August 3, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 1:20-23, 1 Samuel 16:14-23

When the Band Begins to Play

It is a good day when we get a little jazz into the church. It is a very good day when the church gets into a little jazz. For one thing, it helps us loosen up. It helps us know the sorrow so deep it can only be sung, to know the grace of God in a rhythm that does not require the downbeat to strike relentlessly on one and three. Jazz exposes us to the improvisation of the Holy Spirit. You ever wonder how the players know when to take a solo or how they think up to what to play? It’s a charge you feel in your bones, then you can’t sit still even if you try, even if somebody sometime told you that church is for the sitting still. Not today.

Jazz and the church speak a common language in the form of call and response. You’ll also hear this spoken by protestors at a march or cheerleaders at a pep rally. You hear this in the poetry that comes from the Bible. Usually it happens when you have a verse sung by a soloist, then a chorus echoed by the people. It happens when God calls the world into being, and we cannot help but break into worship. Our soul wells up with love, and our very breath pours into praise for the LORD. That’s call and response for you. Now we can’t sit still or be quiet even if we try.

Today our summer series continues as we celebrate the fifth day of creation, the day when winged birds take to the sky and the great sea monsters swarm in the water. Now whoever first came up with this story made a strange and exciting decision. You see, there was another creation story prevalent in the ancient world called the Enuma Elish. It comes from Babylon, and the author of Genesis would have known this story. In the Enuma Elish, there is not a day when God creates the birds of the air and the creatures of the sea, then sees that they are good. Pretty much the opposite happens.

According to the Enuma Elish, in the beginning was the messy convergence between two sea monsters in the waters of chaos. These monsters are Apsu and Tiamat, and they go on to give birth to a fleet of gods who give birth to more. One grandson god, the warrior Marduk rises to power. A conflict ensues between Marduk and his grandmother Tiamat. When she opens her mouth to roar, he kills her, and splits open her body, so the top of her forms the heaven and the bottom forms the earth.[1] In this way, the world is formed when this god murders the monster of chaos, establishing the earth with order.

In the ancient world, there’s an expectation that creation comes about when order defeats chaos. There’s an expectation that any god worth his salt establishes the world by killing the monster of chaos. Indeed, there are stories in the Bible which describe our God as the one who subdues or slays the monsters of chaos. We think of Jesus as our shepherd, but we don’t always think of God as a monster killer.

Hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, “On that day the LORD with his cruel and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent… he will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). Psalm 74 has this to say: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” (Psalm 74: 13-14). I’m guessing nobody had to learn that as a memory verse in Sunday School. Yet in the ancient world, God who slays the monster makes good sense. He’s just doing his job as God.

So you see why our scripture from Genesis is so strange and exciting. Here God creates the monsters of the sea and blesses them. And in Psalm 148, you know what the great sea monsters do? They praise the LORD! Call and response from the deepest ocean.

All through the Bible, there are conflicting stories on the role of chaos. God does not just wipe it out the way we would eradicate mold. What kind of God is this? She invites the sea monsters to play in the messy waters of creation. God blesses them, and they sing back praise. God allows chaos to unfold.

This is a hard truth to reconcile with the idea that God has a plan for each of us. I’m not saying God doesn’t have a plan. I love to make plans. Who am I to say God is not allowed to plan? If you come and tell me that God has a plan for you, I can agree.

But so often when people come and tell me this, it is when something terrible has happened. It’s like they need me to know that they know that God had planned all along for them to get fired, or for their son to get deployed overseas, or for their best friend to get killed. It’s like they try to convince me that it’s okay. There was a plan established for all time, and this was part of it. Inevitable. How God meant for it to be. Friends, I gotta tell you, I’m not so sure. Our God can bless chaos and hear the monsters sing praise. Plans can change…

In our second scripture this morning, we hear a story utterly bizarre and exquisite. It begins when the spirit of the LORD departs from King Saul, okay. Then, an evil spirit from the LORD begins to torment him. Apparently, this is something that happens to Saul frequently, and his advisers know exactly how to respond. “Quick! Find someone who is skilled at playing the lyre!” Because what else would you do, right?

Saul’s servants recommend David, a warrior and a shepherd. Saul sends for him, and David becomes his armor-bearer. This begins a long and complex relationship between these two. But for now, any time the evil spirit from God comes upon Saul, David plays the harp and the spirit goes away. Call and response. May we never underestimate the power of a song well-played.

It’s a little hard to believe, of course. The same musician who plays the lyre to praise the LORD and soothe the sheep is called upon to save the king from spiritual torment. And that’s not even the problem! The problem is that this evil spirit comes from God. Good and evil all tangled together in the same story. Chaos mixed into creation, and all of it blessed.

We know how it is. Good and evil are mixed up all over the place in our world. You see this happen in the life of Bix Beiderbecke, the man whose music we hear today. In the 1920s Bix rose to fame alongside Louis Armstrong as a solo jazz cornet player, famous for his improvisation and tone. Mezz Mezzrow raved about his rich open tone, and described it as “pickled in alcohol.” Beiderbecke suffered from alcoholism which may have led to his death at the age of twenty-eight.[2] In his life, he was arrested, and he was renowned. And who doesn’t have a story like this. Who doesn’t know good and evil all mixed together, chaos and creation in the same song.

It’s really impossible to sort out. How much suffering is our own fault, and how much is just the way the world goes? How do we come to terms with our own capacity for evil and goodness, death and life? No wonder this can leave us feeling helpless. No wonder people come and tell me this is just part of God’s plan that we don’t understand.

But if God had this story of humankind planned from the beginning and the plan includes all the evil we’ve seen, we’ve got to be asking, What kind of plan is this? More importantly. What kind of God is this?

Remember our God is the one who makes the great sea monsters and the tiny sea horses and blesses them all with the same breath. What if God’s plan is still being composed and arranged? Hear the improvisation of the Holy Spirit and the sorrow that can only get sung. And see we are not helpless after all. Our response to the suffering in the world shapes the trajectory of creation, and you might be the one who gets called to come drive away the evil spirit tormenting the king. Never underestimate the power of a song well-played.

I really believe, it’s not any kind of plan that is going to save us one day. It’s God. And God calls for our response every day. What if we leave aside our resignation to what is supposed to happen and instead go out together to see what could happen? Horror can turn into healing; mourning can turn into dancing. Even the monsters can give glory to God. Our faith gets us up in the morning and brings us back to this table one more time. Our soul wells up with love, so our very breath pours into praise for the LORD. Now we can’t sit still even if we try. O Lord I want to be in that number, when the band begins to play! Then the world won’t be the same.

All life swarming in the sea and flying in the air gets blessed by the breath of God. There was evening, and there was morning, the fifth day.

[1] Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press: New York, 1997 p.9-18.


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