I’ve Got Rhythm

Sermon preached February 8, 2009

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:29-39

Just a few letters can make a big difference. Take the “g” from sing and Benny Goodman’s song becomes “Sin, Sin Sin.” That was probably the worst fear of parents whose children were listening to swing music in the 1930s! A church bulletin contained the following announcement: “Today, we celebrate the baptism of Edward George Smith, the sin of Fred and Martha Smith.” One of my favorite bulletin bloopers with a misplaced letter was this: “As a part of making time for quiet during Lent, please join us Thursday evening at 7 p.m. for a service of prayer and medication.”
Knowing the importance of few letters, I owe Ira Gershwin an apology. I was stealing my sermon title from a George and Ira Gershwin song, but on Friday discovered that my thievery was inept. The song is entitled “I Got Rhythm” not “I’ve Got Rhythm.” I goofed, though I believe I have made my seventh grade grammar teacher, Ms. Mckibben, proud – “I’ve Got Rhythm” is more grammatically correct.
“I Got Rhythm” is a wonderful , well-loved and well-known song. How many of you know it? For the next time you play Trivial Pursuit, here are some interesting tidbits. The song was written for a 1930 musical called Girl Crazy, and it was first performed in that musical by Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman was a phenomenal singer, but some of us know here as the woman who played Gopher’s mother in an occasional role on Love Boat. Someone described Ms. Merman’s performance of “I Got Rhythm” in the debut of Girl Crazy as having “all the subtlety of a tornado descending on a trailer park” (Will Friewald). In the orchestra that night were Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, and Glen Miller. Those of you who know jazz know what a big deal this is.
The same writer who so colorfully described Ethel Merman’s performance also wrote about “I Got Rhythm” that it is “the most celebrated rhythm song of all time.” It is a song that lends itself to improvisation, so it is a jazz favorite. Louis Armstrong has recorded it, as has Ella Fitzgerald. The chord changes in the song have been used as a basis for other songs by other jazz greats – Sidney Bechet, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane (“Giant Steps”). This song about rhythm and love is justly celebrated.
Rhythm – it seems as much a part of the human condition as love itself. Rhythm is our first music, it is etched in the movement of our bodies. There should also be some rhythm to our spiritual lives.
The spiritual life, by which I mean life lived in response to and tuned into God’s Spirit, life which in turn expresses and shapes our spirits – the spiritual life, when healthy, has certain rhythms to it. Just as in various jazz versions of “I Got Rhythm” there is room for creativity and improvisation, so the spiritual life has its individual uniqueness’s. Still, certain rhythms are present in healthy Christian spiritual lives.
I get this idea from Mark 1:29-39. Reading it attentively, one hears certain rhythms of life, rhythms we want to attend to.
One rhythm of a healthy spiritual life is a rhythm of prayer and action. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus had been teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. He healed a man there. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law when he arrives at Peter’s house. At sundown, a crowd of the sick and demon-possessed gathered to be touched by Jesus, and he cured many. He will go on from here to other places to share his message and to bring hope and healing. Nevertheless, in the midst of the chaos and busyness, Jesus takes time, makes time, to pray.
The Dalai Lama, a person deeply concerned with fostering peace and making the world a better place, writes simply in his newest book, Worlds in Harmony, “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” (70) Yet, the Dalai Lama sees the need, in the rhythm of a healthy spiritual life, for prayer, meditation, work on the inner life. In this same book, he writes: In the beginning of Buddhist practice… the emphasis is on healing ourselves and on transforming our mind and heart. But as we continue, we, we become stronger and increasingly able to serve others. But until that time, we may get overwhelmed by the suffering and difficulties of other people. We may become exhausted and not able to serve others effectively, not to mention ourselves. So we must begin by simply doing as well as we can, trying to improve ourselves, and, at the same time, trying as much as we can to serve other people. (69) His insights about the Buddhist spiritual life are applicable to the Christian spiritual life. Prayer and the shaping of the inner life are vital for effective action in the world – action to bring healing and justice and peace to the world. Yet inner healing is never the stopping point. We carry that healing into the world. Prayer and action. Both are necessary. Both are needed.
Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize community in France once wrote, “nothing is more responsible than to pray” (Glimpses of Happiness, 81). Now that may sound like typical words for a monk, but Brother Roger knew what it was like to act to change the world. In 1940, as World War II was raging in Europe, Brother Roger left neutral Switzerland and moved to Taize, France. He wanted to be of help to suffering people and to found an intentional religious community. He began to offer hospitality to political refugees, including Jews. Because of his activity, he was forced to leave France and return to Switzerland. He returned to Taize in 1944, and began the Taize community formally in 1949. Committed to prayer, Brother Roger never lost the rhythm of prayer and action so important to the spiritual life. The disparity between the accumulation of wealth by some and the poverty of countless others is one of the most serious questions of our time. Will we do all in our power for the world economy to provide solutions? (Brother Roger, Essential Writings, 67)
As Christians, we often emphasize one or the other part of this rhythm of the spiritual life – prayer or action. Both are necessary for a healthy spiritual life, and that was expressed eloquently by one of our members at Thursday night’s CHUM meeting. In presenting the report of the CHUM nominating committee, Kevin Walsh noted that CHUM meetings were now conducted in the midst of worship, in the midst of prayer and that all CHUM’s work to feed the hungry, the shelter the homeless and to end hunger and poverty was work done in the context of prayer. Prayer and action are an essential rhythm of the spiritual life.
There is another rhythm in these verses, the rhythm of gathering in/coming together and going out. Jesus and his disciples are together in the synagogue. They will go and carry their message and mission to other places, but here, and it will happen again, they take time to gather together in Capernaum. They take time to be a community together. We need each other. We need to worship together. We need the quiet and support and encouragement of a common life. We need to offer grace and peace and healing to each other. We need to take grace and peace and healing into the world. We gather, we scatter – a necessary rhythm.
Parker Palmer, in his book The Active Life, writes the following: Paradoxically, as we enter more deeply into the true community of our lives, we are relieved of those fears that keep us from becoming the authentic selves we are born to be. Community and individuality are not an either/or choice… they are the poles of another great paradox. A culture of isolated individualism produces mass conformity because people who think they must bear life all alone are too fearful to take the risks of selfhood. But people who know they are embedded in an eternal community are both free and empowered to become who they were born to be (156-157). Gathering in community helps us develop our best selves, and we then take that out to the world to make a difference in the direction of God’s dream for the world.
Gerald May, a spiritual teacher and psychotherapist also writes movingly about the power of community. God’s grace through community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant or as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people but love that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and the next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power. (Addiction and Grace, 173; quoted in Feasting on the Word) I know something of that because I have been the recipient of the healing power of this community as I journey with my family during my father’s dying process.
Christian community as a necessary part of the rhythm of the spiritual life is not merely an end in itself. It is one part of a larger rhythm – gathering in/going out. The German Christian theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this. Among the works Bonhoeffer wrote during his brief life was a book called Life Together. In it he reflected on the utter importance of gathering together in Christian community. It serves as an important reminder that Bonhoeffer’s active opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, an opposition which cost him imprisonment and death, that opposition was rooted in a gathered Christian community. Gather in for healing, for breathing in God’s Spirit. Scatter out to bring healing to the world. This, too, is a necessary and needed rhythm of the spiritual life.
The third rhythmic movement of the Christian spiritual life I find in Mark 1:29-39 is of a different sort. We need both prayer and action. We need both gathering in community and going out into the world to share hope and healing. We have a role to play in each of these rhythmic movements. The third rhythm of the spiritual life is part observation and part action. A healthy Christian spiritual life is one in which there is death, resurrection and a new life of love and service. This rhythm is illustrated in what happens to Peter’s mother-in-law. She is sick. Jesus heals her. She demonstrates love and service.
The first part of this rhythm recognizes that we are not immune from hurt, pain, sickness, suffering, grief, disappointment, hardship. Such things will be a part of each of our lives in one way or another at one time or another. We will experience small deaths – disappointments that sting, psychological wounds, the loss of jobs or friend, dreams deferred or denied – all these are a part of life no matter how good we are, no matter how careful we are, no matter how hard we work. Life is difficult. Life will disappoint sometimes. Deepening our spiritual lives does not simply make the difficulties, the disappointments, the discouragements, the hurts, the pains of life disappear.
So what good, then, is the Christian spiritual life? The good is in the second and third movements of this rhythm of the spiritual life: death, resurrection, new life. Even when we experience pain and disappointment, we are never without hope, and we know that the way of God’s Spirit is the way of new life, the way of resurrection. We will not be stuck in disappointment for ever, there are new possibilities to be discovered. There is hurt, but there is also healing, and new life. And this new life is a life of love and service, a life which offers hope and healing to others.
Vaclav Havel was born in Prague in 1936 into an intellectual and entrepreneurial family. Czechoslovakia became part of Communist Eastern Europe after World War II and Havel’s family history made him suspect in the Communist government. He was not permitted to attend any schools with humanities programs after completing his basic schooling. Nevertheless, Havel found his way into the theater and to work as a playwright.
Havel’s work led him to political involvement. In the 1960s he began criticizing the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, and for his troubles was imprisoned on a number of occasions, the longest stretch was from June 1974-January 1984. Havel experienced all kinds of little deaths in his life, but resurrection was in the offing. In 1989, in a span of six weeks, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia crumbled under in the face of a nonviolent movement for change, something which was dubbed “The Velvet Revolution.” Rising up from the ashes of a regime that had imprisoned him, Vaclav Havel was elected the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia and when the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated in 1992, he was the first president of the Czech Republic, holding office from 1989-2003.
The events of Havel’s life speak boldly of this rhythm of death-resurrection-new life to love and serve. His own reflections lend themselves to seeing this pattern. The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind…. It is a dimension of the soul…. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart…. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless. (The Impossible Will Take a Little While, 82-83)
This final rhythm of the spiritual life is openness to hope, and a willingness to let hope energize us to live differently in the world – to share hope and bring healing.
So can you sing “I Got Rhythm” in your spiritual life? Who could ask for anything more? Amen.