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

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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

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | September 9, 2019

When did we stop looking?

When Luke mentions Jesus eating with sinners, the word should probably be in quotations. Everyone defines a “sinner” differently. It seems that it simply, in Luke’s words, means someone who is lost.

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

[from Luke 15]

Jesus loves hanging out with those who felt lost, disconnected, different. If we channel his character, so should we. And we all know lost people.

The adult child who has wandered into opioid abuse.

The aged parent who is institution-bound.

The partner who shares our home but has stopped communicating.

The friend who seems depressed.

The teen who stands at the fringes of the group.

The toddler separated from refugee parents.

The victim of sexual assault.

An acquaintance who is out of work.

In many ways, we are all lost. We’re hoping to find and to be found. We want to be restored and to restore—to friends, to family, to full humanity, to wholeness.

Too bad we have stopped looking, because there is so much to be gained in the finding.

When we look for each other, God finds us. And rejoices.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | September 1, 2019

Values clarification

I first heard about values clarification when I was studying for a degree in education. Since then, the concept has always intrigued me, and I’ve sometimes used exercises to help myself, students, and parishioners evaluate their most important values.

The simple truth is that often we can hold two values simultaneously, but there are other times when those same two values may conflict and we have to choose one over the other.

Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. [from Luke 14]

Jesus, in yet another difficult saying (does he have any that aren’t difficult?) says that discipleship—learning the right thing, doing the right thing—is the most important value. Everything else comes second. Every. Thing. Else.

This is why you see parents covering their children in the presence of gunfire, giving up their own lives to save the life of someone they love. Or a police officer or soldier shielding a civilian who may even be a stranger.

This is why people call the authorities to turn in the family member they love who is plotting violence.

This is why the whistleblower releases information about illegal activity by an employer or agency.

This is why groups like AlAnon teach friends and family how to say no to someone suffering from addiction, though that can be incredibly difficult and the person they love may leave.

This is why the college student who could easily succeed in a lucrative career chooses instead to work among the poor, or create a nonprofit, or live a life centered on at-risk teens.

We all make choices every single day, and those choices are based on values that we, consciously or not, have at our highest level of what’s important.

Which values will we choose?

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | August 26, 2019

Because they cannot repay you

In my community, a new restaurant has opened. Spark Community Café calls itself a “farm-to-table, pay-what-you-can eatery.” While accepting donations to their 501c3 organization, what Spark really loves doing is feeding people. All people.

We’re a rural community, so Spark reaches out to local farmers for the best and freshest ingredients they can find. That’s the farm-to-table part. The pay-what-you-can part is more interesting and unusual. Spark is part of the One World Everybody Eats network of 60+ cafes in the U.S., a group that strives to “profoundly enhance food security, interpersonal connection, diversity, compassion, respect, and inclusion.”

This particular local café was the end result, at least partly, of a high school class on community activism. The students felt strongly about giving back, and settled on the idea of tackling food insecurity. Spark’s menu has suggested prices, but customers are invited to donate additional funds, or simply to pay what they can, or to pay nothing. The café depends on volunteers to serve as waitstaff and in some other positions. The food is great!

So much is written in the Bible about food. People gathered around food, and still do. The Bible was written in a society that was largely agrarian, or at least where city dwellers understood their dependence on the farms just outside their gates. And food insecurity was often a problem—either for everyone during a famine, or for some people much more of the time.

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

[from Luke 14]

Feeding people has a spiritual component to it. Jesus says we are to look around for those experiencing food insecurity and to make sure they have food. Not just PB&J, but excellent food—a banquet! A gathering around a meal means social interaction, relaxation, meaningful conversation, laughter, renewal of body and soul. A meal is an opportunity to learn from and about and with each other, to share and make memory, to be a source of kindness to each other.

In spiritual language, to bless and to be blessed.

Here’s my favorite part: when we feed the hungry, we are blessed because they can’t pay us back.

Because they can’t pay us. Not in spite of that fact.

We care for children, the elderly, the sick because they can’t do anything for us.

We provide clothing, healthcare, and shelter because people are sometimes vulnerable and at those times they can’t repay us.

We feed children, individuals, and families because they’re hungry and can’t afford a meal or groceries.

Most of us are lucky enough to have a banquet of resources—in our own families, our congregations, our communities, our governments.

Whom will we invite to that banquet?

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2019

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

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

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