Pastor Wilbert Miller’ Sermon
“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”
Matthew 27: 33-50
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
In a few moments, we will hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata, “Lord Jesus Christ, True Man and God.” In addition to the gorgeous music, I pray that you will be struck by the stunning words:
O Head, full of blood and wounds,
full of suffering and shame!
O Head, bound in mockery
with a crown of thorns!
O Head, once beautifully adorned
with the highest honor and beauty,
now rather supremely defiled:
be greeted by me!
If you have come this evening just for music, you could just as easily be a block away at Lincoln Center. Bach’s cantata is far more than an aesthetical outing on a Spring evening. Who can miss its melancholic nature? We are with Mary at the foot of the cross.
A number of years ago, I read this: “[Mary and her son Jesus] were likely looking at one another face to face. Much later, beginning in the Middle Ages, artists would depict a very tall cross, with Mary and the others far below at its foot. But historians believe that the cross was probably about seven feet tall. They were face to face. The sweat, the blood, the tearing tendons, the twitching, the wrenching, the bulging eyes—she would have seen it all quite clearly, as clearly as she saw him so long ago when she held him safely to her breast” (John Richard Neuhaus, “Death on a Friday Afternoon”).
The church begins Holy Week today, Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. This day is also called the Passion of Our Lord; we recall the horrific events that unfolded as Jesus loved us to the end and we stare at our suffering Savior, face to face.
Bach’s cantata directs us to our deepest humanity. There, in the depths of our souls, we hear far more than stunning music: we gaze deeply into our hearts and behold the one who is everything we are and everything we are not.
There are occasions when we are stunned by our courage: we march with protest banners unfurled in solidarity with the downtrodden. We feel like we are on the streets of Jerusalem, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
And yet, honesty compels us to tell another story about ourselves as well. We are sometimes sickened by our failure of nerve. As innocent Syrian children are gassed to death and military strikes are waged, we are clueless what should be done. Is retaliating with our own deadly weapons a useful response to the barbarity of poisonous gas or should we merely sit by quietly and prayerfully as little children scream for our help? Yes indeed, we cry helplessly into the evening sky, “O Lord, I know not what I do!”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the esteemed rabbi who taught just up the street at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at 122nd and Broadway, once said, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Some may demur, “I would never do such a thing.” But honesty calls us to confess. We are the Judases who, for a measly bit of silver, make a few shabby compromises so our retirement accounts stretch a bit further into our autumn years; we are the Peters cringing when it comes time to tell the truth—all we can muster is the meek contention that our pint-size voices won’t make any difference, anyway. We are caught in the vicious cogs that go round and round. We watch as the thorny crown is placed on Jesus’ head and listen as the crowd derides him. We listen in disgust as the pundits’ blather on and feel so impotent as the mightier ones weave their dirty work.
The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” He sounds a lot like Saint Paul who said: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Johann Sebastian Bach understood these words. His music is sung most profoundly and powerfully when we all comprehend the crooked lines of good and evil running through our hearts. This is the pathos that moves us deeply and causes us to leave evenings such as this saying, “That was hauntingly breathtaking!” Our hearts have been deeply touched.
This may all sound a tad too dismal, teeming with eighteenth century Germanic gloom, despair, and resignation. And yet, remember such were never Bach’s final words. There was always hope to be found. You will hear it again at the conclusion of the cantata, just when you thought the morning would never come:
When everything shudders at the last hour,
and when a cold death-sweat
bathes limbs already stiff,
when my tongue cannot speak other than through sighs
and this heart breaks…
The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body…
I am unafraid of death,
because my Jesus will awaken me again.
Listen for words of hope: “I am unafraid of death, because my Jesus will awaken me again.”