Salt, not honey

Well, a man can’t live on jam, and neither can a Christian society. Our Heavenly Father said mankind was the salt of the earth, son, not the honey. And our poor world’s rather like old man Job, stretched out in all his filth, covered with ulcers and sores. Salt stings on an open wound, but saves you from gangrene.

Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Da Capo), 11.

Jesus’ silence

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Reminiscere Sunday
Genesis 32:22–32 Matthew 15:21–28
24 February 2012

A recording of the sermon is posted here.

In the name of ✠ Jesus.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”

Why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

The Canaanite woman was not alone. Her need so desperate, and her only hope implacably silent. Jesus is silent, and when he opens his mouth, he speaks only to discourage and to repel, seemingly impervious to her cries, showing no interest in her plight, determined only to push her away.

In her plight, she joined that dark place inhabited by king David, the author of the psalms you have just heard, and the patriarch Jacob himself, the man named Israel, in whose name Jesus was driving her away: “I have come for the lost sheep of Israel—only for the children of Jacob. Why do you bother me?” That dark place where our desperate prayers are met with rebuttal or, worse, with complete silence. She may well have wondered with the Psalmist, “Has forgotten to be gracious?”

Continue reading Jesus’ silence

God really has said!

Homily read at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Invocavit Sunday, 17 February 2013.

Text: Genesis 3:1–21, Matthew 4:1–11

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

When the preacher declared in the book of Ecclesiasticus that there is nothing new under the sun, he was not joking. The history of the world was told pretty much in its entirety in the first four chapters of the Bible: its creation in love by God, man’s place in it with his wife, their temptation by the Devil and the fall, and the subsequent falling apart of everything: man’s relationship with his wife, man’s relationship with nature, and the beginning of the murder that makes up the significant part of all history books.
Everything since then has been a series of variations on this theme, with the emphasis being on the sinful half—although God in His unfathomable love graciously continues to allow the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unjust, and the goodness of the creation continues to speak of the goodness of its Creator.

What this means is that the large part of our lives on this planet is built on an arch-lie, first spoken by the father of lies in the Garden: “Did God really say?” Did God really say? And the moment they listened to that lie, everything went wrong for Adam and Eve, and for everyone ever since.

The basic message of the Devil’s lie is simple: God is not good, and His will is not good. The boundaries He has established are those of a tyrant or a spoil-sport. And from that lie arises every sin.

You shall have no other Gods—but what about me and my things?
You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain—but what about my faith and my opinions?
Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy—but not for too long and not too often, because there are other pressing matters to attend to as well and life’s too short.
Honour your father and your mother—but what about my will and my self-determination?
You shall not kill—but I cannot and will not love this or that person, and I will not let go of my grudge.
You shall not commit adultery—but that look, that thought, that joke, is just a bit of harmless fun. Am I not allowed to be happy?
You shall not steal—but I need it, I want it, and I must have it. And why should I give from what is mine?
You shall not bear false witness about your neighbour—but I must get this thing off my chest.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, wife, or other helpers—but I’m only human, and we’ve got to be realistic in this dog-eat-dog world.
And so the lies go on and multiply. The world is full of them, and we are full of them. Did God really say?

And to all this, God says: The day that you shall eat of the forbidden tree, you shall surely die. The lies are not white, and they are not harmless. Rebellion against God is rebellion against life itself, and the wages of sin is death.

Cain discovered this when he slew his brother. The whole world discovered this when God flooded the sinful world. Pharaoh discovered this when he thought he could stop God’s will with his stubbornness and his armies. The people of Israel discovered this when they found themselves going around in circles for forty years in the wilderness until the whole rebellious generation that left Egypt was dead and buried.

And we discover this at every funeral, and at every sign that we, too, are dying. The wages of sin is death, because the Devil’s lie has cheated us of God’s love and separated us from the Tree of Life.

Continue reading God really has said!

The Right Response to a Great Tragedy

There’s a good post over on Steadfast Lutherans by Pr. Nathan Higgins on how to respond to a national tragedy. The substance of the post is summarised in the opening sentence:

Perhaps the best way to respond to a national tragedy – or any kind of tragedy, is with mourning, repentance, and faith.

In case you were wondering about this, Jesus seems to agree.

By a complete coincidence, this Sunday’s Sunday Cantata will be showcasing a cantata written for a penitential service in response to a great tragedy. That’s right: a penitential service. On 30 May, the city of Muhlhausen suffered a terrible fire, in which several hundred houses were destroyed. They responded by holding a penitential service in one of the town churches, St. Blasius. For that occasion, the newly-appointed organist of St. Blasius, 22-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach.

The text of the Cantata is Psalm 130, and no one is surprised that Bach does an absolutely sublime job on setting it. The music is full of unresolved tensions—which are only resolved on the word “Forgiveness”. And the whole piece ends on the major dominant chord: we are left waiting for God’s answer, but in full confidence that it will come.

Here is what Masaaki Suzuki, founder and director of Bach Collegium Japan, has to say:

This psalm tells of ‘the depths of our sins’, and traditionally it seems that the descending fifth interval was often employed to express these depths. Both Luther’s chorale Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From depths of woe I cry to Thee), which Bach later used in his cantata No.38, and Psalm 130 of the Genevan Psalter, compiled by Jean Calvin, begin with this motif of the descending fifth. Bach, too, opens his cantata BWV131 with this same motif, and relates the words of the psalm with deep passion.
In fact the sense of ‘sin’ against the Absolute Being does not exist in the traditional Japanese mentality. In Japan, ‘sin’ has always been something relative, and it is believed that sins are washed away as time passes. However, ‘sin’ as taught in the Bible can be forgiven only by God, and not by one’s own self. Therefore, in this cantata, Bach stresses that only God can give forgiveness by using the dissonant major seventh chord and its resolution only once on the word ‘Vergebung’ (Forgiveness)( BWV131, No.2). The longing for God is sung fervently by the alto and tenor (opening of No.3), and the night watch waits longingly for the morning, which signifies redemption, as expressed in the sustained tone in the tenor aria (opening of No.4).

Bach’s cantatas continue to tell the Bible’s messages vividly through the universal language of music, just like the biblical stories portrayed in stained glass in churches, even in this predominantly non-Christian country, Japan.

Here’s a little taster:

Mr. Suzuki’s Bach Passion

Masaaki SuzukiHere is a BBC radio documentary about the extraordinary story of Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan whose Bach recordings have blown away Bach performance—and opened unexpected doors for the Gospel in Japan.

These are the recordings we feature on Lutheran Radio UK’s Sunday Cantata. Listening to this, you will know why.

Click here to go to listen on the BBC website. I don’t know whether it is available to listen to outside the UK)

If you want to get hold of the BCJ Japan recordings, I can heartily recommend eClassical.com, who sell them as high-quality downloads (the more recent volumes at studio quality) at a very affordable price. You can also download the CD booklets, for no extra charge.

Here’s the blurb for the programme from BBC:

The story of how a group of remarkable Japanese musicians overthrew centuries of tradition – and prejudice – to become one of the of the world’s most brilliant baroque music ensembles. Presented by Roland Buerk.

A musical revolution is in the air. After three centuries as the undisputed masters of Johann Sebastian Bach’s legacy, Germany has found itself rudely usurped…by Japan.

The Bach Collegium Japan – and their musical director, Masaaki Suzuki – are a phenomenon. Founded in 1990, they’ve overcome the cultural prejudices of a snooty musical world to become one of the most lauded baroque musical ensembles in the world.

The BCJ have won major award after major award for their extraordinary complete series of Bach’s cantatas: the Mount Everest of baroque music, numbering more than 200 works and 50 CDs of some of the most beautiful – and challenging – music ever written.

Critics praise the remarkable clarity, finesse and sheer musicianship of their performances: readings that throw off hundreds of years of European baggage to reveal the unadorned beauty and raw devotion of the notes beneath.

Yet wasn’t always this way. When Suzuki set up the BCJ more than two decades ago, Western critics were in stitches. “Don’t worry – this isn’t Bach in kimonos”, chuckled one reviewer – after all, how could a nation with its an entirely alien musical and cultural tradition – a place where classical music and Christianity were decidedly minority interests – master some of the most complex, subtle and devotional music ever written?

They’re not laughing now. Critics and members of the public alike queue around the block to catch a glimpse of the ensemble in rehearsal – whilst their CDs sell in their hundreds of thousands across the globe.

In “Mr Suzuki’s Bach Passion”, Roland Buerk follows the BCJ as they prepare for the latest in their acclaimed series of performances – recorded in February this year, and featuring exclusive excerpts from the group’s latest series of cantata recordings, as well as their acclaimed readings of the St John and St Matthew Passions, and Bach’s B Minor Mass.

As momentum builds towards a sell-out performance at Tokyo’s vast Opera City Hall, Roland investigates the roots of Japan’s love affair with JS Bach and the BCJ – trying to pin down why a nation with less than 3% Christian population is so taken with this highly contemplative, devotional religious music.

Is there something in the Japanese national psyche that mirrors the unadorned aesthetic beauty of JS Bach’s music? How much does a musical culture require a tradition – and how much is it hindered by it? And does an age-old Western claim about Japanese society – that it is brilliant at copying and refining, yet can lack true originality – apply to the BCJ’s music? Or does it merely reflect Western prejudices?

Roland also reflects on the message of hope imbued in Bach’s music – and its power to heal – in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March this year.

Contributors include Masaaki Suzuki, director of the Bach Collegium Japan; Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music; Catholic priest Fr. Takehiro ‘Gus’ Kunii; Robert von Bahr, founder of BIS records; and the celebrated German tenor and BCJ soloist Gerd Tuerk.

On liturgical orientation

Lutheran MassThis post is a development of a couple of Twitter posts as part of this fruitful exchange, initiated by John H.

Full disclaimer: I currently celebrate the Sacrament versus populum

For most of the Divine Service, there are two ways liturgists can face. Ad orientem means ‘towards the east’, and refers to the liturgist facing the altar, with his back to the congregation. The opposite way is versus populum, facing the people, with his back to the altar.

The rationale for these is simple: when the liturgist addresses God with or for the people (chiefly in the confession and in the prayers), he faces the same way as the people, and towards God, whose presence the altar symbolises. When the liturgist addresses God’s word(s) to the people (e.g. in the absolution, in the readings), he faces the people whom he addresses.

Because it’s polite to face whomever you address. And it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise.

So which way should the liturgist face during the liturgy of the sacrament? Some of that liturgy is addressed to the people (the Preface), some to God (the Proper Preface and eucharistic prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sanctus & Benedictus, the Agnus Dei). Easy enough.

But what about the Words of Institution? Who are they addressed to? If they are embedded in the eucharistic prayer, as they are in many traditions, they are addressed to God. Simple.

And if they were addressed to the people, as a sort of additional Gospel reading accompanying the celebration of the sacrament, versus populum would make sense.

But in Lutheran theology at least, they are not addressed to the people. They are the Words of Institution—not merely the historical institution of the sacrament in general, but the institution of the sacrament there and then. The words do what they say, that is they bring about the sacramental union of the body and blood of the Lord with the bread and the wine. In other words, the Words of Institution are addressed to the elements.

And this is not unimportant or merely technical. The Sacrament is the Gospel: it is where the word ceases to be information for the ears and becomes a tangible reality. It is where the crucified and risen body of Jesus, which is the Temple of God on earth, meets with our mortal bodies as the medicine of immortality. And therefore the Words of Institution are the Gospel precisely when the congregation eavesdrops on them, hearing them pronounced over the elements for their good. As long as they are addressed to the people, they remain historical information without direct contemporary relevance or benefit.

And this, to my mind, is a key argument against the increasingly common, and historically pretty unheard-of, practice of versus populum celebration of the Sacrament in the modern style: with the celebrant positioned behind a free-standing altar, facing the people over the altar. It removes the priest from the people, and it turns the congregation into an audience being addressed, as if God were declaring the Words of Institution to the people as well as the elements.

Now it’s true that Luther suggested that the consecration should be done versus populum, although he never did anything about it. I used to share his argument. In fact, one of my very few printed publications makes that case. And so when I say that I disagree with Luther on this point, I also disagree with myself. Which I hope makes it OK.

Anyway, as it happens, Luther did nothing about it, and neither did any other Lutherans.

Not until Vatican II anyway, when Rome introduced free-standing altars and versus populum celebration for entirely different and rather un-Lutheran reasons: better to include the people in the sacrifice with the people. It makes poor sense in Roman Catholic theology, as my good friend and Roman Catholic priest tells me, and it doesn’t make any better sense in Lutheranism. And it’s pretty ironic that we should be aping Vatican II practices at all, given that they are solutions to problems for which we had much better solutions in the 1500s.

Because what Luther did do was to break the silence over the Words of Institution. In the mediæval Canon of the Mass (and after Trent as well), the Words of Institution were said silently by the priest. Luther had them not merely spoken aloud, but chanted to the Gospel tone! And by this radical yet simple device, Luther turned the Words of Institution into the Gospel they are in the most effective possible way. No need for the pastor to face awkwardly towards the congregation, no need for re-ordering churches. No need to break with catholic tradition that pre-dates the corruption of the Mass in the Middle Ages, just to make the point, which hadn’t been lost anyway.