Friday, April 22, 2016

Sermon: Jazzin' Up Our Faith

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
April 17, 2016
Lamentations 5:14-21; Psalm 150; John 10:22-30
Jim Schade, drums, Bruce Peters, bass, and Tony Grigonis, guitar, provided music for our Sunday celebrating jazz music.
[Here is an example of a sermon that incorporates the music of jazz into the actual preaching moment.  To watch the recording of this sermon, click here:

Some of you may know that in addition to being a pastor and teacher, I am also a classically-trained harpist.  I actually started on piano lessons at age 8, and then added the harp at age 9.  In high school I auditioned and was accepted into the PA Governor’s School for the Arts during the summer between my sophomore and junior year.  It was there that I first heard the music of jazz.  It was like nothing I had ever experienced.  It was so cool!  I was smitten by the skills of the musicians who could make up music as they played it, coming up with chords and runs and rhythms that just blew me away. 

Later I became smitten with an actual jazz musician – a drummer, who I met at a music festival my senior year of high school.  Our eyes met across a crowded orchestra, the violins played, and the rest, as they say, is history.  I was fascinated with the way Jim could hear and process and perform complex rhythmic equations, like some kind of musical mathematical engineering genius.  And I couldn’t believe this cool jazz drummer wanted me – a nerdy classical harpist - to be his girlfriend!  And, years later, his wife!  In June we will be married for 20 years, but we’ve actually been together for 27 years!

And during those years I have learned a great deal about jazz music.  Some I’ve learned just by osmosis – being around it through Jim for so many years. [You can hear samples of Jim's music on his website,]  Some I learned through lessons with other teachers, and from what Jim has taught me.  Playing jazz on the harp is one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.  It’s a process I’ll be working on as long as I am a musician!

I would guess that for most of you, jazz music is not what you have on your iTunes, or on your Pandora stations, or in your record or CD collections.  Because jazz is not “easy listening.”  Jazz requires you to participate in its creative process.  It’s not intended to be background music.  With its roots in African rhythms, European harmonies, and different cultural influences from Latin America to Cajun to slave history, jazz is a true melting pot of the American music experience.  As we learned in our Forum earlier this morning, once you understand a little about what’s going on with jazz, you can appreciate it better – even if it’s still not to your musical liking.  Because the goal of jazz is to involve the listener, to invite you into this complex interplay of rhythm, bass lines, harmonies and melodies. 

And isn’t this the kind of “music” we hear in the Bible?  God’s Word was never meant to be “easy listening.”  The gospel requires you to participate in its creative process.  Scripture was never intended to be background music.  Its goal is to involve you, all of us, in its complex interplay of law and Gospel, lamentation and hope, justice and promise.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from listening to jazz is, well, listening.  As a musician, I’ve come to appreciate the process I’m hearing in the music played by jazz musicians.  And I’ve realized that listening is an integral part of being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus talked about the importance of listening in our Gospel reading from John:  “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” (John 10:27).

Kirk Byron Jones says in his book The Jazz of Preaching, that jazz players are always “reaching, longing, choosing, losing, pursuing, deciding and perhaps hurting,” when they are sounding their instrument (Jones, 51).   “Some notes are harder to hear,” he says. “Some notes require that we give up something of ourselves so that [those notes] might become ‘heard-able,’” (Jones, 51).  Being a follower of Christ is a lot like that – reaching, longing, choosing, losing, pursuing, deciding and perhaps hurting.  Listening for the voice of Jesus and then following what we hear can be difficult sometimes.  We may have to let go of our egos, our ideologies, our political affiliations, our presuppositions, in order for God’s Word to become “heard-able” to us.

But I’ve also I’ve observed how important it is for the musicians to listen to each other: to hear how the drummer is laying down the groove, to feel how the bass is playing “in the pocket,” to follow the solo and support it with a nuanced layering of harmonies.  If only our churches played as well together as these musicians!

[To the musicians]:  Each of you has spent hours woodshedding on your ax, practicing your instrument for countless hours, learning music theory, practicing your scales, and training with other musicians to hone your craft.  And when you come together to play, you are so well-grounded in your art, and so attuned to each other, you can take a bare bones chart and know instinctively how to make something musical out of it.

It’s no different for those who follow the charts of Jesus.  We each need to put in the time in praying, learning to read Scripture, practicing the teachings of the Master, steeping ourselves in the catechism, and coming for weekly lessons with the pastor or lay leaders who help train us in this music of discipleship.  That way when we come together to worship, to serve our neighbors, to advocate for justice, to pass on the teachings to our younger ones, we can trust the process and make the music of God with it.

How are your listening skills?  Where do you do your best listening to Jesus?  What is your process of learning to hear the notes and rhythms and harmonies of the Gospel?  And what impedes your ability to listen?  What blocks the sound of Jesus’ voice?  How do you move through those “silent” times when you can’t tune in to the text or listen to what Jesus is saying to you?  What do you do when your ears are stopped up and it’s difficult for you to listen to the needs of other people, or even the needs of your own soul?

Have you ever listened to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme?  [Musicians play song underneath.]  I think Coltrane must have been a Lutheran.  Because his music is law and gospel all at the same time.  The pathos and the woundedness, together with the sublime beauty of grace is somehow communicated through this song.  It’s like a musical version of the theology of the cross! 

What a gift the African experience has given American music through its creation of “The Blues.”  James Cone in his book The Spirituals and the Blues describes the bittersweetness that comes through the truth of black experience.  The blues reflect the incongruity of life and attempt to make meaning in a situation filled with contradictions.  The blues express strength in brokenness.  Like the reading we heard in Lamentations, the truth of a person’s pain, a community’s suffering is honestly expressed. But so is their faith in the God who has not given up on them, despite all evidence to the contrary.

And especially important today is that the blues affirm the essential value of black humanity.  This is a refrain we have to keep sounding. Black Lives Matter is a movement of both lament and hope.  It is music whose notes are difficult to hear.  But listen we must – for God is speaking to us through this brokenness.  And like Billie Holiday plaintively singing about “Strange Fruit” which describes the brutal lynchings of innocent black men and women in the South, God’s gorgeous raspy voice will vocalize the truth of that pain, while transforming it into something powerful and life-giving.

And what is life-giving about this music is the same thing that is life-giving about the gospel.  It is the invitation to imagination and play.  When musicians take flight with their improvisations, we soar with them in their freedom.  What types of play sparked your imagination as a child?  What sparks it now?  How can play be incorporated into our churches, into our faith practices?  People are longing for the joy that comes through improvisation and play.  

I think we can say that this is a church that appreciates play!  Just think of our Holy Humor Sunday last week and every year where we play with popular culture and mash it up with the biblical story and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection.  This church welcomes the imagination and improvisation of our young people. We make space here for that kind of faith-improvisation to flourish.

The Bible is full of God’s improvisers who exercised their divine imaginations to play a new song into this world.  The prophet Amos saw justice rolling down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).  Jesus’ mother Mary saw thrones overturned and a restoration of economic balance (Luke 1:52).  John of Patmos saw a tree with leaves of healing for the nations (Revelation 22).

Listen to jazz long enough and intently enough and you may be able to hear that music of God’s divine imaginings in your ear.  God’s music means listening to all the players.  It means attending to the “blues” of this world.  And it involves collaborating with your fellow musicians of the Gospel to lay your own “tracks” down on God’s rhythms.  And it means learning to improvise, to create your own combination of notes and silence, melodies and harmonies, minor sevenths and major chords.  You are invited to pick up the instrument of your own talents and skills and join in this music, to actively co-create this music of the Gospel so that it can be heard in every key. 

Truly this music of the gospel, this jazz of Jesus is “a love supreme.”  It calls to us, cajoles us, confounds us, and releases us in an almost mystical way.  May God bless you in the hearing, in the playing, in both the major and minor chords of your life.  And may this “love supreme” find its way into our hearts and minds, hands and voices.  Amen.

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