Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Amazing Grace

John 9, 1-41
March 26, 2017
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Who knows what hymn these words are from: ‘was blind, but now I see’

Of course, these words of this hymn: Amazing Grace come directly from our Gospel this morning.
And I love how these words fit into our scripture story this morning.
The blind man brought back to the Pharisees the second time to answer their questions about his healing: And the Pharisees really load the question this time. Give glory to God they say to the blind man. Give glory to God. Tell us that the man who healed you is a sinner.

The blind man responded wisely: I don’t know whether he is a sinner; here is what I do know: I was blind and now I see.

The implication of course is; how could someone who can heal a man born blind from birth be anything but holy. It is a ridiculous notion.

But of course, this was a problem with the religious leaders of Jesus day, and I think of any time period, if something doesn’t fit into their preconceived notions of how God works then it must not be from God. If something doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions about how God works then it must not be from God.

According to their laws and what they thought God had told them, the rule was: don’t work on the Sabbath. And somehow to them, healing a blind man was working on the Sabbath.

One of the lessons Jesus was trying to teach the people who followed him was: the law was not to be used to oppress any one.
If someone was hungry on the Sabbath, feed them. If someone was blind on the Sabbath, heal them. If someone was lost on the Sabbath, find them. If someone was in need of rescuing on the Sabbath, save them.

In other words, don’t hinder the work of God in any way shape or form. No matter what day it is.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of piety. Of thinking we know how God is supposed to work in the world because somehow, we have the direct message from God.

On Wednesday, this week we were talking about how it is that we have learned to fear the other, the stranger who seems dangerous to us. The other who is so different or who has been defined by society as scary.

We did a little experiment. I passed out names of historical people to each person and had them line up according to whether the person is good or bad. So, on my right hand we had people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Rosa Parks. On my left side, we had Attila the Hun, Judas, Hitler, Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 terrorists.
Then I asked the person who was Jesus to choose a side. Which side would Jesus be most comfortable on? Which side would Jesus choose to associate with. The saints or sinners, the good or the bad.
Of course, we want it to be the ‘good’ side don’t’ we. And that is what we would expect. Except Jesus said: love your enemies and do good to them that hate you. And Love as God loved you.

It is hard isn’t it. To think that God would love enemies such as Hitler. Or terrorists. Or that person who mowed down pedestrians in London this week.
Except that we know that Jesus loved us and we are enemies of God.
We do things all the time that aren’t what God wants us to do and the world is worse off for it. We may not mow down 40 people but we certainly hurt a few people with words and actions. We may not topple towers with airplanes but we certainly destroy the sacred planet.
We may not gas millions of people but we certainly are unable to treat everyone with dignity and love.
And yet, God loves us. God forgives us. God loves us.

You see I have to believe that in the end everyone has a chance at the grace of God. Everyone. Because this is how big God’s love is.
And I have to believe that God works in ways that I don’t understand or that may seem wrong, even.

The song Amazing Grace was written by a man who was pretty despicable. Many of you have heard of John Newton and know that he had a conversion experience that influenced his writing of the hymn. But most don’t know how utterly horrible he was.

One biographer has said that his career was marked by head strong disobedience from the age of 11 on.

As a youth, Newton began a pattern of coming very close to death, examining his relationship with God, then relapsing into bad habits. Finally, he denounced any faith he had.
John Newton’s sailing career was aboard slave ships. But it wasn’t just the despicable trade that he was known for, he was a profane man. Newton was known for writing profane poems and verse about the captain of the ship and encouraging the crew to join in.

“While aboard the ship Greyhound, Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain 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 to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”

He mocked his captains, he mocked his crew mates, he was an all-around bully. And was vocal about his lack of faith in God.

John Newton did have a moment when, in the midst of a storm, he cried out to God because he was afraid that he would be drowned. Lord have mercy on us, is what he cried out.

But this wasn’t a moment of immediate conversion.

John Newton continued in the slave trade and even became the captain of a slave ship. But all the while he was wondering, could God have enough mercy for even him?

Could God have enough mercy for even a profane, disobedient, vile, slave trader who abused men, women and children in some of the most despicable ways?

And John Newton’s conversion wasn’t a miraculous one, either. It didn’t happen because he almost drowned at sea, or because he collapsed because of ill health.
Newton began to study theology and explore what it would mean to live as a Christian.

Now here is the most amazing thing in his story to me: Once he did give his life to God and began teaching and using his gift of writing verse for praise of God rather than profanity. John Newton wrote religious lessons for children.

For children. I wonder if anyone said: How can someone who had such a hard heart be able to teach children? Do you think it is safe for him to be teaching children?

Well, as a matter of fact John Newton became a beloved pastor to his flock in the poor lace making community Olney, England. Through his gifts of writing verse, he was able to teach his people about God’s love for them, even though they were poor and illiterate he assured them that if God could love a sinner like him, God could love them, too.
One of the things they liked most about their pastor John Newton was that he was honest about his past. He didn’t pretend that he was holier or better. He told of God’s grace in his life that made it possible for him to be loved sinner though he was.

And so, we have the much loved, hymn:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind but now I see.

You see, we can’t prescribe how God acts in the world. Who God can act through. Who God can love.
We also can’t ever say, I am not good enough. I am not holy enough. Because you might just be that very being whom God wants to show to the world: look how much I can love even you.

You might be God’s John Newton.

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