The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s
Sermon at Bach Vespers
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
October 9, 2016
“With a Story to Tell and a Song to Sing”
2 Timothy 2: 8-15
It is my joy to welcome you to this glorious tradition of Bach Vespers. As the new pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, I hope you will discover God’s presence in these evening moments. Also, please join us at the reception, downstairs, immediately following this evening’s liturgy where I look forward to meeting you.
One of my worst fears as a child was ending up alone in the basement. Every once and a while, someone mistakenly turned off the basement lights and I was alone, scared to death. I screamed and ran through the deep darkness. Monsters and ghosts lurked there, of course, and I ran as fast as my little feet could carry me, scampering for the light.
Those childish fears seem silly except don’t we adults fear the darkness as well? Remember Dylan Thomas’s words:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Whether tiny tots or aging ones, we harbor a primal fear that when the sun goes down, the end will follow, soon and forever.
We gather together tonight yet again to rage against the dying of the light.
The Jewish people have given thanks to God down through the ages for that pillar of fire that led them through the dark wilderness into the brilliant light of the Promised Land.
The church, too, celebrates that Christ faced the agony and horror of the cross to offer his hand to lead us from every terror of the night into the promise of life everlasting.
For forty-nine years now, Holy Trinity has invited friends and neighbors to gather in this holy space for Evening Prayer, Vespers. As the sun goes down, glorious music has pierced the darkness, raging against the dying of the light.
The Danish writer Karen Blixen (better known as Isak Dinesen) writes it this way: “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.” I suppose you could say any darkness can be endured if a song can be sung about it.
The two motets we just heard are by Johnann Christoph Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach’s first cousin once removed). The first motet reeks of despair born amidst the horrendous plagues and vicious wars of the 17th century where the average life expectancy was just under forty and twelve percent of children died before their first year.
Man that is born of woman has but a short time to live and is full of misery.
He comes up and is cut down like a flower, as fleeting as a shadow and with no abiding place.
How futile and fleeting is the life given to man.
Scarcely born into this world, he is marked out for death…
All mortals are sinners and must perish at un unexpected hour.
Have you ever felt such despair? Are you silently walking through the dark wilderness right now? If the truth be told, we will all face a little death this very night as we close our eyes and fall asleep. This sleep has been called a rehearsal for the final and real thing.
Yes, despair hangs in the air and yet, in the classic Lutheran formulation, the harps cannot remain hanging in the willows for long. There must be another song. We all need a tale told, a song sung. The second motet we just heard is such a song:
Though he dies before his time,
Nevertheless finds rest…
For his soul finds comfort in the Lord.
Thus with Him at his side
he hurry out of wicked life.
We long for a melody of hope in the face of any dissonance of despair. In this evening’s reading from Second Timothy, Saint Paul speaks of the hardships he endures so that “the Word of God is not chained.” That is why we are here tonight. We are little children being tucked into bed as the lights are turned off. We beg God to tell us one more story, to sing us one more song, before we close our eyes and fall asleep. That story, of course, is the one that gives us confidence that if we endure with the Lord, we shall reign with him.
And so, tonight, yet again, we sing a song, pray a prayer, and listen to the music of angels, all in high hope that as we go out into the evening darkness we will have a spring in our step, a hope in our heart, a melody in our soul.