Sermon (November 6/All Saints’ Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell – “Music & Faith: Jazz Music”
Last Sunday, I shared the results of a Pew Research survey that was conducted a couple of years ago involving almost 2,000 people of a range of ages from age 16 up to older adults.
Of the following musical categories including classical, country, rock, R&B, Hip-Hop which includes Rap and Jazz, here is the ranking of the musical preferences:
Rock music is #1. 35% of people said they listen to rock music often. Country comes in as the 2nd favorite music preference in the survey. 27% listen to this often. R&B is #3 with 22%. Hip-Hop/Rap is next at 16%. Classical music falls in at 5th place at 15%. And jazz comes in at 12%.
Rock, country, R&B, Hip-Hop/Rap, Classical, and Jazz. That’s the order in terms of what people listen to most often. Last Sunday, we saw how classical music helps us to appreciate God’s beauty in the world. For today, I want us focus on how jazz music can help us be in rythem with God as we seek to live out our faith.
A word that is often associated with jazz music is the word, “improvisation.” Jazz musicians love to improvise and create as they play.
Donald Miller, a Christian author, has written the popular book, “Blue Like Jazz,” which is a collection of essays and personal essays about the Christian faith. The reason he chose this as the title for his book was because he was watching television one night and they were interviewing a man about jazz music.
And this man said that jazz music was originated by the first generation out of slavery. Don thought this was beautiful because while it is music, it is very hard to put on paper; it is so much a language of the soul.
In our scripture reading from Ephesians, the Apostle Paul writes, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This morning, as we think about how jazz music and our faith are related, I want us to focus on a phrase from that verse, these two words, “good works.” What does that mean, “good works?” That phrase in the original Greek language refers to poetry, art, and music.
Think about what Paul is saying in this passage of scripture. He’s saying that God is the one who has created us, and like God, we are to be creative as well. Poetry, art, and music are all ways that we can offer our creative expressions of good works that will help us in the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for transformation of our community and world.
Now, maybe you don’t feel like you’re the creative type, but according to our scripture in Ephesians, all of us have been created to offer creative good works in ways that will make a difference with the people around us.
A piano teacher places a mustard seed in a small container and sets it on the top of the piano for his students to see when they take lessons at his house. When they ask him about the seed, it gives him an opportunity to talk to his students about the time when Jesus said that all we need is to have faith the size of a mustard seed which is the smallest of all the seeds.
A church youth group decides to plant flowers in a neglected area of the city as their way of helping the people who live in that area to know that God’s beauty, hope, and love are all around them.
A retired science teacher is driving on the highway and a fellow motorist makes space for her to make a lane change. She realizes in that moment, that she has just experienced road grace instead of road rage, and because of that experience, she begins to pay more attention to moments of grace between motorists. To her surprise, she ends up noticing more examples of road grace than she did of road rage.
As she thought about the presence of grace on the roadways, she began to think more about God’s grace in her own day to day living. And this inspired her to write a book which she entitled, “Road Grace,” which was published by Author House.
People in her church, in the local community, as well as strangers who have purchased the book, have been able to experience God’s grace all because she was willing to share her thoughts through the gift of writing.
An affluent suburb builds an upscale outdoor shopping mall. A pastor who lives in the area feels called by God to become the unofficial pastor of this new shopping mall community. He partners with area churches for support, rents out a room above a coffee shop for his base of operations, and then begins to get to know the employees, business owners, and shoppers in the mall area, letting them know that he is there for them to provide support and care for their new retail community.
A young man, just a few years out of high school has a vision to offer God’s love to the youth of his county seat community by forming a gathering place for youth after school. He wants to have adult volunteers from the community churches help with this new ministry outreach where they can serve as positive role models for young people.
There will be lap-tops and games and a place to read and study in this new youth center. And on the weekends, there will be Christian concerts and events that will be designed especially for the troubled youth that this new ministry will be seeking to help.
All of these examples of people who are offering their good works for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom in creative ways, are true stories and there are many, many more that can be shared.
I like to think of these innovative Christ followers as jazz musicians who aren’t just playing the musical piece in front of them as printed, but are willing to improvise for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for transformation of their community and world in new and fresh ways.
Now, I don’t consider myself an overly creative person. Whenever Mrs. Ziegler, my art teacher in elementary school would roll her art cart into our home room, I was always worried what she was going to want us to create. But by the end of the class, I didn’t want her to leave because she was helping us to have fun and be creative.
Maybe this is why the Apostle Paul, in encouraging us to offer our good works in the name of Christ, needs to remind us that this is what each one of us has been created to do. Paul writes, “For we are what he has made us.”
And a little earlier in that passage, Paul also reminds us that even though we were once dead through our sins following the course of this world, because of God’s mercy, we have been made alive through Jesus Christ and have been raised up with him. All of this is because of God’s grace.
God is calling us to be like creative jazz musicians and improvise the notes of our faith so that more and more people will be drawn to the God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ. Sometimes these notes come at the most unexpected times in our lives, and just when we need to hear them the most.
A few years ago, Penny and I were standing in front of the historic St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter of New Orleans on a sunny day enjoying our three day get away.
With the mighty Mississippi River in front of us and the smell of those wonderful Big Easy beneigt treats in the air, we found ourselves in the middle of an impromptu jazz concert there on the street. This was the New Orleans we were hoping to experience.
The casually dressed five member jazz band was performing a very long version of “O When the Saints Go Marching In.” During different times of the song, a band member would step out and offer his unique instrumental solo to the delight of the crowd.
One young man who looked to be in his early 20s had a trumpet in one hand and a trombone in the other and he played them back and forth effortlessly during his masterful solo performance.
As the band continued to play, we sat on a park bench and that’s when I received a call on my cell phone about my aunt who had been in failing health in Maryland. This was my mom’s sister who just eight months earlier had attended my mom’s funeral. Aunt Isabelle & Uncle Bill lived on a farm in Maryland.
Hospice was now caring for Aunt Isabelle and the phone call was to let me know that she had just passed away. My heart sank as I thought about these two sisters who were very close to each other.
It was really difficult for me to hear our conversation over the phone because of the music being played just a few yards from me. I was beginning to get frustrated, but that’s when I realized that those very loud jazz notes were meant for me.
In the midst of that very sad phone call about my aunt’s passing, a smile came to my face as the jazz band continued to play very loudly in the background,
O when the saints go marching in, O when the saints go marching in. O how I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.
This was a celebration song that was reminding me that my Aunt was now part of what the bible calls that great cloud of witnesses.
I took comfort in knowing that my aunt and my mom were now reunited in that glorious eternal kingdom where there is no more sickness, sadness, dementia, tears, or death. They were in a place of total peace and joy and celebration.
Looking back on that February afternoon, there is no doubt in my mind that this truly was a “thin place” moment for me where heaven and earth came together in such a mysterious, creative, improvising, and beautiful way, right there in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. For that brief moment in time, I experienced heaven’s welcome of another of God’s saints, New Orleans style.
On this All Saints’ Sunday, we give thanks to God for all those who have gone before us and who are now part of the great cloud of witnesses. These saints have lived in rhythm with God and they continue to offer their praises in God’s glorious kingdom.
And as we seek to live in rhythm with God here on earth, may we be the creative people that God has called us to be. As the Apostle Paul says, “We have been created in Christ Jesus for good works.” This is what it means to be one of God’s jazz musicians in creatively sharing our faith through word and deed.
Join us next Sunday, as we focus on Country Music. And believe me, we’re going to have a lot of fun with that style of music!
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