Four people with taper candles light chalice framed by two rings

“A Love Supreme” – February 19th, 2023

Feb 20, 2023

READING:

Fault Line,” by Robert Walsh

Did you ever think there might be a fault line
Passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived in meeting
And in separating, wondering
And telling, unaware that just beneath
You is the unseen seam of great plates
That strain through time? And that your life, already
Spilling over the brim, could be invaded,
Sent off in a new direction, turned
Aside by forces you were warned about
But not prepared for? Shelves could be spilled out,
The level floor set at an angle in
Some seconds’ shaking. You would have to take
Your losses, do whatever must be done
Next.

When the great plates slip
And the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
To lie in what you trusted most, look not
To more solidity, to weighty slabs
Of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
Beam to save the fractured order. Trust
More the tensile strands of love that bend
And stretch to hold you in the web of life
That’s often torn but always healing. There’s
Your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth,
Your room, your precious life, they all proceed
From love, the ground on which we walk together.

SERMON:

“A Love Supreme”

Several weeks ago Charlyn, our music director, shared with me that she overheard Carole Berney’s piano lesson with Guy at their house and the music she was playing was ‘beautiful.’ Typical to Charlyn who is one of the most impressive movers and shakers I have ever had the joy of knowing–she makes things happen!–she immediately asked Carole if she would like to play one of these pieces at worship this month. And the moment she said: “Carole Berney,” and “jazz” I was all in. Those were the only three words I needed to hear.

Jazz is sacred music to me. It’s music of the heart and soul. Wild, prophetic, difficult, healing…Jazz is sacred music.

Last week I told the story of St. Teresa of Avila to our young ones, and the vision she had of an angel who came to her at her moment of greatest suffering and pointed her bow and arrow right at Teresa’s heart, letting it fly and piercing it, not to kill her, but to open her. Set her afire.

Jazz is like that arrow. It is Love in all its multitudes, embodied in sound and voice and rhythm piercing right into the heart…

But here’s where I tell you that for most of my life, I hated most of this music. Well, I liked the easy songs–nice background music pieces that felt relaxing–but jazz-jazz, with its wild minor notes and shifting, sometimes frenetic, pace made me un-easy. What is this?

And I felt this way until 2018. In 2018 I had the great honor and privilege of studying with the incredible Dr. Cornel West in seminary. For those of you who don’t know that name: Cornel West is an African-American philosopher, political activist, social critic, public intellectual, and scholar. I could keep adding to that list. He is a living prophet for our time.

And in 2018 he was teaching at Harvard and offered a class called the “Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. DuBois,” and because seminaries in the Boston area are a part of what we call the interreligious consortium, I was able to register for it as a student at Boston University. Lucky me. So, every week for three months, alongside 60 or so other students, I got 3-4 (for sometimes class ran WAY over) uninterrupted hours with this man, who at age 65, in his standard-issue black three-piece suit with cuff links and a pocket watch, leapt and flew around that room, with not one note in hand EVER, chalk flying, arms waving, fists pounding, at times breaking out into song, moving around that classroom’s aisles sweating and shouting, holding our hands, touching our shoulders and, many times, getting on his knees praying out loud to God.  I’m serious.  He never stopped for a bathroom break or one sip of water. 3-4 hours of this, every week.

We were studying the works of the great African-American sociologist and activist W.E.B DuBois, who is most known for his 1903 collection, “The Souls of Black Folk,” which reads as though it was written last week. It is incredible. And we dove deep into DuBois’ work, for West is a DuBois enthusiast. But the class was so much more than an academic pursuit. Dr. West hated academic pursuits.

Cornel West is all about awakening the heart and soul. Burning, pierced through with arrows, awakened Love. Raw, human experience, in the face of catastrophe, LOVE. This is what he calls ‘wisdom.’ Not degrees from Harvard. And it was this kind of heart-opened wisdom, raw LOVE, that embodied, and embodies, the souls of black people in their struggle for liberation–this is what he taught us.

So, this class was nothing short of a revelation. And it was West who opened my heart to jazz.

On the second to last week of class we arrived in a kind of processed mourning. We had been asked to read one chapter out of DuBois’ ‘The Souls of Black Folks’ for class, ‘Of the Sorrow Songs,’ was its title. One chapter. And Dr. West asked us to read it 10 times. So that it got in our bones, and didn’t just stay up here in the head, is what he would say.

Sorrow Songs are, of course, the songs of the slave. We sang one for our meditation hymn this morning: There is More Love Somewhere…I’m going to keep on til’ I find it…

We were certain that our three (maybe four) hours that day would be somber ones.

Dr. West and his teaching fellow, Will, arrived and spoke quietly to one another up front, fiddling around with wires and cables as Will pulled out his laptop. You could have heard a pin drop. This wasn’t how class normally began.

And then Dr. West pulled a chair up front and took a seat, facing us. And suddenly the first few notes of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme started playing over the classroom’s speakers…and loud. Like volume cranked to the highest, loud. And Dr. West started shouting over it: “Coltrane!” He said over and over again, “Coltrane!”

And I tried my best to write down what West continued to shout out about A Love Supreme. Here is what I wrote, these are West’s words: “Coltrane! An example for each and every one of us about how we engage in self-questioning, how we engage in prophetic witness, how we engage in having a belief in ourselves, a confidence in ourselves to reach the highest heights; Coltrane takes us to the dark roots of our scream and also to the celestial heights of sublime silence,” West said, “all having to do with suffering, pain, hurt, and how we transfigure our suffering and pain and hurt into an expression that touches other people’s suffering and pain and hurt. And what is required?…What is required? Attention, consciousness, and the maturation of a compassionate soul. A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme…”Dr. West shouted over and over and over.

And these words have been in my mind and heart for weeks now. I can’t think about Love, our theme this month, without hearing Dr. West cry these words out in that classroom. Words about LOVE: of self, of other, of transfiguration…what is required? Attention, consciousness, the maturation of a compassionate soul.

Now a bit about John Coltrane. He is one of the greatest jazz saxophonists to ever live. He was also a bandleader and composer. His music really hit its pinnacle in the 50’s and 60’s.

What makes Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, written just two years before he died in 1966, so magnificent, and so difficult–it is not an EASY listen–is that it captures Love in its Multitudes. Love in its multitudes–not an easy listen for there is nothing EASY about love, right? A Love Supreme is imbued with love lost, love longed for, love of self, love of humanity, love of God. Unrequited love, black love in the face of oppression and trauma. Its composition moves through four parts which he titled: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s Great Awakening embodied in music. And it was written out of his life-threatening struggle with addiction and his recovery from it; a raw, honest devotional told through music whose every note pleads: Love. Sacred music indeed.

This white girl didn’t know that this is what jazz/jazz-jazz is all about. That this is what black music is all about. I didn’t know this until Dr. West did what he did in that second to last class about The Sorrow Songs. For we didn’t stop at Coltrane’s Love Supreme, we time-travelled through all black music: Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Funk, Soul, Hip-hop.  Bessie Smith, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughan, James Brown. Erykah Badu. Janet Jackson, Charlie Parker, Tupac Shakur. Beyonce. A musical collection that swept centuries.  And Dr. West called this his Sorrow Songs Playlist. For they were ALL Sorrow Songs. Liberative music born out of oppression preaching the gospel of Love, in all its multitudes.

At times we sat quietly, with our eyes closed, as if we were at a contemplative Vespers service.  And then, Dr. West would fade it out and the bass line of Stevie Wonder’s Superstitious would blare and the classroom transformed into a dance club. With Dr. West at the center of it kicking, singing, sweating.  Then Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit would descend, and we would find our way back to our seats and close our eyes again. And then… the joyous uprising of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or Prince’s Kiss, and on and on we went. For four hours.

I have the videos to prove that this wasn’t a dream. For it felt like one.

The point of that culminating class was to help us get into our bones what love and liberation, interchangeable words in West’s mind, felt like. He had no interest in talking about the Sorrow Songs, he wanted us to experience them. And that wasn’t going to happen from just the neck up. Love doesn’t happen from just the neck up.

And friends, and I am mainly speaking to my dear white siblings, we have a lot to learn about this kind of Love and radical human rawness. Depth of soul.

These are difficult days. Most of us carry so much trauma, ancestral and otherwise, in our over-burdened, blocked and stifled systems that a whole raw human experience embodied or expressed terrifies us. Most of us are disconnected from our bodies, from the Earth, from each other, from ourselves. This is not a healthy way to live. You know this.

Cornel West asked us again and again, and he meant for this question to be for everyone: What happens when you live in a civilization that deadens you? The answer? You become unintentionally closed to Love. Brittle in spirit. Oh, and horrible things happen at the hands of those who are brittle in spirit and do not know Love. Am I right?

And isn’t this why you are here? At church? At this church? To cultivate some depth of soul, to heal, to open to Love? To have your heart pierced open by Divine Arrows?

I want to tread carefully here. I am not asking you, a predominantly white congregation, to equate your struggles with the struggles of black people. Nor am I prescribing the wisdom, music and word born out of black oppression, to be yours for the taking. In the same way that we sing and play Sorrow Songs here, take care. Honor the context with which they were written and sung–who they were for, and who they weren’t. But we are also called to learn and be opened by these prophetic voices and their messages of vulnerability, embodied healing and hope; the wholeness and radical rawness of human experience and expression; about love and how to have faith in it, and in the face of horror, despair, catastrophe, how to keep on until we find it…Yes, we are also called to learn and be opened by these prophetic voices.

I have listened to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme about 15 times this past week. And I hope you will do the same. Maybe some of you already have in preparation for worship this morning. Listen to it again. Not just from the neck up. Take the 33 minutes with it and be open to the possibility of your heart being broken open. Shot through with an arrow.

“Attention, consciousness, the maturation of a compassionate soul.” This is what LOVE requires, said Dr. West. This is A Love Supreme.

Amen and thank you Dr. West. And thank you John Coltrane.

I want to circle back to the words from our reading today–hopefully this will feel good to you before we sing, and hopefully dance a little:

“Fault Line,” by Robert Walsh

…When the great plates slip
And the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
To lie in what you trusted most, look not
To more solidity, to weighty slabs
Of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
Beam to save the fractured order. Trust
More the tensile strands of love that bend
And stretch to hold you in the web of life
That’s often torn but always healing. There’s
Your strength. The shifting plates, the restive earth,
Your room, your precious life, they all proceed
From love, the ground on which we walk together.

OH, SO IS LIFE!!! And that is what we are now going to sing together. Harry Belafonte’s Turn the World Around. A hymn about life and love and the experience of being human wrestling with all of it. Attention, Consciousness, the maturation of the compassionate soul–oh so is life! Please rise in body and spirit and sing #1074

Reverend Sophia Lyons
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Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.

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