The Bach Experience

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Matthew 25:31-46

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The Bach Experience

It was always YF; never MYF. Calling it MYF, or Methodist Youth Fellowship, failed to recognize the fullness of the denominational identity of the United Methodist Church, which resulted from a merger between the Methodist Church USA and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. Hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Carl and Judy Rife came to us at Hughes United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland from the EUB side of the family tree. Carl is a United Methodist elder, while Judy’s ministry could only have been diminished by ordination.

Judy was one of our YF counselors, and in preparation for our annual Youth Service one year, she led us in a more profound exegesis of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats than any seminary curriculum could hope to achieve. When did we see you sick? We made tray favors for patients at Sibly Hospital. When did we visit you in prison? We visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. When did we see you hungry or thirsty? We served meals at Shepherd’s Table homeless services. When did we see you a stranger? We visited disabled neighbors in the affordable housing unit the church had built next door. When did we see you naked? We made quilts from scraps of our own clothes. Consider for a moment the spiritual fortitude of a woman who could teach more than two dozen suburbanite adolescents to appreciate the tradition of quilt-making, encourage us to participate in that tradition as a lived expression of faith, and inspire us to continue to live into the meaning of that act more than a decade and a half later.

Judy died on October 20th in York, Pennsylvania with Carl faithfully by her side as she breathed her last. She lived, in so many ways, a life of righteousness as depicted in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, and she died, I am confident, with something like the opening chorale of today’s Bach cantata on her lips: “Jesus, you who powerfully rescued my soul, be now, O God, my refuge.”

I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.

Like our readings for today, our cantata is rather, well, dark: bitter death; the devil’s dark pit; the anguish of the soul; the ill and erring; the leprosy of sin; blood that cancels guilt; wounds, nails, crown, grave; sin and death assail. Bach’s Augustinian Lutheranism can seem quite foreign to contemporary religious sensibilities. The cantata’s text is a stark reminder that faith is serious business, a matter of life and death, that faith addresses the grievously painful situation of blood guilt, and that faith places us in the existential situation of judgment under threat of eternal damnation. There but for the grace of God, say Augustine, Luther, and Bach, go we all.

The very terminology of blood, guilt, sin, anguish, and judgment press back against the proclivities of late modern religious consciousness toward what might be called, and has been called, moral therapeutic deism.[1] Moral therapeutic deism believes that God exists, created the world, and watches over human life; that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair; that the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself; that God is not particularly involved in our lives; and that good people go to heaven when they die. Of course, this caricature of Christianity is subject to the same critique that H. Richard Niebuhr leveled against the Social Gospel movement in the mid-twentieth century for believing that “a God without wrath brought [humanity] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[2] For moral therapeutic deism, there is little reason to take religion seriously, and thus to pay much attention to it. Religion in this vein is as Karl Marx described, the opium of the people.

Not so for Bach, or his theological predecessors, Luther and Augustine. For them, faith is intimate and works its way into our deepest vulnerabilities. It is there then, in our inmost selves, that we meet God, and where God’s presence with us is experienced as grace.

Lord, I believe, help my weakness,
Let me never despair;
You, You can make me stronger,
when sin and death assail me.

Such pietism, of course, must be careful, tending as it does to promise more than it can deliver. Even in a state of grace, we are, at times, yet given to despair. But without allowing for the seriousness of the religious claim for the deepest and often darkest parts of ourselves, what hope could there be in our times of despair?

Dr. Jarrett, tell us more about the hope Bach offers us in today’s cantata.

Thank you, Brother Larry. Today we present Cantata 78 – ‘Jesu, der du meine Seele’ or Jesus, by whom my soul. Written in September of 1724, our cantata dates from Bach’s second year as cantor of the Thomas Church in Leipzig, where his duties included weekly composition of a cantata for the Sunday liturgy. Bach’s texts that day were lessons from Galatians Chapter 5 urging Christians from the ways of the flesh to live in the spirit, and from Luke Chapter 11, in which Jesus heals the ten lepers. As is often the case, Bach draws poetic and musical inspiration from a familiar 17th century chorale tune, in this case Johann Rist’s 1641 Jesu, der du meine Seele. The text calls us to pin our sins on the cross with Jesus using particularly direct Passion imagery. As with Paul’s letter, there is no escaping the depravity of the flesh for Augustine, Luther, or with Bach.

But the theological and, thereby, musical trajectory of the cantata moves the Christian through a cycle of eagerness to cleave to the cross, the power of Christ’s redeeming blood, and the assurance of Christ as our breast plate in a world where Satan lurks to thwart our every thought and deed.

In the opening movement, Bach’s depicts the poignancy of the passion, the deep, deep love of Jesus, our long-suffering – all — as an extended Passacaglia. Not just a formal unifying structure, this recurring tune is laden with all the pathos necessary to depict our frail human condition and the urgency of the need for redemption. As the tune is passed through the instruments and the voices in nearly thirty iterations, Rist’s chorale tune is heard in the soaring voices of the sopranos, doubled by flute and horn. As the text describes the vigor with which Christ rescues our anguished souls, the music, too, becomes more active and urgent, yet all within the framework of the prevailing ground bass. In the end, Bach achieves astonishing scope of idea and musical transformation in one of the most well-known of all Bach’s chorale fantasias.

The corpus of the cantata moves the Christian from earnest, eagerness to follow in Jesus’s steps – listen for the pizzicato of the double bass as the soprano and alto tread in each other’s musical steps – to the redeeming ‘sprinkling’ of the blood of Christ depicted by the elegant flute solo with tenor soloist – to the ultimate offering of not just our sin, but also our whole heart as we, too, take up the cross to live the Gospel in the world. Listen for the wisdom of the baritone and the full, confident stride of the redeemed whose soul is stilled by faith the promise of sweet eternity.

Thank you Dr. Jarrett.

In two weeks, Dr. Jarrett, Dean Hill and I will travel to San Diego with members of the Marsh Chapel Choir where we will meet up with members of the Bach Collegium San Diego to bring the Bach Experience, now in its eighth season here at Marsh Chapel, to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting.  There we will present Cantata 77, Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, “You shall love the Lord your God.”  That cantata, presented here at Marsh Chapel in February of 2013, is less dark but no less serious, treating the relationship between law and grace in conversation with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We invite your prayerful, and if so moved material, support of this expanding voice of the Bach Experience and Marsh Chapel.

The question addressed in Cantata 77 is how we are to live in light of the grace of God in us. The question for today’s cantata, Cantata 78, is what God’s grace does in us that we might live at all. The good news of Jesus Christ for us today, preached in the glorious music of Bach, is that the grace of God in us transforms sin, death, guilt, despair, and anguish to blessing so that we might say,

I will trust in Your goodness,
until I joyfully see
You, Lord Jesus, after the battle
in sweet eternity.

Listen. Learn. Love. The Bach Experience for you. Amen.

Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+, University Chaplain for Community Life & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

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[1] Smith, Christian; Lundquist Denton, Melina. Soul Searching : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1959: 193.

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