I want to begin tonight with a true story. All the stories I tell are true, and some of them actually happened. This is one that actually happened.
One morning during rush hour, an unkempt, older man sat down at a Washington, D.C. metro station and began to play six Bach pieces on his violin. He played for about 45 minutes. It is estimated that approximately 1,100 people passed him during this time.
It took a couple of minutes before the first person tipped him a $1, but the woman never slowed her pace as she dropped the bill in the hat. She never made eye contact. A guy leaned against the wall for a minute to listen, then looked at his watch and hurried away. No doubt he didn’t want to be late for work. A three-year-old stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the man, listening intently, but her mother hurried her along.
A grand total of six people stopped to listen to the music. 20 gave money, but few slowed their pace as they did so. These 20 people gave $32. No one noticed when he finished playing. There was no applause, no recognition. He was just some poor old man in the subway. A trained monkey would have garnered more interest.
As it turns out, however, the poor old man was Joshua Bell in disguise, one of the world’s foremost violinists. He had just played some of the most intricate pieces of music ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million. Two days before, he had sold out a theater in Boston where tickets averaged $100 per seat.
What do you see? Do you hear the music? Do you recognize the beauty all around you? Do you perceive the dignity of the people you pass by everyday on the street, riding in the bus? How many other things are you missing?
What we choose to see, and what we choose to ignore, has consequences. This is the point that St. Paul is making to the Church in Corinth. When they gather for the Lord’s supper, they ignore the poor. The rich bring their food and feast, while the poor go hungry. They eat and drink without discerning the body. Because of this, many in the community are sick, and some have even died.
Paul is not suggesting that the rich are getting sick and dying as punishment for their failure to properly reverence the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood in the elements of bread and wine. That is a theological problem of a later age. Paul simply points out that poor people get sick and die when their needs are ignored by rich people.
The theological and ethical problem is the failure to perceive others as intrinsically related to us, as constituting a shared identity: it is a failure to see the other as one’s self. The Body and Blood of Christ is perceived in the bread and the wine, but not in the bodies that gather to receive it. To paraphrase the great Irish theologian, Bono: We are not the same but we are one. When we fail to recognize this, there are consequences.
Tonight, we celebrate Jesus’ last supper with his friends. During this meal, Jesus gives new meaning to the bread and the wine that are commonly shared at meals. Grapes and wheat are staples of the Mediterranean diet – nothing much special about them. Yet, through the fire of fermentation and the fire of the oven, there is an alchemy that transforms these simple gifts of the earth into signs of communion that nourish our souls as well as bodies. Table fellowship is more than conviviality. It is a recognition of the common humanity we share.
In consuming these gifts, we also are reminded of our communion with the larger Earth community, of our dependence upon the ever-renewing cycles of nature that sustain life. To these natural symbols, Jesus adds another dimension of meaning. Whenever we break the bread and pour the wine, we remember Jesus’ death. We remember the sacrificial love expressed in his broken body, his life poured out for us.
The Greek word “remember” connotes more than the evocation of a distant memory. It means making present to our experience – here and now – the effects of a past action. When we share the bread and cup together, Jesus is made present in the sacrificial love we share together. We see the communion – with one another, with the Earth, with God – that constitutes reality at its deepest and most meaningful level. This seeing is life; everlasting life. To ignore this, to fail to see, to be deaf to the music, is death.
In John’s Gospel, the meaning of this shared meal is illustrated by the action of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It strikes us as an odd, and oddly intimate, action. It was servant’s work, women’s work, in Jesus’ time. Any self-respecting man would consider such work beneath him.
But Jesus isn’t too proud to wash his disciples’ feet. We are not the same, but we are one, and our unity is reflected by our willingness to acknowledge our mutual vulnerability and responsibility to care for each other. To quote Bono again: We are one, but we are not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other, one.
The people in the Washington, D.C. metro station thought that they were doing the poor old man a favor by dropping a dollar in the hat. They thought him fortunate to get their attention at all. But, in truth, it was he who was offering a priceless gift – only they couldn’t perceive it. He was carrying them, lightening their load at the beginning of a busy day.
Life is always a two-way street. It isn’t that I am obligated to help you, or that you are obligated to help me. We get to carry each other! It is our privilege, our joy to do so. In so doing, we share communion. We discover that we are one.
This was true, even for Jesus. He washes the feet of each one those disciples, even the ones that abandoned him and betrayed him. Yet, they carried him, each one in their own way. Judas forced his hand, requiring Jesus to reveal just what kind of king he was going to be. Peter follows Jesus to the courtyard of the council: but that was as far as he could go, before denying he ever knew him and then weeping with shame. The Beloved Disciple goes the distance, as do the women. They carry Jesus to the foot of the Cross. We get to carry each other. One.
We share bread and wine because we are one. We wash each other’s feet because we get to carry each other. No matter our differences, we each play a part in shaping each other’s lives: whether with gratitude or regret, joy or sorrow. Our lives are carried by rain and wind, seed and blossom, distant factory workers, school teachers, the bacteria in our guts. Even the haters, who mirror our shadow side – they carry us too, and we them, however much we may wish to deny it. If we were the same, we would not need each other. We depend on so many, and so many depend on us. We get to carry each other. That is what it is to be alive.
This is the truth for which Jesus died. He carried us all the way to the cross, and God carried him into the Resurrection, into us who now constitute his body. We see the body, and Jesus is present with us again. We are one, a unity that transcends time and space in the deathless love of God. This love includes Judas and Peter, John and Mary, Donald and Hillary, you and me.
Do you see the body? Do you hear the music? Will you carry me? Will you let me carry you? What we choose to see, and what we choose to ignore, has consequences. It can make the difference between life and death. We are one, but we are not the same. We get to carry each other. One. Amen.