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“Blue Note Gospel”

12 October 2011

During worship at Marquand Chapel today, the Rev. Otis Moss, III, preached as part of YDS’s Convocation & Reunions. His sermon, “The Blue Note Gospel”, reflected on the influence that jazz has played on his preaching. His drive-home point was a paraphrase of Ezra 3:13a (NIV), “No one could distinguish the sound of the gospel shout from the blues moan.” His argument was that to rid the gospel message of pain and suffering, to fast forward through Good Friday to get to Easter, is to make the gospel nonsensical. The shouts do not make sense without the weeping, nor the weeping without the shouts. You can’t have Easter without Good Friday, nor Good Friday without Easter. What we need to preach, Moss argued, is the “Blue Note Gospel”—the good news with the blue note, the flatted 7th of twelve-bar blues, which encapsulates and manifests the story of resistance. Without that, God is just a divine ATM who dispenses rewards and blessings, as long as you have the right PIN.

On this day, the 13th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the blue note reverberates throughout the queer community. We mourn the death of a man left to die stretched out on a wooden bar; a man whose death woke us all up to the reality of hate crimes. Matthew Shepard, in many ways mirroring Jesus, is the blue note for us. But instead of buckling, we commemorate this day on the day before, as National Coming Out Day. Coming out, that rite of passage for queer people, is a blue note gospel—the emergence from the closet of death into a new life. It is the first step of saying “yes” to the people we are, who God made us to be. This “yes” though is not some empty affirmation, but the annulation of the “no” leveed by heteronormative society. One must first recognize that one is in a closet before being able to emerge from it. Coming out sees the “no” and rather than buckling, shouts “yes” in defiance. We recognize the fear, the threat from homophobic society that Matthew Shepard’s death was supposed to elicit in us, but rather than succumbing to that fear and backing back into the closet, we come out, we challenge, and we affirm.

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God,” says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. That’s what the queer community has done with the memory of Matthew Shepard and the closet. That’s what the black community has done with slavery and segregation. That’s what women have done with subordination. That is the struggle of all the marginalized. Let us run the race till the gospel shout merges with the blues moan.

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