Recognizing the Sacred In and Beyond the Stories We Tell: the Baptism of Jesus

Joshua bell Subway1In this sermon, I attempt a method of interpretation which places one story beside another in order to reveal the sacred. The modern legend of Joshua Bell playing Bach in the subway told alongside the story of the baptism of Jesus provides epiphanies about the sacred in the other and begs questions about the way in which we tell our stories.  This sermon was preached last year in the wake of tragic events in Paris. Listen to the sermon here

In April of 2007 an article appeared in the Washington Post, which earned its author, Gene Weingarten, a self-described “heathen” a Pulitzer Prize. The story went virile and over the years I have read and heard all sorts of sermons that include a version of the story loosely based on Weingarten’s article. For reasons, which I hope, will become clear, I’d like to quote Weingarten’s article without any of the usual embellishments.

“HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant. Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment? 

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant.

The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”

Some of you may recognize this article and those of you who do will know that the violinist was Joshua Bell. In the course of his article, Weingarten goes on to describe the complexity and the beauty of the 6 classical pieces that the virtuoso Bell played, which included masterpieces from Bach, Massenet, Schubert, Ponce, and Mendelssohn. What happened in the Washington Metro station is the stuff that legends are made of. If you read or hear this story from the 169,000 posts on the web, you will read a fairly consistent tale, which lends itself well to repetition and is the stuff great sermons are made of. However, in the retelling of this story, the details have been exaggerated in order to make a point.

There is a video of the events, which took place, so the facts can be checked. But when have we ever let facts get in the way of a good story; especially when we are trying to make a moral point. In the popular version of this story, the greatest violinist on the planet, played for 45 minutes and thousands and thousands of busy rush hour commuters passed by without paying any notice what so ever, except for one middle aged man, who slowed down and paused for just 6 seconds, later a women threw a dollar in Bell’s violin case. The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year-old boy. His mother dragged him along, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head al the time. This action was repeated by several children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on. In the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 6 people stopped and paid any attention, 20 tossed money as they hurried by. No One applauded and no one recognized Joshua bell.

Joshua Bell subwayThese are the details of this popular myth. However, the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize winning article and the videotape tell a more modest story. Exactly 1,097 people passed by, not thousands and thousands. Several people stopped and paid quite a bit of attention; one woman was heard to say that she really didn’t want to leave. As for the child, he managed to delay his mother for only 3 seconds, no other children appear on the video to take any notice and Joshua Bell was in fact recognized by a woman who couldn’t believe her good fortune and waited around until Bell’s magnificent performance was over to introduce herself to Bell before placing a twenty-dollar bill in his violin case. For his virtuoso performance Joshua Bell earned a grand total of $52.17 and a legend was born. Despite the exaggerated details in this legend, the essence of truth remains: One of the greatest violin players alive today, played some of the best music ever written, on one of the best violins in the world, and most of the people who where there that day never even noticed.

When I read the stories about the Baptism of Jesus, I get the impression that something similar has happened to this myth. The fantastic details as they are told by the gospel-story-teller known to us as Mark are pretty incredible. I don’t mean the characterization of John the Baptizer who is described as wearing camels’ hair and a leather belt around his waist, and who ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. According to the gospel-story-teller we know as Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by this wild-baptizer John. Immediately upon coming out of the, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favour rests.”

Granted the other gospel-storytellers known to us as Matthew and Luke tell a similar story. But New Testament scholars tell us that they based their stories on Mark’s story which itself was written some 40 to 50 years after the event. There’s no videotape, so we have no idea what happened and none of the stories we do have were written by people who were actually there. Besides, even the stories themselves, say that Jesus alone saw the Spirit descending and heard the voice. In fact a careful reading of the account in Luke reveals that John the Baptist was actually in Herod’s jail when Jesus was baptized. But then, we know that this story is not to be taken literally. Rather than asking did this actually happen the way that it is written we can learn more if we ask, “Why did the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus baptism the way in which they told it?”

Well I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday, when I put the story about Joshua Bell and the Baptism of Jesus together. I told you before of the ancient practice of putting two stories side by side so that one story can interpret the other. Well suppose for a moment you were one of the busy commuters who passed by an opportunity to hear Bell’s virtuoso performance. How would you tell that story? Would you tinker with the videotaped account? Would you alter the details? Or upon hearing about the true identity of the street musician you’d previously ignored, would you tell the story in a way that would encourage others not to do what you did? Would you tell the story so as to encourage people to slow down and notice the beauty that is in front of them? Would you do what 169,000 posts on the Web have done and exaggerate the details in such a way as to point out that at least the children could hear the beauty and encourage people to stop and pay attention to their surroundings, to recognize the person who is in front of them?

Now suppose you are the gospel storyteller known to us as Mark. Remember this Mark wrote his story after the year 70 when the Jewish world in Palestine has fallen apart. The Temple has been destroyed. The Romans are at war with the Jewish people. Thousands of people have been slaughtered. The air is thick with death. Violence, rape, murder and executions are the order of the day. Hundreds and hundreds of rotting corpses hang upon the trees upon which they have been crucified. Historian James Carroll describes the context in which the gospel-story-tellers wrote their stories as the first Jewish holocaust. Somehow you have heard the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and the you have experienced the power of his teaching; wisdom that the Romans could not kill and you want to get across to the people who are suffering that there is another way to respond to this terror that is being inflicted upon them every day. You’ve heard the story of John the Baptist and his call to the people to repent under treat of hell-fire and damnation. You’ve also heard about Jesus teaching about God who is LOVE and about a way of responding to one’s enemies, which does not include violence.

You’ve heard, believed and experience the kin-dom of God of which Jesus taught and you want to tell the story of Jesus so that you community can hear, believe and experience this kin-dom of God in ways that will nourish, ground and sustain them in all that is to come. So you tell your the story in ways that will make it clear who and what Jesus was. I mean even the day that he went down to the river to be baptized, why it was as if the heavens opened, and God’s very spirit came into Jesus. His own disciples didn’t recognize who it was who was in their midst, but surely you can see that Jesus was a child of God. Surly, you can see that resisting the Romans is only going to cause more violence, more pain, and more heartache.

Jesus passion for LOVEing people extended to his enemies. Jesus taught a different way of responding. Surely you can see, that the love of God embodied in Jesus is the Way the truth and the life. So, if the gospel-story-tellers wrote their stories about Jesus the way they did, to ensure that their listeners could recognize God in their midst, what can we learn from the way in which these stories have been written?

I’d like to suggest that we begin with baptism. We can start by setting aside all the things that we have been taught about baptism. Let’s set aside all those things we have been taught about the far off elsewhere God and open ourselves to the Mystery that lies at the very heart of reality, God who is bigger than our images; God who is LOVE. For a moment, let’s resist the temptation to personify God.

Let’s also remember that humans didn’t appear on this earth in some perfect form only to fall from grace and into sin. Let’s remember that humans evolved and are continuing to evolve. So, that means we can set aside the idea of original sin. Yes humans are sinful, but our sin comes out of our incompleteness and our struggles to evolve, not because we fell from grace. So, we set aside the idea of baptism being a ritual drowning, or cleansing and simply return to the basic facts about water.

Water is the very stuff of life. Water is an essential element in the cosmos. Without water life cannot exist. We have and we continue to search the realms of space for evidence of life beyond the Earth. Our forays into space are embodied in a tiny robot searching for signs of water on Mars because we know that where there is water there is life. Our own evolutionary history takes us back to the reality that life began in the oceans and that our reptilian ancestors dragged themselves out of the water and onto the land and the rest as they say is history.

Scientists tell us that our very bodies are comprised of water; more that sixty percent of our bodies is water. We cannot survive for very many days without water. In the beginning, we float in the waters of the womb; our birth is heralded in the breaking of our mother’s waters. Water is in and of itself sacred. Baptism is a ritual expression of what is. Baptism doesn’t bring anything special, but rather, opens us to what is. The waters of baptism open us to that which is beyond us, to the more than; to the sacred. When we bring babies to the waters of baptism, we don’t make them special or holy, or sacred, we ritually recognize that they are special, that they are holy, that they are sacred. In baptism we are reminded of our sacredness.

Baptism is a beautiful welcoming moment in which the full potential of LOVE is glimpsed. All that hope all that potential, I can’t help but well up with joy at the very possibility that all the challenges that Jesus lived his life to teach us about, all the challenges to the way we are, come to us in the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism we see beyond the drops of water to the very stuff that nourishes, grounds and sustains us in this life, and we also see the possibilities of what life might become if we love one another. When the waters of baptism touch the head of a child, they are anointed with possibility, the possibility of love, the possibility of peace, the possibility of joy, and yes the possibility of pain. And all that possibility comes to them in the context of a community that is both renewed by such beautiful potential and refreshed by the challenges of living into that baptism. For the Body into which we are born in the waters of baptism is the is the body of Christ, an incomplete body of imperfect people who are doing their best to follow a path toward a world in which everyone is loved; everyone has enough, and everyone can live in peace.

Just as the gospel-story-tellers crafted stories about Jesus baptism which enabled their people to recognize the sacred in Jesus, we too must craft our stories about baptism in ways that enable us to recognize the sacred in one another and I do mean the other. It is easy to see the sacred in a baby or in a loved one, but how do we see the sacred in the other? How do we see the sacred in the enemy, or on this day of all days, how do we recognize the sacred in the terrorist? How must the way we tell our stories change so that everyone can recognize the sacred? What epiphanies await us? What do we need to do to facilitate epiphanies?

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the events that have transpired in France and wondering what needs to happen in me so that I can begin to recognize the sacred in our enemies? We can’t continue to tell our sacred stories just the way we’ve always told them. Creation needs more than we seem prepared to give. And yet what is being asked of us, was asked of our ancestors and they found ways to open generations to the sacred in their midst. Surely, we can learn to tell our stories, to enact our rituals and to be LOVE to one another in ways that transcend religions, cultures, and old hatreds.

A long time ago, a very dear Sikh, friend of mine, Sarginda Singh, introduced me to the Hindu word, Namaste. Namaste is a greeting which means that the God in me recognizes the God in you. Sarginda, explained to me that we Christians have a similar greeting: Peace be with you. According to Sarginda this is how Christians, say “The Christ in me, greets the Christ in you. Jewish people say, Shalom, and Muslims say Salem a lachum. The God in me, sees the God in you.

I suspect that until we find a way to see the sacred in everyone, humanity will remain stuck in a cycle of violence, which threatens to destroy us all. What do we need to facilitate an epiphany that will allow old enemies to recognize the sacred in one another? Those brothers who carried out such an horrendous massacre where once beautiful babies full of all sorts of potential. What role did our way of life play in their fall into sin? What role does injustice play in our failure to thrive as a species? What steps can we take to facilitate the kind of epiphanies that will allow humanity to evolve beyond our warring madness? People have a habit of not recognizing what’s in front of us.

This past September Joshua Bell returned to the Metro station. This time his way was prepared. Seven years after so many failed to recognize such beauty in their midst and the story had been told in ways that pointed to a missed opportunity. Bell told reporter that, “The whole idea of the original stunt, was for him to show that you need active listeners. There’s two parts to the equation of making music. Bell wanted to show that even though the surroundings were similar, if you have active people who are really there to listen you have a wonderful experience, and it turned out much better than he could have imagined. This time over 1000 people crowed around for a 30 minute concert that included master works from Bach and Mendelssohn. Recognizing the beauty of the artist, the performance, and the music the crowd gave Bell a standing ovation. The scene had been set, the groundwork was done and the beauty of the music was recognized as the sacred gift that it is. What work do we need to do in our world and in our lives so that the sacred in each one is recognized?

Namaste, Peace, Shalom, Salem a lechem, the God in me recognizes the God in you. Namaste.

2 thoughts on “Recognizing the Sacred In and Beyond the Stories We Tell: the Baptism of Jesus

  1. Pingback: Sermons on the Baptism of Jesus | pastordawn

  2. Pingback: The Baptism Page – St. Peter's News

Leave a Reply