Sunday, September 5, 2010

Not Your Grandparents' Jazz Band

Isaiah 44:1-8
Jazz Communion 2010
September 5, 2010

Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.

The details are sketchy, but the story is clear. Sometime in the spring of my junior year in high school, I got a new jazz record on the recommendation of a friend. “You have never heard anything like this before!” he exclaimed – and he was right. The album was called “Heavy Weather” by a band called “Weather Report.” I put it on, and I was never the same.

The opening song was called “Birdland,” and it’s the one that we have just heard. The music was different. The drums don’t go “ching-chinka-ching” like a swing band; the rhythm goes more like “wocka-wocka-wocka.” The bass player doesn’t always stay down low, where a bass player should. Instead he plays the opening melody way up high. The song is full of synthesized sounds and electronic gadgets. And the composer was not American; he was Austrian. That signaled something international was afoot.

My mom popped her head in the door. “What are you listening to?” I replied, “It’s a new jazz record.” She listened for a second, cocked her head, and then she said something like, “That’s not your grandmother’s jazz band.”

How true! My grandmother, now 96 years old, was the one who introduced me to the jazz world. She told ancient stories of seeing Benny Goodman lift his clarinet up high with Lionel Hampton chiming out on the vibraphone. She reported on the night in Oil City, Pennsylvania, when Louis Armstrong blew the roof off an auditorium. He had a stack of handkerchiefs on the piano, and as the music got hot, he took one after another to mop his brow. And as I’ve told some of you before, when I was a fledgling teenage pianist, she slipped me two Dave Brubeck albums in a brown paper bag, and my corruption was complete.

But when I put on that new album – when I heard the song “Birdland” that we just played – it was clear: this was not my grandmother’s jazz band.

The issue for today is change. The message could be simple: time rolls on, things has a way of evolving. There was an ancient Greek philosopher named Heraclitus who declared “the only dependable constant in life is change.” He was the one who famously announced, “It is impossible to step in the same river twice.”

Now, I know that’s a risky thing to say in a church. We like our pews bolted down. Most people want the worship service to stay in the same sequence. Our repeated rituals give comfort and security. If some of us had our way, everything would be frozen in time. Same people in the same seats doing the same things in the same way. That’s tempting, even for the preacher: I’d like to show up and preach the same sermon six or eight times in a row, and see if anybody notices.

I’m joking, but not really. I meet people who are shocked that a church would do what we are doing today. They can’t believe it – or more to the point, they can’t imagine it. Things have been so settled for so long. And should I protest, “but we’ve been bringing jazz into our church for nineteen years,” they look mortified. Mortified! Yep, that’s the word: mortified, as in the words “mortician” or “mortuary.”

If you know anything about jazz, you know the music keeps developing. Jazz is a wide river with many swift currents. It keeps moving. Jazz is a living tradition. It is alive from within. And it reminds us that anything alive will keep moving. If it stops or stays the same, it will die. Even though we’re playing music today that is thirty or forty years old, it is full of life and energy – and something new emerges in each fresh performance.

That’s how it is with faith, as well. When the prophet Isaiah writes his poem from chapter 44, it seemed as Jewish faith had run its course. People had been at it for a while, and it didn’t seem to be “working.” They had tried to live faithful lives, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. The Babylonians had sacked their country and kidnapped all their smart people. Those left behind didn’t know what to do. Pundits offered a variety of options. The weak-kneed leaders who were still around suggested settling with the status quo. Cable TV nut-jobs mouthed off 24-7, declaring that the only way forward was to turn the clock four spins backward. Just pretend that we can go back to the good old days . . .

All of a sudden, God speaks up and offers a third option. In chapters 43 and 44 of Isaiah, God declares something new. “Don’t be afraid,” says the Lord of Israel, “I am with you.” God says, “Don’t be afraid – I am about to do a new thing. Don’t be afraid – I am not going to remember your mistakes. Don’t be afraid – if you have been parched soil, I am going to rain down fresh water. If you have been withered and dried up, I’m going to pour my Spirit upon you – and not only you, but your descendants. I’m going to give you so much blessing that it’s going to spill on the people who come after you.”

It’s an amazing promise, and it declares that change comes from God, because life comes from God. Change happens because God is alive. The same creative Spirit that inspires a musician to create a new tune or improvise a new line is the same Spirit that refreshes dry and dusty people. “Don’t be afraid of this,” says Isaiah. “Don’t be afraid if the same God who gave you life comes again to fill you with life.” Don’t be afraid if God begins new initiatives, or if God raises up new people. God says, “I am the first and the last; there is nobody else.” And the Eternal One already knows the things that are to come.

I find some comfort in these words, particularly when I feel like life is stuck, or when I worry about the state of the world. The only future is God’s future, and I don’t have to be afraid of that. Just hang on, keep trusting, keep swinging. That is what we do.

Sometimes it helps to revisit the times and places when we were fully alive, and to mine them for the riches that they still have to share. Remember that wild tune we played, where the bass plays high, and the drummer goes “wocka-wocka-wocka”? When Joe Zawinul wrote that tune “Birdland,” he was remembering some of the most exciting moments of his life.

Birdland was a nightclub on 52nd Street in New York. Zawinul said, “It was the most important place of my life – I met Miles Davis there, I met Duke Ellington, I met my wife in that club.” In his imagination, he revisited the big band music of people like Count Basie. He remembered how alive it was, how exciting it was. So he reached back and grabbed that music, and he brought it forward in time.

That’s the move that is so important. I think it is a deeply spiritual move: to mine the most powerful memories of our traditions and to bring them forward, to this time, to this place, to these new people.

In the psalm for today, we heard the words, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” That’s a crazy invitation. If you ever want to upset church people, teach them a new song! They will whine and complain and moan and groan. Some will stand with their arms crossed defiantly. They are – (shall we say?) – mortified!

But it was the Bible scholar who once told me, “If we listen to the singing, we discover that the new song is constituted by the same old words. The old words are recovered and reclaimed (Walter Brueggemann)." The new song is not merely a return to a kinder, gentler age. Neither is a trip down Nostalgia Avenue. No, it is a radical discovery that the songs our mothers taught us to sing have awesome power and movement for a new day. The new song given by God is always a song that began in the past, yet is brought forward to this time, this place, and these circumstances.

This is what jazz musicians do: they take old songs and bring them forward into something new. This is what people of faith do: they claim their ancient praises of God and declare them with fresh imagination and energy. To refuse this is to die a withering death. To engage it is to find ourselves filled with life. A God who is the Creator is always leading us into something new. So we don’t have to be afraid. When we look toward the future, we don’t have to be afraid.

In one of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, he tells of the night that Roger Hedlund and his wife Cindy returned home unexpectedly. Thinking they would be gone for a few days, their two creative teenage daughters had decided to host a big party. Still unseen, the parents stood there in shock: teenagers were passing around cigarettes, loud music was threatening to kill the chickens, some generous soul had poured a beer into the dog’s water dish. Cindy thought they should step out of the shadows, and come down hard. Roger shook his head and said, “No, I’m getting tired of being a dad.”

He convinced her that they should go, neither of them sure it was the right thing. Then they discovered their car had become stuck in the mud, so Roger trudged back, interrupted the party, and asked if a few of the guys could give them a push. Their daughters were flustered, embarrassed, even shocked – until it dawned on them that maybe Mom and Pop had gotten stuck because they were parking.

Later that night, after arriving at their destination, Roger settled down to sleep with the following thought: “I’m getting tired of being a dad. Love my girls, but I’ve been a parent long enough, I did what I could. I can’t go on being in charge much longer. These kids, this world, are going to continue long after I’m gone, and I should get used to that and even enjoy it. I can’t run them. I can only love them and this good life. Thank you, God, for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.” With that, he rolled over and went to sleep. (from "A Trip to Grand Rapids," in Leaving Home)

The future belongs to God; for God is the first, and God is the last. We don’t have to be afraid. Whatever God is doing will turn out well. Whatever God isn’t doing will not matter. So we don’t have to be afraid. We can march, dance, pray, and sing right into the eternal light.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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