The Bach Cantata Vespers at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL began its 51st season on September 26, 2021 with an in-person congregation as well as livestreamed participants at home. This is a full order of Vespers according to the use of Lutheran Book of Worship with a full Bach Cantata and a full homily. The cantata was Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (BWV 29, We thank you, God, we thank you), which was composed and performed for the Inauguration of the Leipzig Town Council with a Service of Holy Communion on the first Monday after St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24) in 1731 and again in 1739 and 1749. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was employed jointly by the City of Leipzig, the St. Thomas Church and School, and the University of Leipzig.
The festive character of the text and music made it an appropriate cantata for the inaugural presentation of the 2021-2022 Bach Cantata Vespers series at Grace under the direction of The Rev. Cantor Michael D. Costello. The homilist was the Rev. Rebekah Weant Costello, Pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Schaumburg, Illinois.
Gospel text: Matthew 6:25-33
Homily by Rebekah Weant Costello
Matthew 6:25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
L The Word of the Lord.
C Thanks be to God.
Is it not lovely to breathe together again—better yet—to sing together again? How we have longed for this, especially in this place, as with joy we begin the 51st season of Bach Cantata Vespers.
Amid our joyous thanksgivings and songs, though, our happiness is tinged by the intrusion of how so very fragile the breath of life is. A virus, when breathed, has taken the lives of our friends, family members, parishioners, and healthcare workers. Wildfires fueled by climate change poison the air we breathe. Turbulent currents of racial injustice have come to the surface, leaving dear ones breathless. Amid our collective joy in breathing together again, there is still breathlessness. We cannot be complacent, standing alone in our breathing and singing, for the psalmist reminds us, “Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord.”
In these trials of breathlessness, God gives us the chance to learn anew that the breath with which we live, and sing, and offer praise to God is given to us by God almighty, creator of heaven and earth. Without such a confession of faith, the breath of life becomes too fragile in our world that runs on fear, insecurity, injustice, and the belief that we can secure and possess that very life. Under the weight of sin, life is fragile; and yet, Jesus is bold enough to say to his disciples—and by extension to us— “I tell you, do not worry about your life?” How is that for cognitive dissonance? Life is fragile; do not worry!
This is why it is dangerous to draw general platitudes from biblical texts without attending to their particular contexts. Jesus’ imperative, “Do not worry about your life,” follows a pivotal conjunction, therefore. As such, we know that what Jesus has previously taught in the Sermon on the Mount is key to his imperative not to worry about life.
Before the therefore in today’s text, Jesus taught his disciples to pray The Lord’s Prayer, assuring them that, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” while still encouraging them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Before the therefore in today’s text, Jesus warned the disciples that it is folly to store up material possessions, teaching them that, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Before the therefore in today’s text, Jesus placed before his disciples a condition. Either a faithful disciple receives his or her breath of life from God the creator, or the disciple seeks to secure that by serving wealth. Jesus concludes, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
It is in this next breath that Jesus says what is in our text for this evening; therefore, “I say to you, do not worry about your life…what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Jesus brings us up against a most pressing theological question. What is this life for which we are not to worry, and from whom does this life come?
The Greek word Matthew uses for life is ψυχῇ. In English it is psyche, from which we get the word psychology. This brief word study took me back to my days in undergraduate psychology. One of my mentors, Dr. David Ludwig, Missouri Synod Lutheran Pastor, and at the time I was a student, a professor, and head of the Psychology Department at Lenoir-Rhyne University, taught us that psychology was the study of, and care for, the soul, the psyche—that life which is more than worry about clothing and food. Dr. Ludwig went on to teach us that pastors of the church were to be caretakers of souls—that life which was created, as Genesis tells us, when God breathed the divine life into human bodies, animating their souls.
What this means, dear friends, is that our souls, our lives, our breath are not ours to secure or possess, but ours to receive from God the creator. The breath of life is a gift!
But, as heirs of the Enlightenment’s anthropocentric turn, we are trained to imagine ourselves as masters over creatures, even masters over our creator. It is no wonder, then, that Jesus turns our attention in today’s text to the created order—to birds and lilies—and asks us to consider them. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, … if God so clothes the grass of the field … will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” You of little faith? We recoil.
But, let us be honest; void of faith in God’s provision, we worry about having enough food. Cloaking the fields of lilies in herbicides, we strive to secure industrialized food production. And yet, after our techno-driven sowing and reaping, have we really secured enough food to preserve everything that has breath?
Let us be honest. Timid in faith, we fear becoming a political minority. Clothing ourselves with flags of racial oppression and tokens of Christian nationalism, we seek to secure our political space. And yet, clothed in these façades, we stand naked and breathless.
Let us be honest. Wavering to trust God’s promise of security, we fear those who threaten our way of life. And sadly, we have not mastered the intelligence to direct our drones with precision. As such, we have not secured the breath of life, but taken it.
Let us confess. We of little faith fear losing a market that will forever produce enough wealth to make our souls happy. Let us consider that the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field, and the earth that is our home are crying out to us in a chorus: “We cannot sustain the fossil fueled economy you bet on to secure your wealth!”
All this toil, all this spinning, all this to quell our worries, all because our definition of life is disordered. We want to be gods securing life for ourselves, not creatures receiving life from God.
The good and joyous news is that God reminds us of what comes before the therefore. It is a promise recalled in scripture: “…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” God secures our life, our soul; therefore, we are freed from worry, and freed to strive first for the kingdom of God. It is a promise enacted. God has already possessed our soul’s life through Jesus’ death and resurrection, therefore we are free to stop all our toiling, our possessing, and our spinning for wealth. It is a promise to be sung. Clothed in poetic prose, and enlivened by the bass and continuo in today’s cantata,
God is still our confidence,
His protection, his comfort and light,
Shields the city and the palaces,
His wings holding the walls secure.
Faithfulness, which kisses peace,
Meet with righteousness.
Therefore, we are free to strive for the kingdom of God and Christ’s righteousness—that which dispels our worry and grants us God’s peace—donna nobis pacem.
Therefore, let everything that has breath, praise the Lord. Alleluia!
About Rebekah Weant Costello
She earned her Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a minor in music from Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, and her Master of Divinity at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. She is Pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Schaumburg, Illinois, a congregation of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Pastor Costello enjoys music, systematic theology, teaching, spending time with her family, and gardening.