Sermon for Bach Vespers – June 5, 2016

Wolff, Pr ChristianThe Rev. Christian Wolff
Pastor (ret.) St. Thomas Church Leipzig
Text: Luke 1:39-54 (Magnificat)

Dear members of the congregation,  dear friends and guests,  and today especially dear Kathy and Robert,

Like Mary with the child you have gone pregnant with the idea of spending your final years of service close to the roots of what brings us together today: the faith of the Reformation, and the music. Your eyes have been turned towards the center of Europe for decades, especially Saxony, Wittenberg and Leipzig. In 2005, you already practiced living in Leipzig for a sabbatical – with a view of St. Thomas Church. Now the birth of what first was only an idea is imminent: you are moving to Germany, to Leipzig.

One of the driving motivations is your desire to live out your faith in a way that brings people together in greater mutual understanding – in Germany, in Europe and in the United States. You aim to employ the Reformation’s achievements – music and education, freedom and responsibility – to support the peaceful coexistence of the diverse.
It is wonderful: God has called you out of your daily routine – like Mary and Elisabeth, You have been called to this new endeavor by the power of the Holy Spirit, filled with the strength to pursue it, your eyes turned to the future. This is not unlike the sentiment in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, after her meeting with Elisabeth, which is the basis of the cantata we are hearing tonight.
Now it may seem presumptuous to draw a comparison between the meeting of two men at coffee after Church 20 years ago with Mary and Elisabeth and their pregnancies. After all, we guys would have no idea of what we are talking about. But the 20 years of our friendship have always been filled with new ideas, guided by the question, how can we faithfully witness to the Good News in Leipzig and in Houston; how can we offer the Christian faith as something attractive in today’s secular and multi – religious society? We both know how hard it is, the struggle to remain true to this calling; how we keep missing the mark; how we feel caught when we hear or sing the revolutionary song of Mary and realize – how up stays up and down stays down. The hungry are not fed and Israel must still fear for its existence today. But these doubts have not kept us from living our mission with “heart and mouth and deed and life”.

There is no better way to describe your work, dear Kathy and Robert, than the title of the cantata, taken from the opening chorale: heart, mouth, deed and life. Those who have experienced your hospitality know of your big heart, your insurmountable warmth and kindness, your wonderful communication talents, your deeds and your liveliness. All this is even more impressive, because you also know the other side of things. I have heard you talk freely about what isn’t going well, you don’t hide your own shortcomings. But can we allow our own failure to keep us from mentioning the great deeds of God? Should we not let the message of Jesus inspire us and others, exactly because we often fail to live up to his standards? Should one who is imperfect, at times domineering and unfair, keep quiet about the commandment of peace and social justice?

The opening chorale of the cantata “Heart and mouth and deed and life” trumpets erupt and break through complacency and reticence:

 Heart and mouth and deed and life
Must bear witness of the Christ
Without fear and pretense
That he is God and Savior.
Only because we often are of little faith, our faith cannot stay locked up inside. We can and should keep on speaking of the great deeds of God, of freedom, non-violence and compassion – even as these are daily attacked and bombed, figuratively and literally.
Bach probably composed such a grand opening to embrace the holistic nature of the creed: the proclaiming fanfare on the one hand, and the introspective, thoughtful meditation on the other. We need to embrace the full range of activism and contemplation, prayer and righteous actions, resistance and surrender. None of this shall be torn apart or played against each other.

Professing God, bearing witness to Jesus Christ – this process always finds its way from the inside out, from the heart to the mouth, from the deed to life. But first we must receive the message:

It is God who vigorously empowers you;
He will rouse the Spirit’s power within you,
Yes, placing thanks and praise upon your tongues.

 Bach has arranged an unusually long instrumental conclusion to the final recitative sung by the alto – as if he wanted to really let the message sink in. But then it breaks through again. Forceful trumpet bursts open the bass aria:

I want to sing of the wonder of Jesus
And render to him an offering from my lips;

 Such testimony of faith must be declared and thereby silence can be overcome. Even the idle crowds can be moved this way. Driven by the lively floating orchestral accompaniment, the choir joins in the confession of Christ with the two chorales. And once again two sides are inseparably joined: being upheld by our faith in Jesus and being upset about ourselves and about the state of this world. As long as we can draw upon the ever flowing source of life that is Jesus Christ, we will also be able to speak and sing of the great deeds of God as powerfully as Mary – with “heart and mouth and deed and life.”

Dear Kathy, dear Robert, you are going to do that in Leipzig starting this summer, not severed from Houston, not severed from the life of your family or this congregation. For we are united in the Good News of Jesus Christ, his message of justice, of peace and of resurrection life. Let the words of the final chorale be your dispatch, a motto for all of us, in Leipzig and here. Jesus remains my joy, my heart’s sap and comfort. Jesus wards off all harm. He is my life’s strength, my eyes’ pleasure and sun, my soul’s treasure and delight. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our lord Jesus Christ,
stay in our midst
with your message of salvation.
With a word, awaken in us
solace and spirit to act,
love and passion,
belief and believability,
and let our prayer become
a living hope for this world
through the deeds of the righteous.