July 31, 2016, Bix Jazz Service
Church of Peace, UCC
John 1:1-14, Psalm 139 (selections), Mark 1:9-15
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
I. Words of Introduction
Brothers and sisters, today we’ve come to worship God by celebrating the music of Bix Beiderbecke and Dixieland jazz. I think you’ll find, this is not a Sunday to sit back and listen. Instead, let the Holy Spirit stir your soul awake. You may need to clap along on beats two and four, or tap your feet, or bop your hips, or sing along. This is the work of the Holy Spirit; it is how we give glory to God.
Alongside the music, today we’re also continuing our summer worship series called, “I Have Always Wanted to Know” which is made of questions from members of the congregation. I’ve selected three questions to consider this morning, so throughout the service I will read the question, followed by a time of silent reflection, followed by a short reflection sharing my views on the topic.
You’ll notice, all three questions have something in common. They all speak to the work of claiming our own truth, of coming into our own authenticity. This work is not just for eighteen-year-olds who take a gap year to go find themselves, or sixty-two-year-olds preparing to re-invent themselves in retirement. Wherever you are on life’s journey, we’re always coming to terms with our truth —who we’re created to be and called to become…
This work of claiming the truth is exactly the work of jazz. Listen for this in the call and response of the songs, in the urgency of the rhythm and the mournful soaring of a melody that knows something I am still trying to learn.
II. Light Breaking In
The first question: Did Jesus know he was the Son of God at all? Let us bring this question to God in prayer. (hold the silence)
The short answer is Yes. Although the Gospels were written after Jesus’ death and resurrection, throughout the Gospels, we hear Jesus praying to God and calling him Father. In some places, Jesus uses the affectionate term of Daddy or Papa in speaking to God. So I’d say, yes, Jesus was aware of this relationship.
Going deeper with the question, we could ask: Did Jesus know the fullness of what it means to be the Son of God? Did he really understand what is involved in this relationship, what it means to be claimed by God and called Beloved? And really, do any of us know what this means?
Now I know this is a point of debate. There are those of us who say Jesus is the son of God, but he’s not the only one. All of us are sons and daughters of God, sisters and brothers of Christ. There are those of us who say actually, Jesus is the only Son of God; he is set apart from the rest of humanity. And we could have a great debate on this point.
I’m wondering if one reason why we like to establish the supremacy of Christ is because the possibility that we’re all sons and daughters of God is downright terrifying. There is nothing safe about the word of God becoming flesh and living among us. Nothing safe about the light of God getting into each of us, changing how we look, and changing how we look.
It’s one thing to stand in a bright sanctuary filled with song and affirm “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Then there are other days. A man looks in the mirror right after hearing that his cancer has returned. A woman looks at her mug shot that was taken when she got arrested on a DUI. Can they see the light of God’s love in their own faces?
Some truth takes a lifetime to learn. Knowing what it means to be the sons and daughters of God, claimed and called Beloved, this will take our whole lives to learn. Even though we have known it forever. May God open our hearts and our minds to the reading and hearing of this word.
III. If God is Still Creating…
The second question: What does God say about people who change their gender? Let us bring this question to God in prayer. (hold the silence)
The short answer is: We don’t know. There’s always a danger in our human attempts to decide God’s opinion on anything.
In our context, transgender describes a person whose gender identity is different from their body. Sometimes a person who is male is born into a female body, or a person who is female is born into a male body. Sometimes it’s more fluid than the two options of male or female.
This experience of being transgender is not represented in the Bible. People have tried to pick out verses about cross dressing or verses about eunuchs, but the question of transgender identity is missing from the Bible. To be clear, the Bible does not say people who are transgender will be condemned.
And while it is the case we don’t know what God says about transgender individuals, I can tell you exactly what God says to transgender folks because it is the same thing God says to every person: I love you. What God says is I love you; what God keeps saying is I love you.
I do want to honor the concern this question raises: If God creates a person and brings them to life in the body of a baby girl, but the person identifies as male, then if this person changes the gender of his body, is he changing who God created him to be? Did God mean for him to be female and he is moving away from this truth by changing his body?
Or could it be that God is still creating us? That we were not made once and set on a course for all time, but that we were knit together in our mother’s womb, and we are still being created, still being transformed… You know we don’t have all the same cells we had when we were babies. We don’t have the same teeth, or the same hair, or the same skin, is it so important that we have the same gender… It may be that changing our gender is how we become who we’re called to be.
Whether transgender or cisgender, something we human people have in common is that throughout our lives, we’re always trying to reconcile our sense of self with our body. You know this struggle if you have ever felt like running, but your legs won’t let you; if you have ever changed your hairstyle or your image to reflect who you are. If you have ever recovered from an illness. If you have experienced the diminishing of an ability. All of us are constantly working to harmonize our identities with our bodies. God is constantly working, so that through our whole lives we are being fearfully and wonderfully made.
IV. How the Water Carves the Rock
(after the scripture)
The third question: I’ve always practiced and learned the Christian faith. There’s never been an “Aha!” moment of being saved or found. Is this possible or right? Let us bring this question to God in prayer. (hold the silence)
The short answer is: Yes, this is possible and right. Given the scripture we just heard, this is also a really important question. Reading the Gospel of Mark, what seems to matter are the high-drama events punctuated by swift action. First this happened, then this happened, then this. The Gospel reads like a list of action bullet points: First, Jesus gets baptized. “You are my son, I love you,” says God. Then the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for forty days (with the devil, the wild beasts and the angels). Then the Spirit drives him right back out again. John gets arrested and Jesus comes to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel. One “Aha!” moment after another!
So it’s no wonder we’d think the work of our faith calls for momentous events, an experience of getting saved so dramatic we remember the exact time, and we’ll never forget it. Indeed, sometimes this is how salvation happens. But more often I think, salvation happens in the breaths in between, just like it’s not the sound that makes the difference in jazz —it’s the silence.
In the scripture, Jesus is claimed, tempted by the Devil, then commissioned to preach the Gospel, but the process of his transformation goes unmentioned. When the heavens open and God calls him Beloved, what does Jesus say back? How exactly do those angels save him in the wilderness? Why was Jesus in the wilderness while John was getting arrested? There’s a lot going on under the surface of the scripture; there’s always a lot going on under the surface.
Caves are formed by flowing water. Over time, the carbon dioxide in the water dissolves the limestone and hollows out the rock. The bluffs along the Mississippi river are formed by erosion that began over ten thousand years ago. The earth is changed by the river not only during one great event —like a sudden thaw— but also gradually over time. Could it be that salvation is not just a single event, but a process that’s never over, the promise that we are always saving each other’s lives.
I offer you this poem called “Shoulders” by Naomi Shihab Nye
A man crosses the street in the rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
Friends, the water keeps changing the earth. The LORD our God keeps creating our bodies and saving our souls. The light of God keeps breaking in, and God is still speaking I love you. I love you whispered through walls and the wilderness. I love you, the truth it takes our whole lives to learn. Amen.