February 28

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Romans 4:1325

Mark 8:3138

Click here to hear just the sermon

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


Dateline, Wheeling West Virginia, February 2021.  Sarah Mervosh, The New York Times.

The day had finally arrived.

After nearly a year in lock-down for the residents of Good Shepherd Nursing Home—eating meals in their rooms, playing bingo over their television sets and isolating themselves almost entirely from the outside world—their coronavirus vaccinations were finished the hallways were slowly beginning to reawaken.

In a first, tentavive glimpse at what the other side of the pandemic might look like, Betty Lou Leech, 97, arrived to the dining room early, a mask on her face, her hair freshly curled.

‘I’m too exicted to eat’ she said, sitting at her favorite table once again…

West Virginia has emerged as one of the first states to finish giving two doses of vaccines to the thousands of people inside its nursing homes, so Good Shepherd…was among the first in the country to begin tip-toeing back to normalcy…

The first day back was full of ordinary moments: small talk over coffee, bidding wars at an afternoon auction, a game of dice.  But after a year of loss, loneliness, and disruption, the very ordinariness of it all brought joy and relief.

Ordinary moments.  Back to normalcy.  I’m too excited to eat.

After recovering in the nursing home’s COVID 19 ward, (Ms. Leech) was feeling better, she said, and eager to return to some version of normal life, however simple.  ‘Just seeing the people here’ she said ‘is enough’.  On the menu for this first day back were cheeseburgers and potato soup, unveiled with a flourish of silver serving dishes…

In the bustle of the day, there were moments of stillness.  In the lobby of a stained glass chapel, Frank and Phyllis Ellis savored a quiet reunion…During 69 years of marriage, the Ellises said, they have never spent so much time apart as during the last year.

‘We saw each other on Facebook’ Ms. Ellis said.

‘Facetime’ her husband gently corrected her.  The Ellises visits are short and sterile:  she in a surgical mask, he in a gown…mask and face guard.  He does not even think about kissing her, he said, for fear of putting her at risk…She longs for the comforts of home, for her children and grandchildren.  He long for her and even their marital spats.

‘We were always fighting’ he said ‘I miss that’.

Facetime.  Time apart.  Just seeing the people is enough.  A finely written newspaper article, sparing, graceful, humorous, real.

As demonically and fiercely accosted as has been our very humanity, month by month this year, yet the rhythms of the ordinary, as my friend says, ‘the indicia of normalcy’, are coming around, encircling us in our very need, and offering us a lift for living, offering us a lift for living.

Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Mark, our earliest gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.  Music and Scripture, indicia of normalcy.

Dr. Jarrett, as you have lovingly and compassionately done for us now over many years, can you help us approach the audition of today’s cantata, with appreciation of both history and theology, a passion for compassion, and a regard for the church, through the ages?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music:


Having just recovered from a very busy Christmas season in his second year in Leipzig, Bach once again turned his attentions and planning to the major work to be offered for Holy Week— the second version of his Passion According to St John. Fortunately for Bach and his stalwart players and singers, the Lenten season offered something of a break in that no concerted music was performed throughout the penitential season, allowing for all preparations to focus on the Holy Week Passion performance.  Never one to give anything but his most remarkable best, Bach composed an absolute masterpiece for the final cantata heard before Lent, ensuring a most memorable musical moment good enough to last the forty days of of wilderness journey and musical austerity. Cantata 127: Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott (“Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God”) seems designed with a grandeur and scope appropriate for the conclusion of the liturgical season, but also an elegant fortaste and reminder of the annual observance of Christ’s Passion a few short weeks away.  All five movements of Cantata 127 are based on Paul Eber’s 1582 hymn of the same name, “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott.” Though a funeral hymn, the Passion themes of Eber’s chorale connect to the Luke Gospel of the day in which Jesus predicts his death to his disciples. The petition for mercy also calls to mind the blind man’s plea for sight, as also heard in the Gospel lesson. Otherwise, Eber’s verses and the subsequent movements of Cantata 127 present Jesus alone as mediator in both our final hour and on judgement day.

The opening movement surely ranks as one of the finest of all the Chorale based works Bach ever conceived. Eber’s tune is motivically present in nearly every measure of the movement, passed around through the intruments and voices — a motto of triumph and affirmation: true man and true God. But from the very first note the strings outline the German Agnus Dei, Christe du Lamm Gottes in long tones before passing to other sections. Though not sung, the presence of the Agnus Dei calls the listener both to the Blind man’s plea for mercy as well as that ultimate image of the Lamb of God lifted high on Calvary’s Cross. Intermittently, one can even hear O Sacred Head Now Wounded in the continuo line. Almost as a foil, the dotted rhythms in the foreground of the texture seem to dance over the immense theological connections achieved by the layering of so many choral motivs at one time. Far from ponderous or weighty or didactic, this thrilling opening movement brims with all the confidence of grace so freely given.

For the interior of the Cantata, Bach calls on a tenor to set the predicament in a recitative describing how in our own failings, our depths of grief, our final hour, it is our faith that draws us to Christ’s Passion and the assurance of his redeeming grace. The soprano and bass take up the cause at this point in two of the most astounding arias in all the cantatas. In echo with a heart-rending oboe obbligato, the soprano brings us without fear to our final hour: The souls of the righteous are in Jesus’ hand. In the background, the plaintive oboe and soprano lines weave together supported by two recorders and continuo marking an unrelenting and unwavering pulse, the inevitable tick of time. In the middle of the aria, the soprano seems to engage with the tick of clock: Call me soon, O funeral bells, I am unafraid of dying, For my Jesus shall wake me again! As the soprano sings the word for funeral bells — Sterbeglocken — the sprockets and gears of the clock come to life in a nimble-fingered upper-string pizzicato.

The bass draws us one level closer to life in eternity, with invocation of the last trumpet and the harrowing day of judgment. As the earth’s foundation are shattered and sunk in ruin, Jesus will be our advocate and redeemer: Believers shall survive forever; they shall not be judged, and shall not taste eternal Death; Cling to Jesus for your salvation. This is astonishing and breathtaking music. The trumpet’s presence signals the Day of Judgment amidst an apocalypse of fiery passage work for the strings. But the words of Jesus tenderly and reassuringly quell the storm affirming the believer’s redemption.

Bach surpasses himself with this cantata, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity to revisit our performance from February of 2019 for today’s broadcast. As with every interaction with Johann Sebastian Bach, our sights and souls are lifted, our standards reset and renewed, and a sometimes distant vision of what could be finds clarity of purpose, and sincerity of intention.

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


Jesus meets us today out of the pages of Holy Writ, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.  It may be, for you, this Lord’s Day, that his appearance, in word and music, just now, brings a lift for living, a lift for living.

One spring, I met my teacher Lou Martyn in the Union Seminary Quadrangle.  He handed me a book as gift, one of John Knox’s books on the early church (Knox of 20century not of the sixteenth).  I cherish the gift now forty years old, which became a kind of sign for the future, then altogether unforeseen.

I returned this week to Knox on Romans.  To hear what he did hear, here. Like my later teacher NT Wright, Knox took on the hard passages, including this one from Romans.

I marvel at the beauty and mystery of this section of Romans 4,  ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’.

I marvel at the phrase, ‘hope against hope’.  I marvel at its assertion of a hopeless hope, of hope with no prospect, no rationale, no ready support.  Yet…alive.

I marvel that faith is faith, your faith is your faith, when it is what you are left with, all you are left with.

I marvel that faith is reckoned as righteousness, that what stands up in hope against hope is the faith of Abraham.  Abraham before circumcision, Abraham the father of multitudes not just the religious, Abraham the father then of believers everywhere.  No one can keep the whole law.  Every life includes failure, error, mistake, and misjudgment.  All of us stand in need of grace, pardon, forgiveness.

I marvel at the ordering here of resurrection first and creation second, in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Do you notice?  For Paul here resurrection comes first, then creation, not in a temporal but in an existential sense. Resurrection is the grounding of creation, the grounding of the ground of being, the horizon of the horizon.  When Paul thinks of God, he writes first of the God who raises the dead, and only second of the God who creates.  I marvel at this.  Faith relies on humble trust in God’s mercy and power, as distinguished from reliance on good works. Hope against hope.  To continue to have hope though it seems baseless.

And with this welcoming word, Paul can sing and soar in Romans 5:

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Mark 8 sounds so similar:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the for sake of the gospel, will save it.

You recognize that this is the voice of an early preacher, whose words Mark has placed in retrospect upon the lips of Jesus.   We see Jesus looking back through the cross, as did Mark.  We hear Jesus through the din of the passion, as did Mark.  We know Jesus through the rigor of trying to follow after him, even if we are a long way behind, as did Mark.  And, as Schweitzer deftly reminded, all, all is shot through with mystery:

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not.  He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’  and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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