really hard time over his prize, because it’s well known that Roger doesn’t cook, except in the microwave.

  Actually, Roger does use his stove but chooses not to tell anyone. On really cold mornings he uses the oven to warm up his underwear. There was one unfortunate incident when he left the underwear in too long, but he’ll certainly never disclose that story. Thank goodness for smoke alarms.

          The other conversation at church was about Buddy and Leona Mason. This talk was made in whispers.

  Retired teachers, the Masons live in a big, old farm house. They’ve sold off most of the farm and their four grown kids want them to sell the house and move into a condo. Buddy and Leona miss having children around. They’ve been investigating becoming foster parents. Their kids are completely against it. “You never know what you’ll get!” they say. “Those kids come with problems.”

          The Masons have heard about a couple of brothers who need a home, and they’re considering it. They do have problems—both in school and in the current foster home (their third in two years). Their social worker friend thinks Leona and Buddy can help the boys settle into a new, secure life.

          The sermon that particular Sunday was about fishing for people, and how going fishing with Jesus produces unpredictable results. During the “joys and concerns” part of the service, Buddy announced that he and Leona had decided to take in two boys. Some in the congregation looked at them with concern, some with appreciation, some with both.

          And Roger suddenly knew what he was going to do with the new stove.

          When it’s delivered to the Mason home later in the week, Roger goes to set it up. Leona is so excited, because she hasn’t had a new stove in some thirty years. The boys have arrived, and Buddy mentions the house needs a little upgrading, like a shower in the boys’ bathroom. Roger begins spending one or two evenings a week over there helping Buddy and eating Leona’s cooking. Some days he calls early in the day to tell her he’ll bring pizza or chicken or Chinese takeout so she doesn’t have to cook. And he starts getting to know the boys, Roman and Jesse. They are twelve and eleven, and they are inseparable. They are still acting out, but they seem to be settling in at the farmhouse.

  One day Roger sees the boys eyeing the fishing poles in the back of his truck and asks them if they’d like to go fishing sometime. Their eyes light up, but they’re also a bit afraid. They’ve never been fishing before.

          When spring arrives, that’s exactly what they do. Every Saturday, if the boys have had a good week at school, Roger takes them fishing. They’ve not missed a single week, because their behavior has been steadily improving, largely because of the stability of their new situation.

          Whatever the church people thought in the beginning, they are now all about helping out with these two boys who are in church every Sunday, making friends, and, for the most part, happy.

  One day the pastor shows up at the Mason home to deliver some groceries from church. Roger Hughes is at the farmhouse, helping Buddy fix a leaky faucet. They invite the pastor to stay for dinner, and what she witnesses is amazing. Two rambunctious boys talking, laughing, fighting, learning manners. Buddy and Leona looking young. Roger more talkative than she has ever seen him.

          She sees fishing poles standing in the corner and asks the boys if they like to fish. This opens the floodgates of conversation. They talk about bait, what type of fish are in the river and local lakes. And they talk about how Roger tells them you can try just about any kind of bait and it’s okay. Because the best thing about fishing is that when you throw your line in the water, you just never know what you’ll get. “That’s the most exciting part!” says Jesse. “But it’s also a little scary.”

           “Ain’t it the truth,” she thinks as she looks around the table. Here sit five people who’ve been changed by taking risks, by dropping their lines (nets) in the water, and by waiting to see what happens. Their results have been crazy, unexpected, scary, and enlivening.

          Fishing. It’s a gamble.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 28, 2019

Over the cliff

          In a few lines in Luke, Jesus goes from beloved hometown boy to dangerous stranger, from welcomed to feared.

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. [from Luke 4]

          At the beginning they listen to him, and they like what they hear. At the beginning.

  Then Jesus preaches to them about a couple of faith stories from the tradition. Everybody likes to hear a good story. The problem for his hearers is the particular stories he chooses to tell.

          Story #1: Elijah preached during a time of terrible famine, but God didn’t send him to the people of Israel who were in great need. God sent him to a widow in Sidon (modern day Lebanon). God didn’t heal an Israelite. God healed the son of a poor, Gentile widow, from Sidon. Decidedly not a person of God in the belief system of Jesus’ hearers.

          Story #2: God could’ve healed one of the many lepers of Israel, but instead God used Elisha to heal this Naaman character. He was more than just a Gentile. He was an enemy. Worse, he was an officer in the enemy’s army.

  Lebanon and Syria were the same enemies of the people of Israel then as they are now. They had a history of warring and enmity then as they do now. The people of Lebanon and Syria had killed innocent people. Many, many times. They worshiped other Gods. They spoke other languages.

          Is Jesus trying to make the people of his hometown angry?  Maybe he is. They have tried to own him as one of theirs, then disown him when they think he’s crossed a line. He tells them about how God not only cares about their enemies, but sometimes seems to prefer some of those people they categorize as “enemy.” Ouch.

          Do Jesus’ hometown friends welcome this message of the magnitude of God’s love?  Nope. They want to push his message, and him with it, over the cliff.

          Any people of faith get into deep problems when they think that they and people like them are God’s favorites. Jesus does away with all of that. But that’s the message we want to ignore, the message we’d like to push toward the cliff’s edge.

  In my country we’re (still) talking about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Of course, everyone understandably wants border security. But the problem comes when we speak of people on the other side of the border as “less than.” Less deserving. Less moral. Less… white? One argument I often see on Facebook is “We need to take care of our own.”  Well, we don’t always do a good job of taking care of our own (reference government shutdown that has hurt so many Americans). But, for Christians, we must remember that everyone is “our own.”

  Look at the example of Jesus. He doesn’t spend a lot of time demonstrating great love toward the people who “deserve” it. He show mercy to a woman caught in adultery; he touches the skin of lepers; he eats with sinners and outcasts; he forgives his friends even when they desert him; he heals people he doesn’t even know; he talks to people he isn’t supposed to deal with.

          Jesus is all about shocking people into examining what real love looks like, by examining what the love of God looks like.

  The people try to throw Jesus and his message of love over the cliff, but he passes through the midst of them and goes on his way.

  God’s love will go on its way, whether we are the agents of that love or not. I’d like to hope, though, that we won’t be the ones trying to push the message over the cliff.

  Let’s be the ones who help Jesus pass through the angry mob to take his message over the world.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 21, 2019

When is it Jubilee?

  Reading, watching, hearing the stories of people who are directly impacted by the partial government shutdown has been heartbreaking. The only people who benefit are…well, nobody. Some politicians think the longer the shutdown, the more likely they are to get their way. Maybe. But that isn’t exactly a benefit; it’s a calculated disregard for the people they’re supposed to serve. Some government services have declined or stopped. 800,000 federal employees aren’t receiving paychecks (add their dependents to that list, and there are millions affected). Many of them are not able to pay their bills.

          Bright spots in this mess have been hard to see. But I admit to being amazed at the groups and individuals who have come forward to offer what they can to assist where they can. Some do it from a place of faith, some from a sense of civic responsibility, some simply because they care about other people.

  When Jesus went to his hometown synagogue he read from the prophet Isaiah:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  [from Luke 4]

          Did he say “today”? Really? Because how much misery was right in his line of vision? How many people were sick, hungry, unemployed?

          His reference appears to be about the year of Jubilee, proclaimed in the law of Moses. Every fiftieth year there was to be a “year of the Lord’s favor.”

          During the Jubilee, land was to be returned to its original owners (or their heirs). So in a sense, land would be available for 49-year lease, not out and out purchase. And indentured servants—those who were enslaved to pay off debts—were to be released from their enslavement.

          It was designed to be an economic equalizer. It was wealth-sharing.

          It’s unclear that Jubilee was ever truly observed. It was certainly a religious celebration which began with the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, and feasting. But the land returning? Indentured people receiving their freedom? It likely never happened, at least on a broad scale.

          But was it enough that economic justice was an ideal?  Well, maybe it wasn’t enough, but it had to have been helpful. Rabbis could make appeals that servants should be released—that they and their children ought to be allowed to have freedom and to start over. They could encourage people not just to buy up and accumulate land, but to have a fairer distribution. Maybe that wasn’t the fullness of what was intended in the law, but it was something.

          To consider Jubilee means to remember that things are not fair, and that we can and should do something to create more fairness, more justice. This is a value that spans the millennia.

          Even though we remember that Jubilee never fully reasserts the complete fairness and equality God desires, we look for places where justice is lacking, and places where efforts are underway to create more equity. When we see those efforts, we celebrate them. When we are able, we emulate them.

          When is it Jubilee? We’ll never see it. But we can access the ideal, just as the ancients did, by celebrating it, moving toward it, and dreaming of justice.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 14, 2019

The best party trick ever

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

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

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

Jesus makes it turn out okay. Better than okay.

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

Where is the purpose in that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither should his followers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 7, 2019

How purpose reveals itself

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

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

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

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

          This way seems right, we may say to ourselves.

  And we take a step down that path.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  We find a purpose, too.

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

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

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