The Bach Experience

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Ms Chicka:

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.

As the Chapel associate for Lutheran Ministry, and a two (hopefully three) time alumnae, and a former musician, it is a great honor to be in the pulpit on Alumni Weekend, Reformation Sunday, and during our Bach series. After all, Bach was a Lutheran, even if the piece today is a Catholic Mass.

I’d like to share a personal achievement with all of you. Two weeks ago, I posted a Facebook status about forgoing the gym to eat an apple cider donut. That status received 51 likes. 51! That’s the most likes I think I’ve ever gotten on a single status update. It was a proud day in social media for me. As many of us in the congregation, I utilize Facebook and Twitter to update my friends, family, and acquaintances with the exciting, confusing, joyful, upsetting, and sometimes mundane aspects of my life. And I look to see what my other friends are up to, liking and commenting on their daily adventures and mishaps, keeping me connected with people I would’ve otherwise forgotten or lost touch with had it not been for social media.

I am at the elder end of Generation Y, the Millennial Generation.  A generation that has been able to engage with thoughts and ideas from all over the world through the internet. A generation that is accustomed to screens, would rather text than talk, and is not afraid to share information with others. A generation that is often referred to as the “Me” generation because of how frequently we reflect upon ourselves, and often what we expect for ourselves from society. A generation that can carefully craft and edit their lives to alter how others perceive them online. As a generalization, we are not well known for our humility or our privacy.

The Pharisee in the Parable today’s Gospel is an exemplar of orthopraxy – he does everything he is supposed to, and sometimes even more, like fasting twice a week. Can you imagine what his status updates would look like? His prayers are thankful, but they fail to show any sense of humility. In addition, he degrades those whom he perceives as sinners in his prayers of gratitude, setting himself up as one who should be exalted for his behavior. If he were truly humble before God, he would be able to relate and emphasize with the needs of those who are “sinners,” seeing them as human beings who deserve respect and may actually need his assistance, instead of setting himself apart from them.

The tax collector, on the other hand, exemplifies humility. He does not boast about his accomplishments or his status, he only asks for God’s mercy. He is an example of a marginalized member of the Jewish community perceived as a traitor because of his association with the Roman Empire. He is not expected to act in a humble manner, but in doing so in this parable emphasizes the importance of a humble attitude. Jesus uses the examples of the Pharisee and the tax collector to warn the disciples against becoming too full of themselves.

Much like the Pharisee, we have no problem patting ourselves on the back. To further our egoism, we anticipate those red notification balloons that let us know our friends “like” our statuses, or that we’ve been retweeted, or favorited.  We like, no, we crave attention from others. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of the book, Being Alone Together, points out that our self-identity has become so closely tied with our online identity, that we’ve fallen into the trap of “I share, therefore I am.”[1] She explains that we don’t feel like we’re living unless we’re sharing our lives through some other media. We also have the ability to self-edit in an online world, meaning that we can shape the way others see us – leading others to never truly know our real selves if they only encounter us online. As a fellow alum of Boston University, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would say, we suffer from the “Drum Major Instinct,” “to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”[2] It’s just that today we have more opportunities to gain this recognition and receive feedback from others that let us know we are as important as we hope and think.

Humility, coming from the Greek word “humus” meaning ground or dirt, lowers one’s self importance. It is a challenging virtue to cultivate, especially in a society that encourages selling yourself and enables some of our deepest desires for recognition through immediate gratification systems, like social networking. Additionally, we’re told that as individuals we are responsible for our own futures, making it difficult to see that help from others and selflessly helping others is essential if we’re going to make it through our lives. We are relational beings and to refuse to recognize the other is to fail to fully live into our human existence.

Religious life has a special way of emphasizing the need for humility, especially before God. In worship, we set aside a time in which we humble ourselves before God – during the confession. Dr. Jarrett – how does today’s piece tie in with this idea of humility?

Dr. Jarrett:

Well Jessica, all these answers will be revealed in the first volume of my forth-coming book Humility: And I How I Achieved It.

Joking aside, I’m delighted to spend a moment with you to explore our musical sermon of the day. First I should say that any encounter with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is as humbling as thrilling a prospect to any musician. Today, we present the first of four installments in our Bach Experience Series on his greatest masterpiece The Mass in B Minor. Long hailed as the ‘greatest piece of music of all time’, the B Minor Mass is something of a Holy Grail for musicians and music-lovers. In its pages, we find music’s apogee, a musical Everest and from these heights, we find that perspective only gained from awareness of the ultimate.

But let’s back up just a moment. Today we hear the entryway in this great musical cathedral – the Kyrie, with its three movements. Through its sounds, we are struck by the solemnity, the grandeur, the urgency, and the humbling scope of God’s mercy. And, in the second movement, as we implore Christ’s mercy, we find assurance of pardon in the ease and bounty of God’s redeeming grace through Christ Jesus. Cast as a duet for two sopranos, sung today by Carey Shunskis and Emily Culler, the joy, variety, and contentment of life’s sojourn through Christ’s mercy practically leaps from the score. The lovely (and dare I say Human) Christe, is book-ended by two grand and noble Kyries. Here is where Bach teaches us about his kind of humility.

With the possible exception of a Beethoven, I can hardly think of a bolder composer than Johann Sebastian Bach. As with Beethoven, we are aware of the presence of extraordinary genius. And though we may not be able to articulate the reason, the music of both composers has the capacity to embolden the listener, to encourage vitality in our living, to inspire a zeal for humanity, in the way that only music can. But the music of Bach pushes a little farther for me. Bach reveals our possibility, who we know we can be.

A year or two ago, President Clinton spoke down the street at Symphony Hall. And one of his themes was that of ‘Framework’. In his context, our system of government, our social contract, our order of society creates a ‘framework’ by which we can excel at citizenry. And when this breaks down, we lose our model, our framework, to serve and help one another.

For Bach, the empowering framework is form. He might have said, the framework for Love is the Law – or rather, the Law is fulfilled by the Love of Christ. And Love is fulfilled best when informed by the Law. You see, Bach’s shows us how to live, how to express, how to engage, how to be joyful, how to be thankful, but the key to that freedom is found only in humbling ones-self before the source of that grace. If we lose sight of our source – God’s communing grace – we diminish our possibility to make a difference. The Dean exhorts us often to live fully as an engaged people, people of salt and light. Bach provides a path for us, fully authentic, fully committed, forged and humbled by the framework of God’s redeeming love.

Ms. Chicka:

It is important for us to humble ourselves before God, recounting what we have done and what we have left undone. How we’ve supported others, and how we’ve left others down. However, we must claim a balance between our humility and our pride. We can still be confident in ourselves, but we must temper that confidence with self-awareness. We can be proud, but we must temper that pride with modesty. Humility does not mean that we must always be meek and subservient to others, but that we recognize that there are appropriate times to do both.

This sermon would be incomplete without mentioning Martin Luther. It is Reformation Sunday, after all. The great reformer led the way for many Protestant movements by questioning whether the Church’s practices truly reflected God’s will or were corrupted by human desire. Luther is not particularly known for his humility, but he valued humility as one of the foremost virtues of Christianity. Humility enables us to serve God in the best way possible. It allows us to serve our neighbor in a way that our neighbor deserves to be served: not for our own benefit, but out of love and the needs of the other. In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther reminds his readers that in having faith in Christ and receiving the grace of God, one becomes a “little Christ,” whose actions should seek to serve others. Our faith enables us to receive the grace of God and frees us to choose to serve others as Christ served us.[3] It is only through the recognition of the self in relationship with God that one can find a sense of contentment that removes egoism and promotes humility, opening the individual into deeper relationship and fellowship with others.

MLK, Jr. agrees with Luther’s idea. He states that our Drum Major instinct is best used in serving others. By possessing a heart that is filled with the grace of God, our desire to be “the drum major” is found in God, through our Christian love and devotion toward others. It is a self-less love that attempts to improve life for others not because one is coerced into doing so, but because one recognizes the value and worth of that other human being and his or her right to live in a just and loving world.

I’ve been pretty hard on my generation up until now in this sermon, but I’d like to close with some good news. Although we are called “generation ME” we are also called the “Civic-minded generation.”[4] These two labels do not seem to go together, but increasingly, individuals in my generation are concerned about the status of others as well as themselves. Participation in community service organizations, volunteering, and vocalization on social issues are hallmarks of our generation. Our worldview has been shaped by major events – 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic meltdown, and most poignantly for those of us here in Boston, the Marathon Bombings last April.

Our reliance on technology not only allows us to express ourselves, but it allows us to see ourselves on the global landscape – having the opportunity to interact and react to global issues from our laptops, tablets, or smartphones. Social media enables us to maintain connections, and in times of crisis, make sure our community is safe and that those who need assistance can find it. We are more connected than ever, and in some cases, more willing to help than ever.  Serving others through volunteerism and activism requires a sense of humility in order for it to work. One must be willing to listen to the needs of another in order to truly serve them.  BU is a great example of service-minded individuals, as 4600 volunteers participated in over 100,000 hours of community service last year alone.[5] And even today, the Servant Team of Marsh Chapel is exemplifying this desire to serve others through their drive for goods for the homeless that will be assembled into “We Care” packages right here in the Chapel this afternoon.

So a call to action for my generation: let’s make our legacy known as the Civic-minded Generation, not Generation Me. I’m not saying that we have to completely give up on the self-reporting we do in social media, but perhaps we should pare it down and instead use these platforms as means to spread awareness. We need to strike the appropriate balance between our online lives and our real lives, making sure that these two not only align, but enable us to maintain our humility. We can only truly make connections with others at a basic level if we see them as people, not just names or pictures on a screen. We can only ensure the health of our communities by being willing to be open to others. It is only through humbly listening to and interacting with our brothers and sisters that we have the opportunity to learn and grow into a community of “little Christs.” Amen.

 

~Ms. Jessica Chicka, Chapel Associate

~Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music


[1] Bill Moyers, “Sherry Turkle on Being Alone Together,” TV segment, Moyers & Company, PBS, Aired October 20, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013 http://billmoyers.com/segment/sherry-turkle-on-being-alone-together/

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” sermon, delivered February 4, 1968, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/

[3] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Henry Wace and C. A. Buchheim, First Principles of the Reformation, London: John Murray, 1883. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-freedomchristian.asp

[4] Sharon Jayson, “Generation Y Gets Involved,” USA Today, October 24, 2006. Accessed October 20, 2013. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-10-23-gen-next-cover_x.htm

[5] Boston University Community Service Center, “Mission and History,” Accessed October 20, 2013 http://www.bu.edu/csc/about/mission-and-history/

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