The Bach Experience

Matthew 21:23-32

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Experience

We are entering a new year, whether with the academics at matriculation, or with those following this season’s autumnal sports, or with the hikers and campers as fall arrives.  Our Holy Scripture and our Cantata this morning both offer us insight for a new day.

In particular, those of you who may find yourself outside of the religious traditions around you, or the tradition, if any, in which you were raised, may be heartened to hear the music and word this morning.

Our community of faith at Marsh Chapel, Boston University, shares with other such communities, far and near, an alertness to the meaning in beginnings.  Jesus shall be my everything.  Jesus shall remain my beginning.  Jesus is my light of joy.  So the duet affirms in just a few moments.  Beginnings remain.  The start of something new stays with us long after the newness has been spent.  We recognize the power of new beginnings.

Look at the few days of this week and weekend.

Thursday, hundreds of students and other gathered within the Jewish community to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish new year.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings were deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in the return of the year’s opening.

Saturday, many hundreds of students and others gathered for feasting and dancing at the celebration of Raas Lela, the seasonal and communal recognition of what is new this autumn.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings were deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in the return of the year’s opening.

Boston University is proud to host the largest Hindu student association in the country.  Their yearly Saturday evening festival provides a colorful, fervent, rhythmic opening to the rest of the year.  The dance and the meal seem to pray, as does our cantata: bless all faithful teachers, bless hearers of the word, may peace and loyalty kiss each other, thus we would live this entire year in blessing.

This evening, this Sunday evening, yet another several hundred students and others will gather to share a common meal, a common table, a common reading, a common address, a community of fellowship.  The event is the feast of Eid, in which our Muslim community completes Ramadan and enters the year following those days of discipline.  Songs, prayers, readings, teachings will be deployed to plumb the depth of meaning in a sort of return to the year’s opening.  Let us complete the year to the praise of the divine name.  So the meal suggests, as the cantata affirms.

All of these events this year will have been located in the same space, in the same week, in the same University, on the same street.  They happened and will have happened in the very same room.  In engaging difference, in embracing alterity, we do well not to minimize the variations present.  We also do well to recognize the common hope present.  Community emerges from diversity when diversity is longing for unity.  Without that common hope there will be no common faith and then over time no common ground.

In addition, the Christian community will be gathered for worship, here in the nave of Marsh Chapel and across the airwaves, and later in through the afternoon and week for other Christian services—three Catholic masses, an Evening Ecumenical Sunday Eucharist, prayer and devotion preceding the Inner Strength Gospel Choir practice, a Monday evening Orthodox communion, a Wednesday evening ecumenical and Episcopal Evening Prayer, a school of theology service, a moment of Thursday silent prayer, a Common Ground Thursday communion service, and other services, all located here in the Chapel.  Next Sunday afternoon we will celebrate at 2pm the baptism of Nathan Hutchison-Jones, one of several infants baptized this year.  It is an hour of new beginnings as well.  Beginnings remain.  Beginnings reverberate.  Beginnings resound through time and space.  And every dawn, every morning awakening, is one such new beginning.  How seriously, studiously, and curiously, famously wondered Howard Thurman, have taken our moment of waking from slumber, morning by morning?

Keep a list this week of beginnings, new year celebrations of different kinds.  A first paper submitted.  A first date enjoyed.  A first real conversation in friendship.  A first blistering failure.  A first day on the job.  A first ache in the bones to hint at the advent of autumn in life.  A first handshake.  A first argument.  A first genuine disappointment.  Whatever ‘years’ begin in the next week, take a moment to savor them or at least to consider them.  You can do so with confidence, as we hear in a moment: His good Spirit, which shows me the path to Life, guides and leads me upon a level road, therefore I begin this year in Jesus’ name.

Dr. Jarrett, you have been our guide to the heart of the music brought us by choir and collegium, over these past several years.  How best should we listen, receive, give ear to word and music this morning?

Bach (Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett)

Thank you, Dean Hill. Today’s cantata was first performed on New Year’s Day in January of 1724 for the Feast of the Circumcision and the Naming of Jesus. It may seem an odd choice for the end of September, but the text of the cantata celebrates the start of the new year, and contains all the hopes for God’s blessings and guidance in new endeavors. It seemed particular appropriate for the new beginnings all around us. In particular this morning, we welcome our newest choir members, and four new Choral Scholars, two of whom – Ethan De Puy and Kim Leeds —  sing their first solos in our Bach Experience this morning.

Just as our Gospel lesson from Matthew 21 finds Jesus in the temple teaching, the Luke 2 lesson that occasioned this cantata finds Jesus in the temple just eight days after his birth for the celebration of his official naming. It is a moment of great joy and promise, and Bach provides music full of fanfare and flourish.

Like so many of Bach’s opening choral movements, Psalms of praise are used to ring in the new year: Sing to the Lord a new song; The company of Saints shall praise Him; Praise him with drums and dances; Praise him with strings and pipes, and finally, All that hath breath, praise ye the Lord, Alleluia. Scored for full festival forces with three trumpets and timpani, three oboes and the usual complement of strings, Bach engages the full range of the concerted style. The opening movement is cast in three contrasting sections. The central text, ‘All that hath breath, praise the Lord’,  is treated contrapuntally as a fugue, but offset from the outer sections by grand unison statements from Luther’s setting of the Te Deum, ‘Lord God, we praise you’ and later, ‘Lord God, we thank you.’

The second movement introduces the three soloists in personal and contemporary petitions. And with the choir’s interjections of the Luther Te Deum texts, the movement serves as an extension of the opening chorus. There are two arias in today’s cantata. The first, sung by alto soloist Kim Leeds, is an elegant dance-like movement for strings with characteristics of the polonaise. After a recitative seeking God’s guidance in the new year through the Jesus’s name, tenor Ethan De Puy and DJ Matsko sing a duet, again in spirited dance rhythms. Listen for the outline of the melody in the opening solo played by Ben Fox on the Oboe d’amore.  Bach dresses up the otherwise mundane chorale tune with trumpet and timpani flourishes, rounding out a festive work brimming with hope and expectation.

And if I may be permitted, Dean Hill, on behalf of the musicians, we wish to offer you and the Marsh community our sincerest thanks for supporting our continued study of the fifth evangelist and his astonishing repertoire. Over the years, we have taught, explored, and performed more than 30 cantatas, with regular performances of the St John and St Matthew Passions. Last year’s survey of the B Minor Mass kept us on the mountain-top from September to April. As we begin the eighth year of the Bach Experience, please know how truly grateful we are for your support.

 Faith

This is a day of new beginnings.  As by potential at least is every day, and every Lord’s Day.  Now is the acceptable time.  Today is the day of salvation.

Our love of Holy Scripture impels us to listen, again, just a bit more closely, to the new beginning announced in Matthew 21.

One portion of our passage explores the perennial religious issue of authority.  The pages of the New Testament themselves were composed and collected in no small measure as a way of exploring authority.  ‘By what authority?’ is the question Jesus parries with another question which puts his interrogators on the horns of a dilemma.  When something new is on the horizon, this question invariably arises.  In a new year setting, a day of new beginnings, when something big and new is in the offing, it may be worth asking:  On whose authority shall weighty and consequential decisions be taken?  It is at least worth thinking about: by what authority?

Another portion of our passage tells of two sons and the opportunity to work the vineyard.  It is easy for us to hear the acclaim reserved for the first, who goes ahead and does the work, and to hear the criticism of the one who pays lip service to the stewardship of the vineyard, but goes another way.   For Matthew, at least, here, at least, the surprising gospel is that those not attired in the formal clothing of faith, those even who are engaged in the most secular and ancient of professions, seize the day, and take up the labor and tend the vineyard.  Not the membership list, but the prospect list.   Not the clergy, but the laity. Not those at the center, but those on the periphery.  Not the nominally present, but the actually absent.  Not those who have cleaned the outside of the cup, but those who have had the inside washed and laundered and pressed and put to service.  Not those who say a comfortable yes, but those who say an honest no, yet whose lives say yes, when others’ lives say no.  Here, at least, to the extent one understands the phrase, one hears an initial encouraging word for those who may be ‘spiritual but not religious’.   The vineyard awaits those who will tend it.  This perhaps is what John Wesley meant to say as he preached, ‘if thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand’.

Paul says it clearly:  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

It may be that on reflection, the first son had a vision of what such a vineyard could look like over time, what such an unusual kind of labor could feel like over time, what such a new start to a new year in a new way could become over time.  It may be that on reflection you will have a vision of what such a vineyard, God’s garden, could look like over time, with a little effort, what such an unusual kind of labor, faith working through love, could feel like over time, and what such a new start to a sober and loving life this autumn Sunday could become over time.  If so, you may silently whisper, walking or driving home, Lord God we praise you, since you with this new year send us new fortune and new blessing and still think upon us in grace.

– The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel and Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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