The Bach Experience

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Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

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One

Our two readings, Philippians 3 and John 12, confront us with the ranges of reality in loyalty and mortality. Philippians is about loyalty.  John is about mortality. In the blurr of activities, come Sunday, in Christ, one is accosted by loyalty and mortality, through whom, in Christ, ‘we become like him’.

That is, two very different readings from Scripture greet us this Sunday morning.  One describes loyalty. The other evokes mortality. Both are good news, and each story amplifies and explicates the other.   For you this morning, the lesson and the gospel raise a mortal question about your forms of loyalty, and a loyal question about your sense of mortality.  A hymn of love and a reminder of death are somewhere, somehow buried in every sermon and every service of worship. In decisions about loyalty and in the encroachment of mortality, we become like Him:  Jesus Christ, the loyalty of God; Jesus Christ, the mortality of the human being.

There is today a tendency to minimize Paul’s change of allegiance, as expressed in Philippians 3, and elsewhere.   So this scholarly trend would argue: Paul did not really distance himself from his earlier religious expression. Paul did not really reject his mother tongue, mother land, mother religion.  Paul did not expressly depart from the eighth day, the tribe, the law. Paul did not really intend to step aside from his inheritance. Paul was born loyal and died loyal, and his loyalty at birth and death were of a piece.  I suppose that scholarly trends, like fashion, move in and out of vogue, for and with some regularity. Certainly, the work of these mentioned scholars, and that of many others, reminding us of the depth and breadth of background to the letters of the APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), carry much of importance.  Still, there is the little matter of…rubbish.

Paul calls his inheritance rubbish.  SKUBALA. It is a remarkable Greek word, whose force you can hear in its simple repetition.  SKUBALA. Rubbish. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish.   It will not do to muffle Paul’s apocalyptic sense of loyalty.  In fact, much of the work of late that tries to do so ends up representing a view of Paul that is much more akin to the views of his opponents than to those of Paul himself.  But what of the particular inheritance, yours and mine and Paul’s? What of our particular, idiosyncratic, experiences and cultures and hues? In Paul’s case, what of circumcision, of covenant, of history, of torah, of valiant duty past?  I regard them as…SKUBALA.   We may wish Paul had been more temperate.  He was not. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings an apocalyptic, cataclysmic, sea change in the fount of loyalty.  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  

Across town, across the Scripture that is, and in the heart of the Fourth Gospel, meanwhile, we are engaged by another story.  Now mortality, not loyalty, addresses us. If there is a richer set of eight verses in the entire New Testament than John 12: 1-8, honestly, where would you find it?  Here is the Passover, the third in the fourth Gospel. Here too is Bethany, site of earlier astonishment. Here is Lazarus, who emerged from a tomb, covered with bandages, odorous and squinting.  Martha, of serving fame, and Mary, of praying memory, are here, too. A year’s wages are here poured out on feet, feet of course being of sacramental power in this Gospel, as we saw two weeks ago.  There is fragrance, the fragrant scent of perfume poured on holy feet, perfume dried in loving hands, perfume gathered on the hairs of the head. An astounding scene, already, but there is more. In comes Judas Iscariot.  There arises an argument about money, surely not the last religious argument about money. The poor and the present are set against each other, surely not the last religious argument about the good and beautiful. And then a dominical pronouncement:  keep it for the day of my burial.  After so many visual, audible, tactile, olfactory and savory images, we are sensorially exhausted and ready for  a nap. These images share a common trait. They evoke mortality.

The Passover is the scene of death.  Lazarus was raised from death. Mary has a premonition of death.  Martha and Mary pleaded with Jesus about death. Judas Iscariot is the agent of death.  The plight of the poor is mentioned to avoid a confrontation with death. The perfume is a symbol of anointing at death.  If there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—and it is not clear that there is anything more significant in Scripture than justice—but if there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—it is mortality.  Our gospel lesson this morning pulls out every stop to evoke mortality.

Reminders of mortality, like attendance in worship itself, which is one such reminder on a weekly basis, may make us squirm.  We have a way of thinking that death happens always to somebody else. We find ways to change the channel. In the last few years we have become experts at changing the channel.  Think for a minute about deaths in this country, over the last decade, due to gun violence. Diminishment to a part of the gentle hope, for a real spiritual culture and community, across this land, in our time.  Harm to some of the soaring ideals of a young republic, now seen from abroad as a pre-emptive behemoth. Defeat to a part of the great dream of those who built the United Nations. Yes, reminders of death make us squirm.

Dr. Jarrett, how does the music of Bach, aid us in our meditation this morning?

Two

Bach’s point of departure tells another story of mortality and promise of awakening – of Resurrection. Luke Chapter 7 finds Jesus traveling to the town of Nain where he encounters a funeral procession. Moved by the mother’s grief, he calls for the dead man to rise from his funeral bier.

Cantata 8 was written a little more than a year after Bach began to work in Leipzig, placing our cantata in the second cycle of cantatas, the year of the Chorale cantatas. The chorale on the which the cantats is based is Caspar Neumann’s familiar “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” The 1710 melody is feature in the first and last movement, though treated slightly differently in each instance.

The cantata in concerned with mortality, and specifically, the hour of our final moment. We await the ticking clock toward the chime of our own funeral bells. In 18th century Leipzig, parishioners were notified of the death of a member of their community by 24 tolls from the tower bell.

In the opening movement, Bach creates an extraordinary Leichenglocken – funeral bells – using string pizzicatos, the wheels and sprockets of the interior mechanism of the clock, the two oboes d’amore chasing each other as the hands of the clock, and finally the flute tolling exactly 24 repeated pitches, punctuating and “chiming” throughout the movement. All of this extraordinary music accompanies the eight phrases of Bach’s setting of the Neumann chorale.

The clock continues to tick as the cantata turns inward for the first aria. The tenor takes up the strain with oboe obliggato. Typically when Bach wishes to call attention to a particular word or concept, he employs extended melisma. In this aria, note the treatment of the verb “schlägt” describing the striking of the final hour. Similarly, the place of rest – Ruhstatt – finds repose on a long, sustained pitch.

Fear, anxiety, worry are all dashed when the baritone steps forward to sing a gigue, reminding us that it is through Christ Jesus that we are called to new life and transformation. The flute’s somber tolling from the opening movement is transformed to the dance rhythms and melody’s of the baritone’s gigue. When the chorale returns in the final movement, it comes with confidence in full stride: Help me earn an honest grave next to godly Christian folk, and finally covered by earth never more be confounded!

Three

Loyalty and mortality…

Let us return to loyalty for a moment.

In Philippians, our APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), has now stated for us the force and source of loyalty in Jesus Christ, as he does with equal power in Galatians 2 and Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith.  (The loyalty of Christ, the righteousness of God based on Christ’s loyalty.)   Paul has been found in a new life.  His earlier code and covenant have come to an end.  They are set aside. They are good and true and beautiful, but not by comparison with the truly good and the beautifully true and the divinely beautiful.  It is the loyalty of Christ to which Paul sings his hymn of praise as read this morning. The rendering of these verses depends upon a reading of the phrase, ‘faith..Christ’ as first in reference to Christ’s own faith, by which in faith Paul and we are ‘owned’.  It may be that Paul has written these words in prison, and it may be that these words from prison were written at the end of his life. He will have had, as we do on some days, and Sundays, a clear sense of the fragility of life and its brevity.

So let us return to mortality for a moment.  

The several marks of mortality set before us in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, are also reminders of divine love.  Lazarus evokes such love from Jesus that, in that shortest of verses, we are reminded, ‘Jesus wept’. Mary and Martha are the figures of serving and praying that we know so well in the teachings about disciplined love.  Judas is never portrayed as doing ill for the sake of doing harm, but is found to mistake some love for all love. Most strongly, the pouring of perfume in lavish expense is understood as the full fragrance of affection and love.  

Our readings today give us grace to live by faith.  We may want to consider, on a bright spring Sunday afternoon walk, the examples of abiding loyalty and loving mortality which we have known.  We are meant to ‘become like him’, and so we shall want to notice the forms of loyalty and limitation that are ever before us.

We may want to remember something of Josiah Royce, and his evocation of loyalty. You may recall from your own life and family experience, the example of a truly loyal friend.  You may recognize that sometimes lesser loyalties must be laid aside in the face of greater loyalties. No one wants the lower lights to occlude the one great loyalty of life. You may recognize the difference, say, between asking forgiveness for a promise broken, and asking forgiveness for a promise that should never have been made in the first place, whether kept or broken.  We may deeply recognize the need we have to reclaim the language of remorse out of our religious traditions, so that we might walk again in newness of life, following Lenten confession.

We shall want to find and practice the forms of loyalty by which, and through which, we may dimly acknowledge our mortality.  Any pastor will tell you that young people live as if they were immortal, and not only young people. There is a youthful courage in this, but also a tragic risk.  We may want to recall the verses of Scripture that warn us about limits. Store ye not up treasure on earth where moth and rust consume…All flesh is grass, it withers and fades…Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire…The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…This night is your soul required of you…

Here is a potentially saving word.  It is the intimation of mortality that puts steel in the spine of our loyalty.  It is the practiced sacrifice of loyalty that gives us courage for the facing of the last things.  Where there is a sense of mortality there is a sense of loyalty. Where there is a preparation of loyalty there is a preparation for mortality.  The one inspires the other. (Where there is no inkling of mortality there is no spur to loyalty). Perhaps that is why, in the mystery of all things, and in the planning for Sunday readings, Philippians 3 and John 12 were yoked.  Think this lent about your lasting commitments. Think this lent about your limitations. And recall the hymn written next door, in the school of theology, by then Dean Earl Marlatt, singing of Jesus, a beacon to God, to love and loyalty…

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

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