Coltrane in the Cornfields

A note from Jamie Howison:  I’d like to introduce you to Jim Snyder, whose name you will again see on this site in the coming month or so.  We are in the process of putting together a book of material Jim has written for Lent (which will be illustrated by some wonderful lithographs by our own Helen Lyons), so it seemed good to give you a taste of his writing here.  Jim is a native of Minneapolis, and an ordained Lutheran pastor, who is also licensed to function as an Episcopal priest.  He has served Lutheran, Anglican,  and Episcopal parishes in Texas, Halifax/Dartmouth, and Minneopolis, and is currently serving 1st Lutheran Church in Winthrop, MN.  He has  also worked in the field of youth and family care for a number of years, as a counselor and program director for residential treatment programs.  He is a wonderful writer… and I don’t say that simply because he is a fan of John Coltrane… though it helps.


A sermon preached originally preached at  St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Minneapolis, by the Rev’d James Snyder.

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I

am old enough—and lucky enough—to have experienced some of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century. And among them, as I’ve told you, was John Coltrane.  Laura Caviani and Pete Whitman and Darryl Boudreau played some of his music at our joint mass at Minnehaha Falls… and there in the rain I told you about the time I saw Coltrane, first at the Guthrie and then in Chicago when I was an unformed, impressionable adolescent.I won’t recount that story, but I would like to-if not finish it-at least continue where that one left off, because it’s a story that has not yet quite ended…even today.

And so we resume… the day after the 1965 Down Beat Jazz Festival, held in Soldier Field, Chicago. Monday morning, it would have been… my friend and I checked out of the downtown YMCA and hiked 15 long blocks, hauling our suitcases, to the Greyhound bus depot, because we’d spent our last dime and couldn’t even afford a city bus. Reaching the depot just in time, exhausted and drenched in sweat, we boarded the bus bound for Minneapolis.

My friend managed to fall asleep right away, and I should have been sleeping too, for it was an utterly exhilarating but exhausting four days, music from noon till midnight if you wanted it, and we took in as much as we could handle. But on the bus I was inexplicably wide awake, still energized by the experience, particularly that final session, which featured Coltrane.

I knew something had happened to me at that concert, but I didn’t quite know what it was. This wasn’t the Coltrane who did  ‘Giant Steps’ or ‘My Favorite Things’  or ‘Live at Birdland’.  This was the beginning of the final phase of Coltrane’s odyssey, and it was the kind of music nobody had ever heard before.

It had none of the formal elements normally used to define music…. structure, melody, harmony, rhythm—so far as would detect.

Everything we thought we knew about music went out the window. There was nothing familiar to cling to. It was fierce raw emotion… pure molten sound erupting from the bowels of the earth. We didn’t know what to make of it, we only knew we’d witnessed an unprecedented event, which even years later we would never fully grasp.

And so, as the Greyhound bus glided through the endless monotony of the Wisconsin cornfields, I mentally recaptured the music I heard at Soldier Field, ending with that last night, trying to make some sense of it.

What was John Coltrane doing? What was he trying to tell us on that unbearably hot and humid August night—which was during the very week Watts first erupted.

Of course I recalled his liner notes to a Love Supreme, in which he wrote: “Let us sing ALL songs to God.”

As I looked out the window of the bus, I visualized him playing in the cornfields.  I watched him playing his 40 minute solo…out there, alone… wailing and pleading to the heavens, playing his heart out on that saxophone and that’s when I realized he wasn’t playing for us. Coltrane was singing to God and he was singing something that only God, at that time, could really hear.

Then I started recalling those days when I myself used to wander through the cornfields of my grandpa’s farm in southern Minnesota. As far back as I could remember I liked to get lost in those mile-high stalks, where I was alone with my thoughts and my imagination.

Walking through the rows of cornfields I’d tell stories…I’d talk to myself… I’d talk to some imaginary audience…I’d talk nonsense…I’d holler and do primal screams…and I’d sing camp songs and spirituals and stuff from Top 40 radio… and later on, since my grandpa also grew tobacco, I’d roll up a cured leaf and give it a try… and no one could see me…no one knew where I was. I loved it out there in the cornfields.

But one day as I was exuberantly singing away… I suddenly stopped. I froze with fear – no, it was something beyond simple fear. It was fear in the biblical sense of awesome incapacitating presence.

For I became aware that I was NOT alone out there…not at all alone. I was being watched – watched all this time when I thought I was undetectable – by God. And the force of that sudden awareness stunned me into silence. I became uneasy…I felt vulnerable… I felt like a fake who was masquerading as a human being.

The Almighty, Omnipotent, Omniscient God of my youth,  who knew all my secrets, who knew who I really was… was listening in…and I could no longer sing. I no longer felt protected out there in the cornfield, but exposed. Naked to the core of my being.

How would you react if you felt the intangible but indisputable presence of God? If suddenly your normal everyday reality , subject to your control, was suddenly invaded and overturned by something not just beyond your control, but beyond all conceivability?

What is terrorism, what is bird flu, what is anything on this plane compared to the fearsome event of encountering God?-a God who knows no limits, a God who can part the sea, a God who can raise the dead, a God who could snap you in two like a toothpick?

You wouldn’t find it fearful?

We get nervous when we encounter a celebrity or dignitary.  If George Bush or Kevin Garnett walked into this sanctuary right now you wouldn’t hear another word I said, would you? Once I ran into Dizzy Gillespie in the men’s room of a jazz club [Oscar Peterson was playing] and my jaw dropped open like I’d seen a ghost.  But he was so amused by that expression that he took time to calm me down and have a conversation with me.

And these are mere mortals.

So when I was struck dumb with fear and awe that day in my grandpa’s cornfield, it was because the God who was normally distant and unreal, had become present and all-too-real.

I wasn’t sure that was a good thing… not a good thing at all.

For I realized ‘he knows who I am.’

-I was Adam who ate forbidden fruit and then shifted the blame when caught.

-I was Cain to by brother Abel.

-I was Jacob who deceived his father.

-I was David who lusted after Bathsheba.

-I was Jonah, who ran the other way when God called him to prophesy.

-I was Samson, whose vainglorious boasting earned him a long detention after school.

-I was Jeremiah, who wheedled and whined to God to let him retire.

-And I was Peter, who denied my Lord more times than I could count.

I had good Sunday school teachers. I knew my Bible stories well. And the Creator of the universe, who watched me more closely than any surveillance camera, knew all this too.

And there I was, standing in the middle of a cornfield, with no place to hide.

Well, from the window of that Greyhound bus, as I passed through that Wisconsin farmland, ruminating over that encounter with God, I thought again of John Coltrane playing his saxophone out in the cornfield, offering his song, offering himself to God.

And I thought:

What kind of faith would you have to have to do that without fear?

What kind of person would you have to become… to be able to face God and sing to God, instead of cowering and trying to hide?

Moreover, what kind of word would you need to hear to give you the bold assurance to kneel before God… the very God who knows who you really are underneath all your disguises?

Well, now, years later I can say this: I know only one word.

And it’s not God saying: I see you’ve become a better person since the last time we met.  Because you probably haven’t…and even if you have, that’s not the point. That’s not the word.

No, the only word I know is the one word I’ve been commissioned to speak, the one word God has ordained me to speak, a word I need to hear as much as you do.

And that is the very word declared to the world on the cross, and the very word proclaimed here each time we gather in Christ’s name, to remind you, again and again and again:

Yes, you are a sinner, for you have not loved God with your whole heart or your neighbor as yourself… and you persist in trying to usurp God and become a god yourself because you aren’t able to trust God’s promises and simply BE the creature you were meant to be, and there is no way you can stand before God and defend yourself.

But never … never forget this word:

You are forgiven.

You have been forgiven since before the universe began.

And you will always be forgiven because God never goes back on his promises.

In a few minutes, that is the word you will hear once again with your ears… and that is the word that you will taste with your lips at this Table.

Such a word, which gives new life to the dead is far more than a word… but a sacred event that happens TO us.

And so whenever you find yourself singing to God… whether in a cornfield or in traffic or in a sanctuary with your lips, with your hearts…with your lives… then may you will know that it has also happened to you.

May we be freed by that word to sing all songs to God.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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