Sunday
September 29

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

Luke 16:19-31

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Exegesis

The beauty of the music this morning is itself a sort of baptism.  We sometimes long to take a spiritual shower, to bathe ourselves in the living waters of grace, faith, hope, life, and love.   Especially, it might be stressed, on any college campus today, the need for spiritual cleansing in the midst of sub cultural murkiness, is continual.  We need both judgment and mercy, both honesty and kindness, both prophetic upbraid and parabolic uplift.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke.

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  BUT.  NONETHELESS. AND YET.  These are resurrection words.  BUT. NONETHELESS. NEVERTHELESS.  STILL.  EVEN SO.  And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.  Or was.

In this season of cultural demise and decay across our country, we benefit from the harsh challenge of Luke, and we benefit from the hopeful promise in Jeremiah.  You see there is more Luke in Jeremiah than at first you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than at first you think.

Sin is not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness. Sin is the not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness.   Of all the Gospels, St. Luke most emphasizes this:  in the sermon on the plain; in the wording of the Lord’s prayer; in the parables of Sower, Samaritan, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, Dishonest Steward, Guests to the Wedding Banquet, the 10 healed Lepers; in the communal interest extended to Samaritans (those of different ethnic and religious background), to women (those whom tradition has marginalized), to the poor (those left forgotten in transaction and acquisition, to the lepers (those ritually and culturally excluded).  To read Luke is to be given eyes to see by contrast abroad in America today an emerging culture of denigration–denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans–and to weep.  It is not enough, though it is true enough, to blame this almost exclusively on one particular candidate and one particular party. (repeat).  No, the mirror is held up for us all, for all of us in some measure have contributed to a culture that is uncultured, a rhetoric that is rancorous, a politics that is impolitic, an increasingly uncivil civil society, a rejection of hard-won experience and preparation in favor of careless entertainment and tomfoolery, a preference for cruelty over beauty, and a robust willingness to throw away hundreds of years of painstakingly crafted institutional commitments and social norms. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Will Lincoln’s proverb hold in our time? You may well hope so, though you may well doubt so.  I doubt it.  Finally, as Jeremiah looks upon Zedekiah, we confess, we get the leaders we deserve.

More personally, in the Methodist tradition which built Boston University, other than worship and the study of Scripture, the most cherished practice of faith is tithing:  annually giving away 10% of what you earn.  The reason for the centrality of tithing—today, sadly, honored largely in the breach, even in Methodism, now, to our shame—is set for us in today’s harsh parable of Lazarus and Dives, the harrowing horror of what it means to forget the needs of the poor.  Such forgetfulness is a persistent threat in the heart of all human life, but is especially challenging for those who have much, and so are sheltered, routinely, from the anxiety of poverty, the hurt of exclusion, the pain of hunger, and the despair of lack and loss.   Sin is the unwillingness on a weekly basis to practice generous kindness, to tithe.  Luke reminds us so.

And Jeremiah?  Now that his beloved country is in ruins (are we beginning across our own cultural landscape to catch a glimpse of his woe?), Jeremiah does something great.  Remember:  the city is burned, the temple is wrecked, the population is slaughtered or in chains, and the nation is destroyed, soon to spend two generations in Babylon, by the rivers of Babylon, where to sit down and weep, as tormentors mock, ‘sing to us one of the songs of Zion’.  But Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  That is why, as darkness is falling across a confused, frightened, and benighted land, you have done some things this year.  You offered a morning prayer.  Good for you.  You sent a check to support some leader or candidate.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls. Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  It may not.  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.  Go and buy your little plot of land.

Explanation

For more than a decade, Music at Marsh Chapel has cultivated our own little plot of land – the rich and fertile soil of the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The endeavor around the recreation of this extraordinary repertoire by our players and singers is its own form activism, faith, tithe, and over time and shared commitment, Jeremiah might even behold restoration.

This year’s cantata series explores four works Bach composed for New Year’s Day. At the highest altitude, these are joyful and celebratory cantatas — at least in the outer movements. To be sure, the inner movements can be counted on to remind us of our sin at some point. Today’s cantata – No. 41 ‘Jesu, nun sei gepreiset’ or Jesus, now be praised, numbers among the great Chorale Cantatas from Bach’s second annual cycle of cantatas in Leipzig. In these remarkable works, the great hymns of the faith – Chorales – are the Alpha and Omega. Today’s cantata sets the outer verses of Johann Herman’s 1593 text exactly in the opening and closing movements, while paraphrasing the inner verse of the chorale in the arias and recitatives within the cantata.

The passing of the old year and the welcoming of the New Year takes on various dimensions for each of us, and for Bach and his congregation, they were reminded that as the Old Year is analogous to the Old Testament, the New Year reveals the hope of resurrection from the New Testament — Law and Grace. And perhaps a more obvious temporal analogy, our mortal life on earth is the old year that passes, and the New Year represents our hopes for the life eternal. For this reason, the central text offers a prayer for mercy and salvation upon the believer’s death. Finally, the bass soloist reminds us that this mortal life is constantly thwarted and threatened by Satan’s works, potentially jeopardizing our hope for life in eternity, the New Year of our soul.

Musically, this cantata is extraordinarily rich in invention and detail from the first measure to the last. For the central aria, our principal cellist Guy Fishman plays a five-stringed cello called a Cello Piccolo with music that seems to depict our earthly toil in sincere and honest strains of remarkable difficulty. And the joyful soprano aria heard immediately following the opening choral movement features dance rhythms and a choir of merry oboes.

However, nothing can sufficiently prepare the listener for the glorious opening movement. The chorale is faithfully rendered in long tones in the soprano part with truly astonishing invention all around. Here Bach gives us bold concertante writing in the latest style (think New Year) with the final two lines set in the old contrapuntal or fugal style, before recasting those lines to the new music. Truly a dialectic of old and new styles transformed by their relation to one another.

As academic communities at schools and colleges throughout the country commence a new year this month, they too engage in this dialectic of the hope of new beginnings forged in the knowledge and wisdom of those who have gone before. And of those who have gone before, few surpass Bach’s capacity to reveal new heights and hopes for our daily strivings and our future together.

Application

You may want and need to shift your perspective, to alter your angle of vision, to see things from even higher ground.  Some measure of health or salvation, or mental sanitation may require it.

The Matterhorn is the most beautiful mountain on our planet.  Today, the beautiful, tomorrow, the true, the next day, the good.  An excellent view of the majestic Alpine peak may be found in Zermatt.  If and as memory serves, you can drive to Zermatt—rent an old deux chaveaux—a pristine Alpine village, snow laden in the summer, its shops and hostels wind swept and well kept.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship. The Matterhorn!  Just before you.

There is, though, a better view, for which though you will need to shift your perspective, to alter your angel of vision, to change your location, in order to see things from even higher ground.  High up to the southeast, in the craggy mountain cliffs, there is, farther up, the small hamlet of Gornergrat.  To get up there, if memory serves, you must take an open air, chair by chair, chain rail car, ascending at 45 degrees, up and up, and on up, nearer to the summit, and far closer to your ideal, aspirational vies of beauty.  Or truth.  Or goodness.  Acrophobics need not apply.

The ride is short but terrifying.  At the top, mid-July, thick snow, hard ice, brisk wind and a coldness of cold await you.  As does the mesmerizing thrall of the mountain.  The Matterhorn.  Step gingerly out of the old open rail car.  Get your footing, your mountain sea legs.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  There.  A new way of seeing, and so of thinking, and so, then of being.  Health and sanity may impel or compel you to higher ground.

My sixteenth book will be published this fall, a collection devoted in part to the New Testament, in part to preaching, and in part to ministry—Bible, Church, World as we in the halcyon younger days of the World Council of Churches intoned.  None of the sixteen is a best seller, none a game changer, none found in every home.  All but two are still in print, and several in both print and cyber forms.  They are the work of Zermatt.  Fine.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship.  The Matterhorn!  Just before you.  But.  But.  But.

As an acrophobe the rail car ride up is not appealing.  But it is time for me to move on up, to take higher ground, to climb on to Gornergrat.  Ice.  Snow. Cold. Wind.  That means the prospect of one more, a very different book, for a very different look.  A different look takes a different book.  It will be, here, for me, the work of the next decade, in pulpit and study.  As you cannot get to Gornergrat but through Zermatt, this project depends in full on all that came before:  books on the New Testament (John), on preaching (Interpretation), and on ministry (prayer and practice).  The next climb is up on to craggy cliff village—ice, snow, cold, wind—of an overture to A Liberal Biblical Theology.   Here is a marriage of Rudolph Bultmann and N.T. Wright., a partnership of Paul Tillich and (the early) Karl Barth, an aspirational possibilist (that is Methodist) correlation of history and theology, Bible and Church, accessible to the average reader.  Our climate, nation, and denomination, all in peril, hang in the balance.

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