November 8

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25:1-13

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel:

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life is simply a long wait.  Don’t we know it this week.  Don’t we know it this first week in November, 2020.  Change comes but not as fast as we would like.  Change comes but not as fully as we would like.  Change comes but not just as we would like.  So:  stand up, stand firm, stand ready, stand strong.  And watch.  For you know neither day nor hour.

Our gospel has made use of a story known elsewhere in antiquity (cf., Bultmann, HST, loc.cit).  The power of the wedding, as you know from other parts of Holy Scripture, stood at the very pinnacle of experience and religious teaching, in antiquity.   Here the gospel writer has appended a (very noble) encouragement to watchfulness, to someone else’s parable, now re-arranged near the end of the first century of the common era.

Our more trustworthy manuscripts include the bride, too, ‘ten maidens…went to meet the bridegroom and the bride’.   In fact, nowhere in antiquity do maidens await simply the bridegroom.  They await the bride.  The wedding is about the bride, friends, then and now. That is why we call these ten ‘bridesmaids’  They attend the bride, and especially in the great exultation of the translation from home to home, from parents to spouse, like the sun rising from the eastern heavens, daily, the bridegroom with the bride runs the course with joy.

So, why has the writer eliminated the bride?  He does so to make the parable fit the church’s biggest spiritual disappointment, keenly and painfully suffered by 90ad.  Disappointed hope.  Hope deferred.  Hope, like that fiery hope of 1 Thessalonians, suddenly left empty. Christ was risen from the dead which must mean the end of time which must mean his return in power and glory which must mean the soon and very soon parousia, the coming of the Lord.  But 30ad became 50ad and 50ad became 70ad and 70ad became 90ad.  And the bridegroom (here shorn of bride clearly a figure of Christ) delays.  He delays…

The original parable is not about awaiting the return of Christ, but about living through a long wait. The maidens, the bridesmaids, some prepared and some not, all have to wait.  And it is a long wait.  And that is just the point.

You may think of a woman waiting to give birth.  You may think of a population, long enslaved, waiting for justice to roll down like waters.  You may think of a war torn region, the setting for endless decades of mayhem and war and violence, waiting for the dawn of peace.   You may think of a doctoral student waiting for that final report, the dissertation–finished.  You may think of a denomination waiting the simple wisdom to affirm the full humanity of gay people.  You may think of those afflicted and infected with a deadly virus, or fearing such for their loved ones, awaiting a vaccine for healing.  You may think of a man hoping for a job and daily awaiting a letter.  You may think of a physician attending a patient suffering from a mental illness, hoping against hope for a delayed cure.  You may think of a lonely woman, a tithing Christian, waiting for a pastor to leave off further libraries and degrees and come to her church, and come to her house, and make a visit, and say a prayer.

Or, say this week, you may think of a country born with liberty and justice for all, awaiting an election resolution, with liberty and justice for all.  With all votes counted.

Whether or not the full range of doctrine and teaching in Christianity has yet convinced you to move from the worship of selfishness to the joy of generosity, surely, at least at this point, you would admit its congruence with your experience.  Faith and life both are a long wait.  And today that is just the point.

How shall we trim our lamps for the wait?  The parable moves quickly to the importance of preparation.  A little patience?  A little persistence?  Oil for the lamps during the long wait.

Patience.  The patience of Job.  Patience is a virtue. Love, joy, peace… patience.  Patient in suffering.

Persistence.  Persistent prayer.  Persistence as insistence.  To exist is to persist. Labor omnia vincit.  The persistence of Paul. Pray…without ceasing.

The life of faith, the spiritual life, carries us down into the caverns of experience.  Our steadiness in faith, our reliance on faith, are most clear to us when everything else is murky, misty, dark and dank.  Say, this week. Faith is only faith when it is all you have left.

Two registers of the spiritual life, the life of faith, down in the declivities and caves of time, are patience and persistence.   Over the course of a week, or a year, or a lifetime, one needs both.  You need both.  You need both the passive attentiveness of patience and the active resistance of persistence.

One is the brake pedal.  That is patience.  You are careening down hill.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your culture, your profession are going south.  You need a way to put a foot on the brakes, to slow the decline, to ease the demise.  Patience can help you to do that.  One day at a time.  Sleep on it.  Things will look better in the morning.  Patience is your way of managing the rolling ride down hill.

The other is the accelerator, the gas peddle.  That is persistence.  You are looking uphill.  The climb is before you and the incline daunting.  Your plan, your work, your friendship, your marriage, your culture, your profession are all in the balance, nothing is for sure, nothing is taken for granted.  You can rest, but later.  Now you need to put the peddle to the metal and climb the hill.  Slow and steady wins the day.  Keep on keeping on.  One step at a time.  Persistence is your way of empowering the grinding ride up hill.  As Maggie Smith writes, Keep Moving.

Both patience and persistence are underrated virtues.  They shy away from the lime light.  They don’t do well in the bright light.  But for your faith, your communal shared faith, to quicken and to continue, you will need both patience and persistence.  For sustenance, energy, endurance in the long wait, you and I need both.

Some of you are more naturally patient.  Make sure you practice persistence too.  Some of you are more naturally persistent.  Make sure you practice patience too.

Sometimes though, in the life of faith, in the spiritual life, you need more gas and less brake, more persistence than patience.

My dear friend, Dr. Jarrett, how is our Bach Experience this morning, a patient and persistent meditation on mortality, meant to teach and guide us?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music:

Since 2007, Music at Marsh Chapel has programmed the cantatas of Bach in a regular annual series feauring these works in their original liturgical design as musical sermons. In this context, it was Bach’s task to work through the theological ideas at hand. These cantatas, comprising solo arias, recitatives, choruses, and chorales, with librettos using both scripture and free poetic texts, typically last about 20 – 30 minutes. In 2017, we focused on cantatas Bach composed in July and August of 1723 during his first weeks in Leipzig as cantor at the St. Thomas Church. Each cantata is masterpiece in miniature, and we continue to marvel at the astonishing invention, creativity, and complexity revealed note by note.

Cantata 95, ‘Christus, der ist mein Leben’, takes up one of the most difficult but ubiquitous themes of Bach’s day: how to reconcile and countenance our mortality. Our program annotator writes: “Consider that pre-Enlightenment Germany saw death and devastation in the Thirty Years’ War unknown to Europe since the fourteenth century, and that Bach himself was orphaned at age ten and lost his first wife and ten of his twenty children. Death was all around; the promise of immediate salvation cultivated a cultural longing for it and served as a powerful call to faith.”

Serving to teach, remind, and also comfort, Bach drew on four different familiar hymns or chorales that serve as the foundation for this seven-movement cantata. These tunes and texts serve as a beacon to the believer — a tuneful and memorable transmission of theology: Christ, He is my Life, To die is my gain; To it do I surrender myself, With joy I go yonder. / With peace and joy I go there according to the Will of God. Death has become my sleep. / I would bid you farewell, You evil, false world. In heaven it is good to dwell. / Since Christ is arisen from the dead, I will not remain in the grave; Your last Word is my ascension, Death’s fear You can drive away. For where You are, there do I come, That I may always live and be with You; Therefore I depart with joy.

These chorales establish the orthodoxy around which the believer can begin to reconcile his own personal response and call. Musically, the four chorale settings also offer a compositional guide to the possibilities of setting chorale tunes. The first is set as an orchestral chorale fantasia with each phrase of the chorale set off by exuberant motives from the oboes and strings in G major. The second, heard as the concluding section of the first movement, casts the chorus in counterpoint with the oboes and and horn set over a more rhythmic, walking bass line. The soprano soloist takes up the third chorale, in a little aria that becomes a sweet devotional song with two oboes d’amore in unison encouraging her song. The cantata concludes with a four part setting of the fourth chorale in an expected way, with the notable addition of a fifth voice as descant in the first violin part.

The most remarkable music of the cantata is reserved for the tenor soloist, who, through his clarity of faith, teaches Bach’s congregants a possibility of their personal attitudes toward mortality. His music in the central aria is sung almost in spite of the music of the instruments, which seem to proceed on their own clock. The aural image here is one of funeral bells, or a glockenspiel in a bell tower. The strings play entirely pizzicato, or plucked, throughout, and the organ remains silent. You can imagine this sound as the inner workings of the clock played in precise and regular patterns and rhythms. Above the strings, the two oboes play their melody in parallels. The missing third note of their chords is obscured in the pizzicatos of the first violin part. And, to my ear, this further contributes to the ‘mechanized’ sound of this music – a Leichenglocken or funeral bells. The tenor joins up musically with the instruments every time he sings the words “blessed hour”, singing the third or missing note in the oboe pattern. There are so many choices here from the composer revealing a musical reality the likes of which only a Johann Sebastian Bach could imagine.

In this bizarre time of pandemic, I, like you, struggle with some sort of balance — or is it, imbalance? — of patience and persistence. Regardless, this cantata from our archive of recordings reveals the cumulative effort of our persistent focus on the study of Bach’s music and the possibility of talent assembled around it. Soprano Mary Ruth Lown, Bass Craig Juricka, and tenor Patrick T Waters have each devoted years of service as Marsh Chapel Choral Scholars. Though we don’t hear them singing live today, I wait patiently for that “blessed hour” when we will again.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel:

So. The dilemma of today’s parable is the dilemma of our very lives.  Much of life, as in the story, and as in the Cantata, is simply a long wait.  It is a long wait, and that is just the point.   The primitive Christian church endured such a lengthy wait through six decades prior St. Matthew, awaiting the bridegroom’s return.  And He delayed.  And He delays still.

In the interim, ad interim, come Sunday, here is an invitation for you and all.  Worship on Sunday.  Come to and toward the church.  The doors of this community of faith are open to you.

That is, you may benefit, should you seek patience and persistence, from consort with a community born in patience (that is, suffering) and persistence (that is, endurance).  Suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  Why?  Because of the Love of God that has been poured into our hearts.  There is hardly anything happier than finding a church family to love and a church home to enjoy.  Be welcome here at Marsh Chapel.  For fifteen years I have bathed and basked myself in the genuine love and welcome of this community, to my mortal and eternal benefit.  You come too.

I can think of no better auditory invitation for you than that of the faithful person about to guide us in prayer.  Here is the voice of one of our own community lay leaders, Ms. Sandra Cole, our Marsh Chapel Membership Secretary, on whose prayer and prayers we have come to rely, month by year by decade, including and especially this week:

Ms. Sandra Cole, Marsh Chapel Membership Secretary:

God, our help and deliverer[1]

We bow before you, anxious and fearful of what lies ahead and so we bring our concerns to you.  We have been through a searing election season, which has pushed us further and further apart as we focus an indicting spotlight on the others:  the democrats, the republicans, the independents, the non-voters, the elected officials, the candidates, the poor, the rich, the peaceful protesters, the police, and countless other others.  Some of us navigate social justice inequities as a way of life, while some of us don’t believe there’s a real problem.  We lack empathy.   Some of us feel threatened by the increasing diversity of our country. Some of us value our diversity as a source of strength.   As a nation, we are divided.  The notion of  “E Pluribus Unum”,[2] out of many, one, is missing in action, much like the coins that bear this aspiration. We are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has forced us to take refuge, separated from our families, friends and communities of faith.  We indict those who, through their actions and words, refuse to believe it is dangerous.  We indict those who, through edict or action, strive to preclude the virus’ advance.

Though we seek your deliverance from our anxiety and fear, we, like David[3], pause to rejoice and be glad[4] for your steadfast goodness and mercy in our lives[5].   We are thankful that you are our ever-present help in times of trouble[6]. We are comforted by your presence, for you lead us to the refuge of still waters and restore our souls[7].   As we walk face these existential threats to our country and ourselves, we are fearless for we feel your presence beside us[8].   For your faithful presence, we praise you and give you thanks.

As we praise you, we urgently seek your help.  Deliver us from the evil of our personal sins against others. Forgive us, Lord and abide with us. Walk beside us and help us to stay on course in our Christian journey.  Help us to patiently follow your guide and take the path of righteousness.  Help us to be persistent in following your direction. Abide with us so that we guard against spiritual temptation, stand firm in the faith and are bold and steadfast Christians[9].

We pray for our country. Give us unity.  Give us peace.  Direct our elected and appointed officials in the way of wisdom and lead them on the path of righteousness[10].

Bless the veterans who have served in peace or war, who sacrificed and fought for the freedoms we have today. For their courage, faith and hope, we are thankful.

Comfort the sick and those with broken lives and broken hearts. Take the worry from our minds, merciful Father. When we fear what lies ahead, help us to remember that you are our companion through the difficult times[11].  Help us to keep our mind focused on you – to wait for you, Lord, for you alone are our help and shield[12].

As a faithful people, we bring our concerns to you, sure and certain that you will hear our prayers, you will answer our prayers and that your promises will be fulfilled [13].  We pray these things in the name of the  Love of God[14], the Good Shepherd[15], amen.

And now as virtual community, let us pray his prayer[16] together.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation.

But deliver us from evil

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever.


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

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

Ms. Sandra Cole, Marsh Chapel Membership Secretary

1 Psalm 70:5
2 Continental Congress description of the Great Seal
3 Psalm 70:4 or Psalm 40:16
4 Psalm 70:4 or Psalm 40:16
5 Psalm 23:6
6 Psalm 46:1
7 Psalm 23:2-3
8 Psalm 23:4
9 1 Corinthians 16:13
10 Proverbs 4:11
11 Genesis 15:1
12 Psalm 33:20
13 Hebrews 11
14 Dean Hill’s sermon for 8 Nov 20; 1 John 4:9
15 John 10:1-16
16 Mathew 6:9-13

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