All Saints’ 2013
Forty something years ago, when I was at University in California, I was told to read an essay titled, “How is jazz like skyscrapers?” My topic for this morning is wider and more melodious: How is jazz like Jesus? or, if you like, How is Jesus like jazz? Here are some easy notes to start with.
Some would say jazz can be joyful but demanding; it can give you strength and comfort, and surprise you too, but sometimes stretches you out more than you might expect or even like. And so does Jesus.
At the start, jazz works, makes sense, gives light and life, for people in pain, for the lowest of the low, which is deep-down everybody. Jazz joins us together in an upwelling and an uprising; a revolution where those cast down get lifted up and people left behind rise to take pride and find their place in a new parade of love and justice and joy. And so does Jesus.
In the tight spots of modern life, Jazz is a riff for freedom and joy beyond power, improv for a peace sounding beyond easy understanding. Jazz sees, enlightens, even focuses on a world often overlooked; carrying memories not fully remembered and never forgotten: ancient villages, kidnapped journeys on leaky ships to unknown lands — trips no one would take were there a choice. Jazz clamours where people slave in dark places and city slums with a sky-light song singing out fierce freedom and jubilation and peace and power for those who need it the most. And so does Jesus.
Jazz makes room to listen and play with an abrupt and audacious hope, telling us to take on the tune in some new order, beyond the old chaos, towards an inconceivable cosmos that lies right on the near side of now. Jazz calls us to take our place in the chorus, pick up our instrument, give our breath and talent to a loud loving noise, to the Lord of life, to our neighbour, and everyone at home and away, as well as the stranger who needs us. And so does Jesus.
He would play good jazz: it’s in the tradition. The reading from Saint Luke’s Gospel beats out a consistent rhythm of the overlooked being lifted up, top dogs being knocked down, and maybe everybody at home-base free at the last. Early on in that Gospel the Virgin Mary takes a solo about scattering the proud, filling up the hungry and sending the rich away empty; then Simeon beats out a refrain of falling and rising, lights up with revelation and glory; and Anna finally sings a rift on praise and redemption before John the Baptist takes a turn jamming for right life and action, turning the world around with a new song where the crooked shall be made straight, the rough made smooth and all flesh see the wholeness of God's joy, and so does jazz.
Then Jesus takes centre-stage, singing that love song that comes in the moments when you feel like you’re going to die right now, and you’re going to live forever, gathering his small group big-band sound to sit right there in the deep-down middle of life and taking that simple strong tune into a whole new neighbourhood; meeting dirty death with deep inspiring uprising and and renewal in the last places you’d ever dare look for light in the darkness. And so does jazz.
And Jesus still sings, sometimes sweet enough to break your heart, with all the healing and health and wholeness you could ever hope for; shaking it up and turning it all upside down and making it so there just might be room for everybody to wake up and see any Sunday morning like now where we’re looking at winning and losing and life and love and poetry and the possibility even of God for the very first time, and so does jazz.
Then Jesus comes to the end of his solo: singing, Blessed are you if you’re poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, defamed; then you better leap for joy; because something better’s coming on to the earth, something that breathes deep and daring love and is going to last! But woe if you’re rich where there is so much poverty and full when so many live empty, for in the end you’ll mourn and weep, because all you thought you bought ends up going free and while you were worried that your brother needed a keeper, he only wanted a brother and you wouldn't want to ever lose that chance. And then He looks at you and says, "Do you want to come and join the band?"
And well might you think, “How can anyone play that song, get the grace-notes, give it that light touch, see past all the shadows to take that risk that it all comes ‘round right. Where in God’s name do you get the gift to sing this great and glorious life, how do you get hold of that real good jazz?"
And Jesus says, "Love those who hate you, bless those who curse you… Do to others as you'd have them do to you. Act like a man who might die tonight and who’s going to live forever." And he turns it all over to you.
And you know that music like that doesn’t last long, and it just might live forever. Sometimes It may mean a dirge where you can cry for all the world, and other times it may bring the blues to a birth you can’t see from here, it may pitch you in a tomb and deal you to death, where the only way home happens with a lullaby that’s larger than any love or life you ever knew, and leaves you wider awake than you ever were before.
And that’s why we’re here this morning at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival, why the music plays, the voices sing out, why we lean into Jesus in a place where the song leads us on, new rhythms make a new home, and even that old demon death learns to love a new life, in an almost unbelievable coincidence of opposites coming together and waking us up to a foreign land right in the middle of everywhere, where, by grace, everyone may be home free. For that’s what Jesus is about, and so, by God, is jazz.