January 31

Bach and Benevolence

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the sermon only.

RAH: Is that you again, Dr Jarrett?

SAJ: Oui, c’est moi, or I suppose I should say today, Ja, ich bins, Herr Professor Doktor Hill.

RAH: If it isn’t my old friend and Bach dialogue partner, my colleague and director of music, my talented and personally gifted musical guide, Dr Jarrett.

SAJ: He’s around here somewhere . . .

RAH: So, for the third time this year, we announce the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and song, by radio and internet, in person and in prayer, as upon a cold winter Sunday we are warmed by Bach and Benevolence. This cantata is about benevolence, is it not?

SAJ: Well it’s certainly benevolent of you to say so.

RAH: Quite so! You know, flying for a Bach moment at fifty thousand feet, benevolence very much fits our gospel and our cantata today. I mean from the heights, from the sky, as well as in the depths and on the ground, as soon we shall see.

SAJ: With all due respect, Dean Hill, you lost me at fifty thousand feet. Sky? Heights?

RAH: Well, let me back up. For one thing, we teach our students at the Boston University School of Theology, the oldest Methodist theological school in the country, and by many accounts the finest too—pardon me while I check my humility meter—we teach them that sermon design is crucial and one design or form a sermon may take is that of a dialogue.

SAJ: Ah, yes, the example teaches. Exemplum Docet. A dialogue – sermon? This is one.

RAH: Precariously. I mean precisely.

SAJ: Okay, but what about sky and height?

RAH: Well, a sermon announces good news. It is gospel. And at its height, here today, Bach’s cantata announces, we hope, through the very humble ministrations of two very human beings, good news, glad tidings, you might say a word of benevolence.

SAJ: I see. The music helps us soar, helps us climb, helps us find clarity?

RAH: Precariously. I mean precisely. A couple of Saturdays ago I had the sermon written and some time free so I walked down to the Boston Public Library. I love just to sit in that open, gracious reading room. For some reason I found myself standing next to an Encyclopedia of the Reformation.

SAJ: Indeed, the Lord worketh wonders.

RAH: Exactamente. It was a serendipitous intersection of a reader and book. I opened to the chapter on Martin Luther. In the quiet of the room, under the spell of a grand architecture, with the remembrances in history brought up to that place, with the pull of the spirit tide of life, I was told again his story and his faith. His story of anguish is known, if not well. His resolution and resolve we only know through our own anguish, if at all. By grace, through faith we are made whole. By grace. Through faith. Alone, we are healed. It is God’s grace gift—invisible, immediate, gracious, lovely—by which we are saved. Benevolence, you could call it. You cannot earn salvation. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. It is this benevolence of which the Bach cantatas sing, is it not?

SAJ: Yes. For sure. This gift of grace to us, and the way in which we ought to freely offer it to one another is our subject. Bach extends this theme far deeper than choice of text. In today’s cantata, note the delicate instrumentation. There are no trumpets or drums today – not even flutes – today we have, as Bach called them, flauti dolce – or recorders. They impart a kind of sweetness and a delicacy, even fragility. So before we reach cruising altitude and consider the text, you are right, there is a benevolence – a gentle meekness – immediately present before the voices even enter.

RAH: But what about the text? There is another, strong and unusual sense of benevolence present to us today, is there not, Scott?

SAJ: Yes, and this is the sense of service to the needy, benevolence of a more human kind, good will in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Our cantata today, ‘Break your bread for the hungry’, is one of only a handful with a specific call to social justice. Bach likely would have balked at our modern term ‘social justice’ preferring instead something like, Christian responsibility. You mentioned Luther earlier, and most of our Cantatas are imbued with a heavy, heady dose of Reformation style dogma – a doctrine concerned almost exclusively with our own soul’s future and personal salvation. Today, we have musical rumination on the Isaiah injunction to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give shelter to those without.

RAH: I don’t suppose you’d like to give us any clues of what to listen for, would you?

SAJ: As a matter of fact, I was waiting for the invitation. First, notice the meekness of the opening choral movement – it’s almost as if Bach knows how difficult these acts of grace to one another can be – we approach with reticence, fear of the unknown or the other perhaps, and gradually find ourselves open to warmed by the simple act of granting grace, by Christ’s example, and in his shadow. You’ll hear this shift from anxiety to eager, nervous energy in the first movement. And if I may, Dean, just to go a little further. . . . the arias seem to bathe in the joy of Christian mercy – how good it is to serve one another, do justice, love kindness and walk humbly. In the first aria, notice how the two solo instruments imitate and mirror one another – just as the text depicts our own lives attempting to follow or mirror Christ’s life – breaking bread, praying, giving and receiving love – all in the shadow of Christ. The central movement is the only moment in the cantata in which Bach’s severe and preacherly index finger extends. Craig Smith, the late founder of Emmanuel Music here in Boston, once described this aria as a splash of cold water. But this admonishment lasts only a moment, and we return to the winsome recorders in the “benevolent” soprano aria, “Highest, what I have is your gift.”

RAH: You know, Scott, you and I have talked some about the relationship between spirit and society, religion and life, Christ and culture. Spiritual reformation and religious transformation, of a lasting sort, depends upon and forges a cultural reformation and a secular transformation. The word of the gospel is embedded in the music of the streets.

SAJ: Certainly that was true of Bach’s self-understanding and intention. That is what makes our setting in the heart of Boston, and our presence by radio in the heart and hearths of New England such a happy and challenging spot.

RAH: If I remember right, there is something of a dispute about whether Bach was more secular or more sacred in his inclination, whether he wrote the church music because he had to or because he wanted to. You probably know more about that.

SAJ: That’s a good set-up for next time.

RAH: But in either case, whether or not ‘the focus of his emotional life was undoubtedly in religion, and in the service of religion through music’, still his dual citizenship in church in society—however balanced—shows this same dance between cultural reformation and spiritual transformation. It means that the Christian walk may start on Sunday in Marsh Chapel, but it proceeds down the mall of Commonwealth Avenue, and necessarily continues along Massachusetts Avenue, and up Huntingdon Avenue—from Chapel to Garden to Symphony to Theater….

SAJ:…to lunch!

RAH: Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth took him and his congregation out into the town and the fields all around, as they wrestled and struggled with its interpretation. I suppose in this, they were themselves early reformers. ‘The performance of an
y God-pleasing vocation is the service of God…all beauty, including secular beauty is sacred because God is One, both Creator and Redeemer’ (J Pelikan, 139). The gospel is a call to a combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement:

SAJ: ‘That which has been believed always and everywhere by everyone’ (J Wesley)

RAH: ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’ (J Wesley)

SAJ: ‘Do all the good you can, at all the times you can’

RAH: ‘in all the ways you can and all the places you can’

SAJ: ‘to all the people you can’

RAH&SAJ;: ‘as long as ever you can. Amen.’

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel Choir

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