Aug. 25, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Aug 25, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16C)

August 25, 2019

Amazing Grace

If you’d like to sing along with me, that would be ok.  It might be tempting.

Atlantic tempests were gusting wildly through the spring of 1748, and the latest storm sent shivers down the spine of even a seasoned sailor like John Newton.  He and a fellow crewman were set to furiously cranking the bilge pump, forcing gallons of onrushing seawater back out of the keel. They paused only once—to lash their own bodies to the base for fear of being swept away. Though not a religious man, at the height of the storm John Newton cried out in desperation, “Lord have mercy upon us!”  Miraculously the ship and its crew made it through.

Years later Newton would recall this instinctive cry as the moment of his salvation.  He would marvel that God had even cared about him.  Why would God reach out to save someone who had cared so little about God? Newton gave deep thanks for heaven’s faithfulness which had sheltered and rescued him, even before he had any faith of his own to offer.

He went on to study theology and became, among other things, a gifted Christian poet.  Reliving the stormy terror with pen in hand, Newton wrote

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.

The power of his poem came from keeping the moment personal—I was lost, then found; I was blind, and now I see. Newton wasn’t commending God’s faithfulness to others by citing the doctrines of the Nicene Creed, or listing the moral accomplishments of the Church in the world. He was simply witnessing to his own experience, and telling it like it was.  Listen on:

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

Newton’s lyrics went viral. Once set to music they became the most popular hymn of all time, readily recognizable even to listeners who’d never sung it themselves.  That’s probably because sooner or later we all run into fearsome circumstances, and grasp the brutal reality that we cannot save ourselves.   Our only hope lies beyond ourselves in God’s grace, which it turns out we’ve needed all along, even without knowing it.  But, when we look back,

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,

I have already come;

’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

This could be the theme song of the crippled young woman gazing at Jesus in today’s Gospel.  No one else had even noticed her propped up there between her crutch and the door frame.  All the synagogue regulars had already taken their seats, and their eyes were focused on Jesus as he preached from the day’s readings.  As for this teenager dangling by the door, she was running out of time to secure some sort of future by marrying—who would have her?—and her parents were aging and their health faltering. Her eyes cried out to Jesus in silent desperation.

The Lord has promised good to me,

His Word my hope secures;

He will my Shield and Portion be,

As long as life endures.

Jesus calls out to the woman without even mentioning her name, and as she laboriously shambles into the room he reaches for her shoulder and turns her grave disability into graced freedom. The crutch clatters onto the floor tiles.  She haltingly straightens her spine.  Everyone gasps. They are all left marveling that God cares personally about such an insignificant person.  Why would God reach out to save anyone who had so little to offer?

Turns out, we are all in that same boat with John Newton and the crippled woman.  Sooner or later we are all overcome by some ambush lurking in the tumult around us, if not today then tomorrow, or else the day after.  It’s our instinctive cry of “Lord have mercy!”, and our halting shambling toward the altar, that secure our salvation.  It’s always been like this, and it always will be as long as heaven awaits us.  And we are left to thank and praise God forever for his amazing grace,

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise

Than when we’d first begun.

Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.