Bonhoeffer and Bach: The Passion According to St. Matthew

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Brisk air, breathtaking view: we can imagine for a moment the sights from, the sights of the great mountain peaks near and far. Mount Washington, Mount Everest, Mount Marcy, the Matterhorn. The Bible itself moves from promontory to promontory, from Mount Sinai to Mount Nebo to Mount Tabor to the Mountain of the Transfiguration to the Mount of Olives. Up high, we pause.

We have come this far this Lent. Now we are ascending and descending the great mountain of beauty before us, The Passion According to St. Matthew. We have come this far this Lent. We pause here to survey the scene, to take in the brisk air the breathtaking view the beauty of the music. Thus far the Gospel of John has shown us our path: Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the Blind Beggar. Thus far the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has shown us the trail: The Cost of Discipleship, Cheap Grace, Religionless (though not churchless) Christianity, and Life Together. Thus far the muted but audible voice of Franklin Littell, the father of Holocaust studies, has provided a way to orient ourselves, Sunday by Sunday. For a moment, we shall simply rest and wait. As Howard Thurman said of the power of waiting and resting, we need not ‘fear the fallow’. We need not fear the quiet, the quiet power of height, beauty, grace.

Yet in the midst of turmoil far and near we hunt for hope. ‘Faith is the conviction that hope works’ (so Professor Gomes, of blessed memory). Many of our younger friends have been partly cut off from the traditions of faith and memory, of morality and hope which have the power to guide us, to recall for us our own best past and so our own best paths. We want to respect and affirm the ‘fragility of goodness’, and so to find ways to expand that circle of goodness, in our time. And goodness knows our time well needs such expansion. In this hour we prayerfully wonder about shocks and aftershocks in Japan, leaks and spills and heroic labors to bring remedy. In this hour we soberly wonder about peace and war in our so called middle east, and wonder further about ways forward when none seems just right. In this hour we lay on the altar of reckoning and hope the endless multiple liberties and longings of our beloved country of more than 300 million souls. The tides of worry can wash so hard against the very rock of our souls that it seems all we can do to hold out and hold on in trust that ‘faith is the conviction that hope works’.

So our reflections emerge along the cliff walk of this high summit, this high peak, this mountainous musical beauty. Brisk air, breathtaking view. From our Lenten journey we shall carry forward and with us a collection of convictions.

We too, with Bonhoeffer, refuse to set back the clock. We know that this world in which we take our places as working and caring human beings, is not the world of a hundred or two hundred years ago. Nothing human is foreign to us in a world come of age. We neglect no truth, and fear no growth in learning of new truth. If we are to be women and men for others, we shall in truth need to be and become women and men with others, in all the complexity and difficulty of life at its height and breadth and depth. We hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and read the two with rapt attention.

We too, with Bonhoeffer, live in hope, with our loyalty and love given to the Lord of Life himself. In Christ we shall again see the great vistas of beauty and grace. In Christ we shall again learn the seasoned wisdom of discipline, work, labor, earnest and diligent care. In Christ we shall again gain courage to become we are, to be who we are most meant to be, to let our lives speak. In Christ, we shall trust the meaning of the cross and resurrection, the triumph of substance over form, of grace over law, and love over death. We shall trust that love outlasts death. We shall trust that faith, hope and love abide.

We too with Bonhoeffer, will give of ourselves to the transformation of our time, to the transcendent transformation of all of life, of the very bits and places of culture committed to our care, starting with Sunday morning, but not ending there, or here. This hour of worship is to be the first in a long seven day series of hours given, shared with others. We shall strive to Biblical Ethics: ‘all contingent on the call of Christ’ (Green, 256):

1. Do what needs doing (Ecc 9:10)

2. Be exact in small matters (Lk 16:10, 19:17)

3. Do Domestic duties first (1 Tim 3: 15)

4. Do not interfere with others (1 Pet 4: 15)

And we shall recognize ‘Discipline, Action, Suffering, Death’ as stations on the road to freedom.

From this Lent, for the faithful living of the days to come, we shall honor our inheritance in truth, affirm the faithfulness of Christ, and look forward to the time and space which Isaiah did foretell, streams in the desert.

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

And confidently waiting come what may

We know that God is with us night and morning

And never fails to greet us each new day.” (UMH 517)

~The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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