Worship and Improvisation:
Reflections on Jazz and Christian Homiletics
By Raoul Branda
In seminary we were told that improvisation is bad preaching. The designation of “bad” is appropriate if the word “improvisation” means “unprepared”. Preaching is a very important matter, so you have to prepare for it. In seminary we are taught that effective preaching requires sound exegesis, deep reflection, and a written manuscript. Each of these – the exegesis, the reflection, and the manuscript – are part of preparation.
There are excellent preachers who are prepared in this academic manner. Their homilies are beautiful if you concentrate on the message they are presenting, but often you don't experience something like the encounter with the word of God. Ideally, the sermon will be an occasion for this encounter.
In the past I prepared for preaching in this way, too. Sometimes I would read the manuscript, sometimes I would memorize the text and recite it. However, it seems to me I was serving a precooked dish and losing contact with the congregation. There I was in the pulpit; there was the assembly, and there was the manuscript, lying between us. There was no “we” who was worshipping God.
Hearing Jazz, and reading about the word behind it (see this marvelous interview: http://www.culturekiosque.com/jazz/portrait/keith_jarrett.html), I began to realize that effective preaching and genuine worship need improvisation. I came to see that improvisation is not simply a lack of preparation. It may even be a much more difficult task. A jazz musician doesn't prepare a concert; instead the musician lives every day with music, hearing everything, trying everything, becoming one with the passion of music itself, hour after hour, day after day. When the musician is in the presence of the public, he or she is one with the public and the music. In the language of Whitehead, the many become one and are increased by one. In the experience of each person in the congregation, there is a sense of togetherness (the many become one), and in the togetherness something is added that was not there before (increased by one).
The togetherness is more than mutual effect. It is mutual presence or, to use Christian language, communion. An important principle in process philosophy is interconnectedness of events (actual occasions in Whitehead dictionary). Preacher, sermon, and assembly are also events of their own and put together, they form another event: the Sunday worship. Ideally it is when a preacher, sermon and assembly come together at the same time to form the event “worship”. The worship is itself the communion.
Of course, this is the ideal. In reality, it seems to me, the sequence is often a little bit different: there is the event preacher-sermon first, and sermon-assembly later. So the event is less complex, therefore, in Whitehead perspective, less beautiful. You can put the three together at the same time only if you learn to improvise.
In order to improvise your sermon you have to dedicate your life to the word of God every day and not just when you prepare your sermon. You have to be one with the word, deepen the relation with the Bible, know better the human soul and acquire communication skills. The word of God is in the richness of the Bible, to be sure, but also in the richness of life itself, when God is present in the sacrament of the present moment. You need to be a good listener and to have a passion for this listening. You need to commit yourself to a listening life. This kind of life attunes the ears and the heart to a listening life. It opens spaces for improvisation.
Of course I live in Switzerland. We are far away from the United States. But jazz is universal, and it is a way that people across different cultures become linked. There is a tight link between jazz and African-American preaching. That is not surprising since both come of the same cultural background: fidelity to God’s living word.
I have learned something about this fidelity from African-American preachers and, more specifically, from imagining what they sounded like when they were heard, in the living event of worship. It is discouraging (because you can't hold them) to know that the sermons of Gardner Calvin Taylor you read are not the same that he preached. Actually I think that it is true for many Afro-American preachers who devote their lives to preaching. They prepare very hard all their life and then improvise Sunday morning. In a terrific book edited by Cleopus J. Larue (Power in the Pulpit) twelve well known black preachers explain how they prepare their sermon: read anything, not just the bible and not just for Sunday morning, read the Bible, read commentary, theology and philosophy books, fiction and newspaper, pay attention to words, to forms, to thoughts, think and pray, play golf and hear music (not just jazz), write your sermon, like a jazz musician composing music, and be aware that this sermon is not the sermon you will deliver. Write every day a “move” of your sermon like a spiritual practice. Leave space in your manuscript in order to complete it with the God's inspiration of the moment, repeat it many times, change the order of its parts, change the formulation, play with it and when you go to the pulpit, be ready to be touched by the assembly and build a new sermon at that very moment. This being touched by them is not unlike listening to jazz. You hear the rhythms of their lives, their moods, the colors of their feelings, the sounds of their longings. You hear these in yourself, too. You improvise by speaking to them and with them with a voice that comes from a deep place. That sounds like jazz, doesn’t it?