Bach and the Gospel

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Cantata Sunday #1

Matthew 21: 23-32

Beauty opens the world to grace. Beauty may prepare you for the gospel of faith, the faith of the gospel. Beauty is a ‘preparatio evangelium’, a preparation of the gospel. Bach is a prelude to faith.

You will recognize the two sons of today’s parable. One strong and one weak. One secular and one religious. One defiant and one compliant. One directly negative and one indirectly positive. One comes to faith.

Nineteen year olds, strong and secular and stepping away from their primary identity, recognize our gospel’s dilemma. Whether to say a meek ‘yes’ to cradle religion, when the heart is steadfastly in the ‘no’ column, or whether to speak up, to rise up, that is, to stay away, to stay in bed on a Sunday morning, and so be honest to God, if not happy in God. I walk past snoring dorms full, brother, every Sunday morning.

Forty one year olds, conditioned and religious and doubting in the pew, recognize our gospel’s dilemma. Whether to say a meek ‘yes’ to Biblicist religion, when the mind stays steadfastly in the ‘no’ column, or whether to rise up, that is, to step away from the fundamentalism that has swamped American religion today like a hurricane turning good cities into mud, or to stay put, to smile, to murmur Sola Scriptura, and so to be dishonest to God, as well as unhappy in God. For thirty years I have served in churches among such struggling souls, every Sunday morning.

Sixty five year olds, who have avoided pride and falsehood since 1968, but when it comes to faith have succumbed to sloth, to a kind of personal laziness, a deadly personal ennui, recognize our gospel’s dilemma. Whether, having said a good, honest, heartfelt ‘no’ some years ago, whether to look real hard at what condition your condition is in, and then whether—HOW HARD THIS IS—to think again. About what? About love, about meaning, about eternity, about God, about faith. It takes a leap. And the leap takes some preparation. Yes, when it comes to faith, there is always a leap involved. And that leap requires some preparation.

Paul Newman charmed us for fifty years. You remember when he sat next to Robert Redford on a high cliff. In the natural beauty of the great western mountains. In earshot of a beautiful musical score. In the theatrical representation of the beauty of friendship. In the terrific beauty of a liminal moment of choice. In the playful beauty of rhetorical humor. They, the two, faced a leap, which would save or drown. ‘I can’t swim” said Redford. ‘Are you crazy? The fall will kill you.’, chortled Newman. And off they went, and over they went. Faith requires a leap, too.

And leap requires preparation. Our colleague Peter Berger has written about this preparation: “I can find in human reality certain intimations of (God’s) speech, signals, unclear though they are, of His presence…joy, expressed in (great music) which seeks eternity…the human propensity to order which appears to correlate with an order in the universe…the immensely suggestive experience of play and humor, the irrepressible human propensity to hope, the certainty of some moral judgments, and last, but not least, the experiences of beauty…”(Questions of Faith, 12).

Beauty prepares us for faith. Bach is a prelude to the gospel.

When you stand before your grandchild, in the hour of birth, you might think about that. When you look into your father’s eyes, as he lies critically ill, you might think about that. When you realize that you have a real friend, one real friend, you might think about that. When you look at your beautiful country, in a mess, and wonder whether you should bestir yourself to write a check or make a phone call, you might think about that. When a sunset seizes you, when a poem teases you, when a sermon freezes you, you might think about that. It takes a leap. Faith takes a leap.

The beauty of our gospel, in part, is found in its silence about what caused brother one to take his leap, to turn around, to come back, to seize, I mean to be seized by, Love. We do not know. Only Matthew tells this story. His telling is misremembered in five different versions in its textual history. Its challenge and promise are the same: “the irreligious can often be awakened to a realization of their spiritual need, while those who are actually more righteous are sometimes impervious to the gospel and make no progress beyond the formal morality which they already possess” (IBD, loc. Cit., 510).

Something beautiful may have prepared our brother. Bach may prepare you today. Bach may lift your soul beyond youthful grunge. Bach may raise your soul out of religious hiding. Bach may sear your soul with beauty, and call you out of forty years of spiritual sloth. It would not be the first time. Today we hear a song of thanksgiving, a grateful and beautiful anthem. “Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all, but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services”. (The Cambridge Companion to Bach, 86). I wonder whether the beautiful holiness of this music will touch you? I know that you swore an oath on your last visit to the Vietnam Memorial that you had turned your back on all that, all this, all gospel, all God. I know. I did the same. But I wonder whether there is preparation this morning for your return. I believe there is. I know that the flat building, shallow music, one dimensional fundamentalism you hear as faith has soured you. I know. It did me too. But I wonder whether there is a preparation this morning for your return. I believe there is. I know that the lonely, awkward wastelands of freshman year can make you question anything lovely and lasting. I know. They did me as well. But I wonder whether there is a preparation this morning for your return.

“Son, Go and work in the vineyard today.” And he answered, “I will not”. But afterward, he repented and went.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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