Jazz Mass Sermon

Here is the sermon that I preached at the Jazz Mass on Sunday. It is preceded by a fanfare organ improvisation from Frikki Walker, to get me up into the pulpit, which if I'm not mistaken was based on a song from Michael Jackson's Bad album.

Here is the text:

Can I say how wonderful it is to have jazz in church today. We don’t do this kind of thing often enough. I know of a number of American churches which have built up a special ministry, scheduling jazz vespers several times a year and reaching out to a whole new set of people who find their own spirituality reflected in the music.

Indeed, it is great to be able to have the jazz musicians with us today in celebratory mood. The last time I had jazz in a service it was at a funeral, probably the biggest funeral that I’ve ever taken.

It was for a University Principle who died in office. I’ve taken a number of similar services and I have learned that Universities tend to go to town on funerals for their great and their good. This one was no exception. Several thousand people gathered for it and it took place in the local town hall. Not only because none of the churches were big enough, but also because the man who had died was not supposed to be a believer. As I planned and prepared for the service, I kept getting told the same thing – He was an atheist, you know. Make sure you don’t mention God.

But when it came to music, it was decided that they would have a jazz band, for jazz had been his passion.

I dutifully prepared a careful sermon which barely mentioned God at all, only to arrive to find a Dixieland band playing Just a closer walk with thee over and over again as the coffin was brought slowly down the street and into the hall. And when all was done, the most triumphant and exuberant When the saints go marching in as the coffin was lifted to be taken out of the hall. So much for not mentioning God.

Jazz is clearly music that gets down into people’s souls, probably because that is where it comes from.

As I read the readings this morning, I found that I could hear the jazz behind the words. Firstly David weeping over Saul and Jonathan. Who cannot hear the blues when that passage is read?

David, weeping over Saul the flawed king, his predecessor and Saul’s son, Jonathan the man whom David loved above all others. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. Oh how the mighty are fallen, oh how the weapons of war have perished.

You can hear the sad heartbeat of the blues right through David’s lamentation and if you can’t, you have no soul!

The same blues could be heard in the gospel too – the wailing and the weeping over the synagogue leader’s dead daughter.

I remember a long time ago when I was very much younger than I am now trying to play the blues on the piano. And I remember a pianist hearing me who just shrugged and said, “You got to go through the blues before you can play the blues”.

I now know what he meant. That blue-tone, blue mood, blue sorrow is a part of life for us all. And never trust religious people who say it is not so.

But never trust religious teachers who preach nothing else either. Sometimes, God-willing, the spark of creativity comes from the very real experiences of sorrow and sadness that we have. Sometimes it is in exactly that place that inspiration takes us by the scruff of the neck. Sometimes it is right there in the darkest places where we learn to sing a new song – a canticum novum as the choir just sang.

The blues may be real for all of us, but it is not the only song we sing.

And it is in music sometimes that we are lifted beyond ourselves. Let us celebrate this day, at the end of the choir term this morning the fact that music lifts us up. Many people come here week by week and many simply drop in from time to time who can testify to the fact that the music that we make here has lifted and encouraged and inspired and refreshed them. Long may that be so.

The jazz that we share on this special occasion has all kinds of metaphors that we could think about for living a spiritual, connected, vibrant life.

We’ve thought about the reality of singing the blues. I’ve mentioned the sparks of creativity in this music. There is more too. What about the call and response patterns of jazz. One musician calling to another and then getting a reply, a response, and answer. Taking a theme and then playing with it. Throwing it back changed.

It is a great metaphor for living a life with God. We are thrown great themes – life, death, the mystery and complexity of relationship. These themes are God’s call to us. The way we improvise our responses is our answer to that calling. And we are thrown back creative riffs by the divine musician – here is love, here is passion, here is creativity and here is growth.

Let the spirit within us flourish. Let the music sing!

And in that singing is the hope we preach here in this church. That though the blues are real, that though our sorrows are true on this earth, even yet, our God will wipe away the tear from every eye and every soul end up singing for joy, when the saints go marching in.

I don’t know what brought you here today. I don’t know what you were expecting. I don’t know what hopes or dreams you brought through the door with you when you arrived.

I ask you only this – to let the music sing within you. You know how it is when you hear a catchy beat and your foot begins to tap. Or you catch a tune in your head and you can’t let it go. Or you hear someone singing and can’t help but sing along.

Let it be so and let it be so with the news that God loves you and those you love and those you find hardest to love too.

And let your feet dance and your heart sing and let us improvise and create a whole new heavenly chorus to the rhythm of the heartbeat of faith:

God is love. God is love. God is love.


  1. Very nice sermon Kelvin.

  2. oh, was it guilty pleasure once?Jazz seems to me, as foreigner, is the only tradition you americans invented.

  3. Love this, Kelvin!

  4. Elizabeth says

    Very nice. Loved the mass, the sermon, the inclusive language and the Michael Jackson improv!

  5. PrinciPAL, Fr P.
    University PrincipLEs are far harder to put in a box

  6. Maureen (McK) says

    Great sermon. Makes me wish I had been there.

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