March 30, 2003

TEXT: Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

When Teddy Sommer returned to New York from a safari in Africa, he told Charlie Mingus about his adventure. They were deep in the African jungle, camped for the night. In the darkness, distant drums began a relentless throbbing that continued until dawn. The safari members were disturbed, but the native guide reassured them: “Drums good. When drums stop, very bad.”

Every night the drumming continued, and every night the guide reiterated, “Drums good. When drums stop, very bad.”

Then one night the drums suddenly stopped. The guide looked frightened. “When drums stop, very, very bad,” he said.

“Why is it bad?” asked a member of the safari.

“Because, when drums stop, bass solo begin!”

To appreciate that story you have to realize that Teddy Sommer was a drummer and Charlie Mingus a bass player. These are the kinds of stories jazz musicians would like to tell about each other while hanging out.

Over the years I’ve been able to hang out with jazz artists at the Berks Jazz Fest. They like this festival because it gives them an opportunity to see one another and listen to one another in a relaxed atmosphere, and also to learn from one another. What impressed me was the great sense of community that jazz musicians have among themselves. They may be on their separate tours all over the world, but they know each other’s music and they speak a common language, and when they come together in a jam, it is “church”—it is the sharing of their souls; it is prayer; it is praise; it is theological expression without words. And that’s the metaphor for today: the church as a jam session.

Paul F. Berliner in his study of the jazz community has a chapter entitled “Hangin’ Out and Jammin’: The Jazz Community as an Educational System.” He describes the process of learning how to improvise. Young musicians hang out in a jam session and great learning takes place. Individuals share their talents by forming casual apprenticeships. Jam sessions bring together amateurs and professionals to learn from and with one another. The great masters like Dizzy Gillespie liked to teach technique and theory to the young guys. Miles Davis told how, as novices, he and Freddy Davis would challenge one another by tossing a quarter and telling what note it would come down on. Hanging out was a growing experience.

This is how the church was formed in the early days. We learn the faith from one another, from people we respect and who become our mentors and role-models. I have often told our church school staff that the curriculum they select, while it is important, is incidental to how the faith is lived out in the lives of those who teach it. If you are not the embodiment of the Christ-spirit, you are not going to communicate the faith. To paraphrase Bird Parker, if it’s not inside of you, it’s not going to come out of you.

The jazzmen have developed the art of imitation and improvisation, by listening to the music of others, appropriating it, modifying it, taking it to another level, and owning their own style. In the jazz community there is a constant struggle between leading and following, interdependence and individual freedom, the search for that right balance to be able to play freely but within the group. Freedom has limits and responsibilities.

In the church we call it a covenant relationship, of respecting the spiritual development of each individual as that person seeks to discern how God is speaking to him or her, and yet at the same time being faithful to the gathered community so that collectively we may discern God’s will in our communal and societal life. That is especially true in these troubling times when we need to listen to each other and together discern what God is saying to us. There are times when we ought to step to the music which we hear, but there are other times when we need to find the common beat. Somewhere among the volume of voices that support the war against and Iraq and those that lift their voices for peace, we need to listen for the faint whispers that tell us we are one family and that we need to live together.

Peter Arnett, who recently displayed the poorest judgment, was a CNN television commentator and reporter in a small town on the West Bank, when a bomb exploded. Bloodied people were everywhere. A man came running up to him, holding a little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Peter to take her to a hospital—as a member of the press he would be able to get through the security roadblock So Peter, the man and the girl jumped into his car and rushed to the hospital. The whole time the man was pleading with him to hurry, to go faster, heartbroken at the thought the little girl might die.

Sadly the little girl’s injuries were too great and she died on the operating table. When the doctor came out to give them the news, the man collapsed in tears. Arnett was at a loss for words. “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.”

It was then that the man said, “Oh, that girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was a Palestinian. But there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or a son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.”

There must come a time when we need to realize that God so loves the entire world that he gave his only son. There must come a time when we must realize that there is only one earth, that we are all children of the same God, and that we are killing members of our family.

Jazz artists know something about being a voice of protest, about criticizing the establishment. In fact jazz has always functioned as a social alternative to mainstream culture. Our German forebears, when they came to this country, brought with them a love for high classical music—the music of the court and the church and later the concert hall—the ponderous Beethoven symphonies and Bach chorales. They referred to symphonic music as sermons in tones and disdained the “unlaundered Negro and American Indian” themes, the plantation songs of the African slaves which became the basis for jazz.

The music of the newly liberated slaves evolved from spirituals to early gospel music to ragtime to blues to bop to new jazz which had no rhythmic formulas but stressed its African origins. After hearing the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars last night, we talked about “real” jazz or “true” jazz, and about a return to the authentic jazz and away from this “smooth jazz.” But I’m not so sure what that means, or how far back in the evolution of jazz some people want to go. Maybe somewhere there is an audience for Amish Jazz.

The point is that jazz encourages permutation and change. Nothing is ever static. So, too, the church must be a prophetic voice in a constantly changing world. It must continually speak out for the love of God in new ways and in new forms of expression. Just as bebop became an alternative to swing, the church must show the world that there are other alternatives to bringing peace to our planet.

In hanging out with the musicians this week, the war was hardly mentioned, although you could feel that things were not the same. I think that both the artists and the audience were glad to get a little relief and diversion. That’s healthy and healing. When the Israelites were bitten by snakes in the desert, Moses set up a bronze serpent on a pole and told them to focus on that. By looking at the serpent that was raised up, the people were able to look beyond it and see an alternative direction and new life.

We are all one family and we need to focus on that which unites us, not that which divides. We need to focus on the Scriptures which say, “For God so loved the world. . . .” and understand that to mean the entire world, and not just our part of it.

The church would do well to adopt the jazzmen’s art of hanging out as a model for hanging out in the world and by jamming finding that music that binds us together.

-Harry L. Serio