A fairly nondescript white man in jeans, with a long-sleeved T shirt and a Washington National’s baseball cap, emerged from the Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington D.C. and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. From a small case he removed a violin. The man placed the open violin case at his feet, and at 7:51am, on a Friday in January, in the middle of rush hour, he began to play. Over the next 43 minutes the 39 year old violinist played six classical pieces while a total of 1,097 people passed by. Perhaps you have encountered a similar situation, coming upon a street musician—and with a small sample of music you have the unexpected opportunity to decide if you will linger and listen—or move on and continue with your routine—to attend to the task or journey at hand.
The situation of encountering a street violinist—forcing an unexpected decision—stands in dramatic contrast to the laser focus of the Israelites—who as we encounter them this morning were thirsty voicing incessant complaints—demanding that Moses provide them with water in the midst of their suffering. In the midst of the desert their thirst is all consuming, and they blame Moses for their aguish.
When we read this story we intuitively know it to be true. We know how we are prone to complain when things go wrong and do not go as according to plan. Physical pain or discomfort is perhaps the most debilitating, but we can add all sorts of unpleasant circumstances including psychological or emotional discomfort to the list of things that create circumstances which can serve to blind us to all else. This fact is brought into sharp focus this morning when we consider that the people of Israel are actually looking back longingly at their days of captivity in the land of Egypt. We see in this passage how the magnitude of suffering caused by widespread thirst has obliterated from memory the great saving deeds of God that lead to their escape from slavery and a life of oppression.
One of the gifts of being a part of a religious tradition with deep roots is the way our life of faith can orientate us to the world in a way where we are open to experience the beauty, grace, and blessing of God in our everyday life. When one mentions Christian prayer—the image conjured is often that of a person cloistered, narrowly focused upon God in a way that is as solitary as it is silent. This image is the opposite of the deep strand within our tradition that holds that the purpose of prayer is to open ourselves to the possibility and presence of God in every aspect of our life. Time set aside for prayer goes hand in hand with the notion that we will not discover—that which we are not on the alert for or open too.
The Irish author, John O’Donohue, has written extensively about prayer and our deepest desire
to draw closer to God—our desiree to draw closer to the beauty and wonder of God’s created world. He writes
There is a quite light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself, though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility, and our hearts to love life. Without this subtle quickening our days would be empty and wearisome, and no horizon would ever awaken our longing. Our passion for life is quietly sustained from somewhere in us wedded to the energy and excitement of life. This shy inner light is what enables us to recognize and receive our very presence here as blessing.
O’ Donohue also observes that: To participate in beauty is to come into the presence of the Holy….God is a pure verb, a permanent event, an eternal surge, a total quickening. The ancient wisdom of the Psalmist also captures this notion that our deepest longings seek for affirmations of the goodness of God. Psalm 63 begins
Oh God, you are my God: eagerly I seek you,* my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water
Of the almost 1,100 people who passed through the D.C. Metro Station, a mere 27 individuals contributed coins and bills that totaled $32. Only 7 individuals stopped to listen to the world renowned Joshua Bell, who played upon his almost 300 year old Stradivarius violin. The experiment of a concert violinist playing in an unexpected public place was conceived, executed and reported by staff at The Washington Post—and the event highlights the notion that while the human soul may well thirst for many things—left to ourselves we are prone to overlook even examples of sublime beauty—in our very midst.
This morning’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus interacted with the world with a profound sense of the deep potential of every human being. And that even the lot of notorious sinners of his day, tax collectors and prostitutes, reflected something of divine goodness, and merited a response and treatment better than only contempt, dismissal and scorn. Far from being merely a set of beliefs to follow and adhere to—Jesus demonstrated and lived a faith that shows that at it’s heart Christianity is a way to Be and to Experience the world
From the early centuries Christian mystics have exhorted believers to slow down—to pause, and to be still. To watch and to listen. For he goodness of God is all around—it is at the very heart of creation. To be discovered like water gushing forth in the desert. There to be experienced, to revive and to refresh one’s soul.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 28 September 2014, Year A. Lessons: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4,12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32.
You can see the you tube video of Joshua Bell here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZeSZFYCNRw