Sermon for Sunday, July 9, 2017
Perhaps you have heard the name Joshua Bell before. He is a concert violinist. He began playing the violin at the age of four and although he had a very normal childhood, it was not long before his talent was recognized. He first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1985 at the age of 17 when he played with the Saint Louis Symphony. During the 2016/2017 season he will have been a featured violinist with symphonies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia. He has recorded over 40 CDs. It is estimated that he is worth 15 million dollars and plays a Stradivarius violin that he purchased for about 3.5 million dollars. He is an accomplished musician and well-known performer.
In 2007, a writer for the Washington Post approached Joshua Bell and asked him to conduct an experiment. They wanted to see how people would react if they encountered Bell in a different environment, if Bell performed as a busker, a street performer.
On a cold January day, Joshua Bell dressed in jeans and a baseball cap settled in to play his Stradivarius violin for the commuters in a subway station in downtown Washington DC, a place where many government employees arrive for work. He played classical music for 45 minutes. During that time about 1100 people passed by. Only seven people stopped to listen. 27 people stopped quickly and dropped a total of $32 in his violin case. Never did a crowd gather, never was there a round of applause. People were in a hurry to get to work, simply rushed by and didn’t notice. They missed the beauty of his playing. By the way, if you wish to learn more, a simply search labeled Joshua Bell subway will help you as will a similar search on Youtube. (or see the instructions at the end of this sermon).
I understand that many a priest, rabbi, minister or imam has used this story as an affirmation of the presence of God all around us in bounteous yet unappreciated beauty. In a similar way, I ask you to think about the story in relation to our gospel for today. How easy it is to miss God in our busy and preoccupied lives? Jesus makes a promise to us in today’s gospel, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” All that we have to do is look for God and open our hearts to Jesus.
During Jesus time, many people did not accept his teaching. They were unable to see the truth of what he told them because of the way he lived. They rejected John the Baptist because he was anti-social, He lived in the desert, dressed in strange clothes and ate strange foods. Jesus on the other hand was very social. But they didn’t listen to Jesus either because he ate with tax collectors and sinners, and he ate and drank too much. Neither John nor Jesus was accepted by many.
Jesus used the expression “you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants”. In some way, their education or their preconceived ideas caused them to believe that Jesus was unacceptable and they could not hear his words or see his actions. Most of the disciples on the other hand were less well educated and they were able to see, to hear, and to believe.
What is it about the wise and intelligent that kept them from understanding who Jesus was? When we apply this lesson to our own lives, I wonder if Jesus is asking to open ourselves to hear the word of God perhaps in a fresh way.
I want to go back to the Joshua Bell story for a moment. As Bell played his violin in that busy Metro station, a three year old child passed by with his mother. The boy wanted to stop and listen. But his mother later told a reporter that she had to drop her son off at the day care by a certain time to get to a training session at her place of work. She pulled her son along so that they could get there on time. I think Jesus is asking us to think a little like that young boy and listen to all that is going on around us even as we try to deal with all that we have going on in our lives.
We are all followers of Jesus. And yet, we too can find ourselves unable to see God, having doubts. Perhaps we have preconceived ideas that make it difficult to experience God in a certain way. Perhaps our education causes us to think that everything we experience must be logical. Maybe it is our busy lives. Possibly it has to do with the electronics that we carry around, our phone or a computer or even a TV that attracts our attention and keeps us from seeing God in all that we do.
Maybe there is some sin that holds us captive and keeps us from experiencing God in the fullest. Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Romans. In fact, Paul spoke of his own sin. It must have had a powerful influence over him because he seemed unable to overcome it. In his mind, Paul knew that sin was wrong and he did not want to do it. But he had impulses or perhaps feelings that were so difficult for him to avoid. Paul’s sin followed him everywhere. It was always close at hand.
You and I might relate to Paul’s condition. Sin can be a powerful force in our lives. How can we be saved from this evil? Paul gives us the answer in one simple sentence. It is through Jesus Christ that we can be saved. Thanks be to God.
Jesus spoke of the wisdom of God that only he can give us. But his most important words for today are all about giving us rest from our burdens. Jesus used this term yoke. A yoke was a piece of wood that was used to connect two oxen together for plowing or other farm labor. We don’t often see oxen yoked together anymore. So, this image may not be clear for us. In the Bible it was sometimes used to suggest enslavement or perhaps bondage. Many people in Jesus’ time felt that they we're enslaved to those in power, that they had no freedom. I don’t believe that Jesus was ever talking about slavery or bondage for his message was always about his love for others.
Now, the path of following God is not easy. Paul spoke of the sins that he could not escape. Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to follow him that they should take up their own cross. I would say that Jesus never expected our road to be easy. Still, Jesus told us that his yoke is easy and his burdens light.
I would say two things. First, if we listen to the teachings of Jesus and follow what he tells us, his words will help us on our journey. It doesn’t make the journey easy but it makes is easier because he is with us helping us as we travel. Second, Jesus offers to join us. It is in the joining that makes it easier. Jesus is offering to be yoked with us. He wants to join us on the journey and he will pull the load along with us. Given his strength and knowledge if we can join him, our lives will be easier.
Every one of us came to church today carrying a burden. We all have struggles in this life. I know that my struggles are small compared to the ones that some of you are carrying. I worry that too often we think that we are the only ones who have to deal with that struggle, that pain, on our own. We think that we are the only ones to fix our burdens.
I think we are all trying our best to deal with what we have been given. I also think that we do have some responsibility. We can’t just say it is not my problem. Jesus, though, is asking us to try something different. He is telling us to stop occasionally in our lives, in our haste to get something accomplished. He is asking us to listen to his voice, to his teaching. And he is making a promise. I will be there he said. I will take up that challenge with you. I will strap that pain on my back as well and carry it with you.
It sounds to me like it is worth trying. I hope you will consider listening this week and asking Jesus to help you with your burdens and your weariness. Amen.
To get additional information on the Joshua Bell subway experiment go to YouTube and enter "joshua bell subway experiment.” You will find the original video. You will also find a repeat performance which Joshua Bell did seven years later but it was publicized beforehand.
The original article is by Gene Weingarten called “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?”
There is another article by Gene Weingarten written in 2014 which describes the potential hazards of a Google Search. It seems that many people referred to a shorter article that has some incorrect information in it.
The Washington Post articles do not have a specific web site listing.