The Bach Experience

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Mark 13: 1-8

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

The passage today from St Mark is sometimes called the ‘Little Apocalypse’. The reading is another place in the Gospel where and when we overhear the troubles of Mark’s community. They face persecution. In facing trouble, they wonder whether the end of time has come.

The Gospel writer records the Lord’s response that ‘the end is not yet’. The rest of this long chapter, which will include some apocalyptic language and imagery from the first century, continues to make the same point. The end is not here. There may be trouble, trauma, and persecution, but the end is not quite yet here. In end, at the end of Mark 13, we will be counseled that no one can see the future, and that we should therefore be watchful.

Herein, Mark 13, we are reminded of what we have heard from Mark through the past year, now brought to a sort of conclusion.  Jesus ‘expected the end of all things imminently, or at least within a generation of his own lifetime’ (J Marcus, 864).   Oddly, this chapter begins with a traditional listing of signs that will precede such an end.  Yet when we come to the end of Mark 13, the end of the end of the end of things, as it were, the opposite view is presented, that the end, like most if not all endings, will come without warning, suddenly, unexpectedly, and so on.  Further, the ongoing fear or pain of persecution in Mark’s community bubbles up in this chapter, beginning to end.  ‘Cognitive dissonance’, in our beloved Peter Berger’s phrase, oozes out of every nook and cranny.  As do the references to Daniel– take ‘Son of Man’ to stand for many.  Mark knew his Hebrew Scripture, or so it appears.  He also appears to have had some preaching competitors, whom he is quoting to discredit; when you hear of…That said, Mark is using standard eschatological language and imagery, right out of central apocalyptic casting, traditional, customary in his time, if utterly baffling and odd in ours.

At home, listening, ready it may be for the beauty today of the Bach, you may wonder what on earth or under the earth any of this matters, and fair enough.  Yet it mattered to the early Christians, big league.  It mattered to them that there was meaning in and beyond their suffering.  It mattered that the momentous changes of their time—religion destroyed in the fall of the temple, say—were endurable and surmountable.  It mattered that the good news of God’s love, in the end, by gospel teaching, prevails, over against all manner of other endings.  These things matter to us as well.  Further, Mark, as Paul, is unafraid to metaphorize using birth pangs, labor pain, to convey both the reality of hurt and the joy of impending new life.  These men wrote of what they did not know, but, truly, they told the truth.

Taken as whole, the New Testament books, while shot through with apocalyptic language and imagery, like that found in here Mark 13, expectations of the end of time current at the time the books were written, these books bring their own slant, their own perspective to inherited apocalyptic thought. Some adopt that thought. Some discard it. The Gospel of Mark adopts it. The Gospel of John discards it.

In its place, in the main, the New Testament books proclaim a way of living in thanksgiving, a way of living in love. In our day, and in our particular part of history, including these past several months with their own troubles and their own trauma, we may want to take a clear reminder with us of thanksgiving, of love. ‘Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’.

That is, in much of this, the Gospel lesson is not that different from the reading from Hebrews, where we are similarly encouraged to be gentle, thankful, loving, and watchful. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”. A remarkable, beautiful admonition.

In the end, coming to the end, when all is said and done: Plan for the worst.  Hope for the best.  Then do your most.  And leave all the rest.

Live with thanksgiving as the harvest draws near.  Harvest with love as thanksgiving draws near.  Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice, and give thanks for others, for people, for a bounty of people, for a thanksgiving of soulful people, as our friend Max Coots wrote:

“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”

(Max Coots)

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.  Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen this morning to this morning’s wonderful cantata?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Thank you, Dean Hill. This morning’s cantata is a musical reflection on verse from the 19th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem with waves of palm branches and loud Hosannas, but already he observes the reaction of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and prophesies God’s anger that they have not recognized God’s grace. His despair boils over to anger in the following verse when he overturns the vendors tables in the Temple. Bach and his librettist have created in Cantata 46 a masterpiece in miniature that connects the modern day congregant to the people of Jerusalem who did not recognize the grace of God. We are reminded that our own sin gets in the way of our ability to love and accept God’s grace. As a consolation, we are reminding in the alto aria that even as Jesus punishes, he watches over his faithful as sheep and little chicks.

The cantata opens with a verse from Lamentations: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow, like unto my sorry; for the Lord hath afflicted me with great misery in the day of his wrath.” These verses depict Jesus’s anguish and prophesy of judgement from the Luke text. This opening movement is structured neatly in two halves: a low lament with weeping triads for the singers, followed by a gnarled fugue that depicts both our misery and God’s wrath. Bach thought so highly of this music that he used it to fashion the Qui Tollis of the B Minor Mass compiled a decade later.

The two arias that form the corpus of the cantata are for bass and alto, respectively, and both draw on images from nature to state their case. In the first aria, heralded by a trumpet, the bass sings of the brewing storm clouds that are the harbinger of God’s judgement. Listen for the lighting breaking through the clouds both in the marvelous melisma for the bass but also the virtuosic scales darting around the orchestra.

For the reminder of Jesus’s protection of the faithful, the threat of bad weather is momentarily quelled. Silent are the strings of the orchestra; silent too is the continuo group. Taking over a lonely walking bass of a continuo line are two oboes da caccia playing in unison, as two gentle recorders  ruminate on the theme. At the end of the end, Bach takes one more opportunity to remind us of gathering storms when we are reminded that when storms reward sinners, Jesus helps the faithful to dwell securely.

The final chorale reminds us of the language from the opening movement, but here it is Jesus’s passion that calms the storm.

This presentation of Cantata 46 concludes Marsh Chapel’s survey of cantatas written in the summer of 1723, weeks marked by astonishing displays of Bach’s theological and musical wonders. What a gift they must have been to Leipzig congregants as they are us to us today.   

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

         To conclude our sermon today, as is our tradition at Marsh Chapel in this season, we offer Howard Thurman’s magnificent Thanksgiving prayer.  We offer his prayer in devotion to God, in the moment.  We offer his prayer in gratitude to you, especially you who may be looking for a prayer for Thursday at dinner time:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

 

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

 

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

 

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

 

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

 

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

 

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart. 

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

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

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