Monday, July 05, 2010

Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, "Amazing Grace"

Sermon 7/4/10, Galatians 6:1-16

Hymn Stories: Amazing Grace


            Today we’re wrapping up one area of focus, and heading on into the next, as we take a last look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and we start a series of sermons based on your favorite hymns – the top ten hymns from the lists you all shared with me a couple of months ago. Today, we start off with number three on your list: Amazing Grace. First we’ll look at the hymn:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear, The hour I first believ'd!
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis'd good to me, His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below, Will be forever mine.

That’s how one of the best loved hymn in all the world first appeared in print. Our love for this hymn suggests that if nothing else, we understand our need for God's grace, our lack of deserving of it, and God's abundance in giving of this grace.
Amazing Grace was written by John Newton somewhere between 1760 and 1770. According to author Al Rogers, Newton was born in London in 1725. As a young man, he joined the service on a ship of the Royal Navy, and eventually, "finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged and demoted from midshipman to common seaman." Eventually, "at his own request he was exchanged into service on a slave ship, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone.” He continued to misbehave, argue, and generally cause trouble, which ultimately resulted in John being himself enslaved on a plantation in Sierra Leone. He was later rescued, but continued to gain notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain of his new post had ever met. “In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones. In March 1748, while the Greyhound was in the North Atlantic, a violent storm came upon the ship that was so rough it swept overboard a crew member who had been standing where Newton was moments before. After hours of the crew emptying water from the ship and expecting to be capsized, he offered a desperate suggestion to the captain, who ordered it so. Newton turned and said, "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!" (1)
John was not immediately converted to faith after this experience, but it planted seeds in his heart, as he returned again and again to consider God’s mercy and whether or not he or anyone deserved it. Newton had some religious training as a child, but as an adult, he’d rejected these convictions. "For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of [the storm] as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power." His conversion at first did not lead him to abandon the slave trade, but later in his life he came to condemn the slave trade and urged for its cessation. Eventually, Newton sought to become ordained as a clergy person, and though first rejected, he was eventually appointed to a congregation. Newton was extremely successful in drawing crowds to his church, which eventually had to be enlarged. A friendship with poet William Cowper soon had Newton becoming a prolific writer of hymns, including Amazing Grace. (1) The words have been slightly altered from those I read today over the years, and some verses have been added or deleted, but the core of the hymn remains the same. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
Today, we finish our study of Galatians with a selection from chapter six, the last chapter, where Paul is bringing his argument to a close. He starts this passage by talking about a way to live in community: if a person falls off the path, restore them with gentleness. Help carry each other’s burdens. Test your own work, not your neighbor’s. You reap what you sow, and if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life. So whenever you can, work for the good of all. If we would always follow these guidelines, we would indeed find ourselves in the midst of a good community. And finally, he comes back to the theme of how one is set right with God – not by the law – represented by the act of circumcision, but through God’s grace and our faith in Christ crucified. Paul ends: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule – peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.”
In Christ, we are new creations. The realization of God’s mercy and love, and the realization that he wasn’t actually stuck in the same patterns of his life that had caused him so much pain and destruction – that realization was what changed John Newton’s life, so that, over time, God’s amazing grace sunk into his whole life, and what he became was so radically different from what he was. He became a new creation because he knew that with God it was truly possible. He was lost, but could be found by God. We can always be found by God and be made new.
This past week, I spent some time at Camp Casowasco, one of our church camps, with our conference youth as they went through training to be leaders in the year ahead. We worked, in part, on planning the events that I hope our own youth group will attend in the fall and spring, and we chose our theme for the year. The theme is “Grace: No exceptions to God’s acceptance.” As we were planning workshops around the theme, some of our choices focus on those we sometimes see as exceptions to God’s grace besides ourselves, like those who have a different color skin, or those who are differently-abled than we are, or those who are poor or dirty or mean or whatever that makes them different than us. So the youth will have workshops on diversity and difference and God’s grace for everyone. But the main focus will be reminding the young people – and the adults – that they, that we are not exceptions to God’s acceptance either. God accepts us. God’s grace means I am accepted. You are accepted. And there are no exceptions. That’s maybe the hardest one of all to learn. After all, if we’re meant to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, but we don’t love ourselves, we won’t get very far. Paul says a new creation is everything. And a new creation is exactly what God offers to us – so we have everything. God’s amazing grace gives us everything we need to be new. Nothing about us, no mistake that we’ve made, no distance we’ve strayed off the path, no sin we’ve committed, nothing about us keeps God from making us new creations if we want it. We can always be found by God and be made new, always.
For those who understand this, and believe this. Paul leaves you with words of peace. So today, as we share in communion, I invite you to come to this table as a place to be made new. You can find God’s grace here, offered to you freely, as a gift. It is offered to all, even you, no exceptions. It’s a gift that sets you right with God, no matter how out of line you’ve been. It’s grace, and it is amazing. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see!
Amen.

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