The Bach Experience

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James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Those who have paused, here, or now, to worship with us at Marsh Chapel in the last decade, are aware that we lift the Gospel, come Cantata Sundays, in word and music, together, juntos, in harmony.

Bach brings us the reach of beauty around the globe, a global sphere of orientation.  Bach brings us a stretch toward the universal, the reach up and out to what fully lasts, truly matters, and really counts.  Bach brings us an artistic angle of vision, rooted in Scripture and in an earlier Lutheran garden, nonetheless known by heart and in the heart, far and near, with those, today you and me, who will pause for the offering of the gift of faith.  Bach brings us beauty, a paean for sure to the true and the good, but no avoidance of the beautiful.  In our time, this hour, especially this week, we can truly appreciate, benefit from such a global orientation, a high universal reach, a feeling in faith, and the bathing of such beauty.

Given the maelstrom of this moment in our current culture, the wind blasts of charge and counter charge, the examples of courage and also the instances of failures in courage, near and far, we, come Sunday, maybe especially this Sunday, look for the God who is a rock in a weary land.  Said Dr. Emilie Townes, last Tuesday, ‘we want to cultivate a vibrant community of hope… we hope to beget an ever more piercing faithfulness’.  An ever more piercing faithfulness.

Today we receive the gift in memory of the faith of the church, and we give ear to the beauty of our first Bach Cantata of the year.  We are truly ‘blessed’ as our Gospel affirms.  All the senses—sight, sound, scent, touch, taste—are enlivened today.

This is truly good news, especially for those who may be in mortal need of a living reminder, as the Scritpure says, that we are ‘children of God’.  For we can sometimes acutely need such a reminder of belonging, meaning and empowerment.  We are acquainted with the night.  You are acquainted with the night.  As our New England poet memorably put it:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

 

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

 

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

 

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

O luminary clock against the sky

 

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.  

To such acquaintance does our worship this morning minister, and our affirmations of faith, and the beauty of Bach.  Tell us, if you will Dr. Jarrett, how best we can listen for the gospel today, in and within this marvelous cantata.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Today’s cantata represents a high water mark in the Baroque expression of the anxious tortured soul. Bach surpasses himself in each movement of this musical essay, a sermon-in-song. From the outset, the scope of the opening chorus presents a people in supplication – a people yearning for mercy in the countenance of God’s promised judgment. Presented in two contrasting sections, the opening chorus depicts the many facets of our anxiety. After a pleading alto recitative, the soprano aria gives pitch and rhythm to our angst in the form of trembling sixteenth notes in the upper strings. The foundational voice of the continuo silenced for this movement,  the soprano and oboe are left to wander alone. The voice of wisdom and New Covenant in Christ’s Cup consoles and comforts in the baritone recitative which follows. The sixteenth notes here take on a caring and supporting motive. Drawing on the security of promised Redemption heard in the baritone recitative, the voice of the tenor with obligato horn professes a confident assurance. The cantata concludes with the expected chorale setting. The trembling sixteenth notes of the soprano aria reappear, but as the chorale proceeds, phrase by phrase the trembling anxiety is calmed – sixteenths become triplets, triplets yield to duples, until their final concluding quarter notes – Indeed Bach’s musical signature of promised redemption and divine grace.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

This moment:  in word and worship, in memory and hope, in voice and instrument.  We are blessed.  We are recalled as children of God: who enter the kingdom of heaven and receive comfort in mourning, and gentle the earth, and crave goodness, and trade in mercy, and see divine grace, and pave with justice the path of peace, and see out to the far side of hardship.  Said Howard Thurman, ‘Come Sunday the church says to one and all, the church says to you:  you are a child of the living God, you are a child of the living God, you are a child of the living God.

We gather our bits of hard won wisdom:  ‘The only way of achieving any degree of self-understanding is by systematically retracing our steps’. ‘One can know fully only what one has oneself made.’ ‘I was once a philosopher, but joy kept breaking in.’ ‘What we borrow, we also bend.’ ‘To surrender the actual experienced good for a possible ideal good is the struggle.’

Somewhere, sometime, it may be, you will find yourself in receipt of the gift of faith.  It may be a faith recounted in the Niceaen creed.  But it also may be faith as simple, and pure, and true, as the courage to be, the real courage to be.  To be and speak.  To speak and bear witness.  To bear witness, for all the dangers about, and to tell the truth.  To tell the truth, and to get up again the next day.   Your restoration in faith may be as Lutheran and Scriptural as the substitutionary atonement of tradition, ‘the sacrificial death that wipes out guilt’.   Or it may be faith shorn of religious clothing, clean and clear: ‘a courage welling up from a deep and hidden place’ (Senator Blumenthal quoting Senator Graham, from Graham’s book about work with brave witnesses as a lawyer with sex crimes (9/27/18).   Either way, you have, say today, a restoration in faith.  Faith you can remember, return to be, rely on, when faith, being faith, is, finally all you have left.  Receive the gift of faith in music and word this Lord’s Day.

Then go and live!

As one said: ‘I have only just a minute, 
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it,
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute’.
But eternity is in it.’

Our music sings it so:

Now, I know, You shall quiet in me

my conscience which gnaws at me.

Your faithful love will fulfill

what You Yourself have said:

that upon this wide earth

no one shall be lost,

rather shall live forever,

if only he is filled with faith.

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music.

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