Radical | Sermon from September 8, 2019

A note to the reader: this sermon was a bit different than usual. To get the experience as it was when first delivered, here’s what to do. First, when the text says, “play {a song}], click the link and let it play in the background. Then, when you reach the next song, switch. When you get to the place where it says [stop music], stop the music. This will mimic the original experience

Also note: the scripture is at the very end. This is intentional.

Every morning on the way to Lolly’s, Carter and I listen to the same music. It’s an album from the hit children’s series on Netflix: StoryBots. This particular album is all about animals. There’s “Dance with the Elephants,” “Big Brown Boogieing Bear,” and, his favorite, “Chicken Bop.”

[play chicken bop]

He’s loved this song for about a year, so I think it’s here to stay. And even though it’s cheesy the way all preschool music is, we must admit that this is a catchy tune: fun music with a good back beat. 

In fact, in that back beat in this little preschool song stands all of western music history. It represents 1500 years of musical development! It’s built off the building blocks of old styles of music. 

For if it hadn’t been for 60s rock and roll, there’d be no Chicken Bop. StoryBots has done an excellent job of mimicking the basic elements of an early rock song like this:

[play help!]

A good back beat helps this song to groove. It’s music you can dance to, it’s music that gets infectious, and it’s music that has inspired modern music. If you love Taylor Swift, if you have any music from the 70s, 80s, 90s, or later that you love, all of them are the descendants of the Beatles, Elvis, and other early rock artists of the 60s. 

And as many of us can recall, the Beatles were revolutionary, radical, for their time. They brought something new, something that hadn’t been heard before, but something yet built off the old. 

The old was a swing beat. All their songs rest on a back beat or a driving beat. The literal meaning of these are where the beat falls compared to the metronome beat: slightly behind or before. 

Swing beats were radically different, new, compared to the music of old that required following the metronome beat very closely. 

And rock gets those beats from jazz, an American art form born in the early 20th century out of the American South and New Orleans. In one of the most famous instances, Ella Fitzgerald sings:

[play It Don’t Mean a Thing]

Most modern music finds its common root here. Without jazz, there’s no back beat, there’s no driving beat; there’s simply a beat that must be rigidly followed. Jazz introduced creativity into the music scene, taking music away from its classic rules so that it could be reborn and then remade into fusion jazz, latin jazz, rock and roll, southern rock, pop music, and hip hop.

Jazz’s innovation of this swing beat birthed a new movement that not only revolutionized music itself but also fueled changes in America. Commonplace as it is today, jazz, when it was birthed, was nothing less than radical.

Jazz clubs, just beginning to form in the 1910s, often became speakeasies during the era of prohibition. For much of the country, jazz and liquor went together like a duck and water.

And in those speakeasies, conventional rules of racial segregation were often ignored, sometimes on principle and sometimes because of the need for musicians who could perform jazz music. It’s fair to say in the mixing of races that jazz helped fuel what became the Civil Rights Movement. In all these ways: that newfangled swing beat, throwing out of rules of old, and relationship to liquor, jazz was radical.

But jazz itself was built upon a building block that was, in its time, radical. Jazz was birthed in the slave fields of the American south through the creation of African American spirituals. There, as slaves toiled under inhumane conditions, they sang songs like this, 

[play wade in the water] Note to the reader: this is not quite what was played in church; it’s missing the drum feature, but it’s as close as could be found on youtube. Calvin Earl is also my source for what follows below.

With the drums driving, you can hear the beat that would later give rise to jazz. Even in the singing, there’s the distinct impression of that swing beat that would give rise to jazz a few generations later. 

And like jazz in the early 20th century, these songs flouted conventional rules of society. In fact, these spirituals, like the jazz they would inspire, were radical. 

Consider this: wade in the water was coded language passed across slave fields so that those who sought to escape slavery would know how to escape. If you were on the run and being chased by dogs, wading in the water would throw off the dogs’ scent. “God’s a gonna trouble the water” is a coded way of saying that salvation lay in wading in the water during an escape. 

In a later verse, the singer says “see that man all dressed in red; looks like the band that Moses led.” That was code for finding someone who worked for the Underground Railroad. They wore red, with Moses as a reference to Harriet Tubman. 

Therein lies the radical nature of these spirituals: they were countercultural, they were subversive; they were a secret language passed along from slave field to slave field so that these slaves could gain their freedom. At the time of their creation, spirituals were radical.

That coded language, the need to communicate, coupled with rhythms born in ancient African kingdoms, gave rise to spirituals, which in turn created jazz; that radical new music with its swing beat, which led to our modern styles of rock, hip hop, and pop.

But modern American music has another parent, another building block that was, itself, radical at the point of its birth. It comes from the church; old music that eventually collided with jazz to produce the fusions we know today as rock, pop, and hip hop.

It sounds like this:

[play Assumpta

This is Palestrina, a great Italian composer of church music from the sixteenth century. Here, there’s no back beat, there’s no driving beat, but there’s angelic music. And that was radical for its time. To have beautiful, inspiring, music in church was quite the innovation! It caused many priests and parishioners alike to worry that the music would cause people to go astray; that the beauty of it would distract them from their devotion to Christ. 

Palestrina designed it to be performed by a choir located in the back of the church. If you’ve visited many a Catholic Church or an Episcopalian church, or if you’ve visited cathedrals in Europe, you know that the choir loft is in often the back, above and behind the congregation. It was designed that way to inspire visions and thoughts of what the heavenly hosts must sound like. From Palestrina would come other greats you know: Beethoven, Mozart, and the like. 

But before Palestrina came another composer who helped create instrumental church music. 

[play Brandenburg]

This is the modern virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis playing Johann Sebastian Bach, the man who not only helped give birth to instrumental church music but made organ music popular in churches. That was something new, not unlike jazz, for prior to Bach, there was much debate about whether or not instruments had any role to play in church music. Instruments, it was thought, were probably going to lead people astray, much the same way people thought about jazz during Prohibition or rock and roll in the 60s: nothing good could come of it; people would be led astray by those newfangled musical instruments. 

Bach, it’s easy to forget, was radical in his time; just like Palestrina. The birth of organ music, of instrumental church music, was absolutely radical when it first arrived on the scene.

For church music itself, prior to the addition of instruments, sounded like this

[Introit]

This is a modern choir singing 1200 year old music called Gregorian chant. It’s named for Pope Gregory who had the idea to add music to Christian worship services, an innovation all of its own. Prior to Gregory, any music in churches was sporadic, and prior to a few hundred years before Gregory, there was no music in churches. In fact, many priests and church goers were opposed to music in church services at all, believing it would cause people to be led astray by wild passions.

Gregorian chant, boring as it sounds today, was as radical as jazz and rock and roll in its time.

In fact, in Paul’s day, in the church in Colossae even, music would have played no or a very limited role in Christian worship. 

Consider that against our modern era. Worship today in churches and on car radios often sounds like this: 

[play Come to Me]

Music is a centerpiece of our worship; in some traditions second only to the sermon and, in other traditions, mattering more than anything else. Music is absolutely essential to our worship, which is quite radical compared to our beginning some 2000 years ago.

And not only in church, but away from church as well. In your car, many of you listen to Christian music as you drive along; a worshipful practice. During confirmation with our youth, many of them adopted the spiritual practice of listening to worship music. We love music, it’s a crucial part of our lives with Christ. 

There’s music everywhere, in fact. All around us all the time. 

[Gradually increase volume] So imagine worship without music. Imagine life without music. Imagine your travels in your car without music. Imagine holidays and vacations, sitting on porches or on the beach without music. Imagine relaxing at home without your favorite music. Imagine grilling without music. Imagine movies without music. Imagine tv shows without music. Imagine the opening of football on Fox Sports without its famous intro music! Imagine life without music. Imagine if the music stopped.

[stop music]

Think of a world without music. Think of what that would sound like. Consider the silence. 

[leave silence]

Thousands of years ago, that was the case. And then, at some point, music was invented. The invention of music perhaps went like this:

“It must have been a bit like the first person to realize that notes sounded in sequence created melody, that notes sounded together created harmony, and that ordering the sequence created rhythm.” (N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography, 109)

Eventually from that, music was born. And the great modern scholar of the Bible, the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright says, “If we can think of a world without music and then imagine it being invented…then we may have a sense of the crazy magnitude of Paul’s vocation…He was inventing, and must have known that he was inventing, a new way of being human.” (Paul, 109). 

Paul’s understanding of Jesus, his proclamation of the Christ, was something new, built off the building blocks of old. If we can imagine a world with no music, and then that music suddenly sprouting to life, we can imagine a world before we understood Jesus’s significance; and then we can imagine Paul putting together the music of Christ for the first time.

Wright explains that Paul had the building blocks in Judaism and, to some extent, philosophy. Those formed the notes, the harmonies, the rhythms, but no one had put them together into the music of Christ until Paul came along, putting the notes and harmonies and rhythms of Jesus, Judaism, and philosophy together into what became Christianity. It was built off the old, and yet radical and new:

Radical and new like music in church

Radical and new like instruments and organs in church 

Radical and new like African spirituals 

Radical and new like jazz

Radical and new like rock and roll 

Jesus gave us, and Paul explained it to us, a radical new way to be human. Paul seems to recognize that he’s giving birth to something new, connecting the notes, harmonies, and rhythms of old into the music of Jesus for the first time. In Colossians 1:25, he notes that God commissioned him to “make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” That’s Pauls’ mission, that’s what gives him purpose and motivation. He says in verse 29 it’s “for this I toil and struggle with all the energy that [Jesus] powerfully inspires within me.” 

For he knows that this is something new, built off the old, but something new and radical to be sure. For now, “in [Jesus] 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.” 

So now through Jesus, Paul declares that God is everywhere, heaven and earth are together in all places and at all times, not just for the Jews but for all people everywhere. That’s why he can say in Galatians 3:28 that because of Jesus, there’s now no Jew nor Greek, there’s no male nor female, there are simply humans, caught up in the divine promises of love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. 

That’s reason to rejoice. That’s reason to give Christ our love. That’s an incredible new truth. This, indeed, is a new way to be human. Paul is inventing, putting together the building blocks of old, the notes, harmonies, and rhythms, into the music of Christ for the first time. This is radical.

But for us, it’s ho-hum. It’s commonplace. It might even inspire a yawn. We’ve heard it all before. We know all about Jesus. We know what he did. 

Not only that, but we know much more than Paul ever did. We stand on top of 2000 years of theological development. In terms of the music of Christ, we’re living in the age of Rock and Roll: a musical style built off its own thousands of years of development. 

And like rock, Jesus is everywhere, common, frequently cited. Everyone knows him, everyone’s heard of him, everyone understands he came to save. 

And thus, the radical nature of Jesus, and the radical nature of what Paul tells us in his letters, gets lost. When Jesus becomes common, when we think we understand him the way we understand rock and roll, we lose sight of his radical nature.

It’s helpful, then, to think back to what that must have been like for the earliest Christians, back when Paul’s words were radical, fresh, and new. It’s helpful to think back to that time when there were only notes, harmonies, and rhythms just starting to be put together into the music of Christ. 

Just like it’s helpful for our appreciation of music to understand how radical new forms of music were at their creation. When we know that spirituals have coded language in them, for example, our appreciation deepens and we connect with that music on a much more meaningful level. 

When we know that jazz fueled what eventually became the Civil Rights Movement, our appreciation for this style of music, even if we don’t really like it, grows deeper and becomes more meaningful. 

When we understand how radical something was when it began, when it was first understood, when the notes, harmonies, and rhythms were first placed together into music, our understanding and appreciation deepens, grows more meaningful, and we find ourselves energized by that newfound appreciation. 

The same is true for Jesus Christ. If we go back to the beginning, back to when Paul first put the notes, harmonies, and rhythms into the music of Christ, understanding how radical it was, we will find our understanding and appreciation for Christ deepened, made more meaningful, and we will find ourselves energized by this newfound appreciation. 

We will, in fact, be like a little girl I met a few months ago. Lolly’s pre-k class came to visit me at the church for career day. When they arrived, a little girl ran up to me and hugged me. She looked right up at me, without letting go, and said, “I love you.” Little kids are precious that way, so I didn’t think much of it. But she continued to want to stay right by me and to tell me she loved me. One of the teachers suddenly figured out why she was so enamored with me. In my white robe and pastoral garb, she thought I was Jesus. 

She gets it. Jesus is so fresh and new for her, so real for her, that her appreciation for Christ is deep, is meaningful, and she is energized by him. She understands, with that childlike faith, that all we have, all we are, and all we will ever be is because of Jesus. And that inspires her to love. Jesus hasn’t become commonplace, ho-hum for her; rather, he is an ever present, exciting, new, reality.

So let us consider Jesus afresh and anew through the truths Paul espouses in Colossians.

Jesus Christ has reconciled all things together, which means that life without divisions is possible. No family divisions, no friendships falling apart, no divisions by nationality even. Think of that; that’s a radical notion, but that’s Paul’s word about the nature of Christ. 

Jesus is also “the firstborn of the dead.” Death no longer has any power. That’s radical! 

He is “the image of the invisible God.” That means, if you look at Jesus, you see the God who is supposed to have no image. That’s radical!

In Jesus was “the fullness of God.” That means the great God of the universe, who is far beyond us and cannot be contained by anything, was somehow contained within a human being. That’s radical! 

And through Jesus, according to Colossians 1:17, “all things hold together.” Jesus is not only the image of God, the exemplar par excellence, he is also the reason for being, the center of the universe, the one through whom all things flow and to whom all things return. That’s pretty radical, too. It means that all that you do, it’s for Jesus. Think of that. All your comings and goings, all your parenting and care taking, all your eating and sleeping, all your TV binging and your lawn mowing; all of it is for Jesus, from Jesus, and returns to Jesus. If we pause and think, that’s a radical concept. 

When we go back to the basics, back to the foundation, to see the radical nature of what Paul tells us in Colossians, we discover an appreciation for Jesus, a longing for Jesus, that causes us to simply say to him, “I love you,” just like the little girl. In discovering his radical message, allowing ourselves to encounter Jesus afresh and anew, our faith becomes simple. 

But we live in the age of Rock and Roll. We live in an age where Jesus is a normal, run of the mill, everyday, kind of reality. Just as rock and roll is commonplace. 

But it’s worth living in the age of no music for just a minute, so that we can encounter Jesus again, as if for the first time. 

We’ve taken this trip through music history just for that point: to illustrate what life was like before the music of Christ. We stand on top of 2000 years of theological development. Our understandings of Jesus are built off 2000 years of people talking, writing, preaching, thinking, worshipping, Jesus. That’s a lot of history. That’s a lot of layers. 

Just as rock and roll stands on top of many foundational layers like jazz and Palestrina. But if we strip away those layers, going back to the basics, we discover what was always there and yet what is fresh and new: that what we have always believed was once, and still is, radical. That notion has a certain purity, a certain beauty, a certain simplicity, that sounds something like this: 

[play simple gifts]

Let’s go back to basics this morning, for there’s energy there. If your spiritual life seems to have lacked luster as of late, if you feel like there’s no energy to it, a back to basics, a reminder of how radical, how new, how wonderful, Jesus is will radically alter that and give you renewed energy. 

Paul says that it’s the gospel that gives him energy to keep going: the gospel that Jesus has come down such that God is everywhere, always accessible, holding all things together and providing for all things, bringing together all people into one big family; that beautiful, wonderful, radical, reality.

We can all have that energy. If you need it, strip away everything you think you know, forget for a moment all that knowledge of Jesus you have, move backwards to the basics, and hear this scripture as if you’re hearing Jesus for the first time; encountering him as the radical he was and is. 

In simplicity, let’s hear Colossians 1:15-20, as if encountering Jesus for the first time. 

[Scripture]

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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