A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Sunday 17th July 2022: The Fifth Sunday after Trinity Colossians 1:15-28 The service was a Jazz Eucharist, part of the first Battersea Jazz…
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 17th July 2022: The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
The service was a Jazz Eucharist, part of the first Battersea Jazz Festival
Some years ago, I was asked by the Bishop of Croydon to provide music for the worship at a Clergy Conference. This was something which I was able to do, because I knew liturgy and I had been a church musician for much of my Christian life.
But it was the extra bit that nearly proved my undoing. “Would it be possible for you to get a group of people together to provide some music for entertainment as well?” Of course, said I, so a group of clergy got together one afternoon a few weeks before with some familiar songs – old Beatles numbers, the odd Abba tune and the like. Being a dutiful musician I photocopied the music and put together a playlist. And then, as we practiced and I banged out the tunes, Bruce, the guitarist and a highly experienced musician, dropped the bombshell. Let’s just improvise around these tunes a bit, have some fun with them. My blood ran cold. I was absolutely fine as the keyboard player to play off the guitar chords in the music, but to improvise was way out of my comfort zone. I needed the music, I needed the tunes and the chords, but when I stepped out from the familiarity of each of these, I had not the foggiest idea of what I was doing. Bruce spotted this, because I was clearly frustrated and he stopped and said quietly, “just try, Simon. There’s no right or wrong here.” From within the tramlines of the music and the notation, I had to try something new. I didn’t know where to start and what I did try to do sounded weird and completely out of place. But, after a while, I began to relax and I realised that I didn’t need to fill every moment with sound, and that I was playing with a group of others who were also making it up, but at the same time listening to what I was doing and, strangely, showing some appreciation of it. And the same thing happened when we came to play at the Conference: I brought my own contribution, made a few lines up, retreated to the familiarity of the tune when I couldn’t quite manage it, and generally did what jazz musicians do as second nature, which is to improvise. I knew how to play the piano, but it had never occurred to me that playing had overtones of, well, play.
I wonder if ideas of improvisation and play have ever occurred to you as elements of what the Christian life is about? Perhaps you think that the basic element of being a Christian is to follow the rules. Scripture and doctrine are tramlines on which the faithful Christian should always remain within, the boundary markers outside of which are error, heresy and faithlessness. I was reminded when I wrote those words of Mary from my last parish, who was a wonderful Christian woman and preacher. Occasionally we’d have Ministry Team meetings when we kicked back and had a party, such as Christmastime. Mary would love to join in a game we were playing, but Mary would always, without doubt, cheat. People would laugh because she was so transparent at it, but when we asked her why she cheated, she simply said, “well, it’s a game isn’t it? What are games for if not for playing with the rules?” Similarly, a great jazz musician will always know where the boundaries are in their playing, but it’s part of what jazz is to approach those boundaries, push at them and probably break them. Even great classical composers like Wagner and Schoenberg created new possibilities by stepping outside what was acceptable.
The writer of the Letter to the Colossians – likely someone who was very close to St Paul if not Paul himself – offers us a picture of what it might mean to improvise, what the connection might be between playing jazz and being a Christian. The clue is in the name, you see, for in this extraordinary passage, the writer invites us to see the biggest of big pictures. The biggest picture is of Christ as the pre-eminent figure and agent through which everything came into being. “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.” Jesus Christ is the one through whom God works to make everything, the one who holds it all together. He is not just a good man who lived a great life and taught us how to be good; he is the way God will bring the world into the fullness of his love, he is the truth God reveals to us through Scripture and the life and teaching of Jesus, he is the life which inhabits us all as disciples, the spark of divine goodness that forgives, restores, and brings us into communion with one another. “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” It is the cross through which Jesus does all of this, brings us a new way of living in and through Jesus; it is the resurrection life he knows as firstborn from the dead that he gives to us through his faithfulness and our baptism. Jesus does all of this. There’s no qualification for being part of this faith, we simply have to trust in the faithfulness of Jesus to know the hope of the Christian life, the most extraordinary thing of all, which is that this universal figure, this suffering Saviour, this risen Lord, is also within us. Christ in you, the hope of glory.
The overarching theme of all of this is the theological concept of grace, that God does all of this for us, and apart from us, and without us earning our place in his love. And it is in this space that I think that we can learn a thing or two from jazz, about what living in grace means. Above all, it means freedom I think, not a free-for-all because any jazz musician will tell you that despite its sometimes wandering lines, jazz is not that. Instead, jazz takes the grace of the tune, and within the broad lines of the gift of that tune, plays and improvises, often returning to the tune, but always from the perspective of having had fun with it. It strikes me as quite important to remember that jazz emerges from the American black experience of racism, segregation and slavery, and finds ways of expressing its voice in ways that express deep feelings of sadness and anger as well as joy; but the idea of play and freedom lie never far from the surface.
If we know ourselves loved by someone else, we find it possible to be the people we are made to be, to be authentically ourselves. So it is in Christian faith, but carried to the nth degree. If we are loved and held by God, if there is nothing we can ever do to make that love go away and nothing we can ever do to earn more of it, there’s a freedom to be ourselves in Christ, to discover what it means that Christ is within us, and how best we can allow the Christ is within us to shape our lives and the lives of others. And when we are free, the pressure to conform, to play by the rules, is less pressing. We start to see the rules differently, to allow Christ to shape our lives inspired by his, with his teaching as the tune and our lives as the improvisation. We can learn to play Christianity, in the sense we play the piano. Not to pretend, but to allow ourselves the freedom to explore what faith can mean. Truth be told, as I discovered when I first was challenged to improvise, this can be a bit scary, because we’ve so often been told that keeping the rules and living within the boundaries are what being a Christian is all about. But if we never explore the boundaries, if we never push at the edges, if we never learn to improvise ourselves, it is likely that we shall spend our lives trying to be just like everyone else, and far less like the one who lives in us as the hope of glory. So let’s learn to improvise and play on the familiar tune that is Christ, or let us learn his music for the first time in order to discover life’s deeper themes.
Jazz has a literary equivalent in poetry, which seeks to play with words and ideas in the way that jazz plays with tunes. The great Irish poet Micheel O’Siadhail combines a love of jazz with his brilliance with words. Perhaps he captures some of this particularly well in his poem “Only End”:
Music of a given globe,
Off-chance jazz forever bringing
More being into being
Out of history’s tangled knots and loops
Spirituals and flophouse bands
In hymns and charismatic whoops,
In night-club’s vibe and strobe,
Nothing buts now everything ands.
Our heads are ancient Greeks
Who think just because they think
A body’s out of sync
With thought but maybe we relearn the way
Our mind can pulse to intransigent
Musics of once broken to play
Beyond perfect techniques
The livelong midrash of a moment.
Given a globe of profusion
We players are no legislators
More like mediators.
Who extemporising seem to up the ante
To find the nit and grit that has
A universal image for Dante,
An aim without conclusion
To play mein host Madam Jazz.
On song and off-beam,
Hanging loose, hanging tough,
Off beat, off the cuff,
Made, broken and remade in love,
Live in bone-shaking pizzazz
Of interwoven polyphony above
An understated theme.
The only end of jazz is jazz.
From Hail! Madam Jazz, Bloodaxe Books, 1997
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