Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2007, Sunday 15th July
I was in bad form on Tuesday. I have been struggling to write a dissertation for an Masters’ degree I have been doing with the Anglican theological college in Bristol. I sent the third chapter to my supervisor and it came back to me with more comments than text. It probably deserved the shredding it got. I emailed him and said enough was enough, for the time being at least, and that I would get back to him in the autumn.
Did it really make any difference? Did it really matter? I picked up my jacket and went out to do something useful. In the great universal scheme of things, does it make the slightest difference whether I ever write the dissertation? Will it make any difference to anything? No.
We get so worked up about things that are of no consequence. The news is full of stuff that is completely and utterly insignificant. Does David Beckham mean anything in the course of human history? Does it matter whether Paris Hilton spends 45 days in prison? What significance in the course of the affairs of humanity would there be in a reunion of The Spice Girls? None of it matters.
Maybe in order to survive, in our house, we have had to become a hard-hearted lot, we have an unofficial rule that tears are only allowed in the event of something serious happening. Has there been an accident, is someone seriously ill, or has someone died? Other stuff is trivial, it might be upsetting, but it can be managed.
I wonder how it would have been possible to cope in the situation faced by Martin Rinkart, the writer of our hymn today, ‘Now thank we all our God’?.
Born in Germany in 1586, Rinkart came from a comfortable background. He went to school in at Eilenburg, and when he was 15 went off to take up a scholarship in Leipzig which allowed him a place at the University of LeipÂzig, where he enrolled in the summer of 1602 as a theology student. Staying on in Leipzig after his studies, he applied for a post as a pastor at Eilenburg in 1610. His application was turned down, it being claimed that he was a better musician than theologian. There were personal factors in his rejection, not least the fear of the superintendent of the church that Rinkart, a native of the town, and able and strong-willed, would be a formidable colleague.
Instead, of taking a pastor’s post, Rinkart took a position at a school at Eisleben in June 1610, also serving as cantor at St. Nicholas Church in the town. After a few months, he became pastor of St. Anne’s Church in Eisleben. In 1613 he became pastor at Erdeborn and Lutjendorf, near Eisleben. In 1617, he moved to Eilenburg.
As well as his pastoral duties, Rinkart wrote music and wrote books and became know as a hymn writer. His most famous hymn was written around 1636 in the town of Eilenburg in the middle of the Thirty Years War, which had begun in 1618 and which would continue until 1648.
The war was beyond the understanding of most ordinary people, all they knew was that army after army laid the countryside bare, having no regard for the welfare of civilian populations. Famine and disease became widespread; farms, livestock and crops had been destroyed and weak and hungry people had no resistance against illness. The war was to reduce the male population of Germany by almost half, in total almost a third of the people in the German states lost their lives, mostly through hunger and illness.
By 1636, Martin Rinkart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg. The walled city had become a place filled with refugees, who brought with them further infection to add to that already present, and who placed further strain upon the town’s desperately short food supplies. Rinkart was faced with conducting up to fifty funerals a day as the town struggled to cope with a huge mortality rate.
The plight of his people and the constant danger to his own life as he tried to minister to the sick would have left most people with little sense of a bounteous God who blesses his people, but Rinkart read the following verses in his Bible, from the book of Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 50, verse 22-24:
And now bless the God of all,
who everywhere works great wonders,
who fosters our growth from birth,
and deals with us according to his mercy.
May he give us gladness of heart,
and may there be peace in our days
in Israel, as in the days of old.
May he entrust to us his mercy,
and may he deliver us in our days!
Inspired by the words of Scripture, Rinkart wrote, in his native German, ‘Nun danket alle Gott.’ Translated by Catherine Winkworth in 1856, it comes to us as ‘Now thank we all our God’.
It is a hymn of extraordinary faith. To be in Eilenburg in 1636 and to be able to say that God has blessed us, ‘With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today’, demanded great courage. The harsh reality of Martin Rinkart’s situation is hardly even hinted at, he asks that God will, ‘keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed; And free us from all ills, in this world and the next’.
Perhaps we don’t know what our faith means to us until we face the worst. Until we watch someone we love very ill, or we lose them altogether, perhaps we don’t know how important it is to have someone there who will make sense of it all. Rinkart looks to a God who will guide us when we are perplexed now and who will gather us to him in the next world.
‘Now thank we all our God’ is a hymn about seeing life in the right perspective, being thankful for all the good things and leaning on God’s grace to get us through the bad things. It is a hymn acknowledging the God who is with us through the sad and the painful and the bitter moments, as well as the God who is there to give us joyful hearts and blessed peace.
There are moments when things can seem very bleak, moments when life is very dark, moments for real grief, moments for real tears, but like Martin Rinkart, we know God is there, and so we sing our thanks to him.