- Parish House
Sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
The violinist stood in the metro station, case open, bow angling across the strings, music interrupted by the clatter of the tracks, the automatic voice of the PA system. A musician playing on in a metro station in Washington DC at the height of rush hour–there was nothing unusual about that. Trumpets and gospel choirs, beatboxers and keyboardists–I’ve seen it all. But this time, there was a difference. This time the musician in the metro station was Joshua Bell, considered the best violinist of his generation.
To put a world renowned violinist at a metro stop during rush hour was a stunt dreamed up by Gene Weingarten, a journalist at the Washington Post who wanted to explore how our context attunes our attention. You could have one of the best violinist in the world playing a Bach masterpiece and it didn’t matter if people weren’t ready to hear it–heads down, pushing through the crowds, just trying to get to work on time. At the end of forty minutes of playing, he’d had seven people stop and watch.
There’s no blame in that. I probably would have been among those who passed by with hardly a glance, a few coins tossed in the open case. And it would have been my loss, because for a few minutes I could have heard one of the world’s greatest pieces of music played by one of the the world’s most brilliant performers. What’s getting to work half an hour late compared to that?
And this brings us to a more significant question: what are the wonders we are already missing? What are the masterpieces we are passing by as we rush on, day in and day out? The music we are aren’t hearing? The beauty we are ignoring?
We must admit that when we are caught up with the cares and problems and expectations sof life it is hard to recognize the sublime realities that sometimes, for a moment, we can recognize in the world around us.
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.”
Mountains tend to be solitary places, as difficult as they are beautiful. It takes time and skill and care to climb them; a kind of humility. Mountains lend perspective–the noisy life of the valley fades and suddenly all of the achievements of human civilization, our tall sky scrapers, our bustling cities, become quiet against the peaks.
So it is that when Jesus wants his disciples to see something surprising and profound, he brings them to the solitude of the mountain. It is there, away and apart from the normal bustle of life that the reality of Jesus is suddenly visible. His clothes are radiant and James, Peter, and John see him conversing with the representative figures of Israel’s religious history, the law and the prophets embodied in Moses and Elijah.
And here we have to wonder, was Jesus suddenly something different, or were the apostles simply able to see who this really was that they had been following the along dusty roads; the man who led them in psalms on cool nights by camp fires? Who and what were transfigured? Jesus, or the perception of these apostles?
We can’t know the answer, exactly, but I do know that there are times when we are suddenly able to see something that we had missed before, something that was there all along, but was somehow invisible to our normal sight.
Thomas Merton had an experience like that, one day while he was in the shopping district of Louisville, Kentucky. Merton, who had become a monk in Trappist monastery and spent long months in solitude there, was given a vision of the profound, holy reality of the people all around him.
As he recounts in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race…[I]f only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
What Merton saw in that moment was what James and John and Peter saw in Jesus. It was, for Merton, a moment in which he was able to see humanity as “the person that each one is in God’s eyes…a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”
On this Sunday, as we remember the new vision Jesus’s first disciples had of their Lord, I hope that we will also realize that the radiance of Christ is echoed in everyone of us. We are, like Merton said, each filled with the blazing light of heaven at our core and not even “the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will” can cover it over.
To see this truth that God sees, is not easy. Merton admits that like the Transfiguration in our Gospel, the vision he witnessed on that busy street corner in Louisville was a gift. But there is a kind of preparation that might open us to receive such a gift. Just as the disciples had to go to the Mountaintop, away and apart, Merton had to go into solitude before he could see the connectedness of all people. “It is in fact the function of solitude,” wrote Merton, “to make one realize such things with clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions” of everyday life.
To learn to see as God sees, to see everyone walking around, blazing like the sun, we must take time to be alone with God, time to have our vision attuned to the world of reality that only God fully grasps. To get there we must daily enter into contemplation, disconnected from the stream of information and the buzzing interruptions of our lives. When we can, we should find time to go away for retreats. Each week, even for half a day, we should seek to practice the Sabbath rest that reminds us that we are not God. It is then that we will be ready to receive this gift of seeing the radiant reality the disciples witnessed on that mountain in Palestine and Merton saw on that Louisville sidewalk.
In the train station in DC, as Joshua Bell played Bach, there was only one person who recognized Bell for who he is. She had been to a concert of his only a few weeks before at the Library of Congress and she couldn’t believe that he was there, in the middle of the rushing world. “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” she told the Washington Post. Her ear had been attuned in that concert, in a space set away just to listen and to hear. And because of that she was able to recognize the beauty that was now here, radiant in the everyday world. She left $20 in his violin case, an offering in response to the gift she had received. Amen.