Rev. Dr. Russ Daye
Zoom Worship – 24th after Pentecost – Jazz Service
November 7, 2021
2 Chronicles 36:15-23 NIV
The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling-place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians,[a] who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
‘This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
‘“The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.”’
Psalm 137 Voices United 858 By the Rivers of Babylon
We’ve been calling this a jazz service, which is only partly right. Really, it’s a service in which the music and texts of two long oppressed peoples come together. These are the ancient peoples, ancient Hebrew people, and the Black people of this continent. This sermon time will be a dialogue between the words of a preacher and the music performed by the ensemble here. Now let’s begin by listening to a song written and made famous by the great and broken African American singer Billie Holiday. It’s a song that she worked out with a Jew after an argument with her mother. His name was Arthur Hertzog. Here are some of the lyrics to the song:
“Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not, shall lose. So the Bible said, and it still is news. Mama may have, Papa may have, but God Bless the Child, that’s got his own. That’s got his own. Yes, the strong gets more, while the weak ones fade, empty pockets don’t ever make the grade.”
When I hear this music, and I’m held in the container of the sound created by the Kindness of Jazz, it’s like the beauty of this song holds my heart and allows the hard truth to settle in upon me, that as for the ancient Hebrews, so it is today, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the powerful win most of the time.
In his 1990 book, Jazz Singing, Will Friedwald described this song as sacred and profane. He said it references the Bible, while indicating that religion seems to have no effect in making people treat each other better. This is something of an indictment for us, isn’t it?
As we were preparing for this service, we had a bunch of conversations about appropriation – what are all of these white people doing performing music and texts that come from African American and ancient Hebrew traditions? We dropped and added pieces of music trying to navigate the fault lines of appropriation. United Church and its forebears have been using Hebrew texts, Hebrew songs and Psalms, and African American spirituals for centuries. But has it made us treat each other better? By us, I don’t just mean the people inside the church. I mean, also, the people inside the synagogues and the Black churches. Has this made us treat them better? And we’ve turned to world music and Indigenous music in recent decades. Our two hymn books are full of it. But it hasn’t made us treat each other better; if we include Indigenous people, and immigrants from all over the world in that circle. And here’s the related question: Do we really delve into the history and heart of this music? Or do we just skim the beauty and the balm off the top? Off of the top of something produced by long suffering peoples. We’ll return to this question later in the sermon.
Well, let’s first get a look at just how much suffering and pain is buried in the music of African Americans. Listen to some of the lyrics of the next piece our ensemble is going to play – it’s called Strange Fruit. These are the opening words:
“Southern trees burying a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood on the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from poplar trees.”
Abel Meeropol, a Jew, wrote this song when he became aware in the 1930s of all the lynchings happening in the American South.
This morning, Virginia and I were watching a documentary about Oscar Peterson. It told the story of the pain he experienced in the American South that led to his great song Hymn to Freedom. And as the documentary was playing the music, it was showing scenes of sit-ins and restaurants in the American South, and Blacks being attacked by dogs, because they dared to eat in a white lunch counter. It showed pictures of the protest marches in Selma and other places. And then it flipped forward. As we were still listening to the music, we could see Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the protests of Black Lives Matter. In their great renditions of Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone evoke all the pain and shock of this history. But that shock and pain doesn’t just resonate back to the 60s or to the time of American slavery – it resonates through the centuries, back to the beginnings of the oppression of peoples.
In the reading that Jeff read this morning, it gives the background story to Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon. And it talks about how the ancient Israelites were conquered by Mesopotamia and driven into exile and so many died, and so many were forced to live in a diaspora. And the prophet Jeremiah captures it powerfully in his writing:
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land. Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her king not in her? Is there no balm in Gilead?”
Gilead was a region of ancient Palestine famous for producing healing balms.
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
All Jeremiah could do was ask the question: “Is there balm in Gilead?”. The answer actually came 2,500 years later from the descendants of American slaves. The answer came in the form of song.
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain, but then the holy spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t preach like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus who came to save us all. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
This song is indeed balm, and it forces us to return to the question. Do we in mostly white, mostly privileged, United Churches have the right to read in church, ancient Hebrew texts, to sing African American spirituals, if we are not shaken to the core by the experiences that lie underneath those pieces of art?
I’ve had a number of questions and conversations with Indigenous and African American friends about these issues, and I get different answers. Well, here’s the answer I’m riding on today.
A friend said to me, “There’s too much medicine. There’s too much beauty. There’s too much strength that comes out of the spiritual tradition of Black people for it to be just for us. But you got to earn it. You’ve got to earn it.” Well, how do we earn it?
You know, the passage that Jeff read talks about Sabbath. Sabbath is a pause. It’s when you stop doing things a certain way so you can do it another way. This church is about to go on a four-year Sabbath – we’re wandering out, leaving the land fallow, like in the passage in the passage it was when the land was left fallow, that the turn happened. And I’m going to recommend a Sabbath that doesn’t say, “Let’s stop playing this music, let’s stop reading these texts, let’s stop drawing upon these traditions”. I’m going to say, “Let’s do a Sabbath where we go out and earn it”. As we go walkabout for four years, let us go and experience firsthand the communities and realities of African Canadians of Black Canadians. Let us go and visit as we are invited and requested with immigrants from all over the world. Let us go as we have been invited to the Native Friendship Centre and take the sensitivity training for living with Indigenous Canadians. Let’s stop to the extent that we are skimming beauty and balm off the top and let’s go out and pour ourselves into relationship with the people who produce these texts we say and sing. Let’s earn it. That’s called Sabbath.
There’s an amazing song about Sabbath by Duke Ellington called Come Sunday. And that’s what I hope I’m saying on behalf of this faith community. Come Sunday. Come Sunday. Come the Sabbath when we pour ourselves outside these walls, and we encounter other peoples more profoundly.
Image Credit: Bruno Justo Pego – unsplash.com