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.” Continue reading