The Rev. Wilbert Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Sermon at Bach Vespers
“Dylan, Scotch, Bach, and Prayer”
Luke 18: 1-8
Sunday, October 16, 2016 (22nd Sunday after Pentecost)
I realize speaking of Bob Dylan at Holy Trinity’s hallowed Bach Vespers might end up being deemed as outrageous as Mr. Dylan plugging in his acoustic guitar and going electric at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965…. but here I go anyway.
As you are likely aware by now, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this past Thursday, October 13. He joins such American literary luminaries as William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Toni Morrison in receiving this august award. Whether you agree with this choice or not—which, by the way, thrills me!—let me at least tell you about the first time I heard Bob Dylan.
It was way back in 1963 when I was twelve years old. My good friend, Chick Rybeck, invited me to his house on Birch Avenue to listen to a new record he had just purchased at Value City; it was Bob Dylan’s first album titled simply “Bob Dylan.” It included such songs as “Talkin’ New York,” “Highway 51,” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.” It was the darndest thing I had ever heard: the words made no sense to me and Dylan’s raspy voice made me wonder who in their right mind would ever purchase such weird music.
I listened and listened, trying to fathom it all. Just like learning to drink well-aged scotch or to appreciate the towering music of Johann Sebastian Bach, it took me some time to become an aficionado. Today, fifty-four years later, Bob Dylan is my go-to-guy when it comes to eine kleine Abendmusik (a little evening music).
“And the point?” you rightfully demand, especially just having just heard Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto #3” and eagerly awaiting being bathed in his glorious Komm, Jesu Komm.
The point is that it almost always takes time to savor the finer things of life. We can never give up seeking how to cherish these salutary gifts, even if on first hearing or tasting, we aren’t quite convinced.
“And the point…for tonight…at Bach Vespers?”
Jesus urged his followers to pray always and not to lose heart. Take time, he seemed to say. He did so by telling the parable of a widow who harangued a judge. The judge, at first, refused her request, but, the more she nagged, the wearier he grew. Finally, the judge granted her wish if for no other reason than to get rid of her.
This dogged persistence is not how most of us learned to pray. We learned to approach God on bended knees, at bedside, with great humility; we certainly were not taught to approach God with clenched fists, shouting to God and demanding God give us what we need most.
Surprisingly, so said Jesus, prayer works like that. God will grant justice to those who persevere, “who cry to him day and night.” Said another way, prayer takes time, just like learning to appreciate Dylan, scotch, or Bach.
We have so much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters when it comes to approaching God. The Psalms, after all, are our finest primer when it comes to bold prayer. The Hebrew scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that in the Psalms “nothing is out of bounds, nothing is precluded or inappropriate…To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God.”
“Knock, knock, knock on heaven’s door,” so said the Psalmist and Jesus—oops that was Dylan who said that but you get the point. Here’s how Johann Sebastian Bach prayed in the motet we are about to hear:
“Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary,
my strength wanes more and more,
I long for Your peace;
The sour path becomes too difficult for me!
Come, come, I will yield myself to You,
You are the true path,
Truth and life.
“Therefore I enclose myself in Your hands
And say goodnight to you, world!
Even though my lifetime rushes to its end,
My spirit nevertheless prepared.
It shall soar with its Savior,
Since Jesus is and remains
The true path of life.”
Like those who have learned to love Dylan, we pray to God in the midst of the raspiness and weirdness of our lives until God responds. Like those of you who have grown to adore Bach, we struggle with what seems so complicated in our lives until we finally grasp the wonder and delight of God filling our souls. And certainly, like those who believe God answers prayer, we come again this night knocking on heaven’s door, expecting the finest thing of all, that God will fill our lives with infinite goodness and wonder.