Archive for the ‘The Bach Experience’ Category

April 26

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-25

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

There come episodes in the course of a battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become bound, chained, held.   

Right now, if the view along an empty Commonwealth Avenue this morning is any clue, we are in the heart of such experience, deep and dark, today, surrounded by a swirling pandemic, which shows no immediate abatement.

You may have known this condition before, this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  And now, April 26, 2020, the shared experience of distance, of loss of rhythm, of disorientation not just distance, comes to mind in Sunday fullness.

And how to speak and think of these things? Over the years you may have grown frustrated by your own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.   Anyway, you, well beloved, by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that we are lastingly thankful.

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…We can make our way…I can find a handhold or foothold…We can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

 Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lift a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.   It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide.  Here, at Marsh Chapel, right for a moment today, this Sunday, we want to accentuate Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure.  But we don’t want to leave behind beauty.  Beauty can heal.  In our work with demons.  In our quiet and contemplation.  Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free.  Or, at least, to give us grace in a grim time, grace in a viral time, grace in an anxious, depressive time, grace to get by.  To make us, as in Luke 24, not just followers but also witnesses. ‘They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been make known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

And on a personal note, I look forward with eager anticipation to the gathering up time, one fine day, when our congregation will not be remotely virtual, but beautifully, beautifully actual.  Like the psalmist, my soul longs and my heart cries out in the void and silence of this time of distance for the healing presence of the divine.  

Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Bach’s cantatas take their names from the first line of text, and today’s cantata, No. 74 sets verse 23 of John 14: ‘Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten’ or Whoever loves me, and keeps my Word. Bach originally conceived of the cantata for use on Pentecost Sunday in 1725, where we find the Holy Spirit come down to ignite the movement among the Disciples that would become the Church. The Disciples and followers of Jesus had remained stunned, suspended in disbelief that their movement and leader had been cut down so devastatingly. Today’s lesson of Jesus’s appearance on the road to Emmaus finds the Disciples in the initial stages of their grief, no doubt deep in their own ‘thought-feeling’. 

Though a cantata for Pentecost, there is surprisingly little reference to the Holy Spirit, but rather a focus on Jesus’s promise to return, and that faith will create a dwelling for Him in our hearts. The cantata is rich with arias – four total. The first two arias are the more personal – almost a dialogue between the ardent believer and the reminder of the words of Jesus. These mutual assurances exchanged, the final two arias turn outward t the Church and beckon us to follow suit in making room for Jesus within our hearts. Both of these arias find their vigor with representations of the earthly trials each of us face in a life of faith, but also a reminder of the sufferings Jesus himself endured. You can’t have a Bach cantata without a reminder of the Passion and the snares of Sin, afterall. 

Musically speaking, Cantata 74 is many things. The opening movement is unified by the motive of the first words, rather than a Chorale tune defining a structure. And for a movement with festival trumpets and timpani, the bluster is replaced with elegance and confidence of stride. At the outset there seems an error in order or at least an imbalance of arias and recitatives, but there is a clear internal structure that features a single recitative between each of the two aria groupings. Those two recitatives serve as musical and theological connectors to the arias on either side.

Within these eight movements, we hear extraordinary variety from Bach, from the winsome Soprano solo, and anxious Bass continuo aria that hints at our own doubt of Jesus’ promise, to the Tenor aria that nearly takes flight, and the blazing bravura of the final Alto aria. Here we have musical and theological reminders of both Penance and Atonement, but also the assurance of Love and Grace.

And on a personal note, as we enter our seventh week of disciplined societal distance from one another, I, like those disciples, remain stunned and stunted by the loss of contact with the divine. For me, that divine contact happens when we make music together, our nobler selves revealed enjoined in the grace of music’s art. Like the psalmist, my soul longs and my heart cries out in the void and silence of this distance for the healing presence of the divine.

Dean Hill: Our Gospel lesson from Luke, brought as an interlude into our yearly reading of Matthew, reminds us of the healing power in ordered worship.  First, in a recitation of the gospel.  Second, in an interpretation of that Gospel.  Third, in a communal engagement of the gospel, in the common bread of the church, in the common cup of the church, in the common life of the church.  ‘They knew him in the breaking of the bread.’  For some, the emphasis will fall on the knowing; for others, the emphasis will fall on the thanksgiving, the Eucharistic bread broken.  For some, the what.  For others, the how.  For all, come Sunday, come this Lord’s day, the possibility of new life, even if dimly perceived, even if shadowed.

Dr. Jarrett: For those, that is, who have walked past a graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world searching for enough common ground to allow a common hope, for a nation reeling from a winter and spring of worry and loss, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden viral traps, the unforeseeable viral dangers, and steel jawed viral snares of life, there is something encouraging about this Easter song:  “They knew him in the breaking of the bread”

Dean Hill: Emmaus Road brings a hymn of the heart, one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  Not certain but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith? If we had always certainty we would not need faith.  Once you are on the road, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

Dr. Jarrett: For those today, for instance, trying hard to think through what the rest of 2020 might be like, those in the thick of unexpected transition, the Word has this support for you, the gift of the next step:  the gift of getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home, not pausing to worry about the small stuff. This song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead, not seeing yet too far down the road.  You are not sure.  But you sense a presence, and receive the courage to take one more step.

Dean Hill: Step forward.  Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, let everyone be convinced in his own mind.  The random remains random.  We shall face our challenges in our time.  We shall face a common illness, infection and virus with a common faith, a common hope and a common love.  Just this:  we need not face them alone, but in the company of the Gospel, and its interpretation, and its community engaged together, one day in Eucharist, say, one day in music, say, one day in service, say, but every day with an uncanny sense of the presence of One Risen.

Dean Hill and Dr. Jarrett: In the name of the Resurrected Son, and of the Creating Father, and of the Abiding Spirit:  Now with the mind of Christ set us on fire, that unity may be our great desire.  Give joy and peace, give faith to hear your call, and readiness in each to work for all.

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

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

November 10

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Luke 20:27-38

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The text of this sermon will be added as soon as possible.

September 29

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

Luke 16:19-31

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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, on any college campus today, 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.  And we get them, thanks be to God, in Jeremiah and in Luke.  But look!  They come upside down.  In a stunning reversal, kindness and gentle hope are the hallmarks of our passage from Jeremiah, while wrath and hellfire explode out of Luke.

Listen again to the voice of the prophet, one of the great, strange voices in all of history and life, one of the great, strange voices, in all of Holy Writ.  Jeremiah.  All is lost, in Judah, as Jeremiah addresses Zedekiah the King.  You will be a slave in Babylon, King Zedekiah.  You will be given into the hand of your sworn, mortal enemy, and so too will be the fate of your city, your temple, your people, and your country, King Zedekiah.  BUT.  NONETHELESS. AND YET.  These are resurrection words.  BUT. NONETHELESS. NEVERTHELESS.  STILL.  EVEN SO.  And Jeremiah put his money where his mouth is.  Or was.

In this season of cultural demise and decay across our country, we benefit from the harsh challenge of Luke, and we benefit from the hopeful promise in Jeremiah.  You see there is more Luke in Jeremiah than at first you think, and there is more Jeremiah in Luke than at first you think.

Sin is not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness. Sin is the not doing concrete deeds of generous kindness.   Of all the Gospels, St. Luke most emphasizes this:  in the sermon on the plain; in the wording of the Lord’s prayer; in the parables of Sower, Samaritan, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, Dishonest Steward, Guests to the Wedding Banquet, the 10 healed Lepers; in the communal interest extended to Samaritans (those of different ethnic and religious background), to women (those whom tradition has marginalized), to the poor (those left forgotten in transaction and acquisition, to the lepers (those ritually and culturally excluded).  To read Luke is to be given eyes to see by contrast abroad in America today an emerging culture of denigration–denigration of immigrants, Muslims, and Mexicans–and to weep.  It is not enough, though it is true enough, to blame this almost exclusively on one particular candidate and one particular party. (repeat).  No, the mirror is held up for us all, for all of us in some measure have contributed to a culture that is uncultured, a rhetoric that is rancorous, a politics that is impolitic, an increasingly uncivil civil society, a rejection of hard-won experience and preparation in favor of careless entertainment and tomfoolery, a preference for cruelty over beauty, and a robust willingness to throw away hundreds of years of painstakingly crafted institutional commitments and social norms. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  Will Lincoln’s proverb hold in our time? You may well hope so, though you may well doubt so.  I doubt it.  Finally, as Jeremiah looks upon Zedekiah, we confess, we get the leaders we deserve.

More personally, in the Methodist tradition which built Boston University, other than worship and the study of Scripture, the most cherished practice of faith is tithing:  annually giving away 10% of what you earn.  The reason for the centrality of tithing—today, sadly, honored largely in the breach, even in Methodism, now, to our shame—is set for us in today’s harsh parable of Lazarus and Dives, the harrowing horror of what it means to forget the needs of the poor.  Such forgetfulness is a persistent threat in the heart of all human life, but is especially challenging for those who have much, and so are sheltered, routinely, from the anxiety of poverty, the hurt of exclusion, the pain of hunger, and the despair of lack and loss.   Sin is the unwillingness on a weekly basis to practice generous kindness, to tithe.  Luke reminds us so.

And Jeremiah?  Now that his beloved country is in ruins (are we beginning across our own cultural landscape to catch a glimpse of his woe?), Jeremiah does something great.  Remember:  the city is burned, the temple is wrecked, the population is slaughtered or in chains, and the nation is destroyed, soon to spend two generations in Babylon, by the rivers of Babylon, where to sit down and weep, as tormentors mock, ‘sing to us one of the songs of Zion’.  But Jeremiah buys a plot of land.  One day, a long time from now, he muses and prays, there will be some manner of restoration: ‘I cannot see it.  I cannot hear it.  I cannot prove it.  Sometimes I cannot believe it.  But, hoping against hope, I will buy some land, and someday, somebody, somehow will use it’.  This is faith:  to plant trees under which you will not sleep, to build churches in which you will not worship, to create schools in which you will not study, to teach students whose futures you will not know—and to buy land which you will not till.  But someone will.  Or at least, that is your hope.  That is why, as darkness is falling across a confused, frightened, and benighted land, you have done some things this year.  You offered a morning prayer.  Good for you.  You sent a check to support some leader or candidate.  Good for you.  You went and volunteered to make contacts and calls. Good for you.  You spoke up and spoke out, regardless of the fan mail, family disdain, and other costs.  You did something.  Will it make a difference?  It may not.  But it does make a difference, for you, if for no one else.  Go and buy your little plot of land.


For more than a decade, Music at Marsh Chapel has cultivated our own little plot of land – the rich and fertile soil of the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The endeavor around the recreation of this extraordinary repertoire by our players and singers is its own form activism, faith, tithe, and over time and shared commitment, Jeremiah might even behold restoration.

This year’s cantata series explores four works Bach composed for New Year’s Day. At the highest altitude, these are joyful and celebratory cantatas — at least in the outer movements. To be sure, the inner movements can be counted on to remind us of our sin at some point. Today’s cantata – No. 41 ‘Jesu, nun sei gepreiset’ or Jesus, now be praised, numbers among the great Chorale Cantatas from Bach’s second annual cycle of cantatas in Leipzig. In these remarkable works, the great hymns of the faith – Chorales – are the Alpha and Omega. Today’s cantata sets the outer verses of Johann Herman’s 1593 text exactly in the opening and closing movements, while paraphrasing the inner verse of the chorale in the arias and recitatives within the cantata.

The passing of the old year and the welcoming of the New Year takes on various dimensions for each of us, and for Bach and his congregation, they were reminded that as the Old Year is analogous to the Old Testament, the New Year reveals the hope of resurrection from the New Testament — Law and Grace. And perhaps a more obvious temporal analogy, our mortal life on earth is the old year that passes, and the New Year represents our hopes for the life eternal. For this reason, the central text offers a prayer for mercy and salvation upon the believer’s death. Finally, the bass soloist reminds us that this mortal life is constantly thwarted and threatened by Satan’s works, potentially jeopardizing our hope for life in eternity, the New Year of our soul.

Musically, this cantata is extraordinarily rich in invention and detail from the first measure to the last. For the central aria, our principal cellist Guy Fishman plays a five-stringed cello called a Cello Piccolo with music that seems to depict our earthly toil in sincere and honest strains of remarkable difficulty. And the joyful soprano aria heard immediately following the opening choral movement features dance rhythms and a choir of merry oboes.

However, nothing can sufficiently prepare the listener for the glorious opening movement. The chorale is faithfully rendered in long tones in the soprano part with truly astonishing invention all around. Here Bach gives us bold concertante writing in the latest style (think New Year) with the final two lines set in the old contrapuntal or fugal style, before recasting those lines to the new music. Truly a dialectic of old and new styles transformed by their relation to one another.

As academic communities at schools and colleges throughout the country commence a new year this month, they too engage in this dialectic of the hope of new beginnings forged in the knowledge and wisdom of those who have gone before. And of those who have gone before, few surpass Bach’s capacity to reveal new heights and hopes for our daily strivings and our future together.


You may want and need to shift your perspective, to alter your angle of vision, to see things from even higher ground.  Some measure of health or salvation, or mental sanitation may require it.

The Matterhorn is the most beautiful mountain on our planet.  Today, the beautiful, tomorrow, the true, the next day, the good.  An excellent view of the majestic Alpine peak may be found in Zermatt.  If and as memory serves, you can drive to Zermatt—rent an old deux chaveaux—a pristine Alpine village, snow laden in the summer, its shops and hostels wind swept and well kept.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship. The Matterhorn!  Just before you.

There is, though, a better view, for which though you will need to shift your perspective, to alter your angel of vision, to change your location, in order to see things from even higher ground.  High up to the southeast, in the craggy mountain cliffs, there is, farther up, the small hamlet of Gornergrat.  To get up there, if memory serves, you must take an open air, chair by chair, chain rail car, ascending at 45 degrees, up and up, and on up, nearer to the summit, and far closer to your ideal, aspirational vies of beauty.  Or truth.  Or goodness.  Acrophobics need not apply.

The ride is short but terrifying.  At the top, mid-July, thick snow, hard ice, brisk wind and a coldness of cold await you.  As does the mesmerizing thrall of the mountain.  The Matterhorn.  Step gingerly out of the old open rail car.  Get your footing, your mountain sea legs.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  Raise your gaze.  There.  A new way of seeing, and so of thinking, and so, then of being.  Health and sanity may impel or compel you to higher ground.

My sixteenth book will be published this fall, a collection devoted in part to the New Testament, in part to preaching, and in part to ministry—Bible, Church, World as we in the halcyon younger days of the World Council of Churches intoned.  None of the sixteen is a best seller, none a game changer, none found in every home.  All but two are still in print, and several in both print and cyber forms.  They are the work of Zermatt.  Fine.  The view from Zermatt is fine.  You can share it in physical comfort and communal fellowship.  The Matterhorn!  Just before you.  But.  But.  But.

As an acrophobe the rail car ride up is not appealing.  But it is time for me to move on up, to take higher ground, to climb on to Gornergrat.  Ice.  Snow. Cold. Wind.  That means the prospect of one more, a very different book, for a very different look.  A different look takes a different book.  It will be, here, for me, the work of the next decade, in pulpit and study.  As you cannot get to Gornergrat but through Zermatt, this project depends in full on all that came before:  books on the New Testament (John), on preaching (Interpretation), and on ministry (prayer and practice).  The next climb is up on to craggy cliff village—ice, snow, cold, wind—of an overture to A Liberal Biblical Theology.   Here is a marriage of Rudolph Bultmann and N.T. Wright., a partnership of Paul Tillich and (the early) Karl Barth, an aspirational possibilist (that is Methodist) correlation of history and theology, Bible and Church, accessible to the average reader.  Our climate, nation, and denomination, all in peril, hang in the balance.

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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

April 7

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Philippians 3:4b-14

John 12:1-8

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Our two readings, Philippians 3 and John 12, confront us with the ranges of reality in loyalty and mortality. Philippians is about loyalty.  John is about mortality. In the blurr of activities, come Sunday, in Christ, one is accosted by loyalty and mortality, through whom, in Christ, ‘we become like him’.

That is, two very different readings from Scripture greet us this Sunday morning.  One describes loyalty. The other evokes mortality. Both are good news, and each story amplifies and explicates the other.   For you this morning, the lesson and the gospel raise a mortal question about your forms of loyalty, and a loyal question about your sense of mortality.  A hymn of love and a reminder of death are somewhere, somehow buried in every sermon and every service of worship. In decisions about loyalty and in the encroachment of mortality, we become like Him:  Jesus Christ, the loyalty of God; Jesus Christ, the mortality of the human being.

There is today a tendency to minimize Paul’s change of allegiance, as expressed in Philippians 3, and elsewhere.   So this scholarly trend would argue: Paul did not really distance himself from his earlier religious expression. Paul did not really reject his mother tongue, mother land, mother religion.  Paul did not expressly depart from the eighth day, the tribe, the law. Paul did not really intend to step aside from his inheritance. Paul was born loyal and died loyal, and his loyalty at birth and death were of a piece.  I suppose that scholarly trends, like fashion, move in and out of vogue, for and with some regularity. Certainly, the work of these mentioned scholars, and that of many others, reminding us of the depth and breadth of background to the letters of the APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), carry much of importance.  Still, there is the little matter of…rubbish.

Paul calls his inheritance rubbish.  SKUBALA. It is a remarkable Greek word, whose force you can hear in its simple repetition.  SKUBALA. Rubbish. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish.   It will not do to muffle Paul’s apocalyptic sense of loyalty.  In fact, much of the work of late that tries to do so ends up representing a view of Paul that is much more akin to the views of his opponents than to those of Paul himself.  But what of the particular inheritance, yours and mine and Paul’s? What of our particular, idiosyncratic, experiences and cultures and hues? In Paul’s case, what of circumcision, of covenant, of history, of torah, of valiant duty past?  I regard them as…SKUBALA.   We may wish Paul had been more temperate.  He was not. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings an apocalyptic, cataclysmic, sea change in the fount of loyalty.  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  

Across town, across the Scripture that is, and in the heart of the Fourth Gospel, meanwhile, we are engaged by another story.  Now mortality, not loyalty, addresses us. If there is a richer set of eight verses in the entire New Testament than John 12: 1-8, honestly, where would you find it?  Here is the Passover, the third in the fourth Gospel. Here too is Bethany, site of earlier astonishment. Here is Lazarus, who emerged from a tomb, covered with bandages, odorous and squinting.  Martha, of serving fame, and Mary, of praying memory, are here, too. A year’s wages are here poured out on feet, feet of course being of sacramental power in this Gospel, as we saw two weeks ago.  There is fragrance, the fragrant scent of perfume poured on holy feet, perfume dried in loving hands, perfume gathered on the hairs of the head. An astounding scene, already, but there is more. In comes Judas Iscariot.  There arises an argument about money, surely not the last religious argument about money. The poor and the present are set against each other, surely not the last religious argument about the good and beautiful. And then a dominical pronouncement:  keep it for the day of my burial.  After so many visual, audible, tactile, olfactory and savory images, we are sensorially exhausted and ready for  a nap. These images share a common trait. They evoke mortality.

The Passover is the scene of death.  Lazarus was raised from death. Mary has a premonition of death.  Martha and Mary pleaded with Jesus about death. Judas Iscariot is the agent of death.  The plight of the poor is mentioned to avoid a confrontation with death. The perfume is a symbol of anointing at death.  If there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—and it is not clear that there is anything more significant in Scripture than justice—but if there is one thing more significant in all of Scripture than justice—it is mortality.  Our gospel lesson this morning pulls out every stop to evoke mortality.

Reminders of mortality, like attendance in worship itself, which is one such reminder on a weekly basis, may make us squirm.  We have a way of thinking that death happens always to somebody else. We find ways to change the channel. In the last few years we have become experts at changing the channel.  Think for a minute about deaths in this country, over the last decade, due to gun violence. Diminishment to a part of the gentle hope, for a real spiritual culture and community, across this land, in our time.  Harm to some of the soaring ideals of a young republic, now seen from abroad as a pre-emptive behemoth. Defeat to a part of the great dream of those who built the United Nations. Yes, reminders of death make us squirm.

Dr. Jarrett, how does the music of Bach, aid us in our meditation this morning?


Bach’s point of departure tells another story of mortality and promise of awakening – of Resurrection. Luke Chapter 7 finds Jesus traveling to the town of Nain where he encounters a funeral procession. Moved by the mother’s grief, he calls for the dead man to rise from his funeral bier.

Cantata 8 was written a little more than a year after Bach began to work in Leipzig, placing our cantata in the second cycle of cantatas, the year of the Chorale cantatas. The chorale on the which the cantats is based is Caspar Neumann’s familiar “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” The 1710 melody is feature in the first and last movement, though treated slightly differently in each instance.

The cantata in concerned with mortality, and specifically, the hour of our final moment. We await the ticking clock toward the chime of our own funeral bells. In 18th century Leipzig, parishioners were notified of the death of a member of their community by 24 tolls from the tower bell.

In the opening movement, Bach creates an extraordinary Leichenglocken – funeral bells – using string pizzicatos, the wheels and sprockets of the interior mechanism of the clock, the two oboes d’amore chasing each other as the hands of the clock, and finally the flute tolling exactly 24 repeated pitches, punctuating and “chiming” throughout the movement. All of this extraordinary music accompanies the eight phrases of Bach’s setting of the Neumann chorale.

The clock continues to tick as the cantata turns inward for the first aria. The tenor takes up the strain with oboe obliggato. Typically when Bach wishes to call attention to a particular word or concept, he employs extended melisma. In this aria, note the treatment of the verb “schlägt” describing the striking of the final hour. Similarly, the place of rest – Ruhstatt – finds repose on a long, sustained pitch.

Fear, anxiety, worry are all dashed when the baritone steps forward to sing a gigue, reminding us that it is through Christ Jesus that we are called to new life and transformation. The flute’s somber tolling from the opening movement is transformed to the dance rhythms and melody’s of the baritone’s gigue. When the chorale returns in the final movement, it comes with confidence in full stride: Help me earn an honest grave next to godly Christian folk, and finally covered by earth never more be confounded!


Loyalty and mortality…

Let us return to loyalty for a moment.

In Philippians, our APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES (emphasis added for emphasis), has now stated for us the force and source of loyalty in Jesus Christ, as he does with equal power in Galatians 2 and Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Thessalonians 4. That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith.  (The loyalty of Christ, the righteousness of God based on Christ’s loyalty.)   Paul has been found in a new life.  His earlier code and covenant have come to an end.  They are set aside. They are good and true and beautiful, but not by comparison with the truly good and the beautifully true and the divinely beautiful.  It is the loyalty of Christ to which Paul sings his hymn of praise as read this morning. The rendering of these verses depends upon a reading of the phrase, ‘faith..Christ’ as first in reference to Christ’s own faith, by which in faith Paul and we are ‘owned’.  It may be that Paul has written these words in prison, and it may be that these words from prison were written at the end of his life. He will have had, as we do on some days, and Sundays, a clear sense of the fragility of life and its brevity.

So let us return to mortality for a moment.  

The several marks of mortality set before us in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, are also reminders of divine love.  Lazarus evokes such love from Jesus that, in that shortest of verses, we are reminded, ‘Jesus wept’. Mary and Martha are the figures of serving and praying that we know so well in the teachings about disciplined love.  Judas is never portrayed as doing ill for the sake of doing harm, but is found to mistake some love for all love. Most strongly, the pouring of perfume in lavish expense is understood as the full fragrance of affection and love.  

Our readings today give us grace to live by faith.  We may want to consider, on a bright spring Sunday afternoon walk, the examples of abiding loyalty and loving mortality which we have known.  We are meant to ‘become like him’, and so we shall want to notice the forms of loyalty and limitation that are ever before us.

We may want to remember something of Josiah Royce, and his evocation of loyalty. You may recall from your own life and family experience, the example of a truly loyal friend.  You may recognize that sometimes lesser loyalties must be laid aside in the face of greater loyalties. No one wants the lower lights to occlude the one great loyalty of life. You may recognize the difference, say, between asking forgiveness for a promise broken, and asking forgiveness for a promise that should never have been made in the first place, whether kept or broken.  We may deeply recognize the need we have to reclaim the language of remorse out of our religious traditions, so that we might walk again in newness of life, following Lenten confession.

We shall want to find and practice the forms of loyalty by which, and through which, we may dimly acknowledge our mortality.  Any pastor will tell you that young people live as if they were immortal, and not only young people. There is a youthful courage in this, but also a tragic risk.  We may want to recall the verses of Scripture that warn us about limits. Store ye not up treasure on earth where moth and rust consume…All flesh is grass, it withers and fades…Prize your time now you have it, for God is a consuming fire…The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…This night is your soul required of you…

Here is a potentially saving word.  It is the intimation of mortality that puts steel in the spine of our loyalty.  It is the practiced sacrifice of loyalty that gives us courage for the facing of the last things.  Where there is a sense of mortality there is a sense of loyalty. Where there is a preparation of loyalty there is a preparation for mortality.  The one inspires the other. (Where there is no inkling of mortality there is no spur to loyalty). Perhaps that is why, in the mystery of all things, and in the planning for Sunday readings, Philippians 3 and John 12 were yoked.  Think this lent about your lasting commitments. Think this lent about your limitations. And recall the hymn written next door, in the school of theology, by then Dean Earl Marlatt, singing of Jesus, a beacon to God, to love and loyalty…

--The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music 

February 10

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 18: 31-43

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

Bach’s music surrounds our Gospel from Luke 18.  Here Luke has returned both the content and to the outline of Mark’s Gospel, which, as we saw last week, predated Luke by 15 years or so.  From this point forward, more or less, Luke will stick to Mark’s course, or outline, for the Gospel through the triumphal entry and through the week of challenge, and through the passion of the cross, on to resurrection, the theme of the music today.

If you will, pause a bit, speaking of grief, to see how Luke changes, supplements, reduces and applies what he has inherited to his own time—another decade than Mark’s, another community than Mark’s, another setting than Mark’s, another pastoral moment than Mark’s.  What good news that in the Bible itself there is such freedom, fungibility, flexibility and creativity! The presence in absence of Jesus Christ, risen, whose Spirit dwells with the church, did not in any way appease in full the haunting grief of his death, his ignominy, his sacrificial, tragic death.  Faith is born in grief. Faith is awakened in grief. Faith is quickened in grief. Faith is made in grief.

Luke omits the blind man’s name, given in Mark as ‘Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus’.  He may have done so because this is a phrase from the department of redundancy department, that is, the Bar means son, so Son of Timaeus Son of Timaeus is repeated repetition.  Luke wants an orderly account, befitting his love of history.

Luke then adds the new fact or stylized memory or pure imaginary addition that a ‘multitude’ was passing by, a great throng.  He may have done so because he wanted to emphasize the power and glory of Jesus’ ministry, and to brighten and expand the response to Him during his earthly preaching, teaching, and, here as elsewhere, healing.  Further, rather than simply choosing to ‘call’ the blind man forward, here the Gospel has Jesus ‘command’ him forward. No mere suggestion is made for this audition, but a commandment to come. Luke wants a certain kind of Christ, befitting his love of theology.

Luke leaves no doubt as to whose power and influence have made this miraculous healing possible.  In Mark, we hear simply that faith has made the man well, ‘your faith has made you well’. In Luke, ‘Receive your sight!’, and then the same statement connecting faith and salvation.  One’s wellness, one’s salvation—here we can draw a direct line to Bach and Luther—is by faith, by faith alone, by grace, by grace alone. Luke wants no shadow between the passion of Christ and the compassion of Christ.

Luke here, as well, makes space for the expansion of the church.  ‘And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God’. What is a private moment in Mark becomes a public display in Luke.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

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

As much as the Gospel lesson from Luke 18, our point of departure this Bach Sunday is Paul Eber’s 1582 hymn ‘Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott’ or ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God.’ Bach’s librettist draws literally and poetically on eight of Eber’s stanzas, connecting Luke 18 to Luther: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”, said the blind man; Jesus in response, “Your faith has saved you;” and so Luther teaches, “Sola Fides, Sola Fides!” We have now just sung two stanzas of Eber’s hymn, whose melody, texts and message, imbue Cantata 127 not just in name, but bar by bar, word by word.

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, just as the Blind Man, 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: The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. 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 — Sterbeglokken — the sprockets and gears of the clock seem to come to life in five measures of 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.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill


Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, 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, takes the form of honest grief, honesty about grief, good grief.

Out of all manner and mixture of feelings, grief, usually unnamed and unspoken, can bring us to worship.  We do not come usually or specifically to church to grieve, unless, perhaps in attendance at funeral or memorial services.  We do not say, slipping into the pew, today I am here to grieve, in grief, grieving. Grief is bigger, miles higher and longer than that, beyond depiction, beyond description.  Yet alongside us, walking alongside us, come Sunday, it may be, paces grief, our grief.

Grief is a sacrament.  It has a mysterious cast and quality to it, something well afar from our own control, like the grace given us in the Gospel, in that way.  Nor is it enough for the preacher to utter the word ‘grief’ for us to greet grief ourselves, of a Sunday morning, on personal terms. Here is where memory may come in.  The memory of a partially remembered verse, or homily, weeks later, may trigger something that then allows you to say to yourself, Well my goodness, that is what this is, this mid-winter something alongside me:  it is my grief. You don’t have to count Citizen Kane your favorite or only favorite film to recognize the cavernous, celestial, capacious range of grief.  Grief takes years.

One of the reasons that over more than a decade here at Marsh Chapel we have tried to preach with notes as well as letters, with music as well as words, on Bach Sundays, is just around this corner.  The music may release from the semi or sub conscious that which has blocked healing, blinded salvation. Resurrection music may bring remembrance that itself is a mode of resurrection. Robert Hass says the movement of grief has something in it of the desert’s bareness and of its distances.

Listen to his sly poem, variations on a passage in edward abbey

A dune begins with an obstacle—a stone, a shrub, a log,
anything heavy enough to resist being moved by wind.

This obstacle forms a wind shadow on its leeward side,
making eddies in the currents, now fast, now slow, of the air,

exactly as a rock in a stream causes an eddy in the water.
Within the eddy the wind moves with less force and less velocity

than the airstreams on either side, creating what geologists call
the surface of discontinuity. And it is here that the wind

tends to drop part of its load of sand. The sand particles,
which hop or bounce along the earth before the wind,

begin to accumulate, creating a greater eddy in the air currents
and capturing still more sand.

It’s thus a dune is formed.

Viewed in cross section, sand dunes display a characteristic profile.
On the windward side the angle of ascent is low and gradual—

twenty to twenty-five degrees from the horizontal. On the leeward side
the slope is much steeper, usually about thirty-four degrees—

the angle of repose of sand and most other loose materials.
The steep side of the dune is called the slip face
because of the slides
that occur as sand is driven up the windward side
and deposited on or just over the crest.
The weight of the crest
eventually becomes greater than can be supported by the sand beneath,
so the extra sand slumps down the slip face
and the whole dune
advances in the direction of the prevailing wind, until some obstacle
like a mountain intervenes.

This movement, this grand slow march
across the earth’s surface, has an external counterpart in the scouring
movement of glaciers,          

and an internal one in the movement of grief
which has something in it of the desert’s bareness
and of its distances. (repeat)

Here is our affirmation:

It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place


It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music.

November 18

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 13: 1-8

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

The passage today from St Mark is sometimes called the ‘Little Apocalypse’. The reading is another place in the Gospel where and when we overhear the troubles of Mark’s community. They face persecution. In facing trouble, they wonder whether the end of time has come.

The Gospel writer records the Lord’s response that ‘the end is not yet’. The rest of this long chapter, which will include some apocalyptic language and imagery from the first century, continues to make the same point. The end is not here. There may be trouble, trauma, and persecution, but the end is not quite yet here. In end, at the end of Mark 13, we will be counseled that no one can see the future, and that we should therefore be watchful.

Herein, Mark 13, we are reminded of what we have heard from Mark through the past year, now brought to a sort of conclusion.  Jesus ‘expected the end of all things imminently, or at least within a generation of his own lifetime’ (J Marcus, 864).   Oddly, this chapter begins with a traditional listing of signs that will precede such an end.  Yet when we come to the end of Mark 13, the end of the end of the end of things, as it were, the opposite view is presented, that the end, like most if not all endings, will come without warning, suddenly, unexpectedly, and so on.  Further, the ongoing fear or pain of persecution in Mark’s community bubbles up in this chapter, beginning to end.  ‘Cognitive dissonance’, in our beloved Peter Berger’s phrase, oozes out of every nook and cranny.  As do the references to Daniel-- take ‘Son of Man’ to stand for many.  Mark knew his Hebrew Scripture, or so it appears.  He also appears to have had some preaching competitors, whom he is quoting to discredit; when you hear of…That said, Mark is using standard eschatological language and imagery, right out of central apocalyptic casting, traditional, customary in his time, if utterly baffling and odd in ours.

At home, listening, ready it may be for the beauty today of the Bach, you may wonder what on earth or under the earth any of this matters, and fair enough.  Yet it mattered to the early Christians, big league.  It mattered to them that there was meaning in and beyond their suffering.  It mattered that the momentous changes of their time—religion destroyed in the fall of the temple, say—were endurable and surmountable.  It mattered that the good news of God’s love, in the end, by gospel teaching, prevails, over against all manner of other endings.  These things matter to us as well.  Further, Mark, as Paul, is unafraid to metaphorize using birth pangs, labor pain, to convey both the reality of hurt and the joy of impending new life.  These men wrote of what they did not know, but, truly, they told the truth.

Taken as whole, the New Testament books, while shot through with apocalyptic language and imagery, like that found in here Mark 13, expectations of the end of time current at the time the books were written, these books bring their own slant, their own perspective to inherited apocalyptic thought. Some adopt that thought. Some discard it. The Gospel of Mark adopts it. The Gospel of John discards it.

In its place, in the main, the New Testament books proclaim a way of living in thanksgiving, a way of living in love. In our day, and in our particular part of history, including these past several months with their own troubles and their own trauma, we may want to take a clear reminder with us of thanksgiving, of love. ‘Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works’.

That is, in much of this, the Gospel lesson is not that different from the reading from Hebrews, where we are similarly encouraged to be gentle, thankful, loving, and watchful. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works”. A remarkable, beautiful admonition.

In the end, coming to the end, when all is said and done: Plan for the worst.  Hope for the best.  Then do your most.  And leave all the rest.

Live with thanksgiving as the harvest draws near.  Harvest with love as thanksgiving draws near.  Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice, and give thanks for others, for people, for a bounty of people, for a thanksgiving of soulful people, as our friend Max Coots wrote:

"Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are....

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks."

(Max Coots)

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.  Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen this morning to this morning’s wonderful cantata?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Thank you, Dean Hill. This morning’s cantata is a musical reflection on verse from the 19th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has entered Jerusalem with waves of palm branches and loud Hosannas, but already he observes the reaction of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and prophesies God’s anger that they have not recognized God’s grace. His despair boils over to anger in the following verse when he overturns the vendors tables in the Temple. Bach and his librettist have created in Cantata 46 a masterpiece in miniature that connects the modern day congregant to the people of Jerusalem who did not recognize the grace of God. We are reminded that our own sin gets in the way of our ability to love and accept God’s grace. As a consolation, we are reminding in the alto aria that even as Jesus punishes, he watches over his faithful as sheep and little chicks.

The cantata opens with a verse from Lamentations: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow, like unto my sorry; for the Lord hath afflicted me with great misery in the day of his wrath.” These verses depict Jesus’s anguish and prophesy of judgement from the Luke text. This opening movement is structured neatly in two halves: a low lament with weeping triads for the singers, followed by a gnarled fugue that depicts both our misery and God’s wrath. Bach thought so highly of this music that he used it to fashion the Qui Tollis of the B Minor Mass compiled a decade later.

The two arias that form the corpus of the cantata are for bass and alto, respectively, and both draw on images from nature to state their case. In the first aria, heralded by a trumpet, the bass sings of the brewing storm clouds that are the harbinger of God’s judgement. Listen for the lighting breaking through the clouds both in the marvelous melisma for the bass but also the virtuosic scales darting around the orchestra.

For the reminder of Jesus’s protection of the faithful, the threat of bad weather is momentarily quelled. Silent are the strings of the orchestra; silent too is the continuo group. Taking over a lonely walking bass of a continuo line are two oboes da caccia playing in unison, as two gentle recorders  ruminate on the theme. At the end of the end, Bach takes one more opportunity to remind us of gathering storms when we are reminded that when storms reward sinners, Jesus helps the faithful to dwell securely.

The final chorale reminds us of the language from the opening movement, but here it is Jesus’s passion that calms the storm.

This presentation of Cantata 46 concludes Marsh Chapel’s survey of cantatas written in the summer of 1723, weeks marked by astonishing displays of Bach’s theological and musical wonders. What a gift they must have been to Leipzig congregants as they are us to us today.   

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

         To conclude our sermon today, as is our tradition at Marsh Chapel in this season, we offer Howard Thurman’s magnificent Thanksgiving prayer.  We offer his prayer in devotion to God, in the moment.  We offer his prayer in gratitude to you, especially you who may be looking for a prayer for Thursday at dinner time:

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!


I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.


I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.


I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;


The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.


All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart. 

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music.

September 30

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

Click here to listen to the sermon only

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Those who have paused, here, or now, to worship with us at Marsh Chapel in the last decade, are aware that we lift the Gospel, come Cantata Sundays, in word and music, together, juntos, in harmony.

Bach brings us the reach of beauty around the globe, a global sphere of orientation.  Bach brings us a stretch toward the universal, the reach up and out to what fully lasts, truly matters, and really counts.  Bach brings us an artistic angle of vision, rooted in Scripture and in an earlier Lutheran garden, nonetheless known by heart and in the heart, far and near, with those, today you and me, who will pause for the offering of the gift of faith.  Bach brings us beauty, a paean for sure to the true and the good, but no avoidance of the beautiful.  In our time, this hour, especially this week, we can truly appreciate, benefit from such a global orientation, a high universal reach, a feeling in faith, and the bathing of such beauty.

Given the maelstrom of this moment in our current culture, the wind blasts of charge and counter charge, the examples of courage and also the instances of failures in courage, near and far, we, come Sunday, maybe especially this Sunday, look for the God who is a rock in a weary land.  Said Dr. Emilie Townes, last Tuesday, ‘we want to cultivate a vibrant community of hope… we hope to beget an ever more piercing faithfulness’.  An ever more piercing faithfulness.

Today we receive the gift in memory of the faith of the church, and we give ear to the beauty of our first Bach Cantata of the year.  We are truly ‘blessed’ as our Gospel affirms.  All the senses—sight, sound, scent, touch, taste—are enlivened today.

This is truly good news, especially for those who may be in mortal need of a living reminder, as the Scritpure says, that we are ‘children of God’.  For we can sometimes acutely need such a reminder of belonging, meaning and empowerment.  We are acquainted with the night.  You are acquainted with the night.  As our New England poet memorably put it:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.


I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.


I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,


But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

O luminary clock against the sky


Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.  

To such acquaintance does our worship this morning minister, and our affirmations of faith, and the beauty of Bach.  Tell us, if you will Dr. Jarrett, how best we can listen for the gospel today, in and within this marvelous cantata.

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Today’s cantata represents a high water mark in the Baroque expression of the anxious tortured soul. Bach surpasses himself in each movement of this musical essay, a sermon-in-song. From the outset, the scope of the opening chorus presents a people in supplication – a people yearning for mercy in the countenance of God’s promised judgment. Presented in two contrasting sections, the opening chorus depicts the many facets of our anxiety. After a pleading alto recitative, the soprano aria gives pitch and rhythm to our angst in the form of trembling sixteenth notes in the upper strings. The foundational voice of the continuo silenced for this movement,  the soprano and oboe are left to wander alone. The voice of wisdom and New Covenant in Christ’s Cup consoles and comforts in the baritone recitative which follows. The sixteenth notes here take on a caring and supporting motive. Drawing on the security of promised Redemption heard in the baritone recitative, the voice of the tenor with obligato horn professes a confident assurance. The cantata concludes with the expected chorale setting. The trembling sixteenth notes of the soprano aria reappear, but as the chorale proceeds, phrase by phrase the trembling anxiety is calmed – sixteenths become triplets, triplets yield to duples, until their final concluding quarter notes – Indeed Bach’s musical signature of promised redemption and divine grace.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

This moment:  in word and worship, in memory and hope, in voice and instrument.  We are blessed.  We are recalled as children of God: who enter the kingdom of heaven and receive comfort in mourning, and gentle the earth, and crave goodness, and trade in mercy, and see divine grace, and pave with justice the path of peace, and see out to the far side of hardship.  Said Howard Thurman, ‘Come Sunday the church says to one and all, the church says to you:  you are a child of the living God, you are a child of the living God, you are a child of the living God.

We gather our bits of hard won wisdom:  ‘The only way of achieving any degree of self-understanding is by systematically retracing our steps’. ‘One can know fully only what one has oneself made.’ ‘I was once a philosopher, but joy kept breaking in.’ ‘What we borrow, we also bend.’ ‘To surrender the actual experienced good for a possible ideal good is the struggle.’

Somewhere, sometime, it may be, you will find yourself in receipt of the gift of faith.  It may be a faith recounted in the Niceaen creed.  But it also may be faith as simple, and pure, and true, as the courage to be, the real courage to be.  To be and speak.  To speak and bear witness.  To bear witness, for all the dangers about, and to tell the truth.  To tell the truth, and to get up again the next day.   Your restoration in faith may be as Lutheran and Scriptural as the substitutionary atonement of tradition, ‘the sacrificial death that wipes out guilt’.   Or it may be faith shorn of religious clothing, clean and clear: ‘a courage welling up from a deep and hidden place’ (Senator Blumenthal quoting Senator Graham, from Graham’s book about work with brave witnesses as a lawyer with sex crimes (9/27/18).   Either way, you have, say today, a restoration in faith.  Faith you can remember, return to be, rely on, when faith, being faith, is, finally all you have left.  Receive the gift of faith in music and word this Lord’s Day.

Then go and live!

As one said: ‘I have only just a minute, 
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can't refuse it.
Didn't seek it, didn't choose it.
But it's up to me to use it,
I must suffer if I lose it,
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute’.
But eternity is in it.’

Our music sings it so:

Now, I know, You shall quiet in me

my conscience which gnaws at me.

Your faithful love will fulfill

what You Yourself have said:

that upon this wide earth

no one shall be lost,

rather shall live forever,

if only he is filled with faith.

 -The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music.

April 15

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 John 3: 1-7

Luke 24:36-48

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Personal Faith

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  

While personal faith is not merely individual faith, nonetheless, it is in persons, like you, that faith is received, and known, and nourished.   There is no hiding here, no hiding behind an unconsidered ignorance, nor behind a well-tempered philosophy, nor behind a mountainous and real hurt, nor behind sloth.  Your faith is yours, especially when it is about all you have left to go on.

So, you will continue, brightened by Easter, to develop and practice your faith.  We are not meant to live in Lent. We are meant to live in Easter. The difference Easter makes comes in part by way of a full body embrace of your own personal faith.

Do you know God to be a pardoning God?  Do you hope to be made whole in this lifetime?   

Knowing pardon, can you creatively and even at some risk, work with another whom you think needs your pardon, I beg your pardon, but who may himself think you need his?  Just how sharp is your faith in its faithful practice of what we pray, Come Sunday, ‘forgive…as we forgive’?

Longing for wholeness, can you creatively and even at some risk, take up work that you have long left behind, but you know is part of personal faith development—reading, prayer, giving, serving, listening?  Pardon? Wholeness? It is up to you.

Here the faithful Lutheran, JS Bach, can indeed help us, by means of his own example in faith.  His own Bible, we have recently been further taught, was laden with notes in the margin, questions, renderings, and ruminations.  

One may choose to play the piano again.  Another may take a language study. One may find a daily devotional reader, like the one my friend gave me by CS Lewis, which sits on my bureau so I can read it while tying my tie.  Another may sit in the quiet of the sanctuary for a while before worship, as did Emerson, I love the silent church before there is any speaking.  One may wander, saunter, flaneur dans le rue, walking for a bit every day (we even have a health group on the staff here doing so right now).  Another may start to journal, to record dreams, and to record insights, and to record angers and to record escapes. Teaching and learning are spiritual adventures in pursuit of invisibles and intangibles (W. Arrowsmith, as remembered by V. Kestenbaum).  Or, if nothing else, you can hardly do better than a conversation, in loving care, with another person of faith, over lunch, over coffee, over a beer, over the phone.  One may look hard at his sexual life, sexual activity, to see whether it becomes the gospel, and whether it approximates the very general guidance in the wisdom saying, In singleness integrity, in partnership fidelity.  At least one, probably, will choose to listen to the Marsh Chapel service, Come Sunday. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things."

Dr. Jarrett:  in terms of today’s music, and text, what witness do you sense Bach brings us, of personal faith,  within the setting of this lovely cantata?


Today’s cantata, is, indeed, a lesson in faith, assurance, and the promise of God’s goodness in our lives. Cantata 69a – “Praise the Lord, o My Soul” was first performed on August 15, 1723, like all the cantatas in this year’s series, during Bach’s first three months as Cantor in Leipzig. We have seen in these cantatas not just a remarkable display of compositional craftsmanship, but also an authoritative theological understanding through both the compilation of the libretto and the setting of those texts. Cantata 69a features from beginning to end an exuberant and joyful hymn of praise of God and the good works that enable a life of faith. Opening with full festival forces with trumpets and timpani, Bach sets the words of Psalm 103, vs 2 in a marvelous double fugue. The music is absolutely radiant, brilliant, and brimming with the praise of all God’s faithful. With this rich texture, we can well imagine the sound of Wesley’s thousand tongues to sing the great Redeemer’s praise.

For Bach, the Gospel lesson of the day was from Mark 7, the account of Jesus healing the deaf man at the Sea of Galilee. As the cantata turns from corporate to personal praise, the soprano and tenor soloists join the voices that witnessed Jesus’s miracle proclaiming the goodness of his deeds, and the glory of God. The cheerful tenor aria is delightfully score for recorder and Oboe da caccia. Listen for the extended line that Bach writes for the word erzähle or “declare”, and like the man whose tongue Jesus loosed, the tenor promises a “Gott gefällig Singen durch die frohe Lippen” or a “God pleasing singing though joyful lips.”

With the following alto recit, we turn inward to remember our human frailty and shortcomings. With further reminder of the Gospel lesson, the alto calls on God to utter his mighty ‘Ephphata’ just as Jesus did in Mark 7:34. From the singing of that Aramaic word meaning “Be opened”, the otherwise syllabic recitative opens to a lovely melody on the words, “so wird mein Mund voll Dankens sein!” “ Then my mouth will be full of thanks!”

The bass aria which follows affirms God as Redeemer and Protector. The believer, here the voice of the bass, pens himself to Christ’s Cross and Passion, pledging to praise at all times. In the same way that Christ gladly took up the cross, thereby exalting his Passion, we, too, will rejoice and sing praise in our own Cross-bearing and suffering. Note the stark contrast of the lines for Kreuz und Leiden (Cross and Suffering) with “singt mein Mund mit Freuden” (My mouth sings with joy).

The final Chorale echoes the close of Mark 7 proclaiming “He hath done all things well!” “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, darbei will ich verbleiben.” Because God holds me in a fatherly embrace in his arms, I will let him alone govern me. Confidence, assurance, affirmation, and ultimately, faith to live in freedom, and freedom to live by faith.  

Social Involvement

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  Of deep personal faith, and active social involvement.

On the front porch of our beloved Marsh Chapel stands John Wesley, preaching, who reminds us that there is no holiness save social holiness (repeat).  In the tradition which gave birth to Boston University and to Marsh Chapel and so to our worship on this and every Sunday, personal faith and social involvement go together, and, in truth, are not found, except hand in hand.

As all of our eight days of worship, teaching, fellowship and remembrance, in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have evinced among us, pistis and polis, faith and culture go together.   Here Bach may help us, if especially in the surge of beauty his music showers on us a sense of grace and in so doing gathers us as one.  The older Lutheran preference for the two kingdoms, Christ and Culture in paradox, is at some lesser closeness to the transformational aspiration in Wesley’s social holiness.  Yet Bach’s very vocational choice to embed himself in congregational musical life is itself a harbinger of transformation. More, the universal regard for the beauty of Bach itself places on the edge of a way forward, as a global village.

As Christian women and men, we are not free to celebrate faith apart from life, to affirm faith in ignorance of the polis, the city, the culture, the political.  The Bible itself is a 66-book declamation of social justice, at every turn, by every writer, with every chapter, at every point.   Moses, Amos, Micah, Matthew, Luke, Paul, All. Try and read the Bible without being confronted, accosted, seized and shaken by its fierce acclamation of the hope of justice.  Real religion is never very far from justice, even though justice alone, a crucial part of the Gospel, alone is not the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is love, which is more than justice—though not less.

You then, in real time, read the newspaper as well as the Bible.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about what you read.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the persons and personalities driving cultural and political formation. You also have reason and obligation to be concerned about the policies, speaking of polis, which emanate from those personalities and persons, those forms of rhetoric and language and behavior. You have full reason and obligation to be concerned about public good, about the polis, about the forms of culture and civil society across our land, painstakingly built up over 250 years, that are not government and not politics, but are more fundamental and more fragile than both.  You have reason and obligation to be concerned about the use of military force, either as Christian pacifists, or as Christian activists watching for the just war adjectives: responsive, multilateral, proportional, non-imperial, just, and limited.

As a runner, say, you have reason and obligation to be concerned about the route itself.  Run with joy the race set, but neglect not to engage by precept and example the social support, the cultural forms required for the race.  The route. The roads cleared. The police. The first responders. The supporting cheerers. The rules and traditions. The many, thousands, standing by you, and standing with you, and standing for you.  Personal holiness is the run. Social holiness is the route. They go together.

Five years ago, today, we began Marathon Monday with our Marsh Chapel traditions.  The Dean’s breakfast. The meal of eggs, bacon, muffins and juice, with invitations to all undergraduates to arise before the race comes through Kenmore Square.  Music to sing, written in Boston long ago for a children’s choir,  “My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty”.  Longfellow cited, one if by land if two if by sea, and I on the opposite shore will be. The Gettysburg address recited, Fourscore and seven years ago. Then, out to the race and the day and the 26 mile family picnic on Boston’s best morning.  But as you know the day ended differently than planned, as our Wednesday April 11 remembrance this past week here at BU recalled.  Just recall the social involvement of those who expected to treat blisters and ended up placing tourniquets. Just recall the social involvement in the lives saved, hundreds saved, by prepared, well supported, team oriented hospitals and physicians.  Just recall your social involvement in the vigil that Tuesday evening on our plaza, the Wednesday evening worship service in our sanctuary, the Thursday morning service at the Cathedral with the President speaking words of grace, the Friday lock down.  Just recall the Monday global service for our own Lu Lingzi, which ended with her family, 18 together, bowing at the waist before the University and the world. Dime con quien corres, yo te dire quien eres.  You tell me WITH WHOM you run, and I will tell you who you are.

The Christian life is a daily combination of personal faith and social involvement (repeat).  So, our song this Lord’s day, is just this:

Ah, would that I had a thousand tongues!

Ah, would that my mouth were

Empty of idle words!
 Ah, would that I said nothing other

Than what was geared to God’s praise!

Then I would proclaim the Highest’s goodness,

For all my life he has done so much for me

That I cannot thank Him in all eternity.

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


February 11

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 9:2-9 

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Last Sunday our worship service of Word and Table conclude with the singing of an old hymn, written by a Massachusetts minister J. Edgar Park, who was President of Wheaton College, Massachusetts. He was born in Belfast, Ireland, March 7, 1879 and had his theological studies at New College, Edinburgh, The Royal University, Dublin, and Princeton Theological Seminary. His principal pastorate was in the Second Church of Newton, Congregational, West Newton, Massachusetts, which he served 1926 to 1944, going from there to the Presidency of Wheaton. He was the author of many books, including one of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale.

You may not in fact remember the hymn we sang, to conclude our service, which is not any detriment to or criticism of you. The hymn title is ‘We Would See Jesus’, number 256 in our venerable Methodist Hymnal, which Hymnal is about to be revised this coming year with all the attendant disagreements, disputes, and ultimately, we trust, a happy and useful outcome for the use of singing Methodists near and far. One of our own faculty here at Boston University is a member of that committee.

The hymn fits our readings from Mark, and fits Epiphany, the season out of which we come, and traces the ministry of Jesus.

We would see Jesus, lo! His star is shining, above the stable while the angels sing

There in a manger on the hay reclining, haste let us lay our gifts before the King 

We would see Jesus, Mary’s Son most holy…

We would see Jesus, on the mountain teaching…

We would see Jesus, in his work of healing…

We would see Jesus, still as of old he calleth ‘Follow me’… 

In a few simple verses, the hymn traces the earthly ministry of Jesus, birth, growth, teaching, healing, calling.   This is the Jesus most of us most of the time are most comfortable with, and the Jesus, one could add, that most seminarians prefer to study, the Jesus of parables, of the lilies of the field, of the various healings, of the preachments in valley and on mountain—in short, the human Jesus. This is the Jesus known and heard in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with some occasional exceptions, like today’s reading. We can fairly readily approach this Jesus, we would see him as the hymn says, in the verses and chapters of the Synoptic Gospels.

Now pause, for a moment, and hear again the Gospel today, which is none of this. The Mark 9 Transfiguration is like an invasion of the gospel of John into an other-wise happy earliest Gospel of Mark. A high mysterious mountain. Strange choices about booths. The sudden acclamation of Elijah and Moses. A blinding light. MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM. The Holy. Suddenly not just a teacher or preacher or healer or rabbi, but…This is the Jesus of your life and death. Death makes us mortal, facing death makes us human. This is the Jesus of whom it is said, ‘My Lord and My God’. This is the Jesus to whom we turn in the Lenten challenges, whether or not they come in Lent, the Lord of life and death.   So, our Charles Wesley hymn, in a few moments, is quite different: Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true the only light, Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night, Dayspring from on High be near, Daystar in my heart appear

It is this holy grace, this gracious holiness, to which we turn our ears, not our eyes, on the Sundays, like this one, upon which we hear the Gospel as spoken, but also as sung: A day is coming that will judge the secrets [of humankind], Before which hypocrisy may tremble. For the wrath of His jealousy annihilates What hypocrisy and cunning contrive.

                        Dr. Jarrett: how shall we listen, this morning, with particular and careful attention, to today’s cantata?



 Thank you, Dean Hill. At first read, the texts of today’s cantata surely align more with the MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM depiction you’ve just described. Cantata 136 warns of the day of judgement when our own hypocrisy and cunning-ways threaten to undo us. The bass soloist tells us that the heavens themselves are not clean, and that all are struck by spots of sin, brought upon us by Adam’s Fall. These depictions endure for much of the cantata, until, mercifully, we are reminded that Jesus’s wounds cleanse and redeem. In the final chorale we sing that even a drop of the Blood of Jesus can cleanse the entire world. The image is one of humankind ensnared in the Devil’s jaws, set free and at liberty by the blood of the lamb.

Bach’s anonymous librettist was surely trying to amplify the themes of the lessons heard earlier in the Leipzig service — for Bach these were lessons from Romans and Matthew. They call the Christian to live according to the spirit, not the flesh, along with an admonishment to beware false prophets and hypocrisy. These are the subjects of the internal movements – two recitatives, an alto aria, and a duet for tenor and bass. Bach highlights a few words here with extended melismas for the singers: erzittern or tremble referring to the sinner on judgment day, vernichtet or annihilate describing the wrath of God’s jealousy. In the duet, as if to number our spots of sin, Flecken is set as a melisma. Later in the duet the redeeming Strom or stream of Jesus’s blood is similarly treated, all of which offer aural anchors throughout these two remarkable movements.

A typical cantata libretto draws on several sources for texts. The internal movements were most often newly written poetic texts by someone in close working relationship with Bach. It’s in these texts we find the most theological exegesis worked out. Most often the cantatas concluded with a Chorale by one of the famous Lutheran hymn writers, frequently by Luther himself. The opening movements were typically direct quotes of Scripture, drawing on the Psalms more than any other Biblical source. Bach follows this exact design in Cantata 136, opening his cantata with the 23rd verse of Psalm 139: Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. In the German: “Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz; Prüfe mich, und erfahre, wie ich’s meine.” Modern German translations of the Luther Bible replace erfahre with erkenne. Regardless, listeners can recognize these four imperative verbs that begin each line, imploring God’s true examination of our inmost thoughts.


I rely with gratitude on John Ashton, a great NT scholar, to keep the Jesus of Mark and also the Jesus of John, who makes an invasive appearance here in Mark 9, both before us. Both Christmas and Easter. Both Life and Death. Both teaching and crucifixion. Both healing and resurrection. Jesus both human divine, both Mark and John, both Mark 1 and Mark 9.   Both ‘We would see Jesus’ and ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’. Both last Sunday and this Sunday.

No doubt the Synoptic Gospels held their place; but for them Christianity might well have rapidly vaporized into some form of speculative Gnosticism. It did not; the parables of the kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount continued to be regarded as indispensable elements of the Christian message, and—more importantly—the Jesus who preached them remained ever present to the Christian consciousness. 

To most modern eyes the portrait painted by the Synoptists is both both simpler and more attractive.   It is the portrait of a man with a special relationship with God, whom he addresses by the intimate name of Abba, Father…He was a man of his time; his teaching and preaching, even his healing miracles, can readily be placed in the context of first century Palestinian Judaaism. If he were suddenly to reappear as he really was he would no doubt seem to us, in Albert Schweitzer’s phrase,’ a stranger and an enigma’, but a recognizable human being nonetheless.

Not so the Johannine Christ (we add, here, not so the Christ of the Transfiguration). He does not belong to this world at all: it is almost true to say that he enters it with the purpose of leaving it. He is a pre-existent divine being whose real home is heaven. He enters an alien world with an unprecedented confidence and assurance, knowing who he is, where he comes from, and where he is going…He orchestrates his own passion…he can read Pilate’s heart. There is about him no trace of uncertainty. Master of his fate, captain of his soul… his head bloodied but unbowed, he never had to confront either the fell clutch of circumstance or the bludgeonings of chance. (Ashton, 1991, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 239)

 Well beloved, that is, there is a full and deep mystery here, an unfathomable, an uncanny deep, right here in our Gospel, of the sudden appearance of a Jesus who would fit well in John, but not so well in Mark. And is that not, for us, come Sunday, this Sunday, in the hearing of the word and music, a part of our needed reminder, a reminder about the limits of life, about the mystery of life, about the God gift of life, given us well beyond our capacity to understand it? Perhaps we can carry from the beauty and holiness of these precious gospel and musical moments, a sturdy reminder of the great strangeness, the great mystery, the great, tremendous, yes, unearthly voice and presence and grace of our Lord, who comes to us, this morning, interrupting the rest of his more human appearance in Mark, with this scene befitting John, and interrupting our forgetfulness about mystery. In that spirit, let us pray:

Gracious God, Holy and Just

Thou from whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

Thou source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

Take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

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