Improvising, by Pastor Kinsey
Four more shopping days till Christmas; Nervousness in public places after Paris and San Bernardino; Candidates for president pandering for our vote next November, in debates that started – when was it, last summer?; The Chicago Police Chief is fired after a video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting can no longer be kept from the public eye, revealing how the official interpretation for 13 months is inaccurate in practically every important detail; Climate change talks in Paris reach surprising agreement, presumably having nothing to do with Chicago December temperatures that feel more like September; Children reminding parents and grandparents what’s on their Santa list.
What’s on your mind that makes you nervous, even fearful, of what’s next, as we prepare and anticipate what the future holds, in the waning days of this Advent season? In the pre-Christmas scramble, are we prepared to improvise, to get everything ready?
In the 7th C. BC, the prophet Micah took a stab at what the future might look like for the once mighty people of Israel. Under King David of old, from ancient days, they had ruled all the kingdoms, but now were weak, having lost every conquered territory, and even half of Israel, to the Assyrians. What does Micah say? If you guessed that he prophesied doom and gloom, you’d be, mostly right. For most of his short seven chapter book, Micah predicts destruction for Israel due to the failure of its religious and government leaders to uphold the covenant and do justice. But that’s not the chapters we read from today. Today, only days from Christmas, our lectionary gratefully picks a passage from the hopeful fifth chapter of his book, where the prophet reserves a strong word of grace for God’s people, despite their failed past. A shepherd-like ruler from the littlest tribe, of the littlest town, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, shall be born to Israel and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord once again – a clear reference to a David-like king, who also came from Bethlehem. Micah prophesied the raising up of another mighty king who would not only restore Israel, but conquer all the kingdoms once again to the ends of the earth; and somehow at the same time – in the doublespeak of generals everywhere – “he shall be the one of peace.”
Of course, in Luke, as well as in the writings of the other three gospels, they saw Jesus as this majestic little One. The one born in Bethlehem; and a king, as the inscription on his cross read. This is the One we celebrate, born humble in a manger, a little one, whose origin is from ancient days, who was to become a great shepherd of a great flock, but with one change, as a symbol of peace, Jesus introduced a model of self-sacrificial giving, instead of Rome’s, and our own, ‘War is Peace.’
And now, today, in these last days of Advent, on the verge of our Savior being born, we discover to our great surprise the consistent way that the holy scriptures continue to improvise, like great jazz performers, on old and ancient themes, the mysterious ways that God is born into our lives. For example, in the hay of a stables’ manger, no crib for his bed; born too, in the faith of the blind and the lame, born in those hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
The word “improvise” comes from the Latin for “not foreseen.” Surely Mary did not foresee, that one day, while she was home, calmly practicing her piano scales, an angel would show up, announcing that the teenaged Mary is pregnant, with a baby whose father is God, and who will be the savior of the world. But Mary is ready for her solo, and sings the Magnificat proudly, improvising on Hannah’s song of old – her Magnificat of thanks, for a son to be born.
One of the hallmarks of jazz – whether it’s big band, bebop or cool jazz, whether its trumpet or trombone, piano or saxophone – is, improvisation. A musician takes what they know of scales, and modes, and the melodic theme, and creates something new.
That New Orleans native, turned New York star, Wynton Marsalis, gave us one of the oddest, but most entertaining examples of improvisation back in 2001. Playing a touching rendition of, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You,” a very intimate song, in a small venue, suddenly someone’s cell phone starting ringing, blaring a rapid singsong melody of electronic notes! It kind of killed the moment – at first. But after some nervous laughter, and after the person went out of the room to take their call, Winton continued by playing back the ringtone perfectly, note for note, on his trumpet, and began to improvise, turning the silly ringtone into a beautiful song, which he resolved, by changing keys, and easing the tempo, until magically, the audience came to recognize the love song he was playing, before he was so rudely interrupted! Winton had brought it home – and by the end, the audience was on its feet in applause. (cf. David Hajdu, Atlantic Monthly, cf. http://bertgary.blogspot.com/2015/11/improvisational-grace-or-gospel.html)
The story of Mary’s visit to her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is a truly divine love story, ‘improvised’ in real time, in a tiny town in the hill country of Judea, which turned the story of hopelessness and oppression into, salvation for the Gentiles – all the nations of the world.
It was not unusual that Mary would go to Elizabeth, to share her good news with her relative, in a culture, that by convention, separated men and women in public. But it is highly unusual that a story would be written about, what two women were doing, and cast them as the central characters, recipients of God’s favor, and especially featuring the young unknown, and unwed Mary, as the God-bearer! ‘History is written by the winners,’ as they say, and until the Gospels, young unwed mothers, and older women past their child-bearing years, were not the winners, or at least, not able to call the shots, or occupy positions of power.
At her home, Elizabeth hasn’t yet heard what Mary has come to tell her, just a short greeting, which makes John the Baptist leap for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. But Elizabeth takes on John’s prophetic role, at least for the moment, and blesses Mary, and predicts without a word from Mary, who her child is. She says: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” how lucky I am that “the mother of my Lord comes to me!” Elizabeth feels blessed, and she blesses Mary for her faith, in believing – which is, if you think about it, a kind of backhanded compliment, in light of the faith-less-ness of her husband Zechariah, who doubted the angel’s news about Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John! How appropriate! The exchange of these two women, feels so real in its improvisation!
Whether or not Mary gets the joke, she responds with the ‘Magnificat,’ confirming her faith: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for the LORD has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. …God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary improvises on Hannah’s song from of old, the story every woman in Israel knows by heart, “according to the promise God made to our ancestors,” sings Mary, “to Abraham and Sarah and to his descendants forever.”
As Princeton Seminary’s Mary Steward so aptly has put it: “The irony of Advent is that this season of preparation anticipates a hopeful expectation of that which is unexpected. Those who have heard these Scriptures so many times, year after year of Advent celebration, may have trouble fully appreciating their startling logic. Yet perhaps we need look no further than our own lives” – how we have improvised and been creative with our faith under the guidance of the Spirit, to compose our own song, that leads us back to God, though we are unknowns, and full of flaws, like Mary and Elizabeth, like Zechariah and John.
“The prophet Micah’s oracle serves as a reminder that the promise of God’s covenant is certain [for us], yet the expression of its fulfillment is not always predictable.” Improvising in the faith, is a composition we learn from God, to use in real time, through every interruption, trusting that our Bethlehem Good Shepherd and Jazz Band Improviser, will lead us, and guide us home.