incognito

On a cold Friday morning in January 2007, a man walked into the entrance area of a metro station in Washington D.C.  This man was wearing jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and a baseball cap – average kind of guy. He positioned himself against a wall near a garbage can. The man had a case with him and after he had looked around, he opened the case and pulled out a violin. He then reached into his pocked, he pulled out a few coins, and he threw them into the now-empty violin case.

It’s a scene that plays itself out around the world, day after day, week after week. Buskers on street corners or bus stations or subway stops pull out their violins, their guitars, their accordions, or their saxophones – they throw a few coins into a hat or into their instrument case. And they play. For half an hour, for an hour, for a couple of ours – they will play. The instrument or the case with a few coins in it is an invitation to passersby to give something for the pleasure of being serenaded on their way to work or shopping or on their way home.

That cold morning in January 2007, during the 45 minute period that the violinist played, 1097 people passed by him.

What happened in those 45 minutes?

Well, a few people stopped and listened. About 27 of the passers-by (about 2%) threw in some coins, a total of $32 and change in 45 minutes. No crowd gathered. The vast majority of those commuters on a busy morning just rushed past, on their way to work in their federal jobs in Washington D.C.

The violinist started out by playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor – otherwise known as Bach’s ‘Chaconne’. It is one of the most difficult and most beautiful pieces for solo violin. This violinist didn’t play the popular pieces you would expect from a busker – he played classical pieces that are demanding and interesting.

Now, as you may have begun to expect, it turns out that this violinist wasn’t your average street performer. This was Joshua Bell. And just to give you a sense of who Joshua Bell is, the biographical insert for the concert halls he is playing in this year have this to say about him:

JOSHUA BELL has enchanted audiences worldwide with his breathtaking virtuosity and tone of rare beauty. His restless curiosity and multifaceted musical interests have taken him in exciting new directions, which has earned him the rare title of “classical music superstar.”

Already in 2007, on that cold winter morning, Joshuah Bell was an internationally acclaimed violinist. That morning in the Washington D.C. the violin he was playing happened to be his $3.5 million Stradivarius.

The story of Joshua Bell’s incognito violin performance was described in a Washington Post piece in April 2007 – it was written by Gene Weingarten. In fact, it was the Washington Post that had set up this event up as a kind of stunt and experiment.

Now Weingarten tells us that exactly one person recognized Joshua Bell, and it happened that she didn’t arrive until near the very end of his playing. Stacy Furukawa was a demographer who didn’t know much about classical music. But she happened to have been in the audience 3 weeks earlier when Bell gave a free concert at the Library of Congress.

On youtube there is a video of Joshua Bell’s metro performance – you can watch the performance as all the people rush past. But there toward the end, you see this woman position herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, centre, as Weingarten puts it. She has a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Stacy Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

She had this to say: “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington. Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some people were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen.”

Joshua Bell went incognito with his tremendous skill and his $3.5 million violin – only 1 person recognized him. A few stopped to listen and were touched by what they heard. Many rushed past and didn’t take a moment’s notice.

The whole idea of going incognito is something that we generally find intriguing as human being. The idea that you can hide your true identity, and go places you might not usually go, and do things you might not usually do. Think of that classic story of the Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain – a story that has been adapted and adjusted for so many contexts over the years. The prince and the pauper who look so much alike – and who end up inhabiting each other’s worlds for a time. A pauper going incognito as a prince. A prince going incognito as a pauper. We are fascinated by these kinds of stories – the story of Joshua Bell and his $3.5 million violin in the Washington D.C. metro is an intriguing one.

Here’s the question for us as we shift gears this morning. Would we recognize Jesus, if we saw him? Would we recognize Jesus? Today is Christ the King Sunday – it is the time in the church year when we celebrate the reign of Christ, the rule of the risen Jesus in heaven and on earth. And when we think about Jesus, or when we imagine him in our minds today, it is not surprising that he would appear in our minds precisely as a king. It’s not surprising we might think of him as one who belongs in a throne-room

not suprising we might think of him as one who belongs on the stage of a concert hall

not suprising we might think of him whose tastes run to Egyptian cotton sheets with a1200 thread count, or to the finest of wines from the Loire valley.

But putting all of that in the back of our minds, we have to ask whether we would recognize Jesus if we saw him in our everyday. If we come across Jesus in the week that is before us, where will it be? If come across Jesus in the week that is before us – if he is right there in front of our faces – will we miss him. Might we rush by him on our way someplace more important? Might we rush past him as we live our same old life?

Or will we be the 1 in a thousand. Will we be Stacy Furukawa – standing there amazed in the presence of Jesus – ten feet away, front and centre this week – amazed that it is indeed Jesus we are seeing, and where we least would have expected.

What lies in the background of all of these questions, of course, is the fact that Jesus went incognito in our world 2000 years ago. And even today Jesus goes incognito in our world. Even today Jesus goes undercover.

This morning we are, for a third week, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel – and we come to that dramatic story of the sheep and the goats – a kind of parable of the kingdom that Jesus tells. And at the heart of this passage is Jesus incognito.

What Jesus describes is the day of judgment, when he will return in glory as the Truly Human One, as judge of the world. And as he comes on the one side are the sheep – those destined for life in the presence of God. On the other side are the goats – those destined for judgment. But the sheep and the goats have the same question for Jesus when he comes in his glory.

Jesus. When did we see you? We don’t remember seeing you. If we did see you, we certainly didn’t recognize you.

Jesus goes incognito in our world. But there is something very distinct about his incognito. In an important sense, Joshua Bell didn’t belong in that metro entranceway – he belongs before an appreciative audience, in a room with great acoustics, raking in thousands of dollars for just one performance. In a profound sense, Joshua Bell doesn’t belong in that metro entrance way. It was a temporary thing. It was a momentary incognito – a stunt. In fact, immediately after that 45-minute stint in the metro, Bell left for a concert tour of the European capitals.

Jesus goes incognito. He is not where you would expect to find him. Otherwise put – he is not who you thought he would be. The sheep said to the Son of Man – when did we see you? The goats said to the Son of Man – when did we see you?

In the week ahead, where might you find Jesus, the Truly Human One – the one in whom there is new life for the world? Where might you see him?

Fritz Eichenberg was an artist in the middle and late twentieth century – he is best known for his woodcut prints. In the late 1940’s Eichenberg came into touch with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement – a Christian pacifist movement also committed to serving the poor and the homeless. And as he came into touch with Dorothy Day, and became somewhat attached to the Catholic Worker movement, Eichenberg did a number of woodcuts that represented the theological and biblical notions that he saw at work in that movement. This morning I’d like us to take one of those woodcuts as an opportunity to reflect on Jesus Christ, incognito. The woodcut is entitled, The Christ of the Breadlines. Those of you who participated in the Space for God study a couple of years ago might remember this image.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? When Lord? When did we see you? If we saw you, we obviously didn’t recognize you.”

Jesus answers the question, asked by both the sheep and the goats, with these words: “Truly I tell you, just as you do it to the least of these who are members of my family, you do it to me.”

Where is Jesus? He is there among the marginalized and the poor. He was there in a breadline that would form regularly in 1953, outside the office of the Catholic Worker organization – as men and women lined up for a meal. In this woodcut he is in company with a woman whose head is bowed with the shame of her need. He is in company with a man who is bent and old, leaning on a walking stick of rough wood. He is in company with a man who shivers, and no matter how hard he tries he cannot block the cold of the night with his blanket.

Christ goes incognito – he takes his place in the line. These are the people among whom he is at home in our world. These are the circumstances that he makes his own. And it is not only for 45 minutes on a cold winter morning. This is no stunt designed by the Washington Post – no stunt created by the first-century gospel writers. This is where Jesus belongs. This is where you will find him. In a breadline.

What does it mean? Is this just some generic religious and moral message intended to remind us

that we are supposed to help the poor

that we are supposed to visit people in prison

that we are supposed to feed the hungry.

Is this just a generic religious message that can be repeated with our without reference to Jesus. It’s just that God wants us to help the poor and the prisoners and the outcasts. We just have to muster up the strength and will to do it?

As always of course, we can read this passage however we want to.

But what the gospel writer offers is not some generic religious message that can fit into any particular religious framework we might choose. What Matthew is saying, is that the Truly Human One, who will come to judge the world, who is this world’s life and hope – this Truly Human One, who is Jesus, identifies with the poor, and the hungry, and the homeless and the marginalized in an absolutely decisive way.

Perhaps we are tempted to think like this: “You know, I think I’ll just skip the performance in the metro entrance way – I think I’ll go straight to the concert at Carnegie Hall.” Perhaps we are tempted to think: “Never mind standing in a cold and breezy entranceway to the metro, with the smell of the street, with my feet sore from standing, and with strangers rushing by. I prefer Carnegie Hall with the great acoustics and the comfortable seats, and the posh crowd.”

In the face of that temptation, the message of Matthew’s gospel, and of Jesus, is this: It can’t be done.

The young woman Stacy Furukawa only recognized Joshua Bell because she had seen him in the place he really belonged – the Library of Congress, giving a wonderful concert.

With Jesus, it works the other way around. We will only recognize and dwell with Jesus in all of his glory and honour if we have recognized him and encountered him in the place of poverty and marginalization and pain. Which is to say that if all we are looking for is the Jesus of glory – if all we want is the risen Jesus is exalted in power – we will never find him.

Jesus is among the hungry – his heart is with them. He would feed them.

Jesus is among the powerless – his heart is with them. He would encourage them.

Jesus is among the depressed – his heart is with them. He would comfort them.

Jesus is among the broken – his heart is with then. He would  heal them.

If we want to find Jesus – if we want to see Jesus – it will only be as we reach out in his love to the least of these his sisters and brothers – those he loves – among whom he dwells.

And if we find him there – if we see him there. Then maybe, just maybe, our eyes will be opened to see him in his glory and kingship – a different kind of glory or kingship than we could ever have imagined. The Christ, the king, of the breadlines.

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