September 27

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 21:23-32

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill:

This Sunday we are confronted by one of the most endearing, and most alluring little parables in all of Scripture, maybe in all of literature.

How it fits with the rest of the lesson is not entirely clear.   Nor is it clear how the lesson in Matthew fits with the other assigned readings for the day, Philippians and our Psalm, say.  Dark sayings from of old, indeed.

But the collision of order and answer, of beckoning and response, has to haunt.

A man has two sons. Already, the plot is thickened, with rivalry, with competition, with family intrigue.

Then the preaching of the gospel occurs. The vintner—we will prefer vintner to father here—tells something, it is a statement that beckons, not formally a question nor even an invitation. Simply a command. Go.

He commands. Albert Schweitzer would be pleased.

Go and live, go and work, go and love, go and prune, go and pluck, go and tend your garden. Go. Up and Go!

Every day and every Lord’s Day, the word arises to us, singeing our nostrils. Go. The day accosts us with a challenge to the good, to a choice if John Dewey is right between goods.

You know, you may have a feeling about a feeling abroad.

Some of us sometimes have the sinking feeling that things are not going so well, that things are drifting or worse.

We see cultural wounds that do not heal.

We see environmental gashes that we rue, fire burning, burning, burning.

We see a national economy that leaves out at least 14 million people, the equivalent of the total population of New England. Maybe twice that when you get everybody counted.

We see a beloved country and respected government that can’t seem provide national leadership to face a national pandemic problem, countrywide leadership to face an invasion with now 200,000 dead.  No national testing, no national equipping, no national protocols.

We listen again to the cries of anguish from minority communities, communities of color, stinging still from policing that harms rather than heals.

And, step lightly here, ten cuidado: It is hard to oppose without being shaped by what you oppose. Maybe to some measure impossible.

You know, then, there is an ennui abroad, measures of anxiety and depression, perhaps inevitable to some measure if one is aware, listening, thoughtful, a languishing in doldrums of pervasive malaise.

So, when the word comes. Come Sunday: Up! Go! You! Work! Vineyard! Today!

Uh…We pull up the covers and sleep in, or call in sick, or drive in late, or just are not really sure we can do anything about all these irremediable driftings.

What difference does it make what I do?  So the despond whispers.

So, says son one, I will not go. Son two, the craftier of the two, evades, the compliant not the defiant one. He says Yes Mrs. Cleaver, but he doesn’t go. He never meant to. He just doesn’t like conflict. Well who does?

But the first son has a change of heart.

Now we find this so encouraging, heartening, lovely. Up front, he says, no way, no way Jose. He is defiant, and willing to say it. I don’t think so, Mr. Vintner, Mr. Father, Mr. Voice, Mr. Life, Mr. Daytime. I think I will just turn in my ticket. Thanks, but no thanks.

But…he has a change of heart.

Will you notice with me that the main thing we want to know is not told to us?

We want to know, what changed the heart? What did the trick? What sealed the deal? What moved the lever?

And the Bible says, ‘Address Not Known’. Edmund Steimle would be pleased. In other words, it is shrouded in mystery.

So, we are a little free to speculate. We do not know what brought the change of heart.

But we know what can bring a change of heart.  And we are offered it today.


An experience of the beautiful can change the heart. A thank you note. A sunrise. A poem. A violin sonata. A student remembering a childhood hurt, and letting it go: there is a beauty in that moment. A cantata.

When you pause for prayer or worship on Sunday, you may be saying no. NO I WILL NOT. You may be not willing to have any change, let alone a change of heart. It is in that very condition that John Wesley went in the rain to Aldersgate Street, May 1738. NO I WILL NOT GO TO THE VINEYARD, not today, baby, not today.  No, I will not send another check, make another volunteer phone call, engage another disagreement, write another letter to the editor, another op-ed, another sermon, another apparently futile attempt to change the direction of things, another prayer, another something.  No, I will not try again to oppose vulgar, profane trash talk rising like a tide all around:  let someone else take it on.


You tune in to virtual worship, you listen for the regular rhythm of ritual, you receive again the confession of the church and…


Organ meditation. Hymn. Holy Writ. Word spoken. Bach.

Said Scott Allen Jarrett: “Music can say things that words never can.”  

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 and others, 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.

Beauty is like that.

Dr. Jarrett, it is good to have you alongside this morning, to have your presence, faithfulness, voice, and talent offered to God and neighbor.  It cannot be easy to lay down the weekly rhythms of choral music, so heart central to your work and our life.  You have heard me quip before that what silence is the Quakers and Eucharist is the Catholics and Leviticus is the Bible Baptists, and the grim doctrine of predestination is the Presbyterians, and the Epistle to the Romans is to the Lutherans—singing, singing, singing is to us, as Methodists and as Marsh Chapel.  So, we are grateful for the archival gifts and treasures that you have crafted over long time.  Greet us and teach us this Lord’s Day…

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett:

Thank you Dean Hill. On the radio the other day, a commentator asked listeners what they most looked forward to when the veil of pandemic is lifted. Among the respondents, a physician said she couldn’t wait to gather her amateur string quartet together once again. My heart smiled hearing this; perhaps yours does, too. Are we not all starved for Beauty, Dean Hill? Beyond revealing a crucial litmus of our values and the possibility of our strivings, the pursuit of Beauty so often models the best path forward and offers a way to make sense of it all — a reconciling Grace, if you will. We so sorely need this today. I can’t tell you how lonely it is to stand here in the Chancel of Marsh Chapel, flanked by Handel and Bach in the wood carvings to my right and left without the beloved members of our musical community alongside pursuing together the Beauty of which I speak. (pause) 

Our archives recall one such highlight when the Chapel Choir and Collegium last studied and performed Cantata 179, Bach’s arched lesson on Heuchelei — Hypocricy.  By all means, Go, Sow, Toil, Labor, get to your vineyard, but make certain that your pious airs are sung with a pure heart. For Bach, the Gospel text for Sunday, August 8, 1723, was the Luke story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, both praying in the Temple. Bach’s lesson is a heavy handed warning against the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and an injunction to all to align inner and outer attitudes of faith. Furthermore, our own depravity of sin weighs us down, and it is only by acknowledging our sin before God that we may attain God’s mercy and grace. Listeners, I think you’d better get another cup of coffee. 

We have come to trace the message of these cantatas as a move, broadly speaking, from orthodoxy at the beginning to personal or pietist devotion in the arias back out to the corporate expression of lessons learned in the final chorale. Let’s consider the two arias from the central portion of the cantata first. Each is preceded by a recitative in which Bach’s librettist reminds the listener of the elements of the Luke parable. The tenor leads off by indicting today’s Christians as puffed up, outwardly righteous, and ultimately lacking an inner purity of faith. He sings a scathing aria likening these hypocrites to Apples of Sodom, a fruit that dissolves into ash and smoke once they are picked. Though they gleam on the outside, they are filled with Unflat—filth—and in case you hadn’t guesses it, none of this will hold up before God.

The next pairing of recit and aria brings this message home, a more immediate and personal call to true piety and faith. The bass reminds us that the only way to attain relief from this sinful state is to acknowledge our sins before God. Next comes the most beautiful aria in the cantata. Sung by soprano with two hunting oboes – the oboe da caccia, today played by two English horns – the message is a plangent and pious prayer for mercy. The interweaving oboe lines played over the pulsing continue line setup the soprano’s fervent plea for mercy. In the middle of the aria, she describes the depths of her sin as coming from within her bones, and that they drown her in a deep mire. Listen for the text painting throughout this aria used by Bach to depict the weight of sin.

Without any turn toward promised redemption, the cantata concludes with the expected four-part chorale setting. Here, ‘Ich armer Mensch’ continues the distressed state of the soprano by sustaining the emotion, and thereby, the congregation takes up the soprano’s prayer.

The cantata is decidedly didactic start to finish, with the moral of the story appearing right at the front as the text of the first movement: See that your fear of God is not a hypocrisy, and do not serve God with a false heart. Bach sets this opening movement in an older style of polyphonic writing, and as much as the text is a ‘rule’, he sets it as a fugue. But there’s one element that truly takes this form to heights only possible in the hands of Bach: the second entrance of the fugue is in complete inversion of the original subject, an exact mirror image. Bach’s fugue bears the same message on the outside as on the inside, a musical device to prove the enduring lesson of the Gospel.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Listening again to Matthew and the parable, we recall that, you know, sometimes, we come saying no, but leave saying yes.

The envisioned mission of Marsh Chapel is be a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.  Our use of President Merlin’s epigram means city as the global city, and service as worship and work.   Our foci guiding this envisioned mission are voice, vocation, and volume.   This year we take our lead from the new, refreshed Boston University Plan, especially its own five-fold foci:  academics, research, globality, diversity, community.  With Bach, we take research into a different direction and dimension.

ResearchTwice a term the Director of Music, Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, engages our collegium, choir, community and listenership in a full morning of teaching about JS Bach, and enjoyment of a Bach Cantata in worship.  The Bach Experience (lecture, gathering, worship, and sermon (this dialogue between the Director and the Dean)), are novel and preeminent advancements in learning and performance, and our own offered sort of research.  They also will contribute to the Dean’s emerging work in Biblical Theology, an ongoing multi-year study. We commit to enhancement of this project.

What changes the heart?

What baptizes the person, the heart, the spirit?

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, autumn 2020, 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. 

What pierces, transforms, moves the heart?

Beauty does.

It does.

It says, whispers, reminds:

There are a lot of things wrong. But there are a lot of things right. Somebody wrote this cantata—sheer beauty. Someone practiced and taught it—sheer beauty. Someone sang it and played it—sheer beauty. And here I am. I heard it. I heard it.

Music can say things that words never can.

Maybe number one son huffed no. Then…he saw moonlight on the sea of Galilee. Or…his wife was singing a lullaby as the children went to sleep. Or…he remembered a part of a Psalm. Or…he remembered the loving and lovely self-giving of a loved one—maybe that
of his father, now long dead. Or…a friend came by…or came through.

Then he thought…

Well, maybe, well, maybe

Maybe things are bad, but maybe they can get better, and maybe better is the only good there is.

Maybe that is what you will think, leaving today.

Beauty stands beside me

Beauty stands beside me

I hear, I hear, I hear

Maybe I will say yes after all, yes to a new challenge.

Maybe I will remember Camus’ doctor in The Plague: ‘decency consists of doing my job…the only way to fight the plague is with decency’.

Maybe Vaclev Havel’s proverb will seize me: ‘live within the truth’.

Maybe I will take deeply to heart my friend Dr. Reid Cooper’s definition of faith: ‘the personal positive answer to the question whether life has meaning’.

Maybe Jorge Luis Borges was right; ‘any life however long and complicated it may be actually consists of a single moment when a man knows forever more who he is’. (NYR 11/12/19)

Maybe this is that moment.  Maybe I will turn around, receive a change of heart, and say…Yes.

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

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