Risking reverence

Rev. Paul Escamilla | February 14, 2021

Joshua Bell is one of the world’s most gifted and renowned violinists in the classical form. With a Stradivarius violin valued at around 4 million dollars, he performs in sold-out concert halls around the globe.

As part of an experiment undertaken with a Washington D.C. journalist, Bell brought his Stradivarius to a Metro subway station one weekday morning during the morning rush to see what the response would be if he picked up his violin and began playing for the rush hour crowd.

The rush hour crowd largely ignored him. From the moment Bell began to play to the time he stopped an hour later, 1,097 people passed by his playing; of those 1,097, a total of seven people paused briefly to listen to his music. Seven.

I have to wonder, if I’d been a commuter there that day, on my way to a meeting, or a hospital visit, would I have? If you’d been there, would you have been—would we have been among the 7 who stopped to take it in? Or would we have been among the 99.5% who, too busy or too distracted, shuffled right past and missed the many-splendored thing?

I know we’re busy. Really busy. How busy? Covid busy. Burning the candle at both ends these days as ever before. Meeting ourselves coming and going. Twice as much to do, or so it seems; twice as hard the effort to do it; half as productive. Could easily make us more inclined to barreling through the day, the week, the year, the life, with tunnel vision.

In Mark’s gospel Peter was busy, too.

Mark sets the tone, the pace, the intensity of Jesus’ journey with his disciples across these swiftly turning pages as they traverse the Galilean landscape. In his first chapter alone, the word “immediately” occurs nine times. We get the clear feeling from the outset that we’re going to have to hurry to keep up with Mark and the story he tells.

Peter fits right in—hard-driving, quick-thinking, plain-speaking, up for the rush and rigor of this work, ready for anything. He makes an excellent lead disciple in the express-train gospel of Mark, where he has claimed his spot up in the cab of the locomotive.

The story our young disciples enacted for us so colorfully today on film is told very quickly in Mark—seven verses. Up the mountain they go, and back down. It’s a brisk day hike. It’s Marlowe’s climb up the jungle gym, or Drayton’s vault over the tailgate, or little Luke’s summiting the stairs—he’s getting really fast, by the way!

Up the mountain. Then right back down to the valley, where, as was made very clear by our storytellers a moment ago, we have promises to keep. 

God’s children need us.

Need us, and maybe also need a little snack after all that exertion.

In the fast-paced, page-turner context that is Mark’s gospel, what happens on that mountain in that moment is nothing short of astonishing. In the light of Jesus’ being transfigured, Peter says to Jesus, “Let us build three booths, three tents, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He was referring to brush arbor structures that would have been about the size of our Christmas Nativity stable out here on the lawn. A respectable piece of work. Times three.

Again, think about how swiftly this story is barreling along, immediately . . . immediately . . . immediately . . . and then how long it would take to pause that story for these three disciples to drop everything and build these makeshift structures.

Peter’s as busy as the rest of us, friends, but something else possesses him that takes him briefly out of tunnel vision mode. It’s as though time changes for him from horizontal to vertical; from beat the clock to behold the chara, the joy; the charis, the grace. What is going on with Peter is what I want to call reverence.

The Greek word used here for what Peter says he wants to construct is skene, tabernacle. A tabernacle is what you build to host and house the holy. Peter senses the presence of holiness in this epiphany: Moses, Elijah, Jesus—and wants to host and house these three holy figures; in other words, to show them reverence.

Reverence is what we feel when we sense that something holy or beautiful or wondrous is near, and we pause to take it in. Building a small tabernacle in time, as it were, or in our mind’s eye or in our hearts. Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary. 

But reverence, I need to tell you, is risky. It’s extravagant. Inefficient. Impractical. Unproductive. Even quixotic. How in the world do you measure the benefit of a sweet hour of prayer? A walk in the woods? Stargazing? Talk about quixotic. Noticing the color purple in a field, and pausing to savor it? Reverence runs the risk of taking us from other work, other demands. And what do we get for it? What do we bring back? It had better be good, because after all, God’s children need us!

What we bring back, I think, is a different set of eyes, eyes that now newly look upon everything else with a similar reverence.

It’s revealing to me that the word “reverence” literally means . . . not merely to hold in awe; but to hold in awe again.

Someone who builds a tabernacle, a second, and then a third, soon enough is going to want to build three more. Before we know it, there are altars all over the world, no less real for being invisible. Earth, after all, is crammed with heaven, and the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

God on the mountain; God in the valley; God on the plain. Among the stars, across the ocean. In the human heart. Before we know it everywhere we turn is holy ground; everywhere, everything, everyone. Our young disciples were right—God’s children back in the valley below—they do need us. They need us to bring reverence into their world. Again and again and again.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whose monastery was near Louisville, Kentucky, went into that city one day, and stood at a busy street corner—it could have been a Metro station in D.C. He watched the hustle and bustle of crowds moving in every direction—could have been a hundred people, a thousand, a thousand and ninety-seven maybe. Mostly they were too busy, it appeared, to wonder, to notice, to be amazed, astonished by the life going on among them, around them, within them, beyond them; too busy to notice, but not too busy to be noticed and wondered at by the mystic in monk’s garb, to be regarded by Thomas as amazing, astonishing, precious. He wrote later:

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, all walking around . . . shining like the sun. “It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If we could see each other that way all the time.”

Reverence is like seeing with the eyes of God, everywhere we turn no matter who or what or where. How did Amy Grant put it? Eyes that see the good in things, when good cannot be found; eyes that find the source of hope, when hope is not around.

If reverence is extravagant and inefficient and impractical and unproductive and quixotic, then it is also, at one and the same time life-giving. Soul-nourishing. Heart-warming. Spirit-filling. Gift-bearing.

Allowing us to serve others, love others, esteem others, see the whole world more wholly, completely, generously than ever before. That’s a way of life, that’s a way of seeing we may never have dared to hope for in our journey through life. Now reverence is getting risky in a whole new way.

What if Mark has given us this story as a sort of invitation from a busy gospel writer to a busy gospel reader?

Dear reader, listener, seer: You’re busy, I know you are—especially right now; but if in telling my river-rapids story I can pause, Peter can pause, to take in something of the wonder of God, maybe you can too.

And so, choose something to reverence today. As your poet Mary Oliver would say, give yourself a lesson in astonishment. Maybe your Lenten discipline can consist of being daily astonished by some goodness you find. Marvel begetting marvel, admiration, admiration, reverence, greater reverence.

Until, in time, all your work, all your play, everything, everyone is held in that same holy gaze as God’s beloved children, and all you see—all you see—is their secret beauty.