This Sunday I attended the annual Jazz Worship service at Flemington Presbyterian Church. Unlike the Jazz Vespers at Allentown Presbyterian, which is meditative and features no liturgy but lectio divina, this worship followed the typical order of worship on the Lord’s Day; the music, though, was led by jazz musicians from the congregation. The Jazz worship band was complete with brass, percussion, keyboards, guitars and a vocalist. Close to a dozen members and friends … ranging in age from 8 to 80 (I’m pretty sure about the 8, not so sure about the 80) … and including the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tom Robinson, on rhythm guitar (My understanding is that Tom is also an extremely talented bass player).
Jazz music is hard for a classically trained musician (like me) who learns the music by reading the notes on the page. An authentic jazz band will abandon the grand staff for lead sheets with no more than a suggested melody line and a chord structure. The music itself is based more on improvisation; as the band vamps, a soloist lets loose and takes the music wherever the “spirit” leads. In that sense, Jazz music can be a challenge for Presbyterians who want their worship scripted — printed liturgy, prescribed verses of hymns, manuscripted sermon, well-rehearsed choir anthem, pre-written prayers — and timed to last precisely 60 minutes. Jazz is more pentecostal, charismatic … spirit driven. Sure, it’s based on a solid structure and traditional (albeit complex) chord progressions, but it’s fresh, spontaneous, relevant for the moment, and unpredictable. Jazz lends itself to the kind of worship I think is what we really need today … well planned, but leaves plenty of space for the Holy Spirit to show up.
When the Holy Spirit shows up, the unpredictable happens. That’s what we see in this weeks reading of The Story. From the wind and tongues of fire at Pentecost, to the visions of Peter and Cornelius, to the conversion of Saul, to the healing work of the apostles, to the release of Paul from prison by the angels … this chapter brings us a reality that relies on the extraordinary, metaphysical power of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s face it … the Holy Spirit makes Presbyterians uncomfortable. We are a modern, intellectually minded people. We are born of the enlightenment and nurtured by the gift of reason. We are the most studied and surveyed denomination; we are loathe to make a decision without years of study that is well documented and researched; we see no tension between faith and science or the scientific method. We believe in prayer, but rarely embrace discussions about mysticism. We honor our “call” but it needs to be visibly confirmed by the majority votes of sessions, congregations, and presbyteries.
When our pastors are seized by a “damascus road” power that shapes their call … we wonder if we need schedule their free mental health visits through the Employee Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions. When our congregants ask for a prayer for healing, we tell ourselves that “healing happens in many ways.” When our congregations seek a new vision for ministry … we rarely expect to be awakened at night by an angel in our bedroom or to enter a trance as we pray on our deck waiting for the grill to heat up. Is it true that the Spirit doesn’t work that way anymore? The member of my church who sees angels wouldn’t agree.
If we leave room in worship for the Holy Spirit to show up … we have to be ready for the unpredictable, we have to be ready for the uncomfortable, for the dangerous, for the possibility that we might not have all the answers, or that we might be wrong. (See Dwayne’s post about the Sanhedrin and Gamamiel … a religious power broker who isn’t as afraid to discover what God is actually doing.) If we leave room for the Holy Spirit in our lives, we might face accusations of treason or blasphemy, we might be thrown off our horse, struck blind, face our greatest fear. We might need to walk into the dangerous places, meet with the people we hate (or are hated by), or risk being stoned. At the least, we will be moved to action, we will question “the way we’ve always done it,” we will acknowledge the new creation to which God is calling us.
Then, again, we sing …
Spirit, spirit of gentleness.
Blow through the wilderness, calling and free.
Spirit, spirit of restlessness. Stir me from placidness.
Wind, wind on the sea.
You call from tomorrow, You break ancient schemes,
From the bondage of sorrow the captives dream dreams;
Our women see visions, Our men clear their eyes.
With bold new decisions Your people arise.
(Spirit, words and music by James K. Manley)
Stephen is credited with being one of the first deacons of the early church. So much so that there is an organization called “Stephen Ministries” that takes as its mission to equip people to “provide one-to-one, Christ-centered care to hurting people.” (from their web site). But, even though Stephen did vital work for the early church living his life as a deacon, it is his death that we know the most about from the book of Acts.
As I read the story of the martyrdom of Stephen, the image that kept coming to me was that of our modern political environment. We had parties with their own “pet agendas” (the “Synagogue of the Freedmen”) We have people lying under oath to get what they want, or to curry favor. But the most telling point, I thought, was the response of the Sanhedrin to Stephen’s vision.
But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. (Acts 7:57 NRSV)
The religious leaders were so unwilling to hear what Stephen had to say, they were raising their own voices, and covering their ears, to block out the sound. Something that seems all to familiar in today’s political “discourse.”
It’s not included in “The Story,” but, just prior to this, Stephen had spent a great deal of time “recapping” the history of the Jewish people (Acts chapter 7) with emphasis on the stubbornness of the Jewish people, and showing how the current generation was following in that less than glorious tradition. So they reacted the way we so often do – the attacked (and killed) the messenger, just so they wouldn’t have to hear the message.
One of the false charges leveled against Stephen was that he would “change the customs Moses handed down to us.” Not the laws of God. The customs of Moses. Those in power were so wedded to their traditions that they would rather kill than change them. They were unable to see that God was doing a completely new thing. I think that their example can stand as an object lesson for us today. Do we get so caught up in the traditions of church that we lose sight of why we are the church?
Now, to be completely fair to the Sanhedrin, it was their job to preserve the purity of the faith, making sure that the people followed God’s will as well as they could. I don’t think they thought of what they were doing as evil, but rather completely justified. It certainly wouldn’t do to just flit after every fad that came along. After all, we learned earlier in the chapter about several failed attempts at change. As Gamaliel said,
But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34-39 NRSV)
Gamaliel knew that not every new thing that came along was a good thing, but he was open to new possibilities. Not so the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s case. They had their ears (and minds) closed to the possibility of something new. A danger that is just as real today as it was 2000 years ago.
Part of the practice of studying “The Story” at APC involves our Sunday morning education hour. All ages participate in age-appropriate classes from that week’s chapter. But before breaking up into individual classes, there is a large group time, where all of the ages meet together for a short presentation to introduce that week’s material. That introduction is prepared by different people and groups each week. This week, for Chapter 28, “New Beginnings,” I was tasked with preparing that introduction. Wendy suggested that others might find it a useful starting point for a similar effort in their church. So, I present to you my script.
This is a take-off on the old “This Is Your Life” TV show, with Peter being the surprised guest honoree. Several characters from this week’s story come out to help Peter remember the events of the early church.
I hope you find it useful. I wrote this over the course of just a few hours, so I have no doubt that there is a lot of room for improvement.
This week we’ll be reading the story of the beginning of the Christian movement. That’s Chapter 28: New Beginnings. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Acts 1-10; 12. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory