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

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 23, 2017

Who is blessed?

Countercultural. That was a term I heard often in my youth. Those were changing times, and either you thought the era of countercultural radicalism was a good thing, or you thought it was a frightening thing. Even in Sunday School we were told that Jesus challenged the culture of his day. For instance, it was widely taught that the sermon on the mount was countercultural, including the beatitudes:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
 [from Matthew 5]

Countercultural words? Well…I don’t know. These sound a little wimpy to me.  Blessed are the meek? the merciful? the peacemaker? the poor in spirit?

Radicalism should sound, I don’t know, more radical?

Humility, mercy, peace, poverty of spirit aren’t exactly popular today—in politics, business, self-help literature, even many faith circles.

So I’ve written my own version of beatitudes, hoping they might be more acceptable to modern ears:

“Blessed are those who have everything they could possibly want, because they will have it easy;

“Blessed are those who are not sorry for anything they’ve ever done, because they never have to feel bad about themselves;

“Blessed are the noisy, for everyone hears them and their words take on importance;

“Blessed are those who have plenty to eat and drink, because they never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from;

“Blessed are the vindictive, because they can get even;

“Blessed are the violent, because violence takes care of their problems:

“Blessed are those who always have it easy, because they have no worries.

I know they aren’t right, but they sound right.

Really, who wants to worship a God who blesses the poor, the mourning, the persecuted, the peacemaker?

Actually, I think we all do.  Because when God blesses the weak and the troubled, God blesses every one of us.  God blesses your loved one in the hospital, your friend who is out of work, your neighbor whose father died, your child who is struggling in school.

Having it all straightened out actually gets in the way of being blessed. Being at the top makes us think we made it there on our own. Never having to mourn leads us to believe that we never will. If we have it easy, we think that those who have it hard must be lazy, or responsible for their own life situation.

Jesus’ words were countercultural then, and they still are.

We are called to live counter to our culture. Let us bless each other the way Jesus did.img_5716-lr-adjusted-2017-copyright-low

© 2017, Melissa Bane Sevier

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 16, 2017

Left behind

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. [from Matthew 4]

Zebedee looks around at the nets still to be mended, no sons to help with the work, employees staring at him wondering what to do next.

Then he realizes he has to go home and tell his wife. Oh dear.

“Honey, they wandered off with Jesus.” 

“Jesus? That carpenter’s son they hang out with sometimes?  You mean they just left their work? Well, they’ll have a lot of catching up to do when they get back tomorrow.” 

“I don’t think they’re coming back tomorrow. I think they may be  gone a while.” 

“A while? Like a week?” 

“Longer, maybe.” 

“Longer than a week? ” She is mad. She blames him, he can tell.

He blames himself.  Things have always been hard with those boys. They have never been excited about the fishing biz. Zebedee inherited a boat and the love of fishing from his own father, and he has built it into something. He’s found outlets for his fish in nearby towns a bit farther from the coast. He’s made enough money to buy another boat and hire some men to help out. He’s trained those men and two of them have gone on to start their own businesses. He loves the idea of providing a service that everyone needs: good local food at a reasonable price. He sends workers to sell at the restaurants and he sells fish from a wooden table he sets up every afternoon at the docks. Women come by at the end of the day to buy whole fish or have him filet it. Every day there is product left over—some fish, an eel or two, and he packs it up for his walk home. He knows the houses and shacks, the people who have not even a shack but who have a little fire pit, and he stops to drop off something for them. From these people, generally widows with no source of income, he takes no payment but a smile and a thank you. Sometimes they have a loaf of bread they’ve made for him and he accepts their gift in trade.

Early on, Zebedee’s sons went with him on these stops and seemed to enjoy it, but as they became teens it annoyed them that their father stopped at the homes of the poor, and they began to make excuses to go on home ahead of him. Eventually, there were no excuses offered—they just left the boat at the end of the workday and headed out without their father.

Now this leaving with Jesus feels different, much more long term. They’ve been better, nicer now that they spend more time with Jesus. They knew him from school days. Jesus seems to have matured faster than James and John. Zebedee likes Jesus. A young man with morals and strength of character. Jesus often stops and talks with Zebedee at the end of the day and sometimes tries to help a little with the net mending. Jesus is terrible at mending. Even so, Zebedee continues to try to teach him, just to hear Jesus talk while they work together. He loves the things Jesus says about God. He loves what he says about justice for the poor. Zebedee’s sons listen, too. Zebedee has noticed that they have been working harder, have been more pleasant to be with, and they have begun once again to accompany Zebedee at the end of the day when he makes his walk among the homes of the poor. Sometimes he even sees James put aside particular types of fish before the sales, because certain widows love particular varieties.

Finally, Zebedee has the relationship he’s always wanted with his sons. The sons who enjoy being with him. The sons he enjoys being with. The sons who, he believes, could be real business partners with him. The sons who are turning into moral and just men.

Then, one day, this day, Jesus comes and says, “It’s time. Let’s go.”  And they just follow him. They leave Zebedee with kisses but no tears. They seem so happy and excited.

And then they are gone.

Why are they so eager to go? Has he not appreciated them enough? And what about his own spiritual life? Wouldn’t he love to go have this spiritual adventure? He couldn’t get up and leave even if he wanted to. He has responsibilities—the boat, his home, his wife, his sons and daughters. The poor widows. Who would feed them all if he left?

The next day after the evening meal, Zebedee goes to see his rabbi, who is actually a friend of Jesus. The two rabbis—Jesus and rabbi Josephus—have spent long hours talking theology, dissecting ideas from the Torah, thinking about what God is like. Rabbi Josephus is a lot like Jesus, in that they are both interested in justice, and fairness, and following God.

Josephus says he wishes he could have followed Jesus, but he has a wife and children, responsibilities for a congregation, a school where he teaches the boys to read.

Zebedee agrees and names all the reasons Josephus can’t go, and all the reasons he’s needed here. If there is no local rabbi, who will perform weddings and funerals, lead the high holy days, give counsel? He talks about how God doesn’t call everyone to just up and leave work and family and go someplace for a week, a month, a lifetime.

Josephus is silent and smiles.

The words Zebedee has just spoken come back to him and to his own life.

If the nets aren’t mended, how will the workers fish?  And if the fishing is abandoned, how will people eat?

It wasn’t that Jesus’ call didn’t extend to Zebedee. It’s that Zebedee was called to stay put, to mend nets, to fish.

The next day Zebedee fishes, then he sits at the dock with the workers, mending nets and talking. He misses his sons so much his chest aches. He is also more than a little envious of their adventurous calling.

Yet his own call continues. He is mending, fishing, feeding. He goes home this night to his wife and his other children. He stops along the way to share food with the widows.

Left behind? 

Yes. Of course.

Sometimes we are left behind. For a purpose.

To pray, to work, to love, to do. img-0088-lr-altered-copyright-low-blog-1-16-17

 

© 2017 Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | January 9, 2017

Where are you staying?

Whenever I invite people over, I check the house—at least the public parts. Is everything relatively neat and clean? Laundry hanging anywhere? Kitchen counters cleared? Magazines and books straightened? If people show up unexpectedly, they get what they get, and it might not be pretty. I could even be embarrassed that things aren’t as perfect as I’d like them to appear.

In one of this particular gospel writer’s teaching techniques, John has his characters answer a question with a question. As a couple of disciples begin to tail Jesus after his baptism, this happens:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” [from John 1]

Then Jesus invites them to “come and see.”

We have only our imaginations to guess what they find when they visit Jesus at home.

It is likely the Sabbath, because it appears they stay overnight. Do they see him interacting with family? Hosting the Sabbath meal? Praying over the food? Singing a psalm? Laughing at a joke? Telling stories? Do they see him sharing leftovers with the poor? Talking to unclean people on the way home? Talking about what to do about a widowed neighbor or a depressed friend? Do they hear some of his teaching, or is just seeing how he lives on a random day life-changing enough?

Whatever they experience, it is interesting or moving enough for them to tell some others about it, and to give them the same invitation to come and see.

So I wonder.

What would people see if they came on short notice to my home? Or to yours?

© 2017, Melissa Bane Sevier img_8897-crop-altered-copyright-low

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