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

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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

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 2, 2019

Keep the light burning

18b, copyright, low, blog 1-2-19          A caravan of exotic looking people, some obviously wealthy  and some dressed as servants, makes its way into poor, tiny Bethlehem.

          They are following light.    

          Nothing of great importance, these stargazers believe, would happen without a light in the sky. They’ve followed such a sign here, because the light of their own hopes and dreams compelled them.

          It’s night, and behind the servants carrying lamps the magi walk through the streets until they come to a house not unlike all the others, and knock at the door. A wary peasant picks up his own lamp, and sees this group of exotic people assembled there. Curious neighbors gather in the street. One of the visitors asks in foreign-accented Aramaic if a baby has been recently born to the family. The peasant doesn’t respond. Might they be allowed to see the child? The peasant hesitates, looks to his wife who nods tentatively, and he steps aside. The richly dressed men enter and fill this tiny home. They see the small child sitting on the mother’s lap. They present fine gifts as a result of finding, they believe, what they have sought. Those gifts comprise more wealth than these parents have ever seen. The travelers stay for a while, asking questions. When they leave, the stunned parents try to make sense of the visit.

          Probably the family will use some of these gifts to pay their way when they travel to Egypt.

          Ah, yes. The trip to Egypt.

          Like many of the gospel stories, the story of the magi isn’t just a story of light; it’s a story of light and darkness. Light really doesn’t mean anything until it’s placed in a dark space.

          We cannot avoid, with all our public discussions in this country about refugees, that Jesus and his parents were, according to Matthew, refugees in a foreign land. They traveled by night, out of fear for their child’s safety, led by moonlight and by the lamp of determination to find a peaceful place to settle. Sent out from their own home by the darkness of tragedy and danger, they made a new home among strangers who spoke an unfamiliar language and practiced religions different from their own. Perhaps this experience helped make Jesus the kind of man he grew up to be—one who welcomed the poor, those different from him, and those at the margins, because that’s what he had lived as a child.

          The magi were seekers. Looking to a light in the sky for something beyond themselves, for answers to the dilemmas of their day. Looking for light in the darkness.

          Mary and Joseph were seekers. Looking to a light in a foreign land for safety. Looking for light in the darkness.

          Jesus was a seeker. Looking for the light of God’s love and faithfulness to share with his fellow human beings. Looking for light in the darkness.

          We’re still seeking. Looking to the light of the good news for our own hearts and for the well-being of the world. Looking for light in the darkness.

          It is what all of us do during the search, on the journey, that increases or diminishes the light. We bring light whenever we make the journey easier for another, when we ease pain, relieve hunger, help to bring justice, simply share what gifts or goodness we have. That’s when we are lighting the way for someone else, and, by extension, lighting it for ourselves.

          Carry the lamp of God’s light with you as you work to make a difference in this world. It burns all year.

          There is darkness practically everywhere, but the light will never be overcome by it.

© 2019, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 6, 2018

The caravan as spiritual moment

Like most Americans, I’ve been following the caravan of Central Americans that is inching toward the US southern border to request asylum.

What has been dismaying is the demonizing of those poor, desperate travelers, particularly among many Evangelical Christians. Words of hatred toward the poor fly in the face of Jesus’ example and words. He exhibited a clear preference for the poor throughout the gospels.

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ [from Mark 12]

This is one of many passages where Jesus not only has sympathy for the poor, but lifts them up as examples.

How far we have strayed from that.

The caravan of poor asylum seekers has somehow become, in the mouths of fear-mongering politicians and pundits, an attack on our sovereign borders. The fact that they are brown-skinned somehow seems to make the demonizing of them more socially acceptable. How did we ever get to such a spiritual place? A complete lack of sympathy, much less any sense of their model of determination and sacrifice, weakens the message of Jesus about the poor. It weakens Christianity. It weakens our country’s moral leadership. It weakens us as individuals.

Fabricated stories are not only prevalent on social media, they have been repeated by the White House. The false stories of Jewish philanthropist and progressive George Soros, supposedly funding the caravan, inspired a man to murder eleven people at prayer last week in a synagogue and caused Mr. Soros to be a target of a would-be bomber.

In order to allow ourselves to fear poor, brown-skinned people many of us are willing to believe that they are malevolent border-stormers, that they are harboring “Middle Easterners” (read: terrorists), and that they want to overrun our country. I’ll let you read the work of journalists who have traveled with the caravan and who have debunked those myths, because today I’m more concerned about how we respond spiritually, how we’ll work to see that the poor are treated as human beings just like our own families and friends.

Because that is what Jesus does. And that is what Jesus teaches.

Jesus praises the poor widow who uses the bit of money she has for a higher purpose, not unlike a Honduran mother who spends her last lempiras to undertake a journey taking her children to a safer place.

Jesus elevates the poor as those who inherit the kingdom. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” [Luke 6] This doesn’t fit with the view by many that migrants are sub-human.

Jesus’ praising of the poor reminds those who will listen that we have much to learn.

We can learn from the poor what it means to be dependent on God and on the kindness of others.

We can learn from the poor what it means to move forward with hope and courage.

We can learn from the poor what it means to live on very little, and to make that count.

We can learn from the poor what it means to share all you have.

This is a spiritual moment for all people of faith. Will we demonize those Jesus praises?

Or will we learn from them and value who they are: the beloved of God?2 boys, Revolucion, cropped image, blog 5-17-10, copyright, low

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 30, 2018

Targeting

I’m a huge fan of college football (American football, that is), though I do increasingly worry about the safety of players. In the last few years science and health research have shown us what a career of repeated concussions can do to a person’s brain. Thankfully, some of the rules are changing to help prevent dangerous contact in such a physical sport.

One of those rules is about targeting. According to the NCAA rule: “No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder.” Targeting is when a player attacks an opponent with the intention to harm or, at the very least, a likelihood of unintentional harm.

Targeting isn’t only a football term.

This past week, my country has seen three white men target groups through terrorist acts. One mailed at least fifteen pipe bombs to people the President of the United States had vilified in speeches and tweets. One shot two black people to death at a Kroger store in my state (his original target was an African-American church, but the door to the church building was locked). Finally, one walked into a Jewish synagogue and murdered eleven people at prayer.

Targeting, in a spiritual sense, is forgetting everything that is important about the common humanity we all share, and going after someone we perceive to be different from us, just because of those differences.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ [from Mark 12]

As people of faith, we cannot separate loving people from loving God. Those two acts and mindsets are woven from the same cloth—the fabric of life in its diversity, its beauty, its mystery.

We target people not just with violence, but with hateful language and bigotry, with lies and with harmful intentions.

Everyone is pointing fingers this week. Who’s to blame for the incivility, the violence, the murder?

Fingers should be pointed in every direction, but we’re being dishonest if we believe that certain types of language aren’t more dangerous than others.

First, some of the blame rests with the country at large, and all its inhabitants. We have let the rhetoric increase to such a level that it has become psychologically and physically harmful. Social media greatly enhances the quick and toxic repetition of articles that are dangerously and intentionally false. We have voted people into office who use hateful language, and we cheer them on when they do.

Our elected and appointed political and spiritual leaders have a higher level of responsibility, simply because they have an elevated platform from which to speak. If their language incites fear and terror, they should own up to it and apologize for it. If they remain quiet in the face of terroristic targeting, they shirk their responsibilities.

I have been listening to and reading remarks since the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the most deadly attack on Jews in The United States in our history. Some have struck the right tone about the horrors of this targeted event; some have been largely silent.

Then there are those voices that refuse to even imagine that our country’s love affair with hatred and anger against “the other” contributes to violence.

Yes, Mr. President, I’m pointing at you.

No, I don’t draw a straight cause-and-effect line from you to the terrorists. But every time you only half-heartedly condemn Nazi marchers (Charlottesville), embrace nationalism (even this week), cheerfully reenact the body slam by a congressman of a journalist, call the press the “enemy of the people,” or describe a caravan of hopeful asylum seekers as an invasion (it’s not) funded by a Jewish philanthropist (completely without foundation), you contribute to the problem. Yours is the loudest voice in the country, and you obviously enjoy that. You have a responsibility to use that voice to promote peace and justice, to uphold the constitution (not try to override it with some dubious executive order), to care for the weakest among us, to welcome the refugee and immigrant because that’s who we are as a country, and to expose and shut down racist and violent rhetoric, especially among your own followers. I know you love a cheering crowd, but how exciting it would be if you could give people something to cheer about—a platform of unity, wholeness, a positive future for a wonderful country, a coming together around common goals. Love.

Love may not be a political buzz word these days, but it’s the highest Jesus principle of all. We cannot say we love God when we hate our neighbor. Hate is hate.

Love is love.

As we weep for the dead and with the survivors of attacks done in hatred and racism, let us pledge to live in love, and to work to overcome injustice in this world that belongs to God.

Let us target each other’s hearts with the acts and language of love.

© 2018 Melissa Bane SevierIMG_6969, low, blog 1-22-18

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 22, 2018

God hears those who cry out

In a poignant story that rings true in every generation, a man cries for help and people tell him to stop it.

As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. [from Mark 10]

The only one who says, “Don’t shush him; bring him here,” is Jesus. Employing words that express how urgently Jesus takes the request for healing, the writer of the gospel tells us that the man springs up and immediately regains his vision.

In rereading this narrative, I am reminded of stories throughout the centuries where people’s cries have been ignored. But the witness of the scriptures (both Jewish and Christian) is that God hears when others turn a deaf ear.

God heard the cries of the oppressed Israelites.

God heard the plea of a Canaanite sex worker named Rahab, who asked that her family be spared when the city of Jericho fell.

God heard the prayers of the lepers, the blind, the desperate parents, the hungry—who came to meet Jesus.

God heard the desperation of Jews in gas chambers, Ukrainians who were starved, Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, enslaved persons in the US and around the world, Sudanese who suffered horrors in a civil war.

God hears the voices of refugees fleeing danger in Honduras and El Salvador, in Syria or Sudan.

God hears the cries of children who are hungry, hurt, afraid, alone.

God hears the hopes of people who are marginalized—often overlooked or looked down upon—because of their race.

God hears the fears of LGBTQ+ persons who face challenges every day because of who they are.

God hears the pleas of those who suffer through natural or manmade disasters.

God hears the plight of women whose voices have long been ignored.

God hears the outbursts or silent troubles of patients who are homebound, in hospitals or nursing homes.

God hears the weary weeping of caregivers.

God hears the despair of the grieving.

God hears you.

When we hear the voices of those who are struggling, the simplest response is to close our ears, or tell them to stop calling out–they’re being disruptive.

It’s our responsibility to listen with God’s ears, to hear the cries of those in need, and not to let those cries go unanswered. table with lemons, copyright low, blog 10-22-18

© 2018 Melissa Bane Sevier

 

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