John Bell - Iona Community
Zechariah 9: 9-12; Corinthians 2: 1-12
This being Evensong rather than Eventalk, I'd like to offer this homily as something of an Overture.
Depending on the era and composer, an overture can be a means of covering the sound of late arrivals shuffling their way to their seats. Or – as in the case of Mozart and Sullivan - a foretaste of what is to come, as they let the music unveil some of the main themes which will appear later.
And this is my intention, using rather un-evensong language which I'm borrowing from a recent radio interview with the internationally celebrated trumpeter, Winton Marsalis. Marsalis has over 20 honorary doctorates awarded to him for his stunning performances and understanding of both classical music and jazz – which, as an African American runs through his DNA.
In the interview, he spoke of Jazz being a combination of three major components:
Improvisation, Swing and Blues.
Improvisation – perhaps better known to church attenders as a feature of organ music – allows for a melody or theme to be treated in a myriad of styles.
Swing, for Marsalis refers to how Jazz musicians interact with each other, that curious sensitivity which makes them empathise with each other's contribution.
Blues, according to Marsalis is concerned with naming what is not right.
I want to suggest that as we enter Holy Week, these three terms might help us to identify leit-motifs, repeated aspects of Jesus's behaviour, which sealed his fate.
Jesus was an IMPROVISATIONALIST... dealing not with musical but with biblical themes.
Sometimes the theme would be the Kingdom of God and the improvisations would be many:
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed
and it's like a woman putting yeast in dough
and it's like a servant preparing a meal
and it's like treasure hidden in a field.
The Love of God.... yes
that's like a father welcoming home a reprobate son who has squandered half the family fortune;
it's like a foreigner showing compassion for someone who from a hostile nation;
it's like a woman looking for a coin
For people who have God and the purposes of God sown up in polite religious terminology, stories about an aberrant son who ends up looking after pigs, or about men in a market-place who are given the same wage for vastly different periods of work ...such tales do not sit comfortably with conventional religion.
But Jesus wasn't a devotee of traditional religion.
Only one of his improvisations, only one of his parables feature people who are religious – and they don't come off well. And in this last week he does not stop this improvising, these uncomfortable stories... not when he tells of a royal feast to which the great and the good declined to come, and so the host chose the mariginalised of society to be guests at the table.
He says tells such subversive tales because God is too big to be reduced to water-tight theologies.
But that didn't and that doesn't go down well with those who have God boxed.
Jesus also knows how to SWING...it's in his innate and marvellous ability to be sensitive to the moment, to the people, to what needs to be called out at any particular time.
And we can trace this throughout his ministry
He sits among beggars
he argues with bankers,
debates with the lawyers
and walks with the lame.
He can be so overcome with grief that when he sees bereft people weeping, he weeps too. And he can be so outraged with the imposition of unjust taxation that he raises his voice and rails against the legislators – the ones whose decrees are meant to be obeyed.
He embraces those whom no one would touch, and contradicts those with whom no one would dare argue.
And in this last week, this ability to move into the right mood is evident as when he turns from cheering on the untutored voices of children in the temple to publicly arraigning on scriptural grounds the priests would prefer that children were not there.
Later, when jostled and whipped on his way to Calvary, he takes notice of and empathises with women who, God forbid, might also be the victims of the kind of abuse shown to him.
And he will do this because God is not an impassive overlord who speaks in a monotone, but a gracious creator who embraces all people and exhibits compassion or anger as the occasion demands.
But that didn't and that doesn't go down well with those who would pefer God to be constrained to the binary form of black and white, rather than being wrapped round in a rainbow.
And the Blues – registering what is clearly wrong. This is so true for Marsalis coming, as he does, from a tradition in which enslaved people sang, 'Nobody knows the trouble I've seen' and the victims of 20th century racism sang 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,'
Jesus – who had the Psalms running through his DNA – was familiar with the kind of vocabulary with which many Christians feel uncomfortable ... the complaints of those who cannot help but ask
How long, O Lord?
Or cannot help but comment
People look on me as if I were a freak
Or cannot help but object
All who speak of me lie
And in these last days, the voice of Jesus will not succumb to silence in order to save his skin, rather he will so forensically identify constitutional wickedness that repeatedly before Good Friday, the Gospels allude to the priests and scribes and Pharisees being desperate to lay hand on him.
And when his life is in the balance he will risk insulting those who can consign him to death, by questioning their presumed authority, and refusing to answer their questions.
And he will do this because in the face of what is clearly wrong, God cannot be neutral....even if it upsets those who wish God were.
THROUGH THE WEEK
As we go through this week, I invite you to recognise these themes outline in this overture -
to see Jesus skilfully improvise on the essential themes of heaven
to watch him empathise in mood, volume and passion according to what or who confronts him
and notice him articulating what is wrong
and what must be amended.
One other comment of Wayne Marsalis in his interview was that in Jazz, the basic thing is not so much the tune as the rhythm. It has to be steady, constant so that all else around it can move.
In Holy Week there are many rhythms – the Hosannas of the Palm Sunday Crowd, the hesitation and questioning of the disciples, the drummed up condemnations from the crowd under Pilate's balcony, the aggressive whips on Jesus body, the slow steps to Calvary.
But through this all, he remains constant.
The salvation of the world requires him to march to the beat of a different drum.