Sunday, September 18, 2011

What's for Dinner?

Exodus 16:2-15

September 18, 2011

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

The tambourine was barely silent when the people started to complain. I mean, you know about the tambourine. Moses had a sister named Miriam. It was her tambourine. She pounded it joyfully, leading everybody in a triumphant song. It was right after the people were released so supernaturally from Egypt.

As the people departed Egypt, finding themselves in similar landscapes. They began in the desert, and it’s still desert. They are still pitching their tents, still traveling by stages, and now they are running out of food.

That is one great benefit if you are a slave: you have a master, and you never have to worry where the food is coming from. All good things come from the master.

It may cost you more flesh than you expected. But chow time comes at chow time. Slaves don’t have to worry about a roves over their heads. Never mind that part about working yourself seven days a week, twenty-eight hours a day. Everything becomes a routine. The more work you do it, the less you have to worry about growing up and figuring it out. Everything is provided, as long as you have a master!

But that was Egypt. This is now. The people and Moses pass through the sea into freedom. They don’t have Pharoah for a master any more. That’s the good news, and that’s the bad news. No sooner does the tambourine stop when the people of Israel grumble. They want to know what’s for supper.

What’s for supper -- for God’s sake! What are we going to eat? Can’t just keep walking around! When will we eat? That’s a matter every creature wants to know.

My little cat Nellie is seventeen years old. She now resides in our upstairs bathroom. We call it her deluxe apartment in the sky. And Nellie yowls whenever she gets the urge to eat. My wife says it is an emotional disorder. The truth is they are hunger pangs. Nellie lets us know when she wants something to eat. This is what every creature does. Every creature. Dogs do this. People do this.

Looking out my kitchen window, I noticed one wayward bird squawking that we had not replenished her birdfeeder. She looked at me and said, “I’m about to winter in Louisiana. Aren’t you going to feed me before I go?”

The people of Israel, just like all other creatures God has made, grumble out loud, “What’s for dinner?”

The kids ask the same question when they walk in the door at 3:40. You inform them of the menu and they want a snack. Get them some celery sticks with peanut butter, but they were hoping for something with a lot of chocolate.

What’s for dinner? At 8:00 after the light repast of salad and soup, he gets up to forage around the refrigerator. The fridge is full of food, and he exclaims, “Why don’t we have anything hear to eat?” This is a human question. This is a creature’s question. When there is no immediate answer, the people grumble.

You know, I hear the grumbling. All kinds of people are prone to grumbling. The grumbling is always about something. Something is unsatisfied.

Why didn’t the levee go the entire length of the river? What are we going to do to help the people who were flooded? Why can’t you move quicker?

Life offers up the illusion that questions can be answered, that problems can be solved instantly. You want to get hold of somebody, you dial their cell phone and let it ring. If you call and they are sitting in church, it doesn’t matter because you are important and you want your answers now. Technology leads us into that illusion.

So does modern medicine. Why can’t you figure out this illness? Why can’t you tell me why it hurts in my stomach? Why can’t you fix this and patch me up? I’m paying you good money – or my employer is. I expect to know now.

We want to look into the crystal ball and see how the kids will turn out. Why can’t you tell me that? You are supposed to know all of that

The people of Israel grumble: did you bring us all the way out here to let us starve? And for what it’s worth, Moses rightly redirects the blame. “Take it up with God,” he says. Take it up with God. He’s right about that. Beneath every human discontent is a problem with God.

Why don’t you give me what I need?

Why won’t you answer my prayer?

Why can’t you come when I call on you?

How long do we have to wait?

Why don’t you get all the hypocrites out of my church?

Why can’t you give me the joy that other people feel?

Why won’t you send us a better pastor?

Why don’t you give us something to eat?

It’s really an issue with God. Oh, I know: pick on Moses because he is God’s representative. Grumble to him, because it’s his job to listen to all the kvetching. When the kvetching goes unanswered, and God’s representative is pummeled around by the questions, concerns, and unaddressed agendas, when you scrape all that away, the plate is still empty . . . and you are waiting for God to put something on it.

This is essentially an issue with God. At heart it is a deeply spiritual issue, namely, we are not getting what we want, much less what we need. Don’t we pray to God for daily bread? Jesus told us as much.

Jesus told the story of a contractor who treats everybody fairly. He keeps going down to the town square to secure some more workers. Even if they put in more hours, even if they work harder, even if they show up late, this guy treats everybody the same. It’s a glimpse of how God is, the kind of God we want to believe in.

God gave you that last breath of oxygen. Did you get a bill for that?

God gave you the body that you inhabit. Did you have to sign a rental agreement? Of course not.

God is the Giver, the primary Giver. All things originate from God’s creativity. Our problem with God is whether God is the continuing Giver. Because, as you know, we want it and we want it now. Fill in the blank – what I want right now is ____________.

Or to bring it home, what’s for dinner?

It’s not merely a matter of wanting anything. We are talking about daily bread, about sustenance. The world is arranged in such a way that plenty of food so that all life can be sustained. The problem is that food is in the wrong places. Or too much food is in the wrong hands. Or we find ourselves in a desert of sand, and we worry that God does not care for us enough to give our daily bread. It’s about food, and it’s about more than food. It is always a desert concern.

Does God come to our assistance? Does God provide for us? Or is God sitting on a cloud somewhere, uninterested and uninvolved?

In many obvious cases, yes, God does provide. But there are potential misfires. Do you know what happens after God gives manna to the Hebrews? Some of them start hoarding it. They wanted to stockpile it, so they could have more than their neighbors. When they opened up their Ziploc container on the very next day, it was full of maggots. That’s what selfishness can do. It turns all our treasures into worms.

Yet the story teaches that, prior to human greed, God provides. Each and every day, in the most desolate of locations.

The manna falls from heaven, so to speak. The word Manna comes from the Hebrew question, “What is it?” Religion professors like to point out to unsuspecting students what we think manna actually was. There was a certain kind of insect that secreted a white, flaky substance. It’s small. It does not seem significant enough to live on. Manna is a tiny gift that you do not think is sufficient. But it’s all you have to go on.

It indicates that God the Giver provides gifts every day all around us, if only we look for them in the small places. We see them if we silence our grumbling hearts long enough, to appreciate, to receive, to pass along what we have.

Of all the stories that have come from last week’s flood, maybe the best one comes from my home town of Owego, New York. The historical village on the Susquehanna took on more water than they have ever seen in their history. The Victorian mansions along Front Street are emptied of waterlogged antiques. Piles of furniture and wall board form sidewalk bunkers on both sides of the street. Last Tuesday, the first day that I could get up there to check on my parents, the mud line in the trees was higher than my car.

The whole town was without power for a number of days. When the Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Parrish Bridges, realized that he would lose all the food in his freezer and refrigerator, here’s what he did. He fired up the gas grill, cooked everything he had, and took it down the hill until he came to the water’s edge. Then he borrowed a kayak and delivered the food up and down the street to people who had lost everything. They were in the desert, a vast watery desert, and he went door to door.

“What is it?” they asked. He said, “It’s your dinner.”

Somebody heard the story and said, “Did he take it to the Presbyterians?” No, he took it to the hungry. Hunger does not discriminate, and neither do the floods.

God provides. Sometimes we are the ones who provide on God’s behalf, because God first provided to us. But the prerequisite is to cease all grumbling. Perhaps we are misled by the abundance in our own refrigerators. And when a time of constriction or limitation comes, we hover over what we have, if not reach for more.

Maybe what we need is not for more manna to fall, but for our eyes to see it, our tongues to taste it, our hearts to share it. Maybe it’s when we think we have the least resources that God provides the most.

I don’t know, but I see this mystery over and over again. One day, Jesus is mobbed by a crowd. They want to hear him teach, so he teaches. They want him to heal, so he heals. It gets late, so he looks at the twelve disciples and says, “Feed them something. You give them something to eat.”

They say, “Lord, we don’t have much. A couple of loaves, a few fish, but what is that when the need is so great?” So he takes what they have, blesses it, breaks it, gives it away. Somehow there is enough for everybody. How did that happen? Did everybody take a really small piece? Did his generosity inspire thousands of peasants to share? Did food strangely multiply? I think the answer to all those questions is “yes.” There was abundance where people only saw scarcity. That’s the way God is.

One thing we will discover as we read through these stories of Israel in the wilderness is how much these stories read us. How much they see what it’s like to be human. How much they expose our own spiritual hunger. They push us to go deeper, and to prepare us for a God who actually provides for us. They train our eyes to see when God truly does provide.

I don’t know if you have had a lot scraped away and you find yourself with an empty plate. But in times when I have, suddenly something blossoms in that desert. Where there is no reason to think that life could actually happen, something happens. When it feels like everything is being taken away from you, suddenly you might be filled with more than you thought possible. Be it a relationship, or a job, or the loss of some physical ability, or the loss of some hope you were counting on, just then, precisely then, is where God provides, in the middle of your wilderness.

But it’s probably not where you looking, nor does it always come in the package you expect. Hungry people grumble, God provides, and the people say, “What is it?”

I confess the story in our text leaves me a little bit hungry. It leads me to a place where I need to turn to God and say, “Feed me ‘til I want no more. Come to me in my barrenness. Come to me in my deepest need. Shut my grumbling mouth and open my desiring heart.”

For those of us who journey through the desert this way, we discover it is a pilgrimage. Sustained in visible and invisible ways, we are changed and transformed.

What’s for dinner? Christ.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Getting Out of Egypt

Exodus 14:19-31
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 11, 2011
William G. Carter

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Of all the texts of scripture! On September 11, a day when we remember three thousand innocent deaths, we hear about an entire army wiped out by God. They were doing what they were commanded, chasing after run-away slaves. Moses did what God commanded, and a number of Egyptian soldiers known only to God were killed. I’m not sure this text fits for today.

Two days after the flood waters returned to northeastern Pennsylvania, I’m not sure the text fits for us. We hear of deep waters parted by the power of God; but God didn’t part the waters of the Susquehanna. I spent some time yesterday surveying the flood damage. Moses was not there. There was no dry land for anybody to walk upon.

So what will we do with this famous Bible story? I think we need to decide up front it has nothing to do with September 11. It has no relation whatsoever to the deep waters of Pennsylvania’s floods. And if we can decide it has nothing to do with those two events, we can listen for what it might say to those two events.

I mean, this is one of the big moments of scripture. The young nation of Israel was getting out of hell. For generations, they were enslaved in a foreign land. Great-grandfather Joseph had done well in Egypt, fending off a life-threatening famine. He had earned the trust of the Pharoah of his day and settled things with his brothers. When Joseph died, his family placed him in an Egyptian coffin and laid him to rest, with the proviso that, should they ever get to the Promised Land, they would take his bones with them.

But then you remember what happened: there came a new Pharoah who did know Joseph. Joseph’s family had multiplied, never quite assimilated. Pharoah raised suspicions of them, inciting fear, claiming they were a threat, and ultimately enslaving them. The Israelite family became a major provider of discount labor. Even then, Pharoah was threatened. “Throw their newborn boys into the river,” he decreed.

One Jewish mother refused and hid her baby in a basket. The princess found him, claimed him, and raised him as a royal child. He was named “Mosheh,” or Moses, meaning, “We took him out of the water.” You know this story – of how as a royal adult, he killed an Egyptian who was beating a slave. Then, on the run, he settled among shepherds. All the while, God was listening to the Israelite slaves, taking note of their affliction.

One day, he stumbled upon a bush burning but not consumed. It was a strange sight. From the bush came a Voice. The Voice called him by name, “Moses, Moses!” And God said, “I am weary of how my people suffer. I’m going to bring them out of their oppression. I’m going to set them free. And here’s how I am going to do it, Moses: I am sending you. Tell old Pharoah to let my people go.”

You know this story. So fast-forward eleven chapters, ten plagues, and a handful of Moses’ excuses. There is this moment, this event, after the tenth and final plague, when Pharoah said, “Moses, take your flock and your herd, and be gone.” The people of Israel packed up and left, pausing only long enough to write down the Passover liturgy in chapters twelve and thirteen.

That brings us to chapter fourteen, the text for today. It’s a big moment. The storyteller says God was sneaky. God didn’t take the people in a straight line, up the coast. No, God made the people travel in a “roundabout way” (13:18). God thought, “If these people face a war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt,” and indeed, they were ready for war. But God wanted nothing of a war.

What God wanted – and this is very important to the story – God wanted people to know who he is. God wanted everybody to know. Wanted the Egyptians to know! Oh, God’s people would be released; but there would also be a revelation.

Did you notice that in the hearing of the text? God is giving all the orders. God is doing all the action. God is protecting his own people from an even worse fate. God is refusing to let the people return to Egypt, and fall back into what was both comfortable and oppressive. God is the One who sends the wind. God is the One who parts the waters. God is the One who refuses to let his people be destroyed, and thus destroys the destroyers.

With that, here’s the three-fold punch line at the end of the story: (1) the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians, (2) Israel saw the great work that the Lord did, (3) the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord. That is, it changed them.

Of all the things we can take away from that story, it’s a story all about God. No matter what else is going on down here on the ground, God is really the One who is working in the midst of it all. This is one of those moments when Israel remembers what kind of God it is that they actually have. They have a God who saves them. A God who rescues them. A God who changes people in the midst of horrible, terrifying moments; and when the rough waters settle down, they are different than they used to be.

Here’s one of the proofs that I have that God exists: a lot of bad things could have gone a lot worse that they actually did. The levee might have broken in Kingston. The fourth plane might have hit the Capitol. There are these unruly moments in our lives, these enormous events, when nature surges out of control or people do their absolute worst to one another. We know that.

I still remember how immobilized I was on 9-11. The kids had gone on off the school bus, so I called the senior center to check on some details for a program I was scheduled to do on that sunny Tuesday. The lady on the other end of the phone was hysterical. “Don’t come,” she said, “because that plane hit the building,” and she hung up. I turned on CNN to see what she was talking about. It was 9:02 a.m. and the commentators were yammering on. A minute later, I watched as Flight 175 hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. In that instant, we knew that something really terrible was going on.

You have your memories of that day, as I have mine. I remember how this church was full on the Sunday following, all of us praying the Psalms and hoping in God. A week after that, attendance was back to normal. I don’t know where they went. Maybe they were disappointed that God refused to serve as their good luck charm. Maybe they were too shattered, too shocked, to continue on. I don’t know.

But I saw how we changed. I remember how we decided as a church that we would pray for everybody, and not merely whoever we knew. I remember with pride how church people here decided that they would not be swept up into xenophobic hatred. “Let’s help to sponsor a refugee family,” we said. When we discovered it would be an innocent family from a suspicious country, we did what we could to make them welcome.

I’m proud of how we changed in response to that horrible moment. We welcomed the love of God and we prayed for its increase. We asked for the justice of God, and we began to understand that human justice is not always the same thing as God’s justice. You see, God’s justice always wants to make things right. Israel was enslaved and beaten down in Egypt, and God said, “That will not stand.” So with a mighty hand and outstretched hand, God brought his own people out of their affliction.

That’s what Israel remembers about getting out of Egypt. It was all God’s doing. What they had to do was whatever God wanted them to do. God said, “Pack up,” and they did. God said, “Eat your bread in a hurry,” and they did. God said, “Follow me,” and that’s what the people of God still do. Liberation must be lived out day by day.

I walked in a mud-sodden church sanctuary yesterday. The First United Presbyterian Church of West Pittston is pumping out ten feet of water from the basement. They had four feet or so of mud in the sanctuary. My friend Jim Thyren is the pastor there. If all I had said to him was, “I will pray for you,” I wouldn’t be much of a friend. He pointed me to the dumpster pile, and I started picking up waterlogged pew cushions, some muddy Bibles, a few hymnals that have lost their voice.

It is a deeply horrible moment for that congregation, and it could have been a lot worse. These floods, these 9-11 moments, these passages out of Egypt have the power to disrupt our lives for a very long time. But they also reveal who we are and what we really do believe. If they lead us to believe the world is going down the sewer, then let’s confess we have given up on God and be done with it.

What I believe is that God is right here, in the midst of every terrifying event, calling on us to follow his ways, to love one another, to build trust with one another, to work for one another’s benefit, and thus to glorify God’s holy name.

One of the preachers that I most respect is a Methodist bishop in Alabama. He was quoted in last week’s issue of Christianity Today, when the editors asked how September 11 has affected us. He said,

September 11 has changed me. I'm going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what's wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God's own Son.[1]

He’s right about that. God sent his own Son to the human race, and we killed him. Yet once again, that supremely horrible moment could have gone much, much worse. When we killed his son, God did not wipe us out once and for all. Rather, God turned that moment on its head to forgive us, to set us free. That, friends, is our saving. That is our hope. It pushes us to go back to Jesus, to give him a second look, to let his life infuse our lives.

The way of God is not afflict one another. The way of God is not to allow one person to go hungry. The way of God is not to remain isolated on our high mountain when there are people in the valleys without clean water. The way of God is not to chase away those whose diseases separate them from us. The way of God is to welcome the changes that God would effect to make us more like Jesus his Son.

The way of God is to follow God out of Egypt, to welcome God’s freedom from a world run on our own terms. What we need is a world full of mercy, a kingdom where forgiveness is proclaimed from the throne. This is the one mandatory condition for us to treat one another with justice: God’s justice is always drenched and saturated with God’s mercy.

That is the power that saves us, the power that sets us free to live as God’s children. It is power that is available to us for transforming the world . . . unless we are still stuck in Egypt.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

As Mountains Break into Song

Isaiah 49:8-13
Jazz Communion
September 4, 2011

Here are words from an ancient poem, from the prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

This past Friday night, I took a carload of teenagers to hear Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. If you think our jazz is adventurous, you should hear the Flecktones. They are unbelievable, perhaps one of the greatest groups who improvise and make living music. It’s like jazz and bluegrass and rock and folk, all bubbling in the same sauce.
The bass player plays multiple chords up and down his instrument with surreal velocity. The drummer comes dressed like a pirate and creates weird percussive sounds from an electronic devices of his own making. Howard Levy is now part of the group, a fleet-fingered pianist who is also a virtuoso on five different harmonicas. Then there’s the leader, Dr. Bela Fleck. He was named after Bela Bartok, and like Bartok, he creates folk melodies with angular rhythms and odd harmonies, crossing all kinds of musical boundaries. Bela Fleck does that on the banjo.
I think it was the fourth or fifth time that I’ve heard the band. It’s interesting to look around a packed auditorium to see the effect that a 2 ½ hour concert has on the people present. It was a mixed house, young and old, a few in business suits and ties, others in tie-dyed t-shirts. The music cut across all boundaries. As they began to play, some tunes lasting seventeen or eighteen minutes, the hall became more and more animated. The air was energized.
It wasn’t what everybody wanted. At halftime, about ten people in the row in front of us trickled out and did not return. They looked exhausted. Perhaps they preferred their music slower, and they had already heard an evening’s worth of notes. But for the vast majority of us who endured the marathon, we were enriched, empowered, by music.
Now, that’s the kind of experience that I hope a jazz worship service can provide for you. Not merely a curiosity or even a special event, but a moment that makes our lives a little bit better. We can revisit an old hymn, but bring to it the highest level of creativity that the band can muster. Sure, the way the music first came to us is fine as it is. But perhaps, this time, we can bring it alive in some fresh way. Jazz people are like kids with a chemistry set, cooking up a bubbling stew of harmony and melody in a cauldron of rhythm. We can do something to make this worship service special. That’s our hope, at least.
It’s the kind of hope that animates the prophet Isaiah. In his ancient poem, he dreams of life-brought-alive. Prisoners in dark corners are carried into the light. Those held captive by the ways of the world are released into freedom. God comes in some unexpected way. Life is opened up somehow. It’s something of a homecoming. These people who were prisoners are brought together and fed to satisfaction. Their thirst is quenched. Their travel is protected. And everybody is caught up in a song.
This is Isaiah’s dream. Life is brought to life. Nobody expected it, and it happened.
Last Friday night, I looked around the auditorium at Binghamton University. At that moment, the rhythm was contagious and every foot tapped as one. Everybody there arrived with some kind of burden, but in the rush of that syncopated symphony, those burdens were laid down. To the right, the estranged husband was suddenly smiling. Over there, the woman whose hair was singed by chemotherapy was shaking her shoulders. Next to me were two Abington Heights saxophonists, their eyes dazzled, their mouths agape, overwhelmed by a fountain of jazzy notes that they did not think possible.
The effect of music, that kind of music, this kind of music, is the closest experience that I have had to the power of the Holy Spirit. No one can see the notes, but the wind is what changes you. And you feel alive, totally alive. God is wherever people are totally alive.
I have a friend named Janna. She’s a United Methodist preacher, and a graduate of the school of sacred music at Yale University. She was researching the music of Duke Ellington, particularly the religious music that he wrote and performed in the last ten years of his life. Janna set up an interview with Loren Schoenberg, noted saxophonist and music critic. He also has a reputation for being outspoken. As she mentioned Ellington’s sacred music, she mentioned the name of God.
Schoenberg responded, “God? Well, I don’t know about God. But I believe in Louis Armstrong.”
Then he said, “All I can say is that Louis Armstrong’s music offers me the most immediate and fulfilling spiritual nourishment that I have ever found. There is something in the sound of his trumpet, something in the sound of his voice, that reflects an optimism in the essence of life. It is tragic, it is comic, and it swings despite all the odds. It helps you to put your own problems in perspective.”[1]
Surely this is the power to which Isaiah testifies. It’s the power that I saw unleashed on Friday night by the Flecktones. And it’s the power that I have discovered in the making of jazz for the church.
I remember the first time we did this. Our saintly organist could not find a substitute for Labor Day weekend. Maud Thomas had non-refundable tickets to a national Welsh hymn festival in Kansas City. She looked at me and said, “Would you play the hymns?” No problem, I replied. It’s a holiday weekend and nobody’s going to be here. Then she said, “Are you going to jazz them up?” Truthfully, that had never occurred to me. But that was part of Maud’s persona. If you had some ability, she would not let you hide it under a basket. Would I jazz it up? Oh, why not? Last hurrah of the summer, a quiet Sunday on the schedule, no big deal – and then all of you showed up! How many of you were at that first service twenty years ago? And you’re still here. Who knew?
Who knew that, within a few weeks of doing this for the first time, I would encounter again my college music professor, Al Hamme? Who knew he would introduce me to a stable of amazing musicians who have become like my brothers? Who knew it would lead to the formation of a band, a long list of concerts, and a stack of recordings that nobody buys but everybody enjoys? Who knew we would receive a grant to create jazz hymnal, that Dave Brubeck would become a good friend, or that drummer Marko Marcinko would show up to play here every Christmas Eve?
It continues to be an amazing journey. I may be the only Presbyterian minister who takes vacation time to go on tour with a jazz band. Who knew this band would travel all the way to Corvallis, Oregon to play for six people? Or that we would play the main stage at the Chautauqua Institution to four thousand? Or that Warren Cooper would blow out the speakers at a church in Richmond, Virginia – and afterwards the people of the congregation would come up to thank us? We have a lot of stories, many of them still in the making. Of all the many things that give me joy, I never enjoy life more as when people like these musicians make creative music for people like you – and the whole swinging mess is offered up to God.
We call it a joyful noise. That’s what all of us are created to create – a joyful noise. The jazz here is merely one expression of God’s great symphony. We can believe in God, and we can believe in Louis Armstrong, because we are alive. Thoroughly, completely, energetically alive. And God is wherever people are totally alive.
Tony Campolo is a great preacher from Philadelphia, one of the most alive people that a lot of us have ever known. He tells about going to speak every year at the Creation Festival, something of a Christian Woodstock with pure air. The Creation Festival convenes each summer in central Pennsylvania. Tony preached on the last night of the festival, a Saturday, and then was scheduled to preach the very next morning at a nearby Lutheran church.
It was a safe bet that the people at the festival didn’t go to that church, or that the people in that church would never dream of going to the festival. He even thought about preaching the same sermon. What never occurred to him is that the word spread at the festival that he was preaching the next day right down the road. The normal crowd of two hundred or so people swelled to about twelve hundred. They were crammed into every nook of that church, and due to the limited showering facilities at the festival, they were noticed by the regulars.
The Lutheran pastor apologized to Tony. “I don’t know where these people came from,” he said. Tony didn’t tell him. He especially didn’t tell him that most were of a charismatic bent, many from Assembly of God churches.
The service began. The organist played quietly. The pastor came out in his robes. The candles were lit with a hush. Then the pastor said, in a droning voice, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us come into his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.”
A young man in the balcony raised his arms and shouted at the top of his lungs, “All right!” And all the young people present began to clap and cheer.
The minister was amazed, Tony said. He was stunned. The last thing in the world he expected when he called upon the congregation to make a joyful noise to the Lord was that anybody would.[2]
But that’s what we do. That’s what we are expected to do. With whatever joyful noise we can muster, we announce to the world that we do not belong to the powers of destruction and death. We belong to the God of life, to the God who gives new life.
God is wherever people are completely alive.
You can tell it by the music they make.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

[1] Thanks to Janna Steed for the story.
[2] Tony Campolo, Stories That Feed Your Soul (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2010) 66-67