Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Gospel shouts and the blues

Notes from the Festival of Homiletics this week in Minneapolis.

The blues notes from pianist Kwasi Kena were still echoing in the room when Rev. Otis Moss III strode to the pulpit. He’s the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and one of the most dynamic young African-American voices of our era.

The scripture text he read was a bit obscure – a passage from the Jewish prophet Ezra about the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. A new generation of Levites – special temple workers – were appointed to oversee the construction. When the foundation was done, priests in their vestments and the Levites with cymbals sang songs of praise and gave thanks to God. But, wrote Ezra, the older generation “who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

Or as Otis Moss said, “they could not distinguish between the Gospel shout and the blues moment.”

He talked about the role of the blues in Africa-American culture, whether in music or food or comedy, where ‘joy is always married to sorrow.” He talked about the “blue note” – waking from addiction lying in your own vomit, the son returning from two tours in Iraq only to be murdered on the streets of Chicago.

“If you want to learn to worship, you must learn how to weep,” Moss said. “If you want to get to the joy of Easter Sunday, you’d better deal with the pain of Good Friday.”

Moss knows how to play with words, to create rhymes and construct words to keep his audience engaged and laughing. But he kept coming back to the notion that God is a God who knows the blues. If we are true to our history as human beings, we too have to include the blues in our Gospel songs.

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