“Jesus and Jazz”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 8, 2017
The season of Epiphany is often given short shrift, and is even overlooked, perhaps because it comes just after Advent and Christmas and all the merrymaking that happens during December. But Epiphany is a wonderful and important time for us as Christians and as church people because it celebrates the ways that God’s Spirit comes to life within each of us.
One of the ways that we and other churches have marked the Epiphany season is by emphasizing the arts. Making music, painting, sculpting, dancing, writing poetry, and so much more – any kind of artistic activity – is one of the ways that God’s light shines through us into the world.
There are many ways to express oneself artistically. Often we go it alone, sitting quietly and creating something. To get started, though, we usually need someone to teach us.
I loved working with clay when I was a kid. There is something so satisfying about that cool, pliable material that becomes whatever you want it to become.
When I was in fourth grade, one day, our art teacher told our class that we were each to make a dinosaur – a perfect assignment for a boy of that age. I had the best time deciding which kind of dinosaur to make (I chose a triceratops) and manipulating the clay as carefully as I could. I loved that dinosaur and couldn’t wait to show it to my parents.
However, when our teacher came to my table, she looked at my dinosaur for a few seconds, declared, “That’s not a dinosaur,” and flattened it with a swift and powerful smash of her hand.
I’m still in therapy…
That probably wasn’t the best way for her to nurture my artistic skills and sensibilities. Thankfully, there is another way, and I believe jazz is a perfect example of that other way.
When Ed and Ed and Chris and John play a tune together, Ed Broms may be the leader and one of the others may be featured in a particular song, but making this kind of jazz is a highly collaborative process. Each person in the combo brings something special to the moment and offers it with passion and skill. As we’ve heard this morning, as they play a song, they each take a turn sharing their talents while the others make room, either by being silent, or most often, by stepping into the background and supporting the soloist with a more subtle sound.
Each instrumentalist gets a opportunity to offer a gift to the group and to the audience, a chance to shine. And each is expected to respect and to assist the others in the group when it’s their turn to step forward. And then there are those moments when all four of them are playing at full volume in a soaring combination of rhythm and harmony.
This is the reason I love this kind of jazz and why I believe it is an excellent example of who we might be in Jesus Christ.
Imagine a situation where each of us can be fully who we are, sharing our talents and treasures while others support us, and then coming together in concert to make the world a more beautiful place. To me, this is what the church is when it’s at its best, what families, workplaces, sports teams, and non-profits are like when they are at their best.
In our reading from Acts, the Apostle Peter begins his little sermon with an astonishing and important statement: I truly understand, he says, that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
That may seem like an extraordinarily inclusive statement for someone like Peter, someone who was so tied to his Jewish identity and so devoted to Jesus, but really, it reflects the example Jesus set for him. In the course of his ministry, Jesus treats the people he encountered with the same kind of openness.
In his travels, Jesus speaks with and heals and helps and leads people representing many different nations and social classes and religions. While he is honest about his commitment to his own Jewish faith, he doesn’t judge others for being different; he emphasizes compassion rather than nationality or religious doctrine.
We could use a little bit of that these days, right?
And Peter is the same way, at least here in this sermon from Acts. But, after declaring God’s impartiality, he goes on to make an impassioned case for the value and centrality of Jesus Christ. He shares his faith unapologetically.
Whenever I am in interfaith circles, I am tempted to water down my expressions of Christian faith for fear of offending others. But I was lucky. Early in my career, some very wise mentors of mine convinced me that the best way to approach an interfaith gathering is to be our most authentic selves, representing our own tradition as clearly as possible, at the same time showing deep respect for and interest in the faith of others.
Unfortunately, religious people of all kinds seem to have a tendency to claim a special status in God’s eyes. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian people have for centuries claimed to be God’s favorites. But the only way that we will be able to live in peace is to act like a jazz combo: Everyone values one another as equals. Everyone listens to the others and learns something. Everyone gets a chance to shine. And from time to time, we all come together and make something amazing happen.
Imagine a world where Jewish and Christian people grew to appreciate and emulate the Muslim commitment to piety and daily prayer… Imagine a world where Muslims and Christians came to truly honor the Jewish commitments to tradition, community, and identity… Imagine a world where Jewish and Muslim people grew to understand and value the Christian commitment to forgiveness and community service…
No one is good at everything, but we’re all good at something. Ed Sorrento is a wonderful percussionist, but put a sax in his hands and who knows what sounds he might make! And just as Ed Broms backs off when it’s time for Chris or John to solo, your daughters, when they play soccer, are learning to pass the ball at just the right time so that someone else can score a goal.
I don’t follow professional basketball very closely, but last week, the Celtics’ young point guard, Isaiah Thomas, scored 52 points in one game because his teammates knew he was hot and kept passing him the ball. How often do we do that for one another –recognize a rare gift, a rare moment in someone’s life, and do what we can to empower and support that person, allowing, even encouraging her or him to improvise in order to be successful?
In Michelle Obama’s final speech as First Lady, she said, “Our glorious diversity – our diversities of faiths, colors, creeds – that is not a threat to who we are; it makes us who we are.”
She was talking about America, but might that be true for us as people of faith as well – that we might recognize in our diversity of opinion and lifestyle a true strength and even an identity? Just as God is impartial, so might we be, not apologizing or hiding our convictions, but sharing them and listening to others in equal measure.
If we can do that, not just intend to do it but really do it – in our homes, at school, at work — we will make music that is just as beautiful, and just as cool, as these guys are making this morning.