See One Another
June 14, 2017
By Rev. Ashley Renée Johnson, from her remarks from the annual BMCR luncheon
One. One. It is typically the first number that we ever encounter. It is the number after zero and before two. I’m not a necessarily a mathematician, but I know it is the first odd number; it’s strange. It is not a composite number, and it is not a prime number because its only positive divisor is itself. (I know it’s early, but won’t that preach? The number one’s only positive divisor is itself. That is, we are the only ones that can divide ourselves; we are the only ones that will get in the way of our oneness.) One. It represents a unit; a solitary entity. The number one is a number unlike any other. It is a unique number. It is an extraordinarily powerful number. And Jesus earnestly prayed that we, you and I, would be just that. One.
We, through the seventeenth chapter of the book of John, have the opportunity to eavesdrop on a semi-private exchange happening between God the Son and God the Parent. In verses 20 – 21 we find these words: “I ask not only on behalf of these, [He’s talking about the disciples there.] but, also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” The conversation seems so personal, and the act of reading the words that give voice to Christ’s deepest desires so intrusive, that I almost feel like I should look away. But, I just can’t and we don’t have to. You see, at this point Jesus is on his way out. He has spent his days doing a tremendous amount of work, and a tremendous amount of traveling to teach and to heal others. He has left his disciples with instructions...with marching orders and now he turns to God knowing the incomparable peace and meaningful change that such a conversation will bring about. He confirms that what He had set out to do has been done, and then (this blows my mind every time) Jesus prays for us. He prays for us. Oh, what love! I mean, He’s Jesus. In his very name, there is power. Yet, Jesus the all-powerful one is intentional about taking the time to make His supplications known to God. I’m pretty sure that in some respects as a member of the trinity, He could just make it happen. But instead He essentially says, this is way too important to me. Father, God, I need your help with this one. And, not allowing this important petition to slip through any crack, Jesus says, “Help them to be one, like you and I are one.” Jesus prayed for us ya’ll. We were on Jesus’ mind. What’s more is he didn’t pray for just our individual well beings...He loves us way too much. As his crucifixion loomed in the distance, and with an understanding that he would soon be deserted by his very own, He prayed. And he prayed for our bond...our unity because even Jesus knew that no one can do this, life, alone. Jesus understood the power of one. There is power in being one. And, there is there is infinitely more power in being one, then in being number one.
Now, if we fast forward to the crucifixion, and to the nineteenth chapter of the book of John where we are presented with some of the last words that Jesus uttered from the cross, I believe that we can see this same prayer for oneness in a different light. Verses 26 and 27 read, “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” I know that’s a jump, but when Jesus looked to God and prayed, “Help them to be one, like you and I are one.” and later looked to his mother and the disciple that he loved and prayed, “Woman, behold thy son!” and “Behold thy mother!” He was being clear about what oneness looks like.
Jesus saw them. He had spent his days extending radical love to all and now he was being killed, slowly for taken up the project of liberation, and he saw them. He was being tortured, tortured by his oppressors in the most heinous way possible, but Jesus saw them. They had done everything that they could to psychologically ruin him, and now he was being physically destroyed, yet Jesus saw them. Breathing, breathing was literally killing – perhaps Jesus was saying in his mind what Mr. Eric Garner said aloud “I can’t breathe.” – breathing was literally killing him because each time he needed to exhale while on that cross, he would have the incredibly difficult task of pulling or pushing his body up in order to expel air and, and still Jesus saw them.
“Woman, here is your son.” Then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” You see, as he spoke these words that were oozing with hope for the future life of the faith community, Jesus, who at this point was a broken bloody mess, extended a simple yet challenging invitation to us all; a challenge that we must accept if we are serious about living into this oneness. Jesus said to his mother, to the disciple he loved, and to all of us see one another. See. One. Another.
We all desire to be seen. A desire to be seen, to be known escorts us all through life. “We Wear the Mask” and we long for someone to know, to understand what lies beneath. We all long for others to understand our heart and our dreams. We all long for others to know our worth and that we matter. We all long for others to see us, but ironically it is our fear of being seen that so frequently gets in the way of this happening. That is, we know for a fact that if we allow others to see into us and to the greatness that is in us, that they will also see our struggles and our brokenness. They will see that we really don’t have it all together.
So, we don’t allow ourselves to be seen. And because of that, we can’t truly see one another. And, we’re not really trying all that hard too either. The lure of social media, the charm of modern technology, and the ability we have to get every answer that we think we need from the all-knowing one, Google, can convince us to direct our devotion to our devices and hide behind the walls that separate us from those who are nearest to us. So, we end up seeing through one another instead of seeing one another.
And church folk, we’re not exempt. I don’t know about y’all but sometimes, scratch that a lot of the time I use intimacy with God or the need to spend time in the word of God or the urgency to do the work of God (which all too often means rushing off to make sure that the pastries are organized just right for coffee hour, or checking and answering emails); I use that work as an excuse to avoid putting effort into intimacy, true intimacy with people; people who are beautiful and complex and different just like me; people who have stories that will reach out and touch my very heart. It’s much safer that way. God won’t misunderstand me. God won’t harm me. God will never leave me. But, people might. That’s what I tell myself and it’s true, but I wish someone would have told me earlier that when we don’t allow ourselves to be seen and when we don’t see one another…when we can’t really see one another, we can’t see God.
There is a traditional Zulu greeting that captures this sentiment, this pathway to oneness so beautifully. Sawubona. I’ve heard that the Zulu greeting sawubona means,“we see you.” If you have seen the movie Avatar, you may already have an image in your mind for what this exchange looks like. For centuries when Zulu people encountered one another, they paused, they looked each other directly in the eye for several seconds and then they said “we see you.” That is, they acknowledged, they caused themselves to remember one another’s humanity and fragility. This kind of greeting is fundamentally different from our flat, “How are you doing?” “Good. How are you?” exchanges. They pause and look and then say “we see you” to confirm that they see each other; to confirm that they have called to mind their shared humanity. Seeing is a dialogue; a dialogue that is the first step to oneness.
Jesus saw them. He said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” See one another, see one another is what Jesus was saying. And when he said these words, Jesus was making an effort to provide for his mother. Mary, was probably widowed by this time which means that it was very likely that she had little or no personal income and to be a woman with little or no personal income was and is a very vulnerable position to be in. Jesus was trying to protect her. Jesus was saying to Mary and to the disciple, and to us embrace and protect each other.
In the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, we find these instructions “Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Jesus was being executed by fixation to the cross, excruciating pain was shooting through his body and still, and still he saw, perceived, and recognized the needs of others. Nails that were probably driven between his wrist bones insisted that his buckling arms bear the weight of his entire body, and still he defend the oppressed. Not only that, he did everything that he could in that moment, everything in his power to see and to protect his mother, to protect other vulnerable people. He was oppressed, but his being oppressed did not excuse him from defending and protecting other people.
You’ve heard the old adage, “Hurt people, hurt people.” As oppressed people, it is hard not to adopt the oppressive elements of the society that we live in. As oppressed people, we are particularly vulnerable to the conniving ways of the beasts of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism. But, Jesus shows us that there is a better way. We have got to see one another. And, as faith leaders we are charged with creating opportunities for the folks in our communities to listen deeply to one another.
In a society where so many people are in pain, in a church where so many of our brothers and sisters are in pain there is no hierarchy of oppression...there is no hierarchy of oppression and we cannot be silent about that which dehumanizes our siblings just because we think that ain’t our problem. It has been said that, “In the end what’s remembered is not only the words of enemies, but the silence of friends.” We have got to see one another and we have got to protect the humanity of others whose ways of being in this world are different from our own. Don’t you know that sometimes...sometimes it is easier to love one another than it is to truly see one another. Sometimes it is easier to see and focus on the hurting people that are far away and harder to see and empathize with the hurting people who are near us.
As black Methodists, we know historically and in the present moment what it is like “to be [both] in an out of a fellowship in an institution where inclusiveness should not be debatable at all. This very caucus, the BMCR was birthed out of the all black, segregated conference, the Central Jurisdiction which was the church’s way of saying there is no proper seat at the table for folks like you. We know how it feels to be treated as if the black church is just the white church in black face when the needs of our people are distinct. We know how hard we have to work to hang on to our humanity, and it hurts. God, knows that we are hurting and that our children are hurting. But, we must continue to become that radical form of community that was called for beneath the cross of Jesus Christ. Family means that no one, no one gets left behind cause no one is free until we are all free. We have got to see one another.
So, let’s take the time to pause and look one another in the eyes and say “we see you” and ask ‘how are you really doing?’ and let’s listen to the stories of others and generously share our own. Stories not statistics chip away at that which divides us, stories not statistics touch hearts. Right now, we have got to hear each other’s stories and we’ve got to make sure that we’re not only listening to the stories of folk who look just like us, who live like us, and who think just like us.
And, let’s ask one another that powerful question that our caretakers asked us when we were children and they saw the signs of there being something that wasn’t quite right in our eyes. You know the question. Perhaps you can even recall the relief that it brings. Where does it hurt? What if we slowed down long enough to ask one another, ‘Where does it hurt?’ We have got to see one another and ask these sorts of questions because genuine human connection is how we will transform the world. Let’s affirm and honor the sacredness of one another because when we see each other and our differences we see God through one another.
May God help us to see one another, to listen deeply to one another, and to protect one another by advocating for justice, inclusion, and peace for everyone. Only when we see one another will we be able to be one enough to see each other through the uncertain days that are ahead.
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- Whereabouts: a United Methodist Travelogue