In music and word, again this Lord’s Day, we worship Almighty God, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified. For ten years now in this manner, twice a term, we have sought to preach the good news and offer the gift of faith, a gift now offered to you, the hearer, you, the listener, by way of the confluence of music and word, chorus and sermon, Bach and Experience. To our knowledge, this sort of offering is sui generis, unique. A woman, say, listening today in southern New Hampshire, struggling to interpret hard news from North Carolina and Washington State, may hear us and the offering of faith. Faith in a recognition of the wonder of creation, God the Creator. Faith in a beginning step alongside the promise of baptism, God the Redeemer. Faith, to start, in the sudden exclamation by spirit—I exist! Here! Now!–, God the Sustainer.
Faith is a gift. In the gift of faith we find the courage to face death. Death makes us mortal. Facing death makes us human. In the gift of faith, we find the courage to face life. Life in all its turmoil, cacophony, and difficulty. To take another step. That may be all our listener in southern New Hampshire needs from the gift of faith today, as Sunday morning slips into Sunday afternoon, and the burdens of the rest of the day and the week to come. A sense of love, at the margins, a sense of possibility, though far off, a sense of promise, hidden but real. Baptism is a sign of the gift of faith, and faith is the courage to face death and life, to take another step, to walk ahead into the dark. Bach sings faith and Jeremiah speaks faith and we attempt to weave the two together.
Today’s cantata was composed by Bach for the Feast of St John observed in Leipzig on June 24 of 1724. The date makes Cantata 7 the third work composed in Bach’s second full cycle of cantatas for the church year. As we have come to expect from this particular cycle, many of these cantatas are closely connected to their chorale tunes, these tunes often appearing in the soprano part on long tones, directing and connecting the listener to the stories and teachings of the great hymns of the faith. Cantata 7 numbers among the important “chorale-cantatas” of this cycle, and draws compositional inspiration from Martin Luther’s 1541 hymn “Christ our Lord came to the Jordan.” Of the cantata’s seven movements, the first and last movements, sung by the choir, take their text directly from Luther, while the inner solo movements are paraphrased from Luther’s inner verses and attributed to Bach himself.
The story of John the Baptizer and of Jesus’s baptism is found in the third chapter of Matthew and Luke, and right away in the first chapter of Mark and John. These accounts mark the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth, and lead ultimately to his Passion and Resurrection. Each account bears the familiar imagery of water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the God from the opened Heavens declaring pride and pleasure in his only Son. When viewed together, the fullness of the Trinity is richly depicted in the Baptism story, and Christian teaching through these symbols is a clear public anointing and forecast of the teachings and purposes of Jesus in his earthly ministry.
If we look back just a few verses, and focus on John, we find similarities in these accounts as well. John is depicted as something of a wild, ruffian whose prophesies excite and call his audience to prepare for the one who will come and will purify the world by fire. This is the important connection for Bach as he sets out to write his musical sermon for the day.
Water imagery abounds throughout the cantata, bubbling, rippling, even crashing in what Craig Smith has called Bach’s La Mer. Throughout the cantata, the purity and clarity of the water is tinged and colored by the awareness that Jesus’s blood – that is to say, his Passion – transforms the water with the purifying zeal of the refiner’s fire. Let’s take a closer look.
The Cantata opens with a monumental, even epic, setting of the first verse of Luther’s hymn. You’ll find the chorale tune in long notes, not in the soprano part, but submerged in the tenor part with old-style polyphony in the other four parts all around. The vocal parts considered alone proceed with an austerity that reminds the listener to look up from the Jordan to the Cross. Musically, the remarkable material here is the freely composed instrumental ritornelli that open, close, and punctuate each of the nine phrases of the chorale tune. Our program annotator Brett Kostrzewski reminds us that Jesus’s arrival at the Jordan for baptism marks the onset of his adult ministry, and Baroque conventions provide a stately French overture with dotted and regal rhythms for any auspicious arrival. And so the cantata opens with strong French overture rhythms in the upper strings and oboes in a harmonic sequence that outlines the austere modal colors of the chorale tune. But one immediately hears the Jordan lapping at the hem of Jesus’s garment in the cello and bass figurations that support the upper material. This short and strict two bar phrase freezes harmonically as the violin soloist’s second theme figurations depict more churning of the purifying Jordan waters. The cello’s original motif is transferred to the upper supporting strings, further suspending progress. The overall effect is one of churning, expectation, even foreboding.
The three arias that comprise the corpus of the cantata paraphrase the inner verse of Luther’s hymn. In the first, sung without preparatory recitative, the bass calls every believer to baptism, not with water alone, but with the Word and Spirit of God. One imagines a good Methodist baptism in the sprinkling heard in the cheerful accompaniment. The central tenor recitative and aria connect all of the Gospel images with fiery virtuosity on full display from two solo violins and the bravura of the tenor part. The words of God in the moment of Jesus’s baptism are sung in the second half of the tenor recitative as if to provide full charge for the purification to come. The zeal of the aria’s opening imagery softens at the mention of the Dove. [Be careful – the German word for Dove (Taube) is only one letter away for the word for Baptism (Taufe).] The bass returns for a recitative that reminds us of Jesus’s call for his disciples to teach and baptize throughout the world. The words of Jesus are set in a manner the presages Bach’s musical treatment of the words of Jesus in the Matthew Passion with strings ‘halo-ing’ the text in red letters. The final aria for alto soloist begins notably without any introduction. To me, this underscores both the connection to Jesus’s commandment, but also creates a greater sense of urgency for this text. The message here is a direct exhortation of the purifying power of faith and baptism. The final movement is a standard four-part chorale, but the amount of theology packed into this verse is worth noting – here Luther connects everything: original Sin and our own inheritance of sin, the redemptive grace of Christ’s Passion, all forged by the purifying power of personal devotion, faith and baptism.
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.
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, as we said some weeks ago, 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. 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. 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 this fall 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 fall. 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 on his or her behalf. 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.
James Weldon Johnson gave us our marching orders, in words both of challenge and of hope, words that recognize straight-up what real harm can and has befallen people, especially his own people, and words that cling, even desperately, to a future, a future hope, something hoped for but not seen, and ever subject to neglect, amnesia, rejection, and defeat. Marsh Chapel’s own Max Miller gave us our accompaniment, as well, our marching beat, in music both of challenge and of hope, a hymnic cadence mindful of harm and aware of hope. May Johnsons’ words and Miller’s music, their Jeremiah 32, their Luke 16, guide us forward.
Behold a broken world, we pray, where want and war increase,
And grant us Lord, in this our day,
The ancient dream of peace.
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who hast brought us thus far along the way
Thou who hast by thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places our God where we met thee
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee
Shadowed beneath thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land
Bring Lord your better world to birth, your kingdom love’s domain
Where peace with God
And peace on earth
And peace eternal reign.
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