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January 1, 2007 (The Name of Jesus: New Year’s Day)

Pastor Fritz Fritschel

Ecclesiastes 3:1–13; 2 Corinthians 5:17–6:2
This is an English translation of the sermon Pastor Fritschel delivered in German as part of “German Vespers for New Year’s Day.”

“Hope is to hear the melody of the future; faith is to dance it.” So says Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian. But what melody might he have in mind? The melody of the future is not entirely clear. Just as the future itself is unsettled and indeterminate. Is there a particular melody of the future to be heard? Is there a cantus firmus, some underlying song that supplies order, meaning, and value to the polyphony of the world’s sounds?

Hope is to hear the melody of the future—and now, today, on this first day of a new year, we are singing melodies of the past. They are classical melodies, to be sure, but dated in many ways. Yet any classic always has some claim upon us. A classic commands our attention—exploring our relationships, challenging our limits, and shaping our sense of humanity. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Picasso, Rodin, Ingmar Bergman. But are classics examples of a melody of the future? Or are they mirrors of the past?

Where is this melody of the future? In what key is it written? Who knows how to sing it? How would we recognize it? Where do we go from here?

The watchman in Rilke’s poem, The Book of Hours, fears the melody God sings may be lost or forgotten. Yet he holds on to his hope, some song of justice and peace deep within himself.

Ich seh ihn setzen und sinnen,

nicht über mich hinaus;

für ihn ist alles innen,

Himmel und Heide und Haus.

Nur die Lieder sind ihm verloren,

er nie mehr beginnt;

aus vielen tausend Ohren

trank sie die Zeit und der Wind;

aus den Ohren der Toren.

 

Und dennoch: mir geschieht,

als ob ich ein jedes Lied

tief in mir ihn ersparte.

 

Er schweigt hintern bebenden Barte,

er möchte sich wiedergewinnen

aus seinen Melodien.

Da komm ich zu seinen Knien:

 

und seine Lieder rinnen

rauschend zurück in ihn.

I see him [God] sit and ponder

but never beyond my reach;

to him all life resides within,

heaven, home and heath.

Only his songs he has lost, die

so these he never recites;

for from the many ears of the past

The wind drank them up

by the gates.

 

And still I believe

I might capture each song

deep within me.

 

While he is quiet, beard quivering,

bent to find in his melodies

himself

then I support his knees:

 

and his songs surge back

to be his.

So we, you and I, from our cynical side know the loneliness of hearing no melody, no pattern, no over-arching narrative, no aim or shape to history, no music of the spheres. Even if Bach’s music has an architectonic coherency to it, we may regard it a relic of the past. We are left with the difficulty of naming our ultimate concern. Rilke knows about the difficulty of naming what he calls “the lowly God.” Du Nachbar Gott (You neighbor God), Du mein tiefer Sinn (You depth of my being), Du Dunkelheit (You Darkness). What would a melody of the future sound like for us? What would we name it?

It reminds me of the Afro-American Spiritual “What You Gonna Name Him?” This day, January 1, in the liturgical calendar of the church year celebrates the naming of Jesus. In our world today, there are other names that command commitment and devotion: Gautama Buddha, Mohammed. That spiritual takes on new meaning in the light of our pluralistic world. What you gonna name him?

Despite the brokenness and folly of our nation’s current military and imperial ambition, there are other songs to be heard in the land—muted, yet promising.

The song of Ehren Watada. Or the song of Ali Abu Awwad and Robi Damelin. These two, Ali and Robi, a thirty-year old Palestinian and a sixty-year old Israeli woman, have in common the fact that they have both lost family members in the strife in Palestine. Together they founded the Parents Circle—Bereaved Families Forum which is active in schools and in the media. They have also set up a telephone line for Israelis and Palestinians to speak with someone on the other side, perhaps for the first time ever. Over a million calls have taken place. Do you know the power of shared stories? Do you know the transforming quality of that kind of melody that resonates within the deepest parts of one’s being?

But consider the way in which we have incorporated the attitude of violence in our language rather than peace and reconciliation. War on terror, war on drugs, war on poverty, war on AIDS. Why all the militancy and violence? Can no one sing a song of compassion, a song of justice, a song of reconciliation?

What song do we refuse to sing...what dance, refuse to dance? Have you never heard the song of non-violence sung? A classic that has many new arrangements including versions from South Africa, Philippines, Ireland, India, Czechoslovakia, Denmark.

Lieutenant Ehren Watada nearly two weeks ago challenged a local audience to consider how they might dance to the tune of the future. He argues, as many of us do, that our current war is an illegal war of aggression. If we agree about that judgment, what are we ready to do to stop such illegality? How are we to play out this tune?

Listen to Bach’s first chorus in this cantata. The hymn melody, taken from a 16th century hymn-tune, appears at the beginning and ending as a cantus firmus, an underlying melody. The two middle sections form a contrast at the singing of the words “dass wir in guter Stille” (So that we in good peace). The fast tempo becomes adagio. The common time changes to a triple meter, the hymn tune appears in normal note values, and the choral part becomes unison. The final peace (Stille) arrives with a bass note lasting for five bars. This is a melody for the future. The passage that follows, “wir wollen uns dir ergeben” (We want to devote our selves to you), resumes a presto tempo. Like a dance. Voices and instruments reinforce one another in the dance. Hope is to hear the melody of the future; faith is to dance it.


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