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January 1, 2009 (The Name of Jesus: New Year’s Day)

Pastor Fritz Fritschel

Isaiah 62:1–5, 10–12; Philippians 2:9–13
This is an English translation of the sermon Pastor Fritschel delivered in German as part of “German Vespers for New Year’s Day.”

Why do I think that this New Year’s worship might be an occasion to say something about religious pluralism? Johann Sebastian Bach did not live in what was known as a pluralistic society. Today’s cantata certainly does not espouse religious pluralism. The cantata’s emphasis is primarily praising the “name of Jesus”

The eighteenth century world of Bach, furthermore, is quite far removed from the Honolulu world of the 21st century. Yet today we sing Cantata 171 as a central part of our service.

During his life, Bach traveled or moved to Eisenach, Weimar, Lueneburg, Arnstadt, Muehlhausen, Leipzig—a relatively contained, ordered world. Today we travel to London, Paris, Cairo, Bangkok, Waimanalo, Vienna, Moscow, or New Delhi—a global world of diversity.

In Bach’s time, social ideas were still dominated largely by theology and a challenge for religious loyalty. The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries had resulted in the division of religious systems But in 1729 Bach lived in a relatively quiet time, loyal to German Lutheranism his entire life, more than to any emerging German state.

Today social ideas are largely dominated by economics and a challenge for economic growth. The Cold War between Marxist socialism and Western capitalism has resulted in a collapse and weakening of these human constructs—economic systems. Now in 2009 we live in a time when our trust in economic systems is being critically threatened.

That our world is far different from the Baroque Age is not a surprise. What may be a surprise is that aspects of the Baroque culture appear today. It is not the architecture that makes its way. It is the music. It is not the visual forms that are repeated It is the music. It is not the fashion that is duplicated. It is the music. Composers today are not writing in the Baroque style. Nevertheless people enjoy listening to what has already been written. And musicians, I assume, enjoy playing it.

Why? You may have your own reasons for it or your own tastes.

Bach’s choral music, of course, comes with words, usually texts related to Scripture. Some may prefer the Brandenburg Concertos, music without words. But music with words is what we have today. Today’s libretto by Picander is based loosely on the Gospel reading for the day from Luke 2. The liturgical day is “The Name of Jesus.”

When Picander wrote the libretto—for example, the soprano aria:

“Jesus soll mein erstes Wort

In dem neuen Jahre heißen,...

Und in meiner letzten Stunde

Ist Jesus auch mein letztes Wort”

[Jesus shall be my first word

uttered in the new year....

and in my last hour

Jesus will also be my last utterance.]

—he had no notion of the reformer of Buddhism in Japan, Shinran. It was Shinran, in 13th century Japan, who taught that anyone could attain salvation by faithfully reciting the name of Amida Buddha. How similar the sentiments are, both steeped in a notion of grace, but from cultures completely apart!

Recently I gave a talk on the theme of religious pluralism. My task was to speak about religious pluralism from a certain theological perspective. One way of describing that point of view is to call it panentheism. Briefly it is the idea that God is in all things and all things are in God. It is definitely not a supernatural outlook. This approach views God as completely involved in and affected by emerging events of the natural world. It is close to, but not identical to the thought of the opening chorus from Psalm 48:

“Gott, wie dein Name, so ist dein Ruhm bis an der Welt Ende.”

[God, as Your name is, so also Your praise is to the ends of the world.]

If one takes that panentheistic view seriously, it is difficult to avoid the notion of religious pluralism.

Divine Presence has been touching and influencing every culture in every age. But each tradition uses its own circumstances, language, and experiences to strive toward a sense of meaning and community. There may be similarities, but there are also differences.

We live in a pluralistic world, It is very difficult to claim universality for any particular language or concept.

Bach and Picander may not have agreed...or had enough global experience to make a judgment. Bach did not have the kind of contact with Buddhism that we enjoy in Honolulu. His association with Islam may have been second or third hand, perhaps relying on the harsh words of Luther himself about ‘the Turk.’ There is little evidence of Bach’s relationship with Judaism. His world was largely German Lutheran Protestantism.

I believe that we can hear today’s cantata, music and words, with our own empathetic ears. We know there are differences in cultural expression and experience. But we also know, that as much as anything, the common human quest is for meaning and community. The diversity of pluralism adds to the intensity of that quest.

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