The Bach Experience

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1 John 3: 1-7

Luke 24:36-48

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Personal Faith

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  

While personal faith is not merely individual faith, nonetheless, it is in persons, like you, that faith is received, and known, and nourished.   There is no hiding here, no hiding behind an unconsidered ignorance, nor behind a well-tempered philosophy, nor behind a mountainous and real hurt, nor behind sloth.  Your faith is yours, especially when it is about all you have left to go on.

So, you will continue, brightened by Easter, to develop and practice your faith.  We are not meant to live in Lent. We are meant to live in Easter. The difference Easter makes comes in part by way of a full body embrace of your own personal faith.

Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Do you hope to be made whole in this lifetime?   

Knowing pardon, can you creatively and even at some risk, work with another whom you think needs your pardon, I beg your pardon, but who may himself think you need his?  Just how sharp is your faith in its faithful practice of what we pray, Come Sunday, ‘forgive…as we forgive’?

Longing for wholeness, can you creatively and even at some risk, take up work that you have long left behind, but you know is part of personal faith development—reading, prayer, giving, serving, listening?  Pardon? Wholeness? It is up to you.

Here the faithful Lutheran, JS Bach, can indeed help us, by means of his own example in faith.  His own Bible, we have recently been further taught, was laden with notes in the margin, questions, renderings, and ruminations.  

One may choose to play the piano again.  Another may take a language study. One may find a daily devotional reader, like the one my friend gave me by CS Lewis, which sits on my bureau so I can read it while tying my tie.  Another may sit in the quiet of the sanctuary for a while before worship, as did Emerson, I love the silent church before there is any speaking.  One may wander, saunter, flaneur dans le rue, walking for a bit every day (we even have a health group on the staff here doing so right now).  Another may start to journal, to record dreams, and to record insights, and to record angers and to record escapes. Teaching and learning are spiritual adventures in pursuit of invisibles and intangibles (W. Arrowsmith, as remembered by V. Kestenbaum).  Or, if nothing else, you can hardly do better than a conversation, in loving care, with another person of faith, over lunch, over coffee, over a beer, over the phone.  One may look hard at his sexual life, sexual activity, to see whether it becomes the gospel, and whether it approximates the very general guidance in the wisdom saying, In singleness integrity, in partnership fidelity.  At least one, probably, will choose to listen to the Marsh Chapel service, Come Sunday. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Dr. Jarrett:  in terms of today’s music, and text, what witness do you sense Bach brings us, of personal faith,  within the setting of this lovely cantata?

Bach

Today’s cantata, is, indeed, a lesson in faith, assurance, and the promise of God’s goodness in our lives. Cantata 69a – “Praise the Lord, o My Soul” was first performed on August 15, 1723, like all the cantatas in this year’s series, during Bach’s first three months as Cantor in Leipzig. We have seen in these cantatas not just a remarkable display of compositional craftsmanship, but also an authoritative theological understanding through both the compilation of the libretto and the setting of those texts. Cantata 69a features from beginning to end an exuberant and joyful hymn of praise of God and the good works that enable a life of faith. Opening with full festival forces with trumpets and timpani, Bach sets the words of Psalm 103, vs 2 in a marvelous double fugue. The music is absolutely radiant, brilliant, and brimming with the praise of all God’s faithful. With this rich texture, we can well imagine the sound of Wesley’s thousand tongues to sing the great Redeemer’s praise.

For Bach, the Gospel lesson of the day was from Mark 7, the account of Jesus healing the deaf man at the Sea of Galilee. As the cantata turns from corporate to personal praise, the soprano and tenor soloists join the voices that witnessed Jesus’s miracle proclaiming the goodness of his deeds, and the glory of God. The cheerful tenor aria is delightfully score for recorder and Oboe da caccia. Listen for the extended line that Bach writes for the word erzähle or “declare”, and like the man whose tongue Jesus loosed, the tenor promises a “Gott gefällig Singen durch die frohe Lippen” or a “God pleasing singing though joyful lips.”

With the following alto recit, we turn inward to remember our human frailty and shortcomings. With further reminder of the Gospel lesson, the alto calls on God to utter his mighty ‘Ephphata’ just as Jesus did in Mark 7:34. From the singing of that Aramaic word meaning “Be opened”, the otherwise syllabic recitative opens to a lovely melody on the words, “so wird mein Mund voll Dankens sein!” “ Then my mouth will be full of thanks!”

The bass aria which follows affirms God as Redeemer and Protector. The believer, here the voice of the bass, pens himself to Christ’s Cross and Passion, pledging to praise at all times. In the same way that Christ gladly took up the cross, thereby exalting his Passion, we, too, will rejoice and sing praise in our own Cross-bearing and suffering. Note the stark contrast of the lines for Kreuz und Leiden (Cross and Suffering) with “singt mein Mund mit Freuden” (My mouth sings with joy).

The final Chorale echoes the close of Mark 7 proclaiming “He hath done all things well!” “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, darbei will ich verbleiben.” Because God holds me in a fatherly embrace in his arms, I will let him alone govern me. Confidence, assurance, affirmation, and ultimately, faith to live in freedom, and freedom to live by faith.  

Social Involvement

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  Of deep personal faith, and active social involvement.

On the front porch of our beloved Marsh Chapel stands John Wesley, preaching, who reminds us that there is no holiness save social holiness (repeat).  In the tradition which gave birth to Boston University and to Marsh Chapel and so to our worship on this and every Sunday, personal faith and social involvement go together, and, in truth, are not found, except hand in hand.

As all of our eight days of worship, teaching, fellowship and remembrance, in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have evinced among us, pistis and polis, faith and culture go together.   Here Bach may help us, if especially in the surge of beauty his music showers on us a sense of grace and in so doing gathers us as one.  The older Lutheran preference for the two kingdoms, Christ and Culture in paradox, is at some lesser closeness to the transformational aspiration in Wesley’s social holiness.  Yet Bach’s very vocational choice to embed himself in congregational musical life is itself a harbinger of transformation. More, the universal regard for the beauty of Bach itself places on the edge of a way forward, as a global village.

As Christian women and men, we are not free to celebrate faith apart from life, to affirm faith in ignorance of the polis, the city, the culture, the political.  The Bible itself is a 66-book declamation of social justice, at every turn, by every writer, with every chapter, at every point.   Moses, Amos, Micah, Matthew, Luke, Paul, All. Try and read the Bible without being confronted, accosted, seized and shaken by its fierce acclamation of the hope of justice.  Real religion is never very far from justice, even though justice alone, a crucial part of the Gospel, alone is not the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is love, which is more than justice—though not less.

You then, in real time, read the newspaper as well as the Bible.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about what you read.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the persons and personalities driving cultural and political formation. You also have reason and obligation to be concerned about the policies, speaking of polis, which emanate from those personalities and persons, those forms of rhetoric and language and behavior. You have full reason and obligation to be concerned about public good, about the polis, about the forms of culture and civil society across our land, painstakingly built up over 250 years, that are not government and not politics, but are more fundamental and more fragile than both.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the use of military force, either as Christian pacifists, or as Christian activists watching for the just war adjectives: responsive, multilateral, proportional, non-imperial, just, and limited.

As a runner, say, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the route itself.  Run with joy the race set, but neglect not to engage by precept and example the social support, the cultural forms required for the race.  The route. The roads cleared. The police. The first responders. The supporting cheerers. The rules and traditions. The many, thousands, standing by you, and standing with you, and standing for you.  Personal holiness is the run. Social holiness is the route. They go together.

Five years ago, today, we began Marathon Monday with our Marsh Chapel traditions.  The Dean’s breakfast. The meal of eggs, bacon, muffins and juice, with invitations to all undergraduates to arise before the race comes through Kenmore Square.  Music to sing, written in Boston long ago for a children’s choir,  “My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty”.  Longfellow cited, one if by land if two if by sea, and I on the opposite shore will be. The Gettysburg address recited, Fourscore and seven years ago. Then, out to the race and the day and the 26 mile family picnic on Boston’s best morning.  But as you know the day ended differently than planned, as our Wednesday April 11 remembrance this past week here at BU recalled.  Just recall the social involvement of those who expected to treat blisters and ended up placing tourniquets. Just recall the social involvement in the lives saved, hundreds saved, by prepared, well supported, team oriented hospitals and physicians.  Just recall your social involvement in the vigil that Tuesday evening on our plaza, the Wednesday evening worship service in our sanctuary, the Thursday morning service at the Cathedral with the President speaking words of grace, the Friday lock down.  Just recall the Monday global service for our own Lu Lingzi, which ended with her family, 18 together, bowing at the waist before the University and the world. Dime con quien corres, yo te dire quien eres.  You tell me WITH WHOM you run, and I will tell you who you are.

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  So, our song this Lord’s day, is just this:

Ah, would that I had a thousand tongues!

Ah, would that my mouth were

Empty of idle words!
 Ah, would that I said nothing other

Than what was geared to God’s praise!

Then I would proclaim the Highest’s goodness,

For all my life he has done so much for me

That I cannot thank Him in all eternity.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. &  Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

 

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