November 19

The Bach Experience- November 2023

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Click here to watch the full service

Matthew 25:14–30

Click here to hear just the sermon & the cantata


The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill:

Ponder Jesus’ parable of the talents. (One still hears the mystical reverberation of it from William Sloane Coffin, in his very first sermon at Riverside Church, autumn 1977, who preached magnificently then on it, and concluded by singing ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”.) Life is a gift which inspires continuous giving, says the Lord. Talents are meant to be shared, says the Lord. What we have and who we are we are meant for us to invest in the future, says the Lord. This means risk. There is risk, always there is risk, in investment. The risk is real, and should be reasonable, and can be managed. But it is risk still. All walks of life, including yours and mine, involve real, reasonable, manageable risk. Let us apply the lesson, you and I, to our own lives and work. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said of a sermon he once heard: ‘I applied it to myself’. This morning, in particular, let us think about those faithful people who preceded us at Marsh Chapel, now glistening as angels in the heavenly church triumphant, to whom the Lord may have said: “Well done thou good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. We will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the master”. 

As now Bishop Ken Carter said about this parable, as our guest in this pulpit, a dozen years ago: “We hear themes of patience and trust in the Gospel from Matthew today. The Master, who can be interpreted either as God or as Christ, gives the generous gift of a “talent” or large sum of money to each of his slaves. Now, we could just take the “talent” at face value as a story about sound financial investment, but instead, let us consider Jesus as the Master and the talent as the good news of Jesus Christ entrusted to Christians after Jesus’ death, but before his promised return. The lesson we learn from the third slave is that what is given to us from God or even through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what is entrusted to us, is not meant to be hidden away as some sort of secret, but rather is meant to be shared with others…we are meant to share the good news of Christ with others’’.  Or as our colleague Rev. Dr. Chicka said once, preaching upon this parable, ‘God entrusts us with this message and we, in turn, place our trust back in God.”

Dr. Jarrett, the gospel rings out to us in Matthew, but also in Bach’s own chosen text for today’s beautiful cantata, Psalm 130, de profundis, out of the depths.  For what shall we listen upon this majestic, mystical Lord’s day?


Dr. Scott A. Jarrett, Director of Music:

One of Bach’s earliest vocal works, Cantata 131 draws almost exclusively on Psalm 130 for its text. There are two chorale verse layered within the two solo movements of the cantata, but otherwise Bach sets each line of text with its own motivic and melodic properties. Even at a young age and with little to no experience composing in the genre, Bach reveals his considerable skills in musical form, structure, symmetry, and contrapuntal textures. Of the roughly five sections, the first, third, and fifth movements feature the full vocal and instrumental ensemble. And each of these three movements contains two sections, the first more syllabic and homophonic moving to a second section characterized by polyphony, fugues, melismas, and other hallmarks of contrapuntal maturity. The second and fourth movements feature solo baritone and tenor, respectively. the most interesting feature of these movements is the elegant layering of a chorale tune sung by sopranos in the baritone aria, and then by altos in the tenor aria. The musical effect is similar to hearing a chorale prelude on the organ, with newly composed material ostensibly in the foreground, and the chorale tune on a solo stop entering variously over the course of the piece. Because both soloists and the chorale singers employ texts, the layering takes on a theological, even mystical, purpose. One hears the chorale tune almost as an after-thought, a hazy aural image, whose presence is more subliminal than obvious – is it evocative, sentimental, nostalgic, clarifying, troubling?

And here is the wonder of Cantata 131 – from the hands of a 22year old Johann Sebastian Bach, the music colludes with the Psalmist phrase by phrase finding each us in our own depths, our own melancholy or despair; and phrase by phrase, our faith is renewed, restored, revived, as we wait upon the Lord assured of his mercy and plenteous redemption. You’ll identify with the sincerity, doubt, or dolor of the fourth movement – I know I’m supposed to wait, but how long? How long until God’s mercy and redemption flow like a river? Just how long until justice rolls down like water?

And like a splash of cold water, Bach answers with three marble columns in the three opening measures, each calling Is-ra-el, Is-ra-el, Is-ra-el. Worried frenzy interrupted, and the posture of devotion resumed, hope in the Lord! For in the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. The final verse surges off the pages, the promise of redemption as the refiner’s fire in ascending chromatic tones, or the well-spring of the Holy Spirit in sixteenth-note melismas for the word “Erlösen” or Redeem.

However deep, however low, the assurance of pardon, mercy, redemption, a new day, a second chance – this is the hope of the word. The word made flesh. The word of the Lord endureth forever. Longer and outlasting those that wait and hope in the Lord.



 Faith does not exclude us from calamity, but faith prepares us to fight it.  Faith does not give us the capacity to understand, but it does give us the courage to withstand.   Faith is not an answer to every question, but it is a living daily question of ultimate concern.  Faith in God is faith in God, not in another creaturely being.  Our faith in God is cruciform, faith in the crucified God, who has chosen to make our vulnerable condition his own. I know the early church rejected patripassianism (the teaching that in the suffering of Jesus on the cross God the Father also suffered).  But barely. But barely.  And developing the capacity to meditate on profoundly unanswerable questions of human suffering is why three times a fall 1000 of us used to go and listen to Elie Wiesel. Faith does not protect us from calamity, though it does weave us together into the shared human experience and history of loss.

Hence the dire need for salvation, offered us in musical mystique, Scriptural grace, the quiet of the Sunday liturgy, a restoration it may be of our rightly minds.

For, as citizens of both country and globe, we weep, weep in this autumn of conflict and tragedy, and so mightily benefit to hear the truth, goodness and beauty of this morning’s word and music, Scripture and song.  It may be that the dark struggles of this year, this autumn, over time, may make us both more human and more humane.  Let us pray so.  One of my students this fall grew up in Stockbridge, MA.  She remembers seeing Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr there, when he, at the end, was convalescing following a stroke.  Her mother made sure she knew who he was, he who wrote ‘The Irony of American History’.  When he died in 1970, and was buried out of that village congregational church, his eulogy—do you remember who gave it?—was delivered by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, he who wrote one of finest theological sentences ever to emerge in American English.  The sentence begins with the word ‘different’ and ends with the word ‘same’, and its musical balance and cadence recalls us to our rightful humanity, our rightful mind:  Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.  Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.  Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are all the same.

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music


Comments are closed.