14 June 2009
Isaiah 42 5-12
Psalm 85 7:13
John 14: 15-17, 25-26
Evening Jazz Mass
St. Luke’s, Burlington
There are some people who think that the whole concept of a Jazz Mass is an oxy-moron: perhaps especially so in an Anglican Church, and even more so in one that is celebrating it’s 175th year. What would our ancestors who built this Church think of the sound of jazz within this holy space?
I think it is important for us to consider how jazz came to be in the first place. Jazz and the Blues originate from south of the border out of black gospel roots. Its rhythms are the same as those which brought us the great spirituals. They were an expression of the passion – the joys and the sorrows of a people in slavery. It should come as no surprise that so many black spirituals refer to the great Old Testament figures which are part of the history of God freeing the people of Israel out of slavery.
Jazz developed and continued in the secular arena, but I believe its origin remains the same. It comes out of a creative gift and all creativity has its origins in our creator. It is through exercising our creative gifts that humans become co-creators with God – making something completely new. In their varieties of expression, in their passion, sometimes in their plaintive mournfulness and often in their percussive joy, the writers of rhythm and blues and jazz share so much in common with the writers of the Psalms. All of these writers have “Soul.”
We are in the season of Pentecost and so this evening’s Gospel lesson has Jesus promising his disciples that he will send them the Holy Spirit. Further on in this Gospel of John, after Jesus has been taken and tried and crucified and risen again, and on Easter day, Jesus comes to these same disciples who are terrified and hiding behind locked doors, and he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then the Gospel says, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
The Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost in the rushing wind, just like at the beginning of time: the spirit moved, a wind from God over the face of the deep. Creation came about through this holy wind.
Just as God breathed life into the clay in the creation of humankind, so Jesus breathes new life into these frightened disciples and re-creates them into a courageous and creative Church. And always, with creation, is the breath or the wind.
A man breathes into his saxophone, a woman slides her trombone and another’s fingers trill over the keyboard and hammer strikes string, which reverberates in the air, and sound washes over us all, and we experience creation all over again. How can this gift not be holy?
Music bypasses the cerebral cortex and goes straight to your spirit. That’s why it’s holy. That’s why, if you let yourself, you can get lost in the music and it can take you to a new place. It’s a holy place.
So many of the greats of jazz recognized God’s hand in their music. The year before he died, Duke Ellington published his autobiography and he wrote this:
"There have been times when I thought I had a glimpse of God. Sometimes, even when my eyes were closed, I saw. Then when I tried to set my eyes--closed or open--back to the same focus, I had no success, of course. The unprovable fact is that I believe I have had a glimpse of God many times. I believe because believing is believable, and no one can prove it unbelievable....”
Duke Ellington wasn’t able to fully express his experience of God in words, but I think he expressed it through his music. Later in life, during the last decade of his life he wrote music for and performed his sacred concerts, but even before that, his jazz was filled with holy creativity.
We can share in this creativity as well. It is said that those who sing pray twice, for we pray in the words we sing and also in the music of the notes. And singing, of course, is all about the breath.
A people who sing together breath together, and that breath is holy, for Isaiah writes in tonight’s Old Testament lesson: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out. Who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: ….. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth!”
What an awesome privilege it is to sing together and to praise God’s name. It is a holy act and can fill us with joy. So if you think you can’t sing, sing anyway – breathe with us all, and be in the music and be holy. For this is how God created you to be.
And if you ever thought twice about jazz in Church – think a third time and enter into the new creation, and be blown by the spirit of God which can even whistle through ancient and hallowed walls and fill them with new life. Hallelujah! Amen.