Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 21, 2021
Based on John 12:20-33 “We Wish to See Jesus: A Story”
The crowd is over-whelming. People jostling one another, shouting to their friends, loud laughter, children running around. The air is filled with the dust kicked up by the feet of thousands of people and animals wandering the city. The smell of food cooking over open flames, some of it familiar and some of it exotic, is tantalizing. We are tempted to stop, but we know that if we do the opportunity we have come for may never present itself again.
We scan the crowd, looking for a face we saw earlier. With the crush of people we begin to worry that this may be futile. There are too many people, too many faces, each one blending in with the next. But, then, by luck or chance, there he is. We weave our way through the crowd, excited. As we get closer we catch his eye and he watches us cautiously. We raise our hands in greeting. We were told this man is from Bethsaida, and we hope that is true. Bethsaida is a region where many languages are spoken, so if we are going to be understood, our best chance is with him.
“Are you Philip from Bethsaida?” we ask him.
He nods, his caution even stronger now.
“Sir, we were told that you travel with the man Jesus. People everywhere are talking about him, even all the way to where we live. We were in the crowd when he arrived in the city, but we couldn’t get close to him. Will he be speaking? Is there somewhere we can go to listen to him? We wish to see Jesus.”
Philip considers us for a moment, clearly trying to understand our motives. We don’t take it personally. The city may be a place of celebration right now, but it is still not safe here. The Roman guards are everywhere, watching. We know that Philip is wondering if we are spies.
But after a long few moments, finally Philip nods again and motions us to follow him. We work our way through the crowd once more, a few steps behind him. He stops for a moment to whisper in the ear of another man, who looks at us suspiciously, but doesn’t say anything. He begins walking with Philip and the two men lead us to a clearing. As the crowd thins, we finally see the person we came looking for.
Jesus is sitting on a small stone bench. His clothes are worn and dirty, but his eyes are bright and clear. There is a group of people surrounding him: women, children, people who are clearly sick, and some who look like their lives have been nothing but one adversity after another. Off to the side, not in the group but clearly listening, is a gathering of well-dressed men. From their clothes we can tell they are the religious elite, the ones who set the rules and who tell people what is right and what is wrong. They aren’t even trying to hide the looks of disgust on their faces as they survey the group Jesus has surrounded himself with. A group of Roman guards stand near them – their faces impassive but their eyes fixed on Jesus and their hands rested on their weapons.
Philip and his friend walk up to Jesus and lean over to whisper something in his ear. Jesus looks over at us and without hesitating, waves us over and motions for us to take seat in the midst of the group.
Those around Jesus make space for us and we settle in. Jesus looks at us and with a smile says, “You wish to see me?”
“Yes, Teacher,” we say. “We have heard of you and have heard about your teachings. We are from far away, and we believe differently than you, but we have traveled here because we want to learn more.”
Jesus regards us for a moment, as does the others in the group around us.
Finally, he says, “Your souls are troubled.” It isn’t a question.
“Yes, Teacher, our souls are deeply troubled.” Our voice catches in our throats, and the emotion flooding through us is surprising. Indeed, our souls our deeply troubled.
Jesus nods, never taking his eyes off of us. He doesn’t question, he doesn’t judge – he simply allows our troubles room to be. In the silence, our emotions begin to settle.
“Tell me why,” Jesus asks of us. Still, not questioning, not judging, just a desire to hear what compelled us to travel all this way to sit at his feet.
All of the sudden, without thought or hesitation, we find ourselves talking fast. We tell Jesus about the division and violence and disease and fear that we are encountering every day. We tell him about the storms causing destruction and hurting the most vulnerable over and over again. We tell him about the division of beliefs that are ripping our families apart and the deep distrust we feel whenever we encounter someone who doesn’t think just like we do. We tell him about the poor being taxed and the rich having their taxes reduced, creating such deep inequality that the poor have fewer and fewer chances of living a full life, and yet are still blamed for their poverty. We tell him of the violence against women and foreigners and those whom some religious authorities say are not worthy of life. We tell him of the illness sweeping through the people, killing without regard. And we tell him of the cure that is being hoarded by the rich. We tell him that it is easier to get a weapon than it is to get fresh food and healthcare. We tell him everything.
And we tell him that we are afraid it will always be like this, that even though we want to make our world a better place, we want to protect our neighbors, we want everyone to be seen as equal, we want to do good – the injustice, the fear, and the privilege of the few are making it seemingly impossible.
We tell him everything until we are exhausted and our voices are raw. We empty ourselves out, and feel relieved of a burden. But we know that the relief will be short lived and soon the troubles will begin to settle back in. Soon our souls will be burdened again and so we have traveled to see this man because we don’t know what else to do.
Jesus never takes his eyes off of us. He doesn’t pull back in fear or impatience. He doesn’t wave away our troubles or make excuses. He simply looks straight at us, maybe right through our surfaces into a deep part of ourselves that we are afraid to look at. He takes us in, all that we are, and we know, we intrinsically know, that we are not being judged, we are simply being seen.
After a long moment, Jesus takes a deep breath. Finally he says, “My soul is deeply troubled too. And just like you, part of me wants to pray to the Creator to take us away from this hour, to rescue us from this life, to turn away all of the trouble that presses in on us. But we must not escape that which troubles us. We must not ignore it or pretend it doesn’t matter. The Creator has made us to be connected to one another, not separated by anything. But the Creator has also given us a choice. We can choose to stay safe and not worry about anything that doesn’t effect us personally. We can choose to look at those whose homes are destroyed by extreme weather and simply be relieved it wasn’t us. We can choose to hear stories of women being killed and do nothing but tell the women we love to stay locked inside. We can choose to hate those who don’t think like we do. We can choose to not to worry about the poor as long as we have access to everything we need, including a cure for a disease. We can choose to not see ourselves as connected to one another.
“But, my Beloved Community, the Creator wants us to choose differently. The Creator sent me to show you what it means to live in community with one another. I am here to show you the possibility of another choice. But the only way for that choice to be made is for us to die.”
This startled us. We have to die? That is not the Good News we were hoping for. We begin to shift uncomfortably in our seats and are tempted to look away from Jesus. But, his face stays calm and peaceful. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of seeds.
Jesus begins to speak again. “When we look at a seed before we place it in the ground, we see nothing but a hard shell. It looks lifeless, useless even. When we hold a bunch of them in our hands they bump up against each other, their shells keeping them separated – the life inside of them untouched and alone. But, we know that once they are planted, their shells break open and life springs from them. They connect with the world around them, their roots becoming intermingled as they find nourishment from the earth. They grow and thrive and eventually give life. But, first their lives inside the hard shell keeping them separated from the everything else must end. That life must die before a new life can begin.
“We must be like the seeds. We must die to the lives that keep us separated from one another, and from our Creator. We must die to this life of division, prejudice, injustice, and fear. We must die to this life in order for a new life to begin. That new life, which is promised to all of us from our Creator, is one that gives us no option but to be interconnected. A life in which we can only thrive when those around us thrive. A life in which we can only live fully by sharing those nutrients that feed us. We may think the shells protect us, but instead they keep us from living our full lives, the lives the Creator hopes for us.
“When we choose to die to the life of division and instead live a life of connection then we choose differently. We choose to feel the pain of others, knowing that it hurts us too but also gives us strength to bring healing. We choose to see the violence done to one is done to all, and know that until all are safe, none are. We choose to share the cure for disease with everyone, because health is not finite, in fact health grows when shared. We choose to see injustice done to one is injustice done to all and we stand up and speak out in the face of it.
“The Creator did not create us to live in shells, but rather to flourish outside of them.”
Jesus stops talking now, and places the seeds in his hands into the ground. He covers them with dirt and pours the water from his own flask over the mound of earth. And before our eyes, green shoots of life break from the soil, nourished by the water of Christ and kissed by the warm light of the Creator.
For the first time we draw our eyes away from Jesus and instead looked at those around us. We see the women, the children, the sick, the poor, the hungry, the foreigner, the Roman guards. We see them all, and begin to feel the shells breaking. It is both frightening and wonderful at the same time. We are frightened because we feel the pain of our neighbors in a new and real way. But, at the same time, we feel the strength from the connection – we feel their strength and knew they feel ours. Our souls are still troubled, but they are also stronger because we no longer face those troubles alone.
We know it will be a choice we will have to make over and over again. But the words of Jesus nourished us, just as the water from him nourished the seeds that were now growing bigger and bearing fruit. We dedicate ourselves to remembering his words, to sharing them with those we encounter, to nourish others with them. And we dedicate ourselves to using his words to compel us to action – to draw us closer to our neighbors, not only to mingle their pain with ours, but to work to ease that pain together.
We turn our eyes back to Jesus. “Teacher, tell us how to begin.”
He looks at us, all of us, and says, “Begin with prayer…”
Glorious Creator, we come before You both humble and yet earnest. We open ourselves to You in prayer, risking all that we know ourselves to be to fall into a full relationship with you. We crack the shells around us and ask that You nourish the life within, a life You have promised and a life we seek.
As we pray, we repent of all the times and ways we have turned away from the troubles of this world. We confess that we too often choose not to be bothered. We confess that we too often say that problem is too big for us to even try to solve. We confess this and at the same time feel Your grace. We have been taught by our Teacher that we are so much more than we could have possibly imagined, and now we turn in prayer to You to begin to be nourished for living that life into reality.
God of Grace and God of Love, today we pray for those who are afraid and grieving. We pray for our Asian-American neighbors who are being hunted. We pray for women who know they are not safe. We pray for those on the border, seeking a life of safety and abundance. We pray for those who are sick and for those who are lonely. We pray for those seeking to do good in this world, and God we pray for those whose lives have been overrun by prejudice and hatred. Just as we pray for Your comfort for those we love, we also pray for Your comfort for those who do harm. Everyone is in need of Your love, healing, and grace.
And God, finally, we pray for ourselves. We pray that we choose over and over again to keep our shells broken open to those around us, even when it makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. We pray for Your courage and Your strength to build us up and help us move forward. We know that You never leave us alone, and for this we are so grateful.
We pray all of this and so much more in the name of our Teacher, Jesus the Christ. And we pray together in the way he taught by saying…Our Father…