From small things: spirituality and jazz part one...

The other night at band practice I told my mates that "for the first Sunday back from being on vacation I want us to do something really creative and fun."  Not that we don't bring a whole lotta creativity to the mix most Sundays, but after two weeks away in Canada wandering through both a jazz and then a blues festival...?  Besides, as this new year of programming takes shape and form at church, the time has come to really pump up the volume (metaphorically speaking, of course.)  So here is part one of an unfolding reflection.

There are three biblical stories I am going to play with in relationship to three jazz tunes:  the mustard seed of Luke 13, Psalm 37 and the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus in Mark 14. To start let's see what happened when we pair the 1940 Ellington Streyhorn masterpiece, "Take the A Train," with the parable of the mustard seed in the gospel of Luke 13: 18-21: it seems to me that if you sit with this for a while and explore it as it ripens, it has the possibility of taking us to some surprising places.

Jesus said:  How can I picture God's kingdom for you? What kind of story can I use? It's like a pine nut that a man plants in his front yard. It grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches, and eagles build nests in it.

Now if you've ever taken the A Train in real life, it carries you from Brooklyn straight into Harlem - then the center of African-American creativity and jazz in America - especially the Sugar Hill neighborhood where members of the Harlem Renaissance like Ellington, Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall lived.  It was a place of profound creativity that often went undetected given the racial polarization of the United States.  But for those "in the know" it embodied "the sweet life" of hope, imagination, safety and freedom.  For me, "Take the A Train" sounds a lot like the Lord's parable of the mustard seed.

You see, Jesus was challenging the racial and religious stereotypes of his day by telling folk that the "kingdom of God is like a mustard seed" (or in Peterson's reworking a "pine nut.") His people were living under Roman occupation - they were dominated and broken - and searching for hope.  And since the days of King Solomon and his empire the cultural images Israel used for itself often reflected a certain grandiosity:  we are like the great cedar trees of Lebanon.

The Cedars of Lebanon were comparable to the huge redwood trees of California. They grew straight up for two or three hundred feet. Every kind of bird could enjoy their shade. And this image was deeply embedded in the cultural conditioning of the Jewish people of the age.  The kingdom of God as a nation would be the greatest of all nations just as the great cedar of Lebanon was the greatest of all trees. (Thomas Keating,The Kingdom of God, is Like... p. 37)

What Jesus was saying about the mustard seed, however, challenges this image both culturally and spiritually:  look around you - look at your real condition - and you'll see that God's kingdom is NOT like the great cedars of Lebanon.  Maybe God's kingdom is more like a mustard seed.  In other words, the time had come to give up an outdated, unhelpful and untrue cultural myth:  we are not like the cedars of Lebanon nor is America the most productive nation on the face of the earth nor are straight white people the model of the Lord's most favored souls.  

To paraphrase Emily Dickinson: Jesus was saying it slant and telling his people that the time had come for all of us to take the A train.

+ Do you know the old Curtis Mayfied gospel song:  People Get Ready?  People get ready, there's a train a'comin, picking up passengers from coast to coast. All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin' - you don't need no ticket you just thank the lord.

+ Biw let's play with this - do a little theological jazz improvisation on the mustard seed and A train groove - because there are some fascinating insights to tease out if you are open to them.

The mustard seed was the smallest and most insignificant of all the seeds you could plant.  What's more, it was more like a weed than a real tree.  So because they grew so fast and spread out to take over the rest of the garden, mustard seeds were considered ritually unclean in the religious tradition of Christ's day.  They couldn't be mixed in with other plants.  It was actually illegal. And I believe that Jesus used this unclean image to shake his people up - and they would have taken notice when he told them that the kingdom of God is not like a big and beautiful cedar tree but more like an illegal shrub that spreads like wildfire from a mustard seed - because what was true then is true today and always.  Are you with me? 

He grabbed the attention of his audience... because they knew that this little, unclean shrub would never amount to much. It only grows to be about four feet high and is rather sparse.  So at best all you could say about the mustard seed is that if somebody actually broke the religious rules and planted it in their garden, it would become a shrub where a few birds might nest in its "very modest branches.  And that's all... because this parable is about subverting all the grandiose ideas we often have about God's kingdom."  (Keating, p. 38)

God's kingdom is not in the future.  It is not for when we are perfect.  It is not for when we get ourselves together.  No, God's kingdom is for right now - in the sometimes drity and always gritty moments of our real lives - often when we're least likely to pay attention.

+ You see, this parable is about subverting what we think about ourselves and where we are likely to discover the blessings of the Lord.

+ On the A Train? In jazz?  In swing from the imagination of two black men from Harlem, one of whom was gay?  Give me a break!

In Pittsfield - in our scrubby gardens - in the middle of lives that are not always clean or perfect.?  But "Jesus' parable implies that if we open to learning how to accept the God of everyday life, we can find God in everyday life. We don't have to wait for an apocalyptic deliverance. We do not have to wait for a grandiose liberation. The kingdom of God is available right now." Just... take the A train, man.

This parable is about truth telling.  Brother Wynton Marsalis, jazz trumpeter and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, put it like this about jazz:  "Jazz music seems to be engineered to expose the hypocrisy and absurdity of racism in our country."

Jazz is not race music.  All kinds of people play it and listen to it and love it. They always have. But you can't teach the history of jazz without talking in depth about segregation, white bands and black bands, racism, sex, media and the American way.

Jazz deconstructs those destructive and grandiose myths and invites you to experience a deeper and more creative truth. For when you look at where jazz came from - and what jazz did with its roots - you see that the pain and shame, the fear and the terror can be transformed into something beautiful - something sweet - sugar hill just off the A train.
It is as if Jesus were a jazz vocalist singing about the kingdom of God that often starts with the blues - something small that others throw away because it doesn't look like a cedar from Lebanon - and becomes something sweet and life changing. 

I'm telling you, if you're willing to take the A train... maybe you can swing in the midst of your troubles.

And if you can swing in the hard times, then you don't need to look for perfection.  You don't have to worry about looking like the cedars of Lebanon or the cream of the crop:  you can revel in being a scrubby little mustard tree.  Because that little tree brings a little bit of shade to your part of the world - a little bit of refreshment and comfort to where you live - and that is all God is asking.

"To what shall I liken the kingdom of God?" Jesus asked:  The kingdom is manifested in ordinary daily life" (Keating,p. 41) and the small things we do to advance hope and kindness where we live.  If you are willing to meet the holy there - in the gritty little mustard seed - the you "can enjoy the kingdom where ever you live without having to wait for an apocalypse or someone perfect to deliver us from our difficulties." 

This is the first insight the jazz masters can bring to living into the grace and blessing of our Lord...


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