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Sermon for Sunday May 11, 2008

Today was Pentecost, Mother's Day, and Jazz Sunday at our worship service. This sermon tries to bring all three themes together. You will get the full effect if you play Ellington's Diminuendo in Blue from the recording of Ellington at Newport in 1956.

We Must Sing
Acts 2:1-21

How do we know when the Spirit is in this place? For the followers of Jesus, it was a roaring, violent wind and tongues of fire that separated and fell on the heads of each person. They knew the Spirit had come because they began speaking in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. Under the power of the Spirit, Peter preached and 3000 people accepted the Good News of Christ. The Apostles were filled with the Spirit, and they preached, and taught, and healed, just like Jesus did.

How do we know when the Spirit is in this place? For some it is a Pentecostal experience. Have you ever been to a Pentecostal worship service like the Assemblies of God. At a certain point in the service, people are speaking in tongues, and falling on the floor -- slain in the Spirit, laughing, caught in rapture, or weeping tears of repentance.

How do we know when the Spirit is in this place? For some of us, we just know it. We can’t explain what happens when the Spirit comes. We just know when it happens.

This is what I imagine Pentecost may have sounded like. What you are hearing is a song that caused hysterical pandemonium that broke out at a jazz concert. When jazz is truly swinging, the universe is hard pressed to find a greater manifestation of joy. It happened on July 8, 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival. Duke Ellington came to Newport in the midst of a critical and commercial slump. The band had not been faring well in recent years. Duke didn’t even have a record deal at the time. That was all about to change.

Around midnight, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra took the stage. They played Billy Straythorn’s “Take the A Train” and then a hastily assembled composition for the festival. Then, after playing “Sophisticated Lady,” Duke announced the next tune, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” featuring Paul Gonsalves on the tenor sax. It was the last number of the night. Ellington wrote “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” in 1938, but the band hadn’t performed them much in recent years. In fact, Paul Gonsalves didn’t really know the piece. Duke reassured him, telling him that he would guide him in and out of the solo. “Just get out there and blow your tail off,” Ellington told him. What happened next took Newport and the entire Jazz world by joyous storm.

Duke opened “Diminuendo and Crescendo” with three rhythmic choruses. Guttural murmurs and shouted exclamations punctuated his piano playing. The band barreled through the arrangement and the first movement reached its climax. Then Gonsalves took center stage. Paul Gonsalves had been with Duke’s band since autumn of 1950. His ballad playing reflected a bit of his personality: He was a shy person -- something of a lost soul. It only within the structured, organic setting of Ellington’s band that Gonsalves could achieve greatness.

Gonsalves dug in with his tenor and started blowing. Somewhere around the seventh chorus, it happened. The crowd began to catch fire. A platinum blond in a black dress began dancing in one of the box seats. Couples broke out into the jitterbug. Soon, 7000 fans were on their feet, dancing, cheering, clapping, and listening to the phenomenal performance. The band and the crowd were one. Gonsalves did not stop until he had played through 27 choruses of blazing hot jazz. The power of that beat and the ferocity of Gonsalves’ solo stirred the crowds to new heights. Duke himself was totally caught up in the moment. The audience was swelling up like a dangerous high tide. By the time the song was done, the band played through 59 choruses.

The producer and the police were worried about a riot. Seeing an opportunity to cut things short, the producer waved to Duke to stop the show and to get off the stage. Instead, Duke grabbed the microphone and reassured the crowd: “Oh, we’ve got a lot more, we’ve got a lot more, we’ve got a lot more.” They played “Tulip or Turnip,” a vocal feature for Ray Nance. Once Nance got on, there was no going back.

As “Tulip or Turnip” ended, George Wein, the producer, seized the microphone. “Duke Ellington, Ladies and Gentlemen! Duke Ellington!” The crowd was in a frenzy. The band exulted, willing to play all night. Listen to the recording and you can hear the producer telling Duke: “That’s it! End of story!”
You can also hear Duke pleading with him, “One more. We can do one more.”
“Nope!”
“One more, George. They want one more.”
“No, Duke!”

The crowd was demanding more Ellington. Angry boos mixed with cheering. They wanted another song. George knew that Duke was already trying to think of his next song.
George pleaded. “Let me tell them good night. No more music, Duke. . . “

Duke approached the microphone for his final good bye for the masses. They audience quieted as Duke stepped up and began to speak. “Thank you very much, Ladies and Gentlemen. We have a very heavy request -- for Sam Woodyard! And “Skin Deep”!”

Ignoring the producer, Duke called for a stomping drum feature. The drummer drilled a barrage of syncopated eighth-notes and rolls. The horns came in again, swinging. After “Skin Deep,” the band finally slipped into something more comfortable: “Mood Indigo.” And, over the dulcet sweep of his saxophone section, Duke spoke the final words of Newport 1956: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we certainly want to thank you for the way you’ve inspired us this evening. You’re very beautiful, very sweet, and we do love you madly. As we say good night, we want to give you our best wishes, and hope we have this pleasure again next year. Thank you very much.”

That’s what it’s like when the Spirit comes. People start to swing. The joy is contagious. Voices sing out. Legs begin to move. People are swept up in something bigger, and greater, and more wonderful than we could ever fabricate or manufacture. When the Spirit comes, we must sing.

Did you know that your vocal chords move automatically to the sounds around you and to the sounds in your head? Even when you dream sounds at night, your vocal chords move to those sounds. Your vocal chords are an involuntary muscle. They are always on automatic. All you have to do is add a little breath to it, and your making sounds. There are two words in the Hebrew and Greek for breath or wind. It’s no mistake that these words also mean Spirit. The Spirit is the breath of God. When the Spirit comes, we must sing.

It’s incredible to me how many people have been shamed about their voices. So many people have been told to shut up. They have been told its better to be seen and not heard. They feel intimidated when they don’t sound like the professionals. The same is true about faith. How many times have we heard that faith is a private matter. Don’t talk about it. Don’t be to exuberant. Don’t let religion take over your life. Faith has its place, in a pew on Sunday morning.
But God made you to sing.

Where then, can we find the Holy Spirit at work? How about in the gathering of this community for worship, where the Holy Spirit helps us understand the promises of God for us. That’s the Spirit, and we must sing a song of praise.

How about in the chaotic preparation of families for worship today: making sure everyone is up and dressed, in the car and on time because you knew you had to be here today. Isn’t this the Spirit at work showing people the value of gathering as God’s people? That’s the Spirit, and we must sing a song of community.

How about those mothers who have nurtured and loved us – those women who taught us and inspired us and led us with their strength? That’s the Spirit at work, and we must sing a song of gratitude.

How about when a parent stops what seems so urgent to do something more important, like spending some time with a kid? That’s the Spirit, and we must sing a song of love.

How about when a couple chooses fidelity to each other when there’s a temptation to drift? How about when flames of love ignite passion? How about when that same passion still stirs 50 years later? That’s the Spirit, and we must sing a song of faithfulness.

How about when a kid finds the courage to stand up to friends or foes and say no to drugs, or sex, or bullying others. How about when a person finds the courage to get out of an abusive relationship, knowing that a future alone will be hard. That’s the Spirit, and we must sing a song of courage.

How about when, in the midst of pain and hurt, a victim forgives a perpetrator, or a sinner repents? That’s the Spirit, and we must sing a song of compassion.

How about when a person who bears the pains of sickness and age without becoming embittered? That’s the Spirit, and we must sing a song of endurance.

Where is the Spirit at work? Not simply in the air, not simply in the fire, not simply on the tongue.

The Spirit is at work in human hearts and minds, and souls. The Spirit is at work in the places where the Spirit chooses to take up residence, in the temples of the people whom the Spirit filled with life. The Spirit is at work in common, ordinary ways, in common ordinary people. And we must sing.

Sing from the depths of your soul. Dream and dance. Imagine and create. Laugh and leap. That’s the Spirit, and we must sing.

Sources:
Kirk Byron Jones, The Jazz of Preaching, 125-133
Ellington at Newport 1956 (Sony, 1999)
Yohann Anderson, “Everybody Can”
George Wein, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music at http://www.jerryjazzmusician.com/mainHTML.cfm?page=greatencounters11.html
http://www.mtsm.org/preaching/homilies.htm




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