Jazz Communion 2015
Vince Guaraldi Jazz Mass
September 6, 2015
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The first time jazz was ever welcomed into a worship service, Rev. Charles Gompertz decided to hedge his bets. He picked some hymns that Episcopalians would know. He selected a musical setting of the communion liturgy that Episcopalians sang every week. He invited a Grammy-award winning jazz pianist whose music would delight most people. And he put into the worship service a Bible passage that children memorize in Sunday School: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16.
That verse is sometimes called the “End Zone verse.” If you watch a pro football game and there is a touchdown, you will probably see some guy holding up a poster board in the stands. He is going to try and proclaim the Gospel by holding up his sign. John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
Rev. Gompertz had the verse in his Episcopalian prayer book. It was one of the texts appointed in the lectionary for May 21, 1965. Everybody knew it. If you are going to bring jazz into a worship service for the very first time, you might as well start with material that everybody knows. Because he already knew it was going to be risky.
These were Episcopalians, after all. They can be as proper and traditional as you get. Maybe you know the old joke about the Episcopalian who didn’t get into heaven because he used the wrong dinner fork. These are Christians who are well-established. That led somebody to quip, “Episcopalians are Presbyterians whose investments turned out well.” And jazz was coming into their cathedral, their brand new cathedral. Some feared the music would tarnish the brass.
And it was 1965, a year bubbling in ferment. Two months before the first jazz mass, Martin Luther King Jr. had marched in Selma, and by May, the date of the mass, voting rights for African Americans were not settled yet. Many in the country felt a profound dis-ease about the Vietnam war. There were generational fault-lines developing between the World War 2 generation and their upstart children.
If that wasn’t enough, the preacher for that first jazz mass was the Rev. Malcolm Boyd, a highly controversial preacher who had been one of the Freedom Riders for civil rights. He had marched in Selma with King. A number of years later, he would come out as gay, one of the first prominent church leaders to do so. He would preach a sermon that day that would not back off from the divisive issues of the day.
It was 1965, the first jazz mass in America. We can stand fifty years later and say, “How hip! How cool!” But even Chuck Gompertz, the priest who commissioned the whole thing, would go to the mail box one day, open an unsigned letter, and read an anonymous death threat against his daughter. Somebody wrote, “I hate what you are doing to church music!”
Life comes with a share of risks. Have you noticed that? There are the little risks, like waking up in the morning and not knowing how the day will unfold. There could be a car accident, or a medical emergency, or an irrational expression of evil. We never know. And there could be larger risks too. Twenty-four years later, I’ll tell you that I had second thoughts the first time I brought jazz into this room. Before the service, my stomach was terribly upset and I said, “Am I out of my mind?”
Life comes with risks. The fullness of life that God intends for all people comes with risks. That is the shape of the Christian Gospel. God risks everything by sending Jesus into a self-destructive world. That’s the truth of John 3:16 and the sentences around it. God will go into the world as the human being Jesus. He will go to his own people and they will misunderstand him. His incarnation will be so complete that he will be overlooked, if not rejected and refused.
And why is this? Because it is a human tendency to resist the very things that make us well. The Gospel of John says, “Light came into the darkness, and darkness yelled, ‘Turn out the lights!’” Ah, that’s the story of Good Friday.
As Easter People, we can declare, though, that this is what God risks, because God loves the whole world. Not one little corner of it, but the whole thing. God comes in Jesus to feed every hungry soul, to heal every broken heart, to hold every wobbly spirit, and to re-create for us the fullness of life. At the center of God’s heart is a joy that will risk self-sacrifice, if there is the slightest possibility that someone might turn from the darkness and step into the light.
What I have learned about jazz in the church is that people really want it. Even if they sit scowling with their arms crossed, they really want it. They want to be in the presence of the energy and imagination. They want the passion to kiss them alive. They want their own frozen hearts to defrost. And it’s not the jazz per se; it is what’s behind the jazz. They want to know there is a deep joy at the center of the universe that has the power to make all things well.
The joy has come in Jesus. That is the risk God has taken, knowing fair well that the people who want this joy will resist it, that those who desire this fullness of life will try to snuff out that life. The very mission of God to rescue the human race from its darkness can be crucified – that is the enormous risk God takes! Yet even then, God comes back to once again invite us to the dance. Because whatever else we declare about God, God is a jazz musician with the ability to create light out of darkness, joy out of despair, love out of fear, power out of weakness, a Holy Way when it seems there is no way.
I have seen people affected by the music of God in ways that they cannot describe with words. Yesterday, I got a note from a man named David. He was just a little kid when his Episcopalian boys choir was invited to sing today’s mass music for the very first time. He writes, “Being involved with that back in 1965 was one of the most significant occurrences in my life. Thanks for keeping it alive.”
Or I think of Ruthie Post, a woman who sat right down front when we worshiped with jazz. Ruth left us for heaven a year ago. She would arrive an hour early, get a good seat, and say, “I love this! It makes me feel alive.” And she would tell everybody she knew about the effect it had on her life. I’d like to think it was a worthy rehearsal for heaven, a little bit of heaven here on earth.
God invites us to resist our resistance, to welcome the grace and truth of heaven with open arms. And if today there is a crack in our defenses, perhaps the crack will be wide enough for the light to enter in. The good news is that God comes to us in the joy of Jesus. It is God’s enormous risk, and if only one soul is awakened, enlivened, and redeemed, it would be worth the risk.
May that soul be your soul.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.