One of my favorite albums is Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday. Billie lived an incredibly difficult, in many ways tragic life. She was only 44 when she died and this was one of her last recordings. It sets her weathered, in many ways broken voice against a lush background of a big band. But what makes it so moving is its brutal honesty. Here is a woman who has experienced far more pain in her life than any person should have to bear. Her voice has aged far beyond its years, and yet when she sings, “You don’t know what love is, until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues” you know that she means it in the deepest possible way – you can feel her song coming from a well deep inside her, and it is heartbreakingly beautiful.
There are a lot of things I love about jazz. It is colorful, it swings, it soars, it groans, but most of all it is true – it is honest. Those blue notes we just sang/heard – those notes aren’t always easy on the ears, but for the jazz musician, they are true – they sound like real life. Jazz expresses so well the struggle for a sense of harmony in a troubled world. This goes back to the spirituals and the blues that form the foundation for jazz. It is music that arose out of the African-American experience of slavery and toil and devastation. Jazz takes these old melodies and turns them into something new. Jazz demands that the soloist take all he or she knows, all that has been passed through generations of music, and improvise – to turn familiar tunes into something new, some unique expression of their own experience. Jazz is emotional music, music that embraces life in all its beauty and all its pain. And it is filled with tension, because it communicates the truth of life trying desperately to hold onto hope in the midst of despair, to find joy even as there is sorrow, and to live life where death is all around. It reaches down into the ground and up into the heavens. Even as it dwells in life’s darker shadows, it soars in its struggle to find freedom. Ralph Ellison, the author of the novel Invisible Man, summed it up, “The art – the blues, the spirituals, the jazz, the dance was what we had in place of freedom.” Jazz is freedom music.
The passage we just read in Acts is all about the Holy Spirit. And if I had to describe the Holy Spirit in one word, I think the word ‘free’ would be at the top of my list. And here recorded in Acts, we find the story of Peter and the disciples learning just how free the Holy Spirit can be. In Acts 10, we are at a critical turning point in the story of Jesus’ disciples. Up until now, Peter and the rest of the disciples have been preaching to and gathering followers among the Jewish community. Jews were required by the law to be circumcised and they could not eat animals that were considered unclean. These laws set the community apart. But just prior to this point in the story, Peter had a vision. He was very hungry, and in the vision there are all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds and animals that are unclean for Jews to eat. But there is a voice telling him that what God has made clean must not be called profane. And so now we find Peter telling the good news of God’s work in the world through Jesus to people outside of the Jewish community. And as he is speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon the crowd and overwhelms them, they start speaking in tongues and the Jews, the disciples are astonished. They are stunned – because they can see and hear that these people who all the disciples considered to be outside of the boundaries of Jesus’ ministry are experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit. Peter can see that something real is happening as his message falls on new ears – and this very unexpected – but fortunately Peter is willing to be surprised – he is open to the possibility that God is up to something even among these Gentiles. The vision that he had must have prepared for this moment – because he could have heard the audience speaking in tongues and discredited what was happening. But he didn’t. Instead, he orders that they be included as members of the community. He directs the disciples to baptize them, which is the ritual that marks them as part of the church. Here, Peter discerns that God is breaking down the assumptions that they all held about who could be included in their community. God is beginning to show Peter and the disciples that the Holy Spirit is working, even among people and places where they don’t expect to see it.
In a way, what’s happening here in Acts is similar to what’s happening here at Summit. For part of our vision statement says that we are “known for building innovative partnerships between the sacred and secular”. So there are organizations like UAEA, Yay Bikes, and Free Geek, among others, that look very different from the church and that do different things. And yet we as the church are willing to see the inherent worth of the work they are doing. We see that their missions and visions are not entirely different from the church’s. And we support and participate in their work just as they support and participate in ours. And our attempt to do this is grounded in the history of the church. Even from the very beginning, God was teaching the church to see the work of the Holy Spirit in unexpected places.
This is not always easy. It’s not always easy to recognize the Holy Spirit. What does it look like? What does it do? Some of you may feel like you experience the Holy Spirit in your life often, but others may not be so sure. You may wonder, am I missing something? I’ve felt this often in my life actually – I’ve thought, maybe I just don’t get it. And it isn’t always easy for me to see/feel God in my life. I grew up in a Church of Christ congregation, and it is a tradition that does not baptize infants. They require that each individual make a decision to come forward and be baptized when they are ready. And in that tradition baptism itself is the moment of salvation. So you can imagine that when I made the choice to be baptized at age 15, I was hoping that I would feel the Spirit somehow, I wanted to be overwhelmed by God’s love. But in that moment, I didn’t feel anything new and different. I didn’t have an overwhelming feeling of joy. So I worried that there was something wrong with me, worried that I was missing something, and that worry has stuck with me throughout my life. But like Peter, I’ve learned a little along the way. There’s something I’ve had to learn and relearn over and over, and that is that although the Spirit can overwhelm us at times, more often we have to make room for the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is sometimes working in plain sight, yet we have to allow ourselves to recognize it.
I learned this lesson most powerfully 2 years ago. That summer, the year before Lucy and I moved here to Columbus, we traveled across the country volunteering our labor on farms for room and board along the way. We took the trip as a Sabbath, an extended period of rest after a strenuous couple of years living in Boston. And I took the time as an opportunity to try to figure out what was missing in my spiritual life – why I couldn’t sense God around me the way many of my friends could. And at first I continued to be frustrated in this search. But slowly over the course of the summer my eyes were opened. I was learning as I worked in the fields and dug in the soil and chased renegade cows around the farm, learning to see miraculous, beautiful things all around me. I was so stuck in my head trying to figure out what I was supposed to be looking for that I had to first learn to just get out of my head and simply recognize the perfection all around me – mountains, valleys, and streams, beautiful purple fields of rye, the morning mist surrounding the barn, getting clean after a day in the dirt, laughing together around the kitchen table. I learned to just be glad among these things, for there is a simple joy that lies at the heart of even the most mundane everyday things. I’ve tried to carry this with me ever since. Sometimes when I come home from work and see our puppy lying in the sun next to the window I lay down on the carpet and take a nap with her. As I finished this sermon this morning, I stopped to hear the rain fall outside, and I breathed. Today I think of all that my mother has done for me, how much she loves me. There is so much in life to marvel at, and the Holy Spirit can be found in these simple, everyday things.
But there’s more to the Holy Spirit, and jazz has actually taught me a lot about this. For me, the magic of music is that it helps me to feel what is inside. Jazz is a music that expresses emotion, whether good or bad, it turns feelings into melodies and harmonies. Musicians have a gift for searching the world both inside them and around them, and they offer their vision in song. Music can help us recognize our own feelings, even the ones buried so deep inside us that we didn’t even know they were there. And it’s in these hidden recesses of the soul that we often find the Holy Spirit speaking powerfully.
But that’s the hard thing about the Holy Spirit. As we try to sense its presence in our lives, we sometimes stumble upon hidden places inside of us that we’re afraid to see. The Holy Spirit is wild. And it often comes to us in the form of things we can’t control in our lives and in the world around us. We like being in control of our lives, and it scares us when we aren’t. But I think our attempt to always stay in control sometimes gets in the way of truly experiencing the Holy Spirit in our lives. My challenge to myself and to all of you is that sometimes when you find yourself feeling out of control, try to step back and pause. Let yourself feel deeply. Resist the impulse to seize control, and listen. Listen to yourself – what is going on inside you. Listen to what’s around – observe it and allow it to possibly teach you. Try to allow yourself to be surprised. The point isn’t always to make things turn out the way you think they should be – sometimes there’s something else the Spirit is trying to say to us, trying to teach us. Peter and the disciples couldn’t control the Spirit – but they were able to recognize it, they allowed themselves to be surprised by it, and when they saw it they marked it in the waters of baptism. Jazz players can’t control the Spirit either, but they let themselves feel whatever it is that inspires their art, and they sing it with their instruments and their voices. And you can allow yourself to be touched by the wild, untamed Holy Spirit of God. Listen to your life, dwell in the moments of surprise. Listen. The Holy Spirit is speaking.