|Today’s scripture readings:
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Durham, North Carolina, experienced an alarming uptick in gun-related injuries and deaths. Many organizations went to work trying to address the devastating violence, including the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. In a book called Living without Enemies, the Religious Coalition’s director, Marcia Owen, describes her organization’s approach, and she discusses how their work evolved as they developed a deeper understanding of the problem.
Specifically, she describes how the Religious Coalition began its work by advocating for legislation that would increase penalties for those convicted of gun crimes. The group achieved some success and also experienced a few setbacks. But at the end of the day, Marcia Owen discovered that this legislative approach was flawed from the very beginning. For one thing, while it was true that new laws could make it harder to get a weapon and could punish people more strictly for misusing them, what laws couldn’t do was ask why there were so many guns on the streets in the first place. But there was an even bigger problem. The Religious Coalition began to realize that their methods were focused entirely on lawmakers and the judicial system, rather than on the families most affected by the violence. They realized that they had done all this policy advocacy work without ever once having sought out individuals impacted by gun violence to hear their stories, share their pain, and find out what kinds of solutions they would propose.
So the Religious Coalition adopted a new approach. They started holding vigils to honor the victims of gun crimes, going to the sites of violence and standing side-by-side with the families and neighbors affected in a show of compassion and solidarity. Their surprising discovery was that simply offering their presence to those in pain made a far deeper impact than any legislative advocacy they had attempted previously. They learned that they needed to practice being with people who were suffering. As Owen writes in the book, “We tend to turn everything into a problem ripe for solving. But some things aren’t problems, and some problems cannot simply be fixed.”
She offers the example of someone who is terminally ill. There comes a time when there is nothing left to do, when there is no way to solve the problem. What is really required is “simply being with—staying still, listening, being silent, not having the answers, [but] sharing the struggle, praying together, singing songs and hymns, taking time over meals, recalling stories, remembering messages to pass on. What is needed is not therapy—it’s company. What the dying person is saying is, ‘Please don’t leave me alone.’”
Owen says that “being with [people who are suffering]… means experiencing in your own life something of what it means to be disempowered and oppressed…. It means experiencing in your own body some of the fragility of relationships, self-esteem, and general well-being that are at the heart of [problems like] poverty. It means having the patience not to search around for the light switch, but to sit side by side for a time in the shadows.”
When the Greeks in today’s Gospel lesson come to see Jesus, they too make a surprising discovery. They discover that this Jesus whose fame has spread far beyond his homeland isn’t one who will pass a few new laws to ease the burden on his people; he hasn’t come onto the scene just to score some flashy political victories. Jesus is one who is committed to being with the people, experiencing in his own life and in his own body what it means to be disempowered and oppressed; who transforms the world not through legislation or political advocacy, but by being radically present in the midst of suffering and despair.
You have to wonder about those gentile Greek pilgrims who came to see Jesus. How had they heard about him? Was it the water-into-wine business at the wedding at Cana, or all of those miraculous healings that were creating a buzz throughout the region? Had they heard how he could walk on water and calm storms and even raise people from the dead? Or maybe they just wanted a front-row seat as Jesus confronted the religious establishment and challenged their authority. Just what had these Greeks heard about Jesus? And what were they expecting to see when they found him?
And, who are these Greeks, anyway? There really aren’t any clues in the text that help us understand. The only thing we know for sure is that they don’t belong in this story. They’re outsiders, not part of the Jewish community out of which Jesus’ ministry had emerged. I wonder if these Greeks don’t represent all of us who come seeking Jesus—who come from various backgrounds, with diverse life stories, lugging different kinds of baggage, some of us with great faith and some who wish we had more; people with all sorts of different ideas about who Jesus might be and what we hope to find when we meet him.
We never find out if these Greek visitors actually get to see Jesus, because when the disciples relay their request, Jesus launches into a speech that must have been difficult to bear. He tells them, to paraphrase just a bit, that now that people have started coming from far and wide to see who he is, his work here on earth is almost done. The movement Jesus started has begun capturing people’s attention and soon everyone will want to come and see. Like these Greeks, they’re going to want to know who this Jesus is and what he is all about. And so Jesus sums up the message he’s been trying to teach his disciples from the beginning. This is what he is about: The Son of Man will be glorified by giving into death so that new life can begin. Like a grain of wheat that must die to itself so that it can bear fruit, so Jesus must undergo death so we can discover the truth of resurrection.
Those who come seeking Jesus might be surprised who they find—not one who is powerful in the usual sense of the word, who makes all things right by exercising authority to reform unjust systems and oust corrupt leaders. He doesn’t come to make incremental reforms that move society ever closer to God’s will for humankind. Instead, Jesus dismantles the power of unjust systems by offering his presence. He suffers alongside those who suffer so the burden won’t be so hard to bear. He takes upon himself and experiences in his own life and in his own body the oppression and brutality that have wrought so much pain among his own people so they will know they’re not alone.
When we seek Jesus, that is who we find: one who is with us in our suffering, one whose soul is troubled by what he sees. The reading from Hebrews describes Jesus as a priest who stands with us before God, offering up “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” With us in our suffering, Jesus cries to God, embodying our grief and anguish, isolation and longing, misery and rage. All who mourn, all who are hopeless, all who are poor or oppressed, all who feel themselves to be all alone—their pain is held by Jesus who stands with us and pleads to God on our behalf.
Looking back, Marcia Owen can see that her Religious Coalition’s initial response to gun violence in Durham was based on a flawed understanding of how God is at work in the world. Their early attempts to address the situation through legislation and policy advocacy assumed a God who solves our problems without really meeting us or being with us—a God who solves problems from afar, without any kind of relationship with the people. But that’s not who God is. The God we see in Jesus is one who is with us. As she says, “God manifested in Christ a commitment to be with us in our griefs, our sicknesses, our waywardness, our fears, and our misunderstandings. In hanging for hours on a cross and not coming down as the bystanders and authorities goaded him to do, God showed us in Christ a love that abides, that perseveres, that remains present to us, however bad things are, for however long it takes; a love that sticks around, a love that stays put, a love that hangs on.” When we come seeking Jesus and find him on the cross, that’s what we see: a love that hangs on, however bad things are, for however long it takes. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Dan Clendenin, “Man of Sorrows,” on Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20150316JJ.shtml.
Paul Simpson Duke, “Hebrews 5:5-10: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Living without Enemies: Bring Present in the Midst of Violence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 2011).