I wish it were as easy for me to talk about Jesus as it is to talk about ukuleles. Now of course, I’m a preacher, so I talk about Jesus for a living; and I love talking about Jesus. But ukuleles: I can’t seem to shut up about them. I have told complete strangers, “Yes, it’s a ukulele, and you need one;” and I don’t usually talk to strangers. I’m an introvert, so I usually go to great lengths to avoid talking to strangers.
But a ukulele changes all that.
There are several people here tonight who bought a ukulele because I talked them into it— including the other four “Ukeladies” (except Brenda; she didn’t have a choice; we just got her one). I can’t seem to help it. Now, I think everyone needs Jesus just like everyone needs a ukulele, but I tend to be slightly more subtle when it comes to talking about Jesus.
But Jesus and ukuleles have so much in common. Such as, neither is elitist. Jesus irritated a lot of people in authority because he liked hanging out with regular people and doing regular things, instead of religious people doing religious things. Jesus was constantly chastised for the way he observed the Sabbath and his regular-guy ways. He even got called a glutton and a drunkard in tonight’s Gospel reading.
Let’s face it: Jesus was fun.
And ukuleles are fun. Ukuleles are for all people, not just intimidating musicians. Now, I need to admit, I’m scared of musicians. Seminarians are taught that the trouble in a church usually starts in the choir.
Some musicians—but of course, not any of the ones here tonight—some musicians can be a bit snooty about ukuleles; kind of like how the religious authorities tended to be contemptuous of Jesus.
As a ukulele enthusiast, I have especially been picked on by guitar players. If it weren’t for Jesus, I couldn’t be nice to them.
Ukuleles are inclusive, kind of like how Jesus was inclusive. Early Christianity was beloved by women and slaves, who were usually overlooked by religions.
I’m not a musician, but I needed music for our preschool chapel after our real musician got a day job and could no longer play for us twice a month. The preschool teachers loved chapel and tried finding the various songs online, but it just wasn’t the same. So I bought a ukulele, and two weeks later was able to (sort of) strum a couple of our simple chapel songs.
But ukuleles are also capable of much greater depth. They have a reputation for being a happy instrument, and certainly, even the first time I badly played “Here We Come Walking to God’s House” for our preschool chapel, my ukulele brought smiles to kids’ faces. That high G (that makes some annoying guitar players roll their eyes) does give ukuleles a joyful noise. But they are capable of more depth. They can be a light in the darkness.
Our Gospel reading tonight has Jesus referring to people being like children who call to one another that they played the flute but the other did not dance, and also that they wailed and the other did not mourn.
Ukuleles aren’t only for happy times. Look at the songs we’re singing tonight. “I’ll Fly Away” is a song which looks forward to death. “When the Saints” is also about those who have gone before.
Many of you may not know that my father died just under two weeks ago, two days after Easter. Now, priests like the Ukeladies tend to be incredibly busy during Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and I’m no exception. I booked a flight to go see my father in Arizona the day after Easter.
I went directly to his hospice facility after the plane touched down, and of course I had my ukulele with me, because not only does everyone need a ukulele, but everyone needs to travel with them. Jeunée, am I right? Didn’t you take yours to Florida and Hawaii? And John Gonzalez del Solar told me that I can never leave my ukulele in the car, so of course I brought it into Dad’s hospice room with me. Seeing me walk in with my ukulele, my mom immediately asked, “Jimmy, don’t you want her to play the ukulele for you?”
My father responded with a smile, “Of course I do.”
So I played him all sorts of songs, including several of the songs we’re playing tonight, like “Amazing Grace” and “When the Saints” and “I’ll Fly Away.” And he smiled and clapped and even occasionally sang a word or two. (I have to admit, though, that his very favorite was not something spiritual, but “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.”)
The ukulele not only brought us joy during a difficult time, but it gave voice to things that were hard to talk about, like weary years and flying away from pain like a bird, and about how we hope someday to be among the saints.
It was such a sacred time. It lifted our spirits, but it also moved us deeply. He died the next day. I will always treasure that memory and be grateful for this little instrument.
Ukuleles bring joy, and they can help light the way in the darkness. This is true of Jesus as well. Sometimes people accuse Christians of believing in fairy stories, of not being concerned enough about the problems of the real world and instead focusing on a reward in the afterlife.
But that’s not Jesus.
Christianity, faith in Jesus, doesn’t mean that we turn away from the darkness in the world; from things like hunger, poverty, homelessness. That’s not Jesus at all.
Jesus aligned himself with people who suffered. Jesus was poor. Jesus was homeless.
Faith in Jesus does not mean that we turn our backs on the very real problems of a broken world. What we Christians do is come together in community and find ways to address the very real problems in a world that can be very dark. We do this because Jesus calls us to.
All of the churches here tonight work hard to address the real problems of the world. I know that all three of the local churches represented—St. Matthias, St. Michael’s and St. David’s— all
participate in CARITAS, which stands for Churches Around Richmond Involved to Assure Shelter.
Any money that we collect tonight will go to that organization. This week, St. Michael’s is housing CARITAS guests and providing meals for them. If any of you here tonight are here as CARITAS guests, welcome. You are guests of special honor.
Thank you all for being here tonight, to celebrate this humble instrument and our humble Jesus. Together, we can be lights in the darkness.