Sunday, April 12, 2015

Both Freedom and Form - Yearning, Learning and Jazz: A Sermon from Christ Chapel with the Theodicy Jazz Collective (Brian E. Konkol)

“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts” (Psalm 119:45).

* The following text is taken from a sermon given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on April 12, 2015 for a Canterbury Jazz Mass under the musical leadership of the Theodicy Jazz Collective. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye. For those following the audio recording (below), please note that the text may not be the exact words spoken from the pulpit on April 12, 2015.

* An audio recording of this message (and the entire Canterbury Jazz Mass) can be found at  https://gustavus.edu/podcasts/chapel/2011/2015-04-12%20Sunday%20Worship%20Theodicy%20Jazz%20Collective.mp3with the sermon beginning at 38:30.

On the 13th day of creation, God made jazz!

Yes, on that fateful 13th day, after the world had worked for a full work week, and after all of God’s creation came to its first real weekend, God said, “Let there be Jazz.”

And there was jazz, and God saw that the jazz was good.

God saw that the jazz was very good.

On that 13th day of creation, God recognized that jazz could lift hearts and gladden souls. God realized that jazz could set people free from all that kept them low. And as it all marvelously materialized, God was delighted to see the recently created people clap their hands and dance and shout for joy!

And yes, because there was no such thing as Lutherans yet, God even heard a few people should out, “Amen.” It was incredible!

On that 13th day of creation, God said: “Now let there be saxophones and banjos and trumpets and drums! Let there be clarinets and guitars, let there be trombones and a stand up bass, and let there be beautiful minds and voices to craft and compose and sing lyrics and shout out scat.”

God said, “Let there be…Let there be… Let there be!

Let there be alteration and augmentation, back-beats and be-bop…
Let there be charts, chops, chords and cool cross-rhythms...
Let there be fusion and front lines…
Grooves and ground beats…
Meters, modes, and monsters.
Let there be riffs, roots and rhythm changes…
Sheds, shells, and style.
Let there be substitutions, syncopation, turnarounds, tone it downs..
Let there be verse, vamp and voice..

Let there be jazz!”, God said! “Let there be jazz!”

And as their collective hearts burned inside them, the people clapped and shouted and raised their hands and moved from side to side. Because, of course, there were no Lutherans yet!

Yes, on that 13th day, God recognized that it simply could not be the Garden of Eden without an art form that embodied the best of human freedom, so the God that made the heavens and the Earth made it all so. And in one of God’s greatest acts, God let all of creation create together, and in doing so, make community together, so that they might learn and experiment and change and move and wonder and die and resurrect. Together.

And as God’s community of organic connectivity flourished in that glorious garden, there was no center and there were no margins. All were given voice and vote.

They had structure and flexibility...
They had settings and spontaneity...
They had innovation and instruction...

And their music painted a picture of the God who first created them.

It was Eden.

And it was pleasing in God’s sight.

On that 13th Day, God said, "Let it happen. Let it happen again and again.” God said, “Be a creative creation! Let the music play, and let your worries, your concerns, your hardheartedness and all insecurities go away.” And God said, “Let there be rest and sleep on the 14th day.” And so, there was night, and there was a late morning. The 13th Day.

And the world would never be the same.

Let there be jazz!, God said. Let there be jazz. And let there be a church, we gather on this glorious Sunday to say, that yearns to learn from this profound artistic confession, from one of creation’s most creative expression.

And why not? Why not be a church that yearns to learn from jazz? Why not?

Because, quite frankly, the art form of jazz was baptized from its birth, because jazz had the Gospel in its genetic code, and therefore, to this day, jazz serves as a profound and prophetic portal of theological imagination and creative confessional proclamation.

Why not be a church that yearns to learn from jazz? The evidence is before us!

Now, for the sake of quick historical review, we begin with the affirmation that the formation of jazz as a musical genre drew heavily from heavenly roots. For what we know now is that Gospel music, church music, and western instrumentation met one another in New Orleans, and this holy collection mixed with Creole music and French dance music, and in doing so fused with bawdy-house music and marching band music. And what was created in such a contextual musical kitchen was a spicy, earthy, honest and ambitious new sonic gumbo. Known as Jazz. A heavenly creation.

The history books reminds us that New Orleans could not keep jazz captive, as a migration of Black Americans to the north between the two world wars reared generations of young musicians in church settings in the burgeoning black urban centers. And as many of these church musicians grew up - and grew out - to find their vocations in the ministry of jazz, the world would never be the same. For example, both of John Coltrane's grandfathers were ministers. Jon Hendricks' father was a minister. Ramsey Lewis' father was a minister, and there are many other players of many backgrounds that have written explicitly from Spirit to Spirit. Jazz recordings attest to it. And beyond the borders of Christian expression, Charley Mingus said his music was evidence of his soul's will to expand. Dizzy Gillespie drew parallels between the developments of religion and jazz. In addition, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter – both long practicing Buddhists, felt that the music they made was is in service to the mutual enlightenment of themselves and their listeners.

Yes, jazz was - and continues to be - of the spirit. Because, for those that have been blessed to play it, we recognize that the very act of learning to make music and improvise at a deep level brings to mind the spiritual habits of meditation and prayer, for as many here on this musically-inclined campus would attest, the mastery of such music is an existential exercise, and might I say, a religious experience. More specifically, the performance of jazz improvisation requires that the artist be fully present in her consciousness, as the music requires total involvement and thus a humble knowledge of boundaries and a bold pursuit of boundlessness. For when you're playing, the music is not just you and the instrument of your choosing – but, the music is also the microphone, the music is the chair, the music is the door opening, the spotlight, and today, the drip of water from the baptismal font, sound of the chapel spire swinging in the wind, and yes, that child screaming in the back pew!

The music is from soul to universe, because jazz is of the spirit! Therefore, at its best, jazz itself serves as an instrument of both mastery and compassion. It is an experience of deep level communication – both between band members and between an artist and congregation alike. It unifies, as the music inspires awe and respect. Jazz produces forgetting and joy. It keeps the lonely company and consoles the brokenhearted. Jazz bespeaks possibilities of hope and grace and presents us with the keys to the secret doors within us all. And all of this is possible without the utterance of a single lyric or overt statement of a language other than that of music itself.

So imagine: What could happen if the church yearned to learn from jazz? What could it mean?

Perhaps the answer is found in scripture read moments ago: Psalm 119:45, which reads: “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts”.

Again. “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts”.

Perhaps this Psalm was written on the 14th day of creation when people rested and reflected on their first night of jazz! Because, for starters,  Psalm 119 is a jazz psalm, for it is designed for people who understand both life and tradition as a journey, but not just any journey, but a “walk about” into a territory that is not their own and thus not fully known.

Now, to review, the 119th psalm begins in verse 1 by portraying life as a pathway and the living of such life as a walking pilgrimage in that particular pathway. And later, in verse 19, the psalm writer self-identifies as a sojourner on earth, meaning a resident alien, thus a foreigner who lives on journey in a place other than her own. Yes, throughout the 176 verses of this 119th Psalm, the longest of all Psalms, we hear that such a sojourner needs the light of such a pathway for times of trouble, times of loss and times of struggle. As a result, in doing so, this 119th Psalm pictures the believer as a person on the move, going from somewhere to somewhere, thus traveling from someone to someone new. And this image is key for understanding the psalm - and I would argue - understanding both jazz and the church.  

Now, what must be noted is that although Psalm 119 is the longest of all psalms, it is not the most difficult to remember or understand, as the psalm itself is built according to a clear acrostic and artistic pattern. More specifically, the poetry of Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two eight verse units, corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In other words, each line of each each-verse unit begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, sort of like verses 1-8 beginning with “A”, verse 9-16 with “B”, and so on and so forth. Therefore, in the original Hebrew language there is a clear pattern to this 119th psalm, because as scholars argue, the structure of this psalm is a teaching device meant to aid in memorization, so that, when one is traveling - or might we say “improvising” - on a pathway in an unknown territory - they can be guided and inspired by the familiar form of the psalm, the music that directed them - and us - on the pathway from exile to freedom, or might we say, from discovery into becoming. Thus personified in verse 45:

“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts”.

Freedom and form.
Limits and precepts.
Both rules and reformation...
Both restrictions and revolution...
From exile into the promised land....
On the pathway...

What could be more jazz than that?

And I might add, what could be more Lutheran than that?

The 119th psalm, like jazz, and like the church of a Lutheran key - is able to enjoy the paradoxical nature of both confessional fidelity and contextual fidelity, and in doing so, this 119th psalm and this jazz first made on the 13th day shows that the more one knows the limits and the form, the more free and liberated one is to improvise and experiment. As Paul writes in Romans 6, we are both free and bound, thus we need both limitation and liberation, and we need to hold both in tension on the pathway which we call the journey of faith. Because, as scripture reminds jazz and as jazz reminds the church: Being both/and people in an either/or world is who we are as the Body of Christ. Which is why we can make the claim that ecclesiastical and theological characteristics which may seem contradictory on the surface may in fact be both distinct and true, upon further review.

For example:

We can state that God as Trinity can be both Three in One and One in Three!
We can claim that we as human beings can be simultaneously both Saints and Sinners!
We can argue that the Bible can be both heavenly inspired and humanly derived!
We can believe that Jesus can be both intimately human and infinitely divine!
And most of all, we can be grounded in the faith that in Jesus Christ we are most fully set free.

And our use of jazz today reminds us, in response we can be both subject to none and servant of all. And this, I believe, is what the church could - and should - yearn to learn from jazz.
As a community of faith, our pathway in the journey of our unfolding and expanding tradition is to have both roots and reach, both limits and liberation, and both freedom and form. This is the faith we stand on. Thus, we can live out our callings in this world as a church “free to be” in a world that so often wishes to incarcerate us with the fear of both revolution and routine. Therefore, as people rooted in the faith that God is present in and with us through the risen Jesus... Regardless of what we have done, regardless of what we are doing, regardless of where we are going and regardless of where we have been...

We are free. And because of it...

We can listen…
We can learn…
We can promote…

And we can pursue wherever the pathway is leading.

Because we are grounded in the grace and love of God made known in Jesus, we can insist upon freedom of inquiry and criticism in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, regardless of where the pursuit will lead! We can value intellectual rigor and caution against premature judgments and overreaching conclusions. We can prefer paradox over and against extremism or relativism.

Yes, because we are rooted in the promise of resurrection, we can support interfaith understanding and welcome those of all denominations and religions as partners in the search for wisdom. We can pursue justice informed by compassion as the goal of political and social structures. We can discern one’s responsibility to ensure the longings of the word touch one’s inner most desires.

Yes, because we are justified by God and by no deeds of our own, we can seek to understand the nature and vital importance of community. We can support music and the arts as integral to what it means to be human. We can take human limitation seriously while also seeking to test those limits. We can regard the purpose of religion and education to be freedom from and freedom for.

And yes, because Jesus is the ground we stand on, we can walk about in freedom, and in doing so

Peace can be with us. On the days when we see, and on the many days that we do not.
And on the days when we believe, and on the many days when we cannot.

And so, what does this mean?

It means that, as people of faith, we must seek reach because we are rooted, seek freedom because we have form, and seem liberation because we are given limits, in this journey of tradition.

As we heard in Psalm 119…
As we hear in the gift of jazz…

As we will see in the baptism this morning, and as we will continue to see lived out in the unfolding narrative of God’s activity in and through and beyond the church, we are both traditional and contemporary, because roots require reach and reach must have roots. And so, like jazz, the church - and the people of God whom seek to live faithfully into it - should harness its ultimate concerns and empower its collective curiosity about the ultimate questions and from such curiosity inspire religious faith into bold and humble action. And together, be baptized by God into that which is always being made new. This day, and always.

And so, people of God, on this day of creation:

Let there be jazz. And let us not be afraid to play.

Let there be jazz, today and every day.

Let there be….
A Sections and B Sections…
Ballads and Blues…
Let there be…
Changes and charts and codas and cool.
Let there be…
Dot time and double time and free jazz and funk…
Let there be….
Melodies that fly, flow and sometimes stunk.
Let there be…
Patterns and pedals and pick ups and pockets…
Let there be trumpets and trombones that sound like rockets!
Let there be…
Scales, Solos, strolls and swing..

And let there be a Church, where the freedom of life in Christ, will truly ring.

And may the God made known in Jesus, look upon it all, and see that it is good.

All days that God has made.

Amen.