February 9

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

Matthew 5:13-20

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

In the reading and hearing of the day’s Scripture we are given a word of encouragement and a look to the future.

We can appreciate both the word and the look, surrounded as we are every day with the unexpected consequences of sin, the unexpected news of illness and death, and the unexpected threats that come from feelings of loss and meaninglessness.

Together we are followers of Jesus.  We may follow from a long way off, but we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.  Together we work to develop disciples, in the heart of the city and in the service of the city.   And being a disciple is a matter of the heart.   Coming to Jesus may not be a matter of a moment or a day.  It may not be caused by lightening or earthquake.  It may not be from a command that is as plain as the nose on your face.  But it is always a matter of the heart.

Now St Matthew has imagined for his church and for the church of all time a great scene. Followed by many, both disciples and future disciples, Jesus ascends a mountain.  Like John Brown ensconced in the Adirondacks, like Moses up on Mt. Nebo, like the Jewish heroes at Masada, Jesus takes to the high peak, and as is the custom, he sits to teach.  His words are as fresh and pure this morning as they have been for nearly 2000 years.

He offers us a word of encouragement and a look to the future.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.

The most striking feature of this utterance is that it is spoken to and for a community.  The you is plural—you all.  Or as it is said of the plural of you all in the south—all you all.  This is a word for the church, the body of Christ.  For you—for all you all.  You can be salt—but not on your own. You can be light—but not by yourself.  You can be a disciple of Christ—but not free-lance.  There are no free-lance Christians.  Jesus encourages the community of disciples.  And his images that follow are common:  a city, a house, all people.  That which banishes the darkness of fear and loneliness is light.  That which redeems the rotten blandness of selfishness is salt.  Light and salt are found in community.  The most striking feature of this teaching is that it is spoken to and for–a community.

The second most striking feature of this utterance is its breadth and depth.  You—all you all—are salt and light of—what?  Your mind? One family? A school or church or two? No.  You are the salt of the EARTH and the light of the WORLD.  Let your light shine before ALL HUMANS!  A community that is salt and light is deep and wide.  Our church is at the heart of Boston and heard around the world.  After all, this is a mountain top word.  It is meant for the whole community.  This is a word of encouragement and a look to the future, for a church at the heart of the community.  When we plan and dream at Marsh we try to think world-wide and a half century deep.

One of the winds beneath our wings comes from our music ministry.  Yes, at Christmas and Easter, on Communion Sundays, for special University services like Matriculation and Baccalaureate and Martin Luther King Sunday, but also, and notably so for us, on our twice a term Bach Sundays.  The word and music of these days keep us moving forward together, salt and light.

Dr. Jarrett, what should we listen for in our cantata this Lord’s day?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Well, just as you’ve predicted for us Dean Hill, today’s cantata as with our scripture lessons offers a word of encouragement and a look to the future. As we have in past surveys, we are studying and performing the works Bach wrote for a specific occasion – liturgical or temporal. This year surveys four cantatas Bach wrote for New Year’s Day. Cantata 16 – Herr Gott, dich loben wir, follows a now familiar path in both libretto and design. Bach’s librettist features from the outset an excerpt of the famous Te Deum hymn, known to have been sung at the start of the new year. In the opening movement, you’ll hear four lines from the Te Deum set like a chorale tune in long notes in the soprano part. The lower three parts have a much more active part that proceeds without instrumental breaks or interludes. All the vocal parts are doubled by a member of the orchestra, except the first violins have an entirely independent part adding a fifth voice to the otherwise four part texture.

The opening of the cantatas is of interest to me: it’s as if Bach begins in the third or fourth measure of the piece In material we would characterize as episodic. It’s as if a melody has already been played and we enter immediately into motivic development. Or, were it not for the episodic material, we might expect this to be a delicate aria accompanied by continue only.

Similarly the opening movement comes to a close somewhat suddenly without closing ritornello and on a half-cadence –a sense of a grand pause. A secco recitative ensues sung by the Bass, drawing us from the ancient hymn, sung throughout the centuries, to the present moment with none other than a word of encouragement and a look to the future: “What have you not done, O god, since time began for our Salvation? And how much does thy breast still perceive of thy love and faith? And should we not sing in fervent love? Therefore, a new song sing out!”

The old modal hymn that ambled along in the first movement, erupts into a joyful chorus in C major with full chorus in full acclamation: “God’s goodness and faith is renewed each morning.” A word of encouragement, a look to the future.

With the conclusion of this extended, tri-partite opening, we take inward turn. The alto steps forward to offer a prayer for God’s blessing in the new year, as he enjoins us to place our trust and faith in Christ Jesus. This is the first mention of Jesus in the cantata, and it parallels and invites the inward turn toward soul-searching and personal reflection. In such proximity to Jesus’s name day and presentation in the temple, the theological image of Jesus living in the hearts of all believers is close at hand: “Beloved Jesus, thou alone shall be my Soul’s wealth. We shall, therefore, before other riches enthrone Thee in our faithful Heart.”

Though this shift inward toward Jesus might seem late in the canata – the next to last movement – at seven minutes, this rumination balances the opening movements taken together. The aria itself is score for tenor, continuo, and either violetta or oboe da caccia. Though the music is written in 3-4 time, Bach confuses the meter and placement of the downbeat often enough, that the longer line. The Cantata concludes with a four part chorale setting Bach had used two days before to conclude Cantata 28.

So how do we account for this? Here we skate toward the thinner ice of speculation and conjecture,

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

But worship alone, even when shot through with glorious music as today, is not enough, alone,  for salt and light.   For love there need to be places to love one another.   Every Sunday morning here we host ten or so smaller groups.  Here is a morning study group.  Here is a circle of student interns.  Here is the Marsh choir.  Here is the Thurman choir.  Here is Take Note—take note!  Here is the intercessory prayer assembly, quiet before worship.  Here is a children’s room.  Here is a luncheon or coffee following worship.  Here is a Bible Study following worship.  Here is a mission group, Abolitionist Chapel.  Here is a group heading out to visit shut-ins and nursing home.  For salt not to lose its savor, and for light not to grow dim, there need to be places and spaces for nourishment.

This takes commitment.  It takes investment.  You cannot have that kind of fellowship or friendship in a six-week seminar.  It takes a lifetime of prayer and study and searching the Scriptures.

Now I know we have many of our own questions about the Bible, and they are good ones.  Did David write the Psalms?  Was Jesus born in December?  Does Paul condemn slavery in Philemon?  And so on.  Good for us.

But today somewhat beside the point.

Growth in Christ comes not from our questions about the Bible, but from the Bible’s questions about us.

*Have you reckoned with the shortness of life?  Psalm 90

*Have you lead a life worthy of God?  Ephesians 4

*Have you earnestly sought the higher gifts?  1 Cor 12

*Have you reckoned with the real force of evil and

the strength of the final enemy?    1 Cor 15

*Do you tithe?  Do you share your faith?   Mal 2

*How does your generation’s character compare to others? Matt 28

In antiquity it was Diognetus who loved the passage about salt and light.  Around 130 ad he wrote of the people of salt and light.  He is speaking of you, you all, all you all:

They display to us their wonderful and paradoxical way of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but merely as sojourners.

Every foreign land is to them their native country.

And yet their land of birth is a land of strangers.

They marry and beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They have a common table, but not a common bed.

They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.

They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven

When reviled, they bless.

When insulted, they show honor.

When punished, they rejoice.

What the soul is to the body, they are to the world.

What salt is to earth and light is to world are you to this county, this region.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.

                        Sursum corda!  Lift up your hearts!

-The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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