Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Amazing Grace

One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” John 9:25

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Lent 4A – March 26, 2017

            “I once was blind,” the man said, “but now I see.” Those eight words from our gospel text are possibly the most well-known phrase in American hymnody and are associated, of course, with the great hymn, Amazing Grace, which we will soon sing to conclude our worship today. One writer estimates that Amazing Grace is performed over 10 million times each year. The Library of Congress has cataloged some 3,000 different renditions of the song. Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson recorded a signature version of the hymn in 1947 and performed it thousands of times thereafter. During the 1960s, it became one of the anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements and was performed by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, and Judy Collins.

            In this country, the song has become something of a spiritual anthem at times of national tragedy: it was sung in the aftermath of 9/11, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, and after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. And more recently, as I will talk about in a few moments, it was sung by President Obama at the funeral services of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Mother Emanuel 9 in Charleston, South Carolina.

            Despite all of this attention, many people do not know the hymn’s remarkable origins. It was written by the Englishman John Newton, the son of a shipping merchant. Born in 1725, Newton had a hard life as a child. His mom died when he was six. At the age of eleven, he joined his father as a sailing apprentice and spent most of his youth at sea. By all accounts, the young man Newton was an awful person. He was a mean, vulgar drunk, who treated most people with disdain. Eventually he became involved in the slave trade, sailing ships to Africa loaded with goods from England, trading them in Africa for human beings, and then transporting these human beings as slaves back to England for sale.

            His life came to a turning point, however, in 1748 during a voyage off the Irish coast, when Newton almost died during a fierce storm. According to his journal, one night as the ship was taking on a lot of water, Newton suddenly awoke, got down on his knees, and prayed for help. The ship by all accounts should have sunk. But it somehow stayed afloat, and Newton ever after remembered that day as his moment of conversion toward a life in Christ.

            Change, however, is never easy and Newton’s conversion took time to take hold. At first, he merely cleaned up his personal life, giving up his fondness for drinking, profanity, and unruly behavior; but he continued for a period of years to engage in and profit from the slave trade. Ultimately, however, he came to see that slavery was a barbaric practice incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, and he gave it up. He studied for the priesthood, and after a period of years was ordained as an Anglican priest.

            Perhaps the single most important thing Newton did as a priest was to become the spiritual mentor to William Wilberforce, the great English abolitionist. Wilberforce is probably as responsible as any single person is for the abolition of slavery in the Western world. Newton, however, was the one who persuaded Wilberforce to remain in political life and to relentlessly lead the charge against slavery decade after decade until Parliament eventually passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

            Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace on New Years Eve in 1773 and at its heart the hymn is the story of his conversion. When Newton writes about the sweet sound of God’s grace, he is writing about his own experience of being rescued not merely from drowning at sea but from a destructive life of human cruelty. When Newton writes about “how he once was blind, but now sees,” he is testifying to his own conversion from the death-dealing darkness of slavery to the life-giving light of Christ.

            Many people who sing this great hymn today wince when they get to the words “who saved a wretch like me.” To think of ourselves as “wretches” runs counter to contemporary views of human self-esteem, of our “I’m okay, you’re okay” culture. Yet Newton understood well and deeply the dark side of the human soul, what our faith calls “sin,” and he wasn’t afraid to name it and confess it. We don’t have to buy into extreme Calvinist notions of the “total depravity” of humanity to acknowledge that each one of us is capable in our weaker moments of true wretchedness, and that our social institutions can also embody such wretchedness.

            Indeed, America’s “original sin” of racism, in which we all participate to one degree or another, is a perfect example of such wretchedness. Just read the historical accounts of the obliteration of native American peoples, and the enslavement of African peoples, upon which our country was founded.  And we know, of course, that these historical patterns of racial violence have lasting legacies in our nation, and have found new expressions in, for example, our country’s current suspicion of refugees and others who claim different racial, ethnic and religious identities.

            For these reasons, when I sing the hymn, I have no problem whatsoever acknowledging my capacity for wretchedness, and hoping and praying that God will save me from the utter blindness of viewing other children of God as either objects to be used or enemies to be feared.
            Appreciating this history of Amazing Grace makes even more poignant President Obama’s use of that hymn at the funeral services two years ago held for Clementa Pinckney and the Mother Emmanuel Nine. Indeed, there are layers and layers of painful, yet somehow beautiful, irony here. Nine black Christians welcome a white stranger into their bible study group, only to be viciously gunned down by him in the name of white supremacy. The black families of the victims then respond to his racial hatred, not with vindictiveness, but by publicly forgiving him and asking that he be spared the death penalty. Then, as the community gathers to bury the nine innocent victims, we witness America’s first black President, surrounded by the leadership of one of America’s great black churches, joyfully sing a hymn celebrating God’s amazingly redemptive grace, a hymn that was written by a former slave trader turned priest, a man who may well have bought and sold the ancestors of many people in the church that day. The paradoxes of grace in that moment take your breath away.

            And, while many will remember President Obama for the courage he displayed in singing this famous hymn, unaccompanied, in such a tender, yet public context, what really makes his eulogy remarkable is its theological integrity. The focus of Obama’s remarks was not on our all too human notions of justice, but rather on the sheer power of God’s grace to break through the blindness of even our darkest moments and lead us toward the light of redemption.

            Obama began his eulogy by humbly stating the most basic truth of the Christian faith: “We don’t earn grace,” he said. “We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.” And then he explained:

“[The killer of these nine Christians] surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin. Oh, but God works in mysterious ways” Obama continued. “God has different ideas. Blinded by hatred, the killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court – in the midst of unspeakable grief – with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that. Blinded by hatred, the killer failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood—the power of God’s grace to save, to overwhelm evil with goodness.”  

            We are invited by our gospel text today to reflect on our own blindness, the many ways in which we blind ourselves to God’s goodness and to the goodness in each other. We are indeed blinded by racism, as these words from our former President remind us. But we are blinded too by greed, by ambition, by a preoccupation with ourselves, and by so many other weaknesses. And in the midst of such blindness, we are prone to blame others rather than ourselves for our plight. Like the Pharisees, who only want to talk about how Jesus is violating the law by healing on the Sabbath, or how the blind man must have deserved his blindness due to past sin, we too would prefer to scapegoat someone else, rather than humbly acknowledge our own brokenness.  And yet, with unrelenting patience, Christ stands before us waiting; waiting for us to turn to Him for the healing grace He so longs to give.
            Let me then conclude with a simple suggestion. Among the prayers we keep close to our hearts this Lent, let us include this one:  "Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, whose face is hidden from us by our sins, and whose mercy we are often too blind to see: grant that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen."

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