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Sermon Archives

Sir Duke

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Mar 18

The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Lessons: 2 Samuel 6: 1-5, 12-22

Do you all know what the common lectionary is?  It’s the series of passages from the Bible that are appointed, by a council of Protestant and Catholic leaders, to be read for given Sundays and according to the Christian liturgical calendar. When people ask me “Do you use the lectionary at First Church?”, I say, “Yes, we do.  Except for when we don’t!”  Today is one of those days when we are going off lectionary.  The scriptures we just heard were inspired by our jazz service for today.  By the way, can we please give it up for Carolyn Wilkins and the band?  Talk about rejoicing!  Talk about Laetare Sunday in Lent (laetare means rejoicing)!  Back to our off lectionary texts, it turns out that the scriptures for today, especially the one from 2nd Samuel, was inspired by another jazz service, one that was held here at First Church back in March of 1967.

First Church would have looked different back then in many ways. The sanctuary had a center aisle.  The lighting and the colors on the walls were not nearly as warm. There was a pulpit on one side and a lectern on the other. This great Frobenius organ would not arrive from Germany for another 5 years.  And don’t you know that another thing that would have looked different back then was the congregation itself.  At the time there was an active campus ministry assuring more back and forth between Harvard and other campuses; there may well have been even more undergrads and grad students in these pews.  In 1967, believe it or not, First Church was also more racially diverse than we are now. You could look at photos of the Sunday school and church events that year and see more black children and families than we have today.  Of course, these were the days before this neighborhood lost rent control and when Harvard Square was filled with local, family businesses.  

For a complete history on race at First Church in Cambridge, just ask our in-house expert Dave Kidder who researched the church’s relationship to people of color as part of our 375th anniversary and as part of our Building the Beloved Community work.  He’s got about 15 single-spaced pages, not including the pages of membership roles from the 17th and 18th centuries that list names of African-American and Native American servants and slaves.  While there are moments we can be proud of in our long history, there are many more where our forebears were either silent, or neutral or just plain on the wrong side of the fight for freedom, equality and justice for all God’s children.  But, one of those prouder moments came in relatively recent memory, so recent in fact that some of our members here with us today can remember being there. On Wednesday, March 29, 1967, none other than the great Duke Ellington himself rolled into Cambridge with his big band and together they took the chancel right here to perform one of Duke’s signature works.  Some would even call it his masterpiece.  The packed house that night had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Duke Ellington’s “A Concert of Sacred Music.”

This past week, I had the privilege and pleasure of searching our archives and those of the Episcopal Chaplaincy just down the street and tracking down everything I could about that concert.  Check this out…

Among a long list of patrons were our own Dick and Gay Harter, the Nobel Prize winning physicist John Van Vleck, local business owner Frank Cardullo, Harvard’s Music Director John Ferris, Harvard President Nathan Pusey, and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy.  In attendance that night were also our own Art Anger, Anita Anger, and Estelle and Archie Paris, and perhaps a few others of you as well along with our First Church ministers at the time, Reverend Wells Grogan and Reverend Jim Blanning, who held the title University Minister.  Archie was kind enough to bring me a copy of the program they had saved.  Let me tell you, all those names I just recounted are just the warm up for the main event. 

First and foremost was “Sir Duke” himself, one of the greatest composers of all time, and I would say the greatest jazz composer. 1967 was a year after he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, two years after he was nominated for a Pullitzer Prize and two years before he won a Presidential Medal of Freedom. With him that night as on so many others was his sideman, the great Johnny Hodges on alto sax (who was born here in Cambridge). Paul Gonsalves was on tenor sax, Cat Anderson on trumpet, and with them a host of other big band cats who toured with Ellington and who took his three iterations of Concerts of Sacred Music on the road to churches across the country and world.  Singing with the band that night was the great Esther Marrow, or Queen Esther as she was known.  Mmm! The Memorial Church choir was also in the house and there was even…get this… a tap-dancer, Dr. Bunny Briggs, who performed a dance solo on a piece Ellington wrote that was called … are you ready?…. “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might.”  Sound familiar? We just heard that line in our reading from Samuel.  I’ll come back to the biblical reference in a moment though let me say now that I plan to let some of Duke’s own words do the preaching today! 

First, you’ve got to hear for yourself the way that Duke introduced Dr. Briggs solo which was a prelude to David Danced with All His Might.  (Dan here held his iPhone up to the mic and played audio from youtube clip with Duke’s voice which was immediately followed by tap-dancing solo that laid down the beat for the big band which came in next).  See the clip here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPHn4rHZCiI.

In case you couldn’t hear it, Duke introduced Briggs as “the most super-leviathonic rhythmaturgically syncopated tapstamaticianisimist” and to think, he was tap dancing right here, here in this sanctuary!  Too cool for school! It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to thank God for the Internet even though the clip we just heard was from a similar concert performed at another church!  And, while they didn’t sing “Freedom” that night either, as Carolyn and our choir just did, they did sing what must have been one of its spiritual sisters, a piece called “New World A’Coming.”  It was the one piece that night where Ellington himself was listed as a soloist.  In the program, written right underneath the title is this powerful note: “New World A “coming is really the anticipation of a very distant future place on land, at sea, or in the sky where there will be no war, no greed, no non-believers and non categorization…where Love is unconditional and no pronoun is good enough for God!”

Interestingly, they also sang a piece called Ninety Nine Percent.  And they most definitely included the now classic Come Sunday.  Imagine Queen Esther belting that one out!  And of course they did the centerpiece of the first Sacred Concert, a 15 minute interpretation of Genesis called “In the Beginning”. 

The concert came about as part of a so-called “Year of Experimentation” that is described on the back of the program in which the Episcopal and United Church of Christ chaplaincies of Harvard and Radcliffe were together exploring the “religious potential in the arts.”  Having already sponsored that year a folk concert, Bach’s Magnificat, and a full-scale dramatic production of Ugo Betti’s Goat Island, the chaplaincy ventured to welcome Ellington and his big band to Cambridge.  One can surmise that there was resistance at the time for in their own program notes they said: “There are some who would argue that musical innovation and modern sounds do not belong in the Church and with this we would disagree.  For us, Duke Ellington’s music represents the vitality and joy that is at the root of man’s religious quest.  Its subtle themes cover the range of human experience and speak to the deepest human needs.”

And indeed, Duke’s themes were well rooted in scripture. As one commentator has noted: “As a young man, Ellington immersed himself in the Scriptures. A friend from Ellington's early days in Washington, D.C., recalled how the musician would often come home after a performance and read the Bible while taking a bath, and continue reading until the water turned cold. …During his middle years Ellington was not exactly a model Christian. He was thought to be somewhat of a womanizer, and he didn't attend church regularly. But according to biographer James Lincoln Collier, "there can be no questioning the sincerity of his religious feelings." It was in 1965 that Ellington made his deep faith public. That year he was commissioned to do a liturgical composition for the inauguration of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. This work, the first of three sacred concerts, signaled a permanent change for Ellington. "This music," Duke declared, "is the most important thing I've ever done or am ever likely to do. This is personal, not career. Now I can say openly what I have been saying on my knees.”  The reception to these works was mixed. Some religious people thought jazz inappropriate for praising God. And many jazz musicians thought praising God inappropriate for Duke Ellington.  When people complained that Ellington's sacred concert was taking too long to complete, Ellington defended his meticulousness, saying "You can jive with secular music, but you can't jive with the Almighty."[1]

 And now for a few more of Ellington’s own words. These are taken directly from that March 29, 1967 program and they are worth quoting at length.

"Communication itself is what baffles the multitude. It is both so difficult and so simple. Of all man's fears, I think men are most afraid of being what they are--in direct communication with the world at large. They fear reprisals, the most personal of which is that they "won't be understood."

How can anyone expect to be understood unless he presents his thoughts with complete honesty? This situation is unfair because it asks too much of the world. In effect, we say, "I don't dare show you what I am because I don't trust you for a minute but please love me anyway because I so need you to. And, of course, if you don't love me anyway, you're a dirty dog, just as I suspected, so I was right in the first place." Yet, every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty--trying to communicate themselves, understood or not--miracles have happened.

As I travel from place to place by car, bus, train, plane . . . taking rhythm to the dancers, harmony to the romantic, melody to the nostalgic, gratitude to the listener . . . receiving praise, applause and handshakes, and at the same time, doing the thing I like to do, I feel that I am most fortunate because I know that God has blessed my timing, without which no thing could have happened--the right time or place or with the right people. The four must converge. Thank God . . . .

Wisdom is something that man partially enjoys--One and only One has all the wisdom. God has total understanding. There are some people who speak one language and some who speak many languages. Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God does not understand.
. . .

It has been said once that a man, who could not play the organ or any of the instruments of the symphony, accompanies his worship by juggling. He was not the world's greatest juggler but it was the one thing he did best. And so it was accepted by God.

I believe that no matter how highly skilled a drummer or saxophonist might be, that if this is the thing he does best, and he offers it sincerely from the heart in--or as the accompaniment to--his worship, he will not be unacceptable because of lack of skill or of the instrument upon which he makes his demonstration, be it pipe or tomtom.

If a man is troubled, he moans and cries when he worships. When a man feels that which he enjoys in this life is only because of the grace of God, he rejoices, he sings, and sometimes dances (and so it was with David in spite of his wife's prudishness)."

And so it was with David!  Indeed, our scripture for today from Samuel suggests a certain compulsion on the part of David, an “I can’t help myself” feeling toward his dancing and playing and rejoicing.  It made him, the King of Israel, want to tear off his shirt and get down no matter what his wife or anyone else said!  And so it’s been with all those who feel called to worship God in different languages, through different instruments, through different means of communication.  What the writer of Samuel and what Duke are telling us is that if its offered with honesty, and sincerity from the heart, then who are we to judge it and who are we to call it unacceptable?  It’s not for us anyway; it’s for God!

First Church, we know about this fearless honesty that longs for understanding and that is expressed in worship, do we not? We hear it and feel it clearly in the powerful music today, and in the depths of the African American tradition from which it arises!  Thank you again, Carolyn, John and Bill!  We hear it every time Peter Sykes takes the console and prays in his own unique and gorgeous language of prayer!  We hear it in the different voices from our deep bench of preachers and in our every Lenten Testimony, as we will surely do again in a moment.  Thank you in advance Deejay Robinson who will sing his testimony today.  We see this fearless honesty in the way this church makes use of visual and liturgical arts! And yet all of this fearless honesty is but a taste of the diversity of languages of worship and prayer, music and dance.  I don’t know about you but I find in these powerful words from King David and Sir Duke an invitation to imagine yet more ways that God might be calling us broaden and deepen our worship and musical and liturgical expressions, on Sunday and at other times in the week.  Perhaps we could have our own year of experimentation, not that today is an experiment.  We’ve been doing Jazz at First Church for years.  Its been tested and its rung true for ten years every Sunday, and now on Third Sunday evenings.  We hear jazz as part of Nightsong as well!  And yet many of us wonder if we could have even more range, wonder if we could hear more kinds of music for and from more kinds of people, even “all kinds of people,” as the song we will soon sing goes, all kinds of people, all ages, all cultures, all tongues and all races!

In the archives, I found an article that ran in the Boston Globe 45 years ago yesterday, March 17, 1967, heralding the coming of the Duke to Cambridge.  It raised a question that many churches are wrestling with today, including ours.  The question was this: “Where does contemporary music fit into today’s worship?”  The article went on to name another example – a Rock-n-Roll service that had just been done earlier that month, March of ’67, at the Melrose Highlands Congregational Church.  Apparently, they had just invited a band with three electric guitars and drums.  The decidedly unmeasured response of the Globe’s Religion Editor George Collins to both the rock service and to Duke’s sacred concert was this: “These modern approaches will continue.  Some will undoubtedly incur the wrath of the traditionalist.  Some may even be such bad music that they will incur the wrath of the modernists.” And then in boldface type, in the Globe mind you, was this line:  “The traditionalist should remember that guitars, lyres, and other stringed instruments were in use in liturgy long before the organ was invented.”  Our own Peter Sykes would be the first to agree.

And so it was with David, David who danced before the Lord with all his might! Then as now, whatever resistance may have preceded or followed such events was about more than the music.  Ultimately, the music was for God.  It was also about the inevitable, dynamic, often tension-filled and creative clash of cultures, of generations and indeed of races.  Perhaps if we follow the Duke’s lead and remember that “so it was with David”…so it was when he broke loose of worship convention, and so it was acceptable to God…we too can navigate these waters and be open to all forms of worship without fear of losing our sense of tradition. We need not fear that here. Today, as in our past, as in our future together, we pray those words of Duke continued to ring true:   Yet, every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty--trying to communicate themselves, understood or not--miracles have happened.

I leave you now with what might be considered a small miracle.  Just two weeks ago, our Associate Conference Minister, Wendy Vanderhart, suggested to us at lunch that she thinks God is calling us be worshipping more, on Sundays and other days of the week, right here in our outpost of God’s Kin-dom in Harvard Sq.  Its what we can offer to God and to others that no one else can.  Do you know where Wendy served before taking her current denominational post?  Melrose Highlands Congregational Church!  Strange coincidence or the Spirit at work?  You tell me.

First Church, are we ready as David was to receive the blessing? Are we ready to throw away fear in pursuit of honesty?  Are we ready as Duke was?   Are we feeling like we have a convergence of the four -- God’s blessing, the right time, the right place, the right people?

And so it was with David! And so it was with Duke in 1967!  May it be so again!  May we be so blessed this morning and in all our worship to come.  Amen.

[1] http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/commentaries/5101-a-jazz-genius

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