Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | April 3, 2017

The suffering of Jesus

As we enter into Holy Week this Sunday by contemplating the passion of Jesus, it’s time to think about what that really means.

There have been some deeply erroneous theological ideas around in the popular culture for at least a few hundred years which have, I think, hurt our understanding.

We have talked about the death of Jesus as though he experienced something far above what anyone else ever suffered. Here’s something you need to know. Crucifixion, though a horrible way to die, was frighteningly common in the Roman empire.

The Persians probably invented crucifixion as a punishment for people considered criminals. Alexander the Great used it in the Greek empire, but for slaves only, and the Roman Republic restricted crucifixion by law to slaves and aliens. Some governors ignored the restriction and used crucifixion against freedom fighters. There were mass executions by Rome in Judea, including some 800 at one time. Crucifixion as a form of execution didn’t end until Constantine, some 300 years after Jesus.

What’s my point? Rather than seeing something Jesus endured that was far beyond the suffering of any other human being, what we have is just the opposite. What Jesus experienced was a very common form of undignified death. And, I think, that is exactly the point of the death narratives.

What the gospel writers would like you to know about Jesus’ death was that it was no different from, no worse than, the human suffering that goes on every day. Jesus entered into our human condition and joined us right in the thick of it. He didn’t have to go beyond our suffering to see the really ugly stuff; it already is really ugly.

We don’t have to say, “No matter how bad this feels, what Jesus went through is so much worse.”  No, we can say instead, “Jesus has been in my place.”

His suffering was the same as that experienced by the cancer patient. Alienated from others; shamed; exposed; in pain.

His suffering was no different from that of an American soldier or Iraqi police officer or civilian maimed or killed by a bomb.

His suffering was no different from that of a parent who sits awake night after night at the bedside of a sick child, or who wonders when the wayward child will return.

His suffering was no different from that of the person who is at the end of her rope with depression, or who can no longer stand the pain of grief over losing his spouse.

Jesus knows.

As we await the hope of Easter, we do it in the somber face of death and suffering. We stand with each other and with Jesus, longing for the light.

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevierwood and black cloth , altered, copyright, low, blog 4-3-17jpg

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Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 27, 2017

Movements of grief

I am not a huge fan of the “stages of grief” way of looking at loss. That puts me in a minority among ministers, I think (often the case). I’m not saying this view has no validity, but I sometimes see it used as a way of prescribing how grief should work for most people. In my experience, grief is all over the place, it’s messy and resists definitions. Everyone grieves differently, and every grief—even for the same person—is unique. Each loss is complicated and some are so nuanced that a lifetime of therapy could never heal all the issues that the loss exposed.

Even so, grief usually has a movement to it. Not in a straight line, but in some unpredictable course that often takes us where we don’t want to go—to that place of profound loss.

There is a surprising amount of physical movement in the story about Lazarus. (A long text, read it in John 11.)  A messenger goes to Jesus to tell him Lazarus is dying. After waiting a few days, Jesus and the disciples travel to Bethany. Mourners arrive to console the family. Martha hears Jesus is on his way and goes to meet him. Martha goes back to her home to get Mary. Mary and the mourners go out to Jesus. All of them go to the tomb. The stone is rolled back. And finally, Lazarus emerges.

And alongside the physical movement we see the flow of grief and its attending emotions. Two sisters who grieve differently. Many “if only” questions and comments. Reflection about life and about God. Tears. The company of friends who have come to mourn with the bereaved.

What I find most touching in this story is the stream of Jesus’ own grief. He takes his time getting to Bethany. He goes to a place of danger because of love for his friends. And when he sees their pain, that pain goes deeply into his psyche and dark emotion overcomes him. He is “deeply moved.”

As we anticipate Easter, here in Lent, we’re reminded that grief and loss are inevitable human experiences. Even Jesus is willing to risk his own safety to travel and be with his friends in their loss. In that place he feels the movement of grief on his own soul, and he models the strength of faith that allows—no, encourages—deep loss to move through us and bring us to new places.

They may not be places we want to go, but those places, like the people who can’t be replaced, help make us who we are.

© 2017 Melissa Bane SevierIMG_6063, LR adjusted, copyright, low, blog 3-27-17

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 20, 2017

Born blind

SueAnn walks into the fellowship hall, feeling more harried than helpful. She’s worried about her kids getting where they need to go on this Wednesday evening, but she has committed to being here at the church, setting up the serving table with a colorful cover, plates and napkins, coffee and soft drinks, and the all-important homemade chocolate chip cookies. Gerald, the 16-year-old,is at swim practice. 12-year-old Ginny and 10-year-old Lulu are at SueAnn’s friend Tilda’s home where they are supposed to be doing homework. Tilda will bring them to the church at 6:00. Gerald will bring his friend Ray after practice, and Ray’s mom, Lanier, will also meet them at the church. SueAnn has ordered pizza so all the kids can eat before the program at 6:45. They’ll hang out in the youth room while the adults meet.

In the midst of all this calendaring, SueAnn is wondering why she volunteered to set up for this program, why she joined the Mission Committee, why she thought she had time for any of it. When did life get so complicated, anyway?

SueAnn loves what the Mission Committee is about. It’s certainly not her parents’ Mission Committee. SueAnn’s church is all about social justice, and this committee has recently brought in speakers to lead discussions on  immigration, refugees, the Affordable Care Act, and reproductive rights. Controversial in this conservative state? Definitely, but this progressive outlook has become part of the congregation’s identity, and it’s the reason SueAnn joined this church a decade ago. Tonight’s theme is race.

After the kids have eaten, the adults, including SueAnn, Tilda, and Lanier, go to the program. SueAnn is glad that Lanier, in particular, is there. SueAnn respects her very much and they’ve become pretty close as they sit at endless swim tournaments next to each other, laughing and telling stories about their kids. Making fun of the helicopter moms.

Near the end of the program, the speaker, a leader in the state NAACP,  allows time for questions and comments. Lanier, who is the only African American in the room besides the speaker, stands. SueAnn is sitting next to her, and she can see Lanier’s hands shaking as she speaks. That’s a surprise. Lanier tells about her son Ray, who got his driver’s license about a year ago. Since that time, he has been pulled over by the police nine times. In none of those traffic stops was he charged with anything. She is afraid every time he walks out the door with the car keys that someone will take a dislike to him for no good reason. Ray is a tall, athletic young black man who wears his favorite swim team hoodie everywhere. He drives their fairly new Toyota, and sometimes he has black friends in the car with him. Lanier thinks all these things make him look “suspicious” to some. She glances around the room and her eyes meet SueAnn’s for a millisecond. “How would any of you feel,” asks Lanier, “If your child were subject to being stopped because he was driving a nice car, had friends with him, and was wearing the same clothes he wore to school?” She was met with silence.

“That,” she said, “is white privilege.” And she sat down.

In the story of a man born blind [another great, but lengthy story in John’s gospel that you can read here], those in leadership lose their ability to see what’s right in front of them, even as they are presented with new information about someone else’s experiences. A man has been healed of his blindness, and many witnesses testify to his previous condition. The clear message is that people are designed to grow in our sightedness. We do that by listening to voices different from ours, by taking people into our hearts, by opening our eyes and ears, by creating opportunities to hear from those whose voices have been silenced—sometimes silenced by our own preconceptions. We may all have the tendency to spiritual blindness, but because we retain the image of God we are given many opportunities to learn to see.

After the meeting, SueAnn asked the boys to do the cleanup of the cookies and drink. She wanted to talk to Lanier.

“Why?” asked SueAnn. “Why haven’t you ever told me this?” She was bewildered. Hurt. Ashamed.

“Because it’s not something in your experience,” Lanier said. “I didn’t know if you’d believe me, or tell me it’s not so bad, or think it was all my imagination. I should tell you that it is part of the experience of every black family I know.”

SueAnn said, “And now it’s part of my family’s experience, too. Not directly, of course. But if it’s happening to you, it’s happening to us. After hearing the speaker tonight talk about working together to change the system, I see that I have so much to learn that I’d been blind to. I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll remain my friend and help me to understand your experiences.”

“Of course,” said Lanier. And they gave each other a hug before rounding up all the kids and getting them ready to go home.

We can be born blind and gain more spiritual sight and insight. Or we can choose to remain blinded to the experiences and deaf to the voices of others.

Spiritual vision is something we can learn.

© 2017 Melissa Bane SevierIMG_7236, LR adjusted, copyright, low, blog 3-20-17

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 13, 2017

The rewards of encounters

Two people, one encounter.

When Jesus meets the “woman at the well” in the gospel of John, we find both of them not only crossing the boundaries of their cultures, but leaping over those boundaries. Knocking the walls down. [It’s such a great story, but too long to include in total. You may read it here.]

Both Jesus and the woman show courage. One brave and thirsty person asks for water from someone whose gender, race, religion, and background make her the “wrong” person to give it. One brave, generous, open person gives water to someone whose gender, race, religion, and background make him the “wrong” person to receive it.

Encounters, by chance or by design, have the power to change us and help us grow. And they are sometimes challenging. When another person makes a request that is uncomfortable, they force us to make decision we might prefer to avoid.

When a refugee or immigrant asks for protection, shall we offer help even when such help challenges the barriers of our assumptions and culture?

When someone seeks equality and points out the inequities of our social system, will we be prone to knock down walls—even in such a way that requires us to give up our own privilege in order to ensure that all have the same rights and opportunities?

When a group or individual requests access to affordable health care, will we be brave enough to help make sure it is available to them, overcoming barriers set in place to block such access?

When a lonely person asks us to join her for lunch or coffee, are we willing to set aside the time regardless of our busy schedule?

When life requires unusual action, are we willing to break down the boundaries of our own comfort zone to do the right thing?

There is much at stake when we request, or hand over, that metaphorical cup of water.

Don’t be afraid to ask for the things that support life. Don’t be afraid to share the things that give life.

This giving and receiving are more than a thirst-quenching cup of water; they are our fountain of life, our diving into the ocean of the eternal.

© 2017 Melissa Bane SevierIMG_7248, LR adjusted, crop, copyright, low, blog 3-13-17

 

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 6, 2017

The world

For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [from John 3]

God loves the world.

Κοσμος (cosmos) is the Greek word we translate here as “world” (not the nifty little drinks with cranberry juice and a twist of lime). I did a quick online search of how various people have interpreted “world” in John’s gospel. One site said that while “cosmos” can sometimes mean the whole world, here in John 3 it is limited to God’s chosen.

???

There’s no rationale behind such a statement. No, God loves the world. That’s the whole world. And while that world was pretty big in John’s day—including Roman soldiers, “sinners,” pagans, Pharisees, people who went to the temple regularly and those who weren’t allowed in the temple, lepers and other “unclean” folk—today our world is even bigger.

Today we can turn on the television or listen to the radio or read the newspaper and find stories—with real people in them—from all over God’s world. And when we’re really lucky, we either get to travel and meet some of those people, or we find they come closer to us.

  • Syrian refugees resettling in our cities
  • Latino immigrants in our schools
  • People of faith in other religions
  • Secular people
  • People of races different from yours/mine
  • Speakers of other languages
  • Openly LGBTQ persons
  • Trump lovers
  • Obama lovers

God loves the world. The whole world. So much that God gave. God gave everything.

So must we give.

Love the Κοσμος.

Love the world.

It’s God’s world.

© 2017 Melissa Bane SevierIMG_1869 copyright, low, blog 3-6-17

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 27, 2017

Of stones and bread

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’ [from Matthew 4]

Jesus is hungry. Duh. He’s fasted forty days. And the tempter has an opening. “You can work miracles, I bet. Take these rocks and make bread out of them. Who’s going to know?”

“I’ll know,” says Jesus. “I also know where bread comes from. It’s a gift from God through the acts of nature, farmers, and bakers. Any other process—especially one that only pretends to be miraculous—shortcuts the involved process that is part of what makes it gift. I think I’ll have a few berries now and then get a nice loaf when I go to the market.”

Jesus faces several temptations after his formative time in the wilderness. He’s learned so much as he’s put himself in touch with his calling, his humanity, his spirit, God’s spirit. This particular temptation to turn stones into bread is about meeting real needs. Why not take a shortcut if you can and meet those needs faster?

Why not, indeed?

Because it’s the work that goes into the bread that makes it meaningful, and delicious enough to feed both body and soul. Bread takes time. Place seed in the ground. Wait for rain and sun. Weed and harvest. Thresh and preserve. Grind. Add ingredients. Knead. Bake. Serve. Enjoy. Take leftover seed and place in the ground. Repeat.

Shortcutting the process of satisfying human hunger (physical or spiritual) means the outcome can’t be as meaningful or as effective. And of course, Jesus extends the metaphor by saying that we don’t just live from bread, but from every word that comes from God. That God-bread bread creates community around the table, feeds the hungry body and soul, and requires us to reach out to others.

In such a way, we’re to reject taking the easy way out when looking for solutions to real problems. Instead, we search for ways that create community, feed body and soul, reach out to the excluded.

We won’t solve any of our current problems with the stone-bread of hatred, but we may do so with the God-bread of reconciliation.

We won’t create community with the stone-bread of anger, but we may do so with the God-bread of reconciliation.

We won’t bring positive change with the stone-bread of fear, but we may do so with the God-bread of hope.

We won’t grow as a society with the stone-bread of alienation and separation, but we may do so with the God-bread of acceptance.

Let’s use Lent as a time to reevaluate how we make our bread of social change and interaction.

And let’s chuck the stones. Not at each other, but in favor of the time-consuming, inclusive processes that are nourishing and create community.

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevierimg_2228-lr-adjusted-copyright-low-blog-2-27-17

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 20, 2017

Contrast

I work in Photoshop almost daily. Even though I do my best when I’m taking pictures to get the composition, lighting, and exposure just right, sometimes a photo needs a little tweaking. Sometimes it needs a total overhaul.

One of my favorite Photoshop tools is the brightness/contrast adjustment slider. If there isn’t enough brightness in the shot, or if there’s too much, I can use the slider to make changes. Once I have the brightness where I want it, I modify the contrast between light and dark. It’s amazing what a difference this makes. Previously muddled areas on the photo are sometimes brought to life as eye-captivating details of a bird’s feathers, wood grain, or a facial expression.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’  [from Matthew 17]

This week’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus is all about the light—brightness and contrast. Jesus’ face and clothing shine (a clear reference to how Moses looked in the Exodus stories after being in God’s presence). There is a bright cloud. The presence of Moses and Elijah and the voice from the cloud knock the disciples down with fear, until Jesus’ touch tells them it all is right. Their pupils recovering from the light, they squint into the restored familiar face of the teacher.

What an amazing vision of light, presence, sound.

Then, they have to go back down the mountain and head into some very dark times. Though the brightness they have experienced on the mountain will be with them only in memory and spirit, they may begin to develop a better sense of contrast.

Good and evil may look more different from each other now that they’ve experienced closeness with eternal goodness. Fairness may be more distinguishable from injustice once they’ve been in the presence of eternal light. Truth may more easily be separated from falsehood since they have been in contact with eternal word. As they walk the difficult path to Jerusalem, the ability to see the contrast will keep their spirits alive, discerning, and safe.

For us, the gift of spiritual contrast now provides the ability to unmuddle the pictures that confront us as we walk our path. Those pictures of what is going on in the world can be complicated, crowded with competing images—including images that appear to be something they’re not. We rely on eternal goodness, light, and word to help us figure it out. To help us remember those moments of brightness and  clarity.

To see the contrast.moon-copyright-blog-2-20-17

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 13, 2017

Praying for enemies

As far as I know, I don’t have any real enemies. By that, I mean there is no one I wish were dead; there is no one I hope doesn’t succeed in life and health; there is no one (I hope!) who wishes me dead.

So when Jesus, in that countercultural sermon on the mount, says that we should love enemies, that doesn’t sound too difficult. I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right? Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? [from Matthew 5]

Hmm. Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus. I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not. And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be. That’s more difficult than I thought.

Our current political climate has highlighted differences between people and groups, between family members, between friends. It has created animosity where it didn’t exist before. And while I still don’t wish anyone ill, I so strongly disagree with some public statements of politicians and advocacy groups that I haven’t watched the news in weeks.

I feel as though I’m struggling between not-hate, and advocating for what I believe to be biblical imperatives. And there are people who disagree with me who could also write that previous sentence with just as much honesty as I did.

What to do? Well, this blip of a sermonette from Jesus has convicted me to pray. Not just for the things I want to see happen in the areas of justice and peace, but for the people with whom I so deeply disagree.

Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them. Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.

I don’t believe for a second that prayer will “change their hearts,” as Christians often say in their prayers about others they are trying to not-hate. But I do believe it will likely change my heart.

When I pray for someone, I start to see that person as I imagine God does: as a flawed human being made in God’s image. Just like me.

Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat. Praying, I think, will make me work harder for justice. It will also likely make my heart a little softer.

For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed about justice issues—and pray for that person.

I expect I will be changed. Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.img_6065-lr-adjusted-copyright-low-my-blog-2-13-17

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 6, 2017

Anger and murder

We are living in angry times. There have been many seasons of anger in our lifetimes. In every age, to be frank.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” [from Matthew 5]

Anger isn’t always a bad thing. Anger at injustice provides an impetus and a trajectory toward justice. Moses got angry when the people made an idol. Prophets got angry when widows and orphans were neglected, and when the stranger wasn’t provided with hospitality. Jesus got angry and overturned the tables of those who were profiting from poor worshipers.

The problem comes, even with righteous anger, when we are so angry that we do harm.

The problem comes when we stay angry instead of letting that anger subside and morph into looking for creative and constructive solutions to unjust actions and systems.

The problem comes when anger is a way of life, or a lens through which we view other people.

The problem comes when anger interferes with relationships.

Insults and angry words almost never help things; they make things worse.

In angry times, it’s important that we rebuild broken relationships. It’s important that we offer criticism in such a way that it constructs bridges instead of barriers. It’s important that we let love for our fellow human beings turn anger into listening, and then into action.

Otherwise, our anger will kill us.

“You’ve heard it said, don’t murder. But I’m telling you not to be angry.”  Get yourself right with your neighbor, because anger has the potential of killing you and the neighbor too. At least it has the potential of killing the good things that are inside both of you.

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevierimg_4603-copyright-low-also-used-personal-blog-2-6-17

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 30, 2017

Be the light

As we continue to move into a different political reality in the United States, the church finds itself in shifting theological territory. Change is not something that the church, a giant multifaceted institution, handles very well. One good thing about change of any kind, though: it helps us reassess our values.

In the few chapters we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches about the church’s values. Here’s a clip:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. [from Matthew 5]

Individuals and faith communities are searching out where to go from here. Jesus’ wisdom? Be the light.

How are we the light? Depends on whom you ask, doesn’t it? But when we are the light, says Jesus, others will notice. No matter how we vote or what our political affiliation, we are still the light.

So:

  • We do what we know is right. We follow Jesus.
  • We remember that truth is our currency. We speak, share, and write the truth. Once we shrink from telling the truth, what do we have?
  • We honor those who are most vulnerable: the poor, the sick, the very young and very old, those with disabilities.
  • We welcome the immigrant, the refugee, and the stranger as if we were welcoming Jesus himself.
  • We work for fairness and justice. We lift up people of all races, nationalities, religions, people of different genders.
  • We live in hope.
  • We are always listening, always aware that we may be wrong, always looking for the best in those with whom we disagree.
  • We say—not just to those like us, but especially to those different from us—“we have your back.”

This is what Jesus did. This is what Jesus taught.

The world is watching us.

Be the church. Be the light.img_4947-altered-crop-copyright-low-blog-1-30-17

 

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

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