In the name of Christ, in whom our joy may be complete. Amen.
As many of you know I have a slight obsession with listening to music and collecting records and compact discs. Ever since my college days, I’ve purchased one CD with every paycheck I’ve earned, so, over the years I’ve accumulated a ridiculously large collection of music recordings, each of which reminds me of a particular season in my life. There are certain recordings I return to whenever life transitions seem too heavy for my soul to bear. In the midst of heartbreak, facing the possibility of deportation, moving to new cities as a complete stranger, grieving the death of loved ones an ocean away, or just coping with the frustrations of a grueling work day when I just wasn’t my best self, I find the self-transcending, ritual appreciation of beauty in music helps me to reconnect with a higher purpose. In those overwhelming life situations, listening to those trustworthy, perspective-altering recordings of music is a loving reminder that, “yes, life hurts right now, and you’re going to be alright.” One of those CDs is of the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell performing Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major also known as the “Jupiter.” Like most of Mozart’s music, the dizzying heights of exuberant joy are directly connected with the profound depths of tragic pathos. The dazzling brightness of C major’s serenity, joy, and ecstasy is experienced as utterly genuine because Mozart mixes in the grief, heartache, and pensiveness of tonalities that disclose the truths hidden in the shadows of our human brokenness. The truthfulness of this comingled bliss and pathos reminds me of the Spirt of Truth born in Christ, crucified and risen, proclaimed by our patron saint in the Epistle: “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”i
Rowan Williams’ sublime chapter on Baptism in his book, Being Christian, teaches what this Baptismal truth means for followers of Jesus, “in the heart of the needy, contaminated, messy world.” He writes, “When we are brought to be where Jesus is in baptism we let our defenses down so as to be where he is, in the depths of human chaos. And that means letting our defenses down before God. Openness to the Spirit comes as we go with Jesus to take this risk of love and solidarity.” He goes on to say, “We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the ecstatic joy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, and pain.”ii
This excruciating, sustained, chaotic tension is something we are tempted to escape, to numb, or ignore. And yet, deep down, we know that chaotic tension to be the birthplace of new life. A truth Friedrich Nietzsche expressed in his famous assertion that, “you must have chaos within you, to give birth to a dancing star.”iii This, I believe, is why Jesus uses the word “abide” nine times in this fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus says, “abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”iv This focus of abiding in God’s Love crucified and risen, exhorts us to remain faithful, loyal, and dedicated to the Way of Love, especially when we find ourselves in the “depths of human chaos.”
Sometimes when we hear the word “commandment” we think of rigid restrictions upon our liberty, agency, and freedom. This is when the genius of Mozart, particularly the finale of his “Jupiter” symphony,v helps us to understand commandments in new and life-giving ways. Mozart uses the formal structure of classical sonata form as a framework of boundaries within which he draws our imaginations to work out and reflect upon the contradictions and conundrums, the beauty and the tragedy of being alive. It is precisely within those strict boundaries, those “commandments” of classical sonata form, that Mozart’s miraculous ideas come to abundant fruition, culminating in a fugal fireworks display that concludes his symphony. Mozart takes not one or two themes, but five different themes and weaves one across another into a wild and lavish fabric of sublime diversity unified beautifully within the framework of classical form. In Mozart’s abiding trust in that compositional framework within which he creates his masterpiece, we glimpse the meaning of Christ’s commandment to abide in loving God, loving our neighbors, and receiving their love, too, as a sacred framework in which abundant life thrives.
Here at St. John’s, as we prepare to carefully, lovingly, safely, and creatively gather in person again for outdoor worship and ministry, we must all remember the heights, depths, and breadth of the Spirit of Truth which sustains our chaotic and creative life in Christ. After over a year of struggling through this pandemic in isolation and faithfully reckoning with our conscious and unconscious complicity in the sin of racism, as we slowly regather, we must hold sacred space for both our profound pathos and our inexpressible bliss. And as each of our sacred and diverse lives continue to be woven together in Christ’s garment of unity, like that mellifluous outpouring of tragic-beauty in Mozart’s five-voiced fugue, we must commit daily to following Christ’s commandment to abide in God’s dynamic and creative love, individually and as a community. And that takes discipline.
I leave you with the Womanist wisdom of bell hooks as we continue to practice the discipline of love. hooks defines love as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth and well-being; an act of will – both an intention and an action – which requires us to practice love as a daily choice. She writes, “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”vi We can do this. Abide in Christ’s love. Go and bear fruit that will last. Christ’s love, steeped in the pathos and bliss of Truth, shall be in us, and remain in us, so that our joy may be complete. Amen
i 1 John 5:6 (NRSV).
ii Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 6-7.
iii Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (United Kingdom: Penguin Books Limited, 1974), 12.
iv John 15:9-10.
vi bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: Perennial, 2001), 5.