Seeing God in the Subway Station, and Beyond

(sermon 12/11/16 – Third Sunday in Advent)

violinist-in-subway

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

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Last week, we heard a bit about John the Baptist, and now we hear about him again this week. But last week, he was out in the Jordan River preaching and baptizing people, and this week he’s sitting in prison. Obviously, there’s some middle part of this story that’s missing, so to keep us all up to speed, here’s a very brief summary of what’s happened between the two.

As we heard last week, John could be pretty harsh, even insulting, to people. And he wasn’t just that way with the people who came out to hear him in person; he also took the same heavy-handed approach to the powerful people who ruled over the land. In particular, he’d heaped public scorn on the head of Herod Antipas, the ruler of that region. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the incredibly powerful and ruthless man who had been king when Jesus and John were born. Herod Antipas had an older brother, who was also named Herod – Herod II, who was a ruler in an adjacent region. The older brother had a wife, named Herodias, who, as you might guess from her name, was also a part of Herod’s extended family. Herodias divorced Herod II, an act that was scandalous in that male-dominated culture. Following that, Herod Antipas divorced his wife, so he could marry Herodias, which would have raised eyebrows even now, but which was certainly scandalous back then. Frankly, Antipas wasn’t all that great a ruler, and he wasn’t all that well-liked to begin with, and he was more than a bit insecure and thin-skinned about that fact. So when John the Baptist laid into him because of all this business with Herodias, making him look even worse in the public eye, he had to do something about it. John didn’t have any problem “speaking truth to power,” as we might say today. But it was as true then as it is today, that when you speak truth to power, the power is still the power; and the truth can indeed hurt, and when it does, it can end up hurting the truth-teller as much as anyone else. Antipas didn’t have a Twitter account and couldn’t just tweet out some insult to try to discredit John; and even if he had, he needed to send a stronger message than that to show the people who was in charge – so he had John arrested and thrown into prison.

So now here was John, cooling his jets in prison, and with all that time on his hands, he appears to have started having second thoughts. As strong and unwavering as his preaching had been, and as certain he’d been that Jesus was the messiah, now he wondered. If Jesus really were the messiah, ushering in the Kingdom of God, why were the Romans, and their lackeys like Herod’s children, still occupying and controlling the land? And frankly, why was John sitting there in jail? Had he actually bet on the wrong horse? Was Jesus not the messiah? Had all of his life, all of his work, just been a big mistake? So he sent word to Jesus, asking him point-blank: are you really God’s chosen one?

And Jesus answers John’s direct question with a typical, indirect Jesus-answer. He tells John, look around you; what do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed – all of the things that were foretold in the scriptures that would happen with the ushering in of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells John that the answer to the question is right in front of his eyes; he just has to pay attention to it, and believe that it’s a sign of the hand of God acting in the world.

How many times do we fall into the same thing that John the Baptist did? So often, the immediate circumstances that we find ourselves in can keep us from seeing the reality of what’s really going on. It’s easy enough to see the bad, and what’s wrong, in the world – but how often do we allow that to keep us from seeing the bigger picture, truly seeing the hand of God, and real goodness, and beauty, and joy, in so much of what surrounds us?

He stood in the main entry of the subway station just as the morning rush was beginning, nondescript in his jeans, leather jacket, and ball cap. Leaning down, he took his violin out of its case, and he started to play, just like all the other performers scattered throughout the station who were hoping that some thoughtful commuters would like what they heard and leave them a few bills for their effort. He kept playing, as people hurried by, paying him little if any attention at all. Eventually, one person dropped some money in the open violin case as they hurried toward the turnstile, hardly slowing down as they did. A few more people stopped to hear a few seconds of his music, and some of them left him some cash, too, before they, like everyone else, lost interest and went on about their business. After all, it was just another day in the lives of the people who scurried past him; just another day in the station.

Except it wasn’t just another day. Because he wasn’t just another subway station musician. He was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, and his instrument wasn’t something picked up in a pawn shop; it was the very well-storied, well-traveled, multimillion-dollar Gibson Stradivarius. Just a few days before, concertgoers had paid serious money to hear Bell’s virtuosity. Here, he and his music were all but invisible.

Maybe you’ve seen that story online, or maybe you’ve even heard another sermon make mention of it; it seems to be a favorite story for preachers to use. In any case, it wasn’t that the people going by were stupid, or culturally ignorant, or uncaring. For all anyone knows maybe some of those same concertgoers had walked by and never given him a second glance. It’s just that the people going by were operating under a set of preconceptions that kept them from experiencing the magical thing that was going on right in front of them. They allowed their surroundings, and precedent, to shape and put meaning to the things they were experiencing, instead of recognizing them for what they really were. Subway stations are full of musicians. They’re a dime a dozen; if they were really any good, they probably wouldn’t be playing in subway stations for tips.

They weren’t allowing themselves to see thing for themselves, as the things that they really were. They hadn’t allowed themselves to be open to see the beauty of the moment, and to appreciate what God was allowing to be taking place right in front of them.

As we go through our days, especially during this Advent season, let’s try to be especially aware of the hand of God that’s playing out around us all the time, every day. It’s this whole idea of intentionally preparing our hearts this way, and allowing ourselves to adjust our mindsets to the possibility of God’s presence in the world, why we observe a season of Advent before rushing right into the celebration of Christmas. Sometimes, people ask about whether it’s really true, this idea of “God with Us”, as we talk about, especially at this time of year? If, in our own darkest of moments, like John’s dark moment in that prison cell, we sent word to Jesus asking if God really is with us, what kind of answer would he give us? Maybe one like the answer he gave to John. Look around you – what do you see? See the joy in the faces and laughter of children playing. Or in the faces of someone enjoying beautiful music, or making beautiful music, or engaging in some other artistic expression. See the joy of a parent making dinner for their family, or baking cookies with their grandchildren. Feel the joy of a loving hand being slipped into our own, or of giving or receiving a comforting hug. Remember the joy that you feel in those times when you’re just being silly, acting in ways that someone your age isn’t supposed to, but who cares, it’s fun anyway. Remember the joy that you feel when you’ve worked so hard to learn something, and you finally accomplish it.

I think that Jesus would say that if we kept our eyes, and our hearts, open to the possibility of seeing God in the midst of our existence, we’d see it, all over the place. We’d know the answer to our own question.

This season, when we proclaim to the world – and sometimes, to our own partially-doubting selves, too – that God is here, God is with us, let’s try to remember, with God’s help, to keep our eyes open to see the reality of that great truth. Let’s try to keep our hearts open to the joy that comes with it. Who knows? Someday, maybe we’ll experience that joy by encountering a world-famous violinist playing music in a subway station. Or maybe, far more likely, we’ll experience the very same thing as we sing, for the umpteenth time, of a nameless little drummer boy playing music in a stable.

Thanks be to God.

What Do You See? (sermon 12/15/13)

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When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

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There’s a beat-up old desk that sits in the library of Pittsburgh Theological seminary. The finish is half worn off, and the veneer is missing in places. Along the back edge of its top, there’s a console full of little pigeonholes and drawers and recesses to hold all sorts of accessories. There’s really nothing very remarkable about the desk at all; under different circumstances, it would have been carted off to the dump years ago But what makes this desk so special is that it used to be the writing desk of the great theologian Karl Barth, who lived and worked in Germany in the years leading up to World War II – and who was arguably the most important theologian of the 20th century. This ratty old desk has become a kind of a shrine, with people sometimes traveling for miles just to see it and get their picture taken with it. This was the desk that Barth used to write volume after volume of deep, profound books. And his essays denouncing Hitler and calling for the church to stand up against the Nazis. And the amazing confession of faith that’s part of our own Book of Confessions, the Barmen Declaration. All these works that changed the landscape of modern Christianity were written on the leather-padded top of this old desk. You can just imagine Barth, and his younger protégé, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, sitting around this desk, their glasses of beer leaving water stains on its top, while they discussed deep matters of the faith. For my own part, when I was attending seminary there in Pittsburgh as a commuting evening student, I’d drive into town, and if I had a little time before classes began, I’d try to catch a nap in the library. There was a little loveseat that actually sat right up against the desk, and I’d usually grab it to catch a few Zs. But the loveseat was too short for my 6-foot frame to stretch out on, so sometimes, if no one else was around, I’d actually stretch my legs out and prop my feet up on the desktop. I suppose if any of the staff had caught me doing that, they’d have expelled me, or maybe even dragged me out into the quad and burned me at the stake.

Well, not far from where my feet rested, propped up on top of the desk, was a painting. This painting used to hang on the wall in Karl Barth’s study, overtop of the desk, and he sometimes made reference to the painting in his writing. It’s a picture of the crucifixion; a really grotesque image of an ugly, beat up Jesus nailed to the cross, the weight of his body hanging down. Even the crossbar of the cross is drooping down, reflecting the pull of his body. To the left of the picture, we see Mary and the apostle John, and at the right, we see John the Baptist. He’s looking at Jesus, and his arm is stretched out and his finger is pointing at Jesus hanging on the cross, as if he’s telling us “Pay attention to this. Focus on this. This is what matters – him, and only him.”

Our gospel text today deals with John the Baptist. Brash, loudmouthed, socially unacceptable John the Baptist. He’s spent his life calling people to repentance, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is about to be unleashed on the world. He’s heard with his own ears God blessing Jesus at his baptism; he’s seen with his own eyes the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Surely, if there were anyone who could be certain, and have no doubts that Jesus was God’s specially chosen one, the Messiah, it would be John the Baptist. But that wasn’t the case, according to this story. During this ministry, John had been kind of a first-century rock star; throngs of people came out to hear him. But now, he’d been thrown into prison because he’d spoken out against the moral shortcomings of King Herod. How could something like this happen if Jesus was really the Messiah? And as far as he could tell, none of the stuff he’d expected a Messiah would do, were happening. The Romans were still in power. The religious leaders were still making a mockery of the religion.

So John sat in his dark, cramped prison cell, frustrated, confused, probably angry, and definitely full of doubt and fear. His mind wandered as he asked himself, over and over again: Had this all been some kind of cruel joke? Had it all been a waste of time? Had he been deluded about Jesus? So he sent word to Jesus, asking for a clear, no BS answer: cut to the chase – are you the Messiah or not?

Maybe it seems a little odd to have a Lectionary passage like this stuck into the advent and Christmas season. We’re looking forward to the birth of Christ, and the hope and joy that his birth brought into the world. We’re all wrapped up in the whirlwind of holiday activities, and continually being reminded of the happiness that the season is supposed to be all about. So why, then, do we look at a gospel passage that focuses on doubt, and confusion, and fear?

Well, maybe it isn’t so odd after all, if you think about it. Even though we’re supposed to be focusing on the joy of the season, every year there’s a measurable increase in people’s feelings of dread, and doubt, and fear in this season. There are more bouts with depression and requests for counseling, and even an increase in suicides. It’s like all the talk of hope and happiness and joy just magnifies the problems that we really have. Most of us have probably felt that way one time or another. We wonder why unexpected negative things happen in our personal lives. Or maybe the life of the church. Or maybe the world in general. And that translates into spiritual doubts and fears. Let’s face it, we’re all modern, scientifically-savvy people. And all this talk about mysterious, magical-sounding events – virgin births, and angels and other heavenly creatures dropping out of the sky singing and scaring the crap out of the shepherds in the fields, and strange stars that move through the sky and then hover overtop a single house – it makes us wonder, like John the Baptist – is this faith for real? Is Jesus the real item? Is it really worth our time and trouble to try to live out our faith? Or have we all just been suckered into believing some fairy tale made up by a bunch of unsophisticated ancient people who were taken in by just one of many would-be messiahs? The time and the setting are different, but in some ways, some days, we can sit in our own prison cell made out of doubt and fear, and feel just as disappointed and cheated as John must have felt while he sat in jail. And, maybe especially at this time of year, our hearts can ask the same question John the Baptist asked Jesus: Are you for real? Are you the Messiah?

But instead of giving John the kind of black and white answer he’d hoped for, Jesus said, “What do you see? The lame walk. The blind see. All manner of the poor and the suffering have received God’s good news and blessings.”

Jesus’ point was that the kingdom of God had actually already begun to enter the world, through him. It was the entry point of hope, and healing, and God’s acceptance of all the weakest and most doubting and fearful and suffering in the world. The message was that God was here, with them and for them and sustaining them through whatever happened to them. That showed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that he was indeed the Messiah who was ushering it in.

That was the good news that Jesus had for John – that his life’s work and efforts hadn’t been in vain. And it’s good news for us, too. The good news that as we go through this life, and as we deal with its scars and bruises, its setbacks and uncertainties, its discomforts and disagreements and divisions, that God is in the midst of all those situations, walking the path with us, lifting us up, giving us hope, speaking love and support to our hearts.

When we find ourselves asking the same question John asked, Jesus answers us the same way: What do you see? What do you hear? Look at God at work in the lives of my followers, and in the life of the church. The hungry are being fed. The naked are being clothed. The homeless are being sheltered, the sick are being treated, and the persecuted, oppressed, and discriminated against are all being lifted up and welcomed into God’s unconditional love. All this is confirmation to us that no matter how difficult things may look or feel, God is truly at work in this world. And God is with us through all of our difficulties. This isn’t some fairy tale; it’s real – and Jesus is at the center of it all.

So when we wonder, in the midst of our toughest times, if we’re just kidding ourselves, or if Jesus is truly God’s chosen one, the one worthy of our faith and loyalty – we can look to John the Baptist for advice. The fiery prophet, the take-no-prisoners preacher, the great martyr of the faith – who, even himself, faced these same kinds of doubts. We can look to him, pictured there in that painting over Karl Barth’s desk, and we can follow his bony finger, stretched out and point straight at ugly Jesus on the cross, and him saying “Look to him. Always look to him. What do you see? What do you hear?”

Thanks be to God.